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Can relationships on the road last as a digital nomad?

Relationships are hard work. That’s the honest truth. Two people come together based on mutual interests and admiration, and they forge a partnership that can carry on for a lifetime. When you choose to build your relationship on the road in a constantly changing and uncertain environment, each day comes with an added layer of volatility. One moment you’re experiencing euphoric happiness, and the next could be stinging frustration.

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Cliff exploring in the Grampians (2015)
Image credit: Kristen Marano

The Nong Khiaw bus depot offers very few choices for transportation out of the sleepy Laotian village. That morning, back in June of 2014, the only option for me and my partner Kristen was to hop into the back of an open-air flatbed truck just like everyone else.

I turned to Kristen and could see the concern bulging out of her eyes. It’s a four-hour winding journey back to the major town of Luang Prubang on a good day. Laos is already a country with incredibly unsafe roads, and we’d have to endure the trip seated on two wooden benches–without seat belts–that ran parallel to each other in the back of the very weathered truck.

Kristen paced in circles to mull over the decision and said no. She didn’t feel comfortable. I agreed, but countered that the next trip out of the village was not until later that afternoon, and we had no guarantee that that vehicle would be any safer. The delay would mean arriving late in Luang Prubang and missing our connecting bus to the capital city of Vientiane.

“Trust me,” I said to Kristen. “It’ll be ok. We’ll be in there together.” Kristen and I took a breath, handed our backpacks to the driver, and climbed in. It wasn’t the first time we’d had to make quick decisions like that together. It wasn’t the first time we’d had to gamble with our safety. But when I reflect back on our now two years and counting journey as digital nomads, I always recognize it as the most memorable.

That morning, under the tin roof of the rickety bus station, we had to trust each other. We had to make a decision with the information we had. And we had to treat it as one more notch in the journey that was our new lifestyle. Since then, Kristen and I have traveled hundreds of thousands of kilometres across the planet. In that time our relationship has grown and evolved and matured.

I wanted to share a few of the lessons that have emerged from our nomadic lifestyle, and how they’ve shaped our partnership.

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Exploring a market in Chennai (2015)

1. We all define “adventure” differently.

You’re probably thinking that hopping into the back of an open-air flat-bed truck isn’t that big of a deal. Maybe you do it all the time, and that’s fair. What I want to point out is that everyone has a different way of embracing moments of uncertainty.

When Kristen and I quit our jobs to live a more fluid and mobile lifestyle, it was a scary but mutual adventure we made together. It was an uncertain decision, but it wasn’t a choice between life or death.

Situations like the one we faced in Nong Khiaw exposed how Kristen and I viewed adventure differently. I’m the kind of person who will dive in first and see what happens. Kristen needs a little more time to assess the situation before jumping in. That’s absolutely okay as long as you both recognize those differences.

This first point is important because it plays a big role in the unfolding lessons below.

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Australia Day in Melbourne (2016)

2. Be prepared to compromise.

Kristen made a compromise that day in Nong Khiaw even though, to her, it didn’t feel like the safest choice. Compromise is the lynchpin to every relationship. It pops up when you decide where to go, where to eat, where to stay, what to see, and when to work. If one person called all the shots it wouldn’t be a very fun relationship, would it? Kristen and I have made compromises on destinations, food choices, accommodation, and even how or when to do laundry. Sometimes you have to compromise and give up something dear to you in order to seek that balance. Doubly so on the road where you have to make decisions every day, every hour, perhaps even every minute to make it through the day.

It’s probably the hardest thing to conquer in a relationship because it means letting go of your ego and listening to what your partner is trying to say. You can’t just always think about yourself.

3. Communicate often.

If you don’t want to participate in an activity then mention it. If you’re feeling exhausted and would rather just veg out in the hotel room, then articulate that. If you don’t pipe up and talk through a terrible mood your partner will never know. It’s much more painful to have to yank the conversation out of someone. Even worse when things build up and you take it out on each other.

It’s tough to talk about feelings because feelings can make us so vulnerable. But it’s healthy to just share and to share often. Kris and I spend a lot of time together as digital nomads. It’s important that we never try to hide our feelings from each other. I may not fully understand all the things Kristen might be feeling, but I can certainly listen.

We’ve cried in Bangkok, argued in Melbourne, laughed in Cambodia, and plotted the future in more cities than I can remember. Kristen and I have been (chatting) talking things out since the day we met, and it hasn’t stopped since. The moment couples stop talking is when it all goes downhill.

4. Respect and honesty go a long way.

Kristen and I are both writers carving out our future in different ways. We work side-by-side, and we often counsel each other on best practices with our projects. We both have to accept that one of us might get more lucrative opportunities than the other. But rather than competing, we work to help each other grow. If Kris and I weren’t able to respect each other’s work and passions, we’d never be able to exist as creative people together.

In the early days, we faced a lot of bumps working together because our processes, approach, and perspectives were very different. I could be stubborn about an idea and not want to shift my thinking. Or my feedback would be delivered in a tone that might have been too harsh. Both of us wanted to always be right or have the last word. When we realized that working together or around each other became a drag, we had to do something about it.

Kristen and I have worked hard to communicate feedback in a way that is always constructive. In talking about how we like to work or like to receive help, we learned how to get out of each other’s way. We learned how to listen, and we learned how to provide the right guidance rather than just telling each other what to do. We’ve also taught each other new skills through knowledge sharing that has resulted from that guidance.

If a single ounce of you doesn’t respect or believe in the importance of your partner’s passion and existence, then the relationship will not work.

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At a layover in Vancouver (2015)

5. You have to manage without having a familiar support network.

All of our friends and family are thousands of kilometers away. We only see them once or twice a year if we’re lucky. On the road, we’ve met some interesting people, and had great experiences with temporary friends. Eventually those friends move on to new locations and once again it’s just Kristen and I navigating the world.

Sometimes that can be suffocating. Sometimes it can be lonely because you just want to be out with the girls or hanging with the guys. You really notice how much our lives are intertwined with social behavior when you’re on the road with the same person every day for months on end. It’s easy to hide in familiar surroundings when you’re at home. But on the road, everything is out in the open.

Skype calls with our parents and friends are a temporary solution. Emails can help to share small notes on the go. But not having our network has taught us how to take care of ourselves, to get to know ourselves better, and to not feel so obligated by the lives and people we left behind. It’s given us time to really know each other as a couple, and to never hide from each other when things aren’t great. The lack of familiarity has also helped us to appreciate our loved ones back home; so when we do see them, we make the best of our brief time together.

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Christmas camping in South Western Australia (2015)

6. Remember to create time and space for yourself.

I’m a firm believer in individual wellness. I can’t be a good partner to Kristen if I can’t take care of myself. So every day I make time to do an activity without Kristen–not because I want to get away from her, but to recharge my mind through interests that are specific to me.

I read, swim laps, cook, make music, create art, and watch documentaries. Kristen does yoga, bakes, flips through her favourite magazines, and also reads. These are activities that we enjoy as individuals. We respect them as passions and work together to make sure that we’re both getting a good amount of “me” time each week. It’s important to never be defined as just a partner. You should be defined as a great person that is also a great partner. Always make time for yourself. Never wait for the moment when you desperately need to get away from your partner.

7. Take the opportunity to do some solo travel.

I can’t recommend this lesson enough. Along with having your own space to just be an individual, it’s important to travel by yourself. You have to learn to be uncomfortable and exist in your own environment.

In November and December of 2015, Kristen and I both went on different routes because of work. I headed to Switzerland and London. Kristen went to India and New York City. For almost a month and a half we barely saw each other. At first it was scary. I wondered if Kristen could travel through India alone (we’d been together in August). If either of us got hurt, what would we do? It was the first time in almost two years that we’d be really far away from each other.

But the experience was incredible: we learned to travel and create our own individual experiences. Kristen navigated through India like a pro. My first trip to London was an awesome hop through bars and restaurants. And when we reunited for a brief visit through Canada, it made us appreciate our strength as a couple and individuals that much more. It also encouraged us to make new plans in 2016 to visit certain destinations again together.

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On the beach in Bali (2014)
Image credit: Kristen Marano

9. Collaborate on your lifestyle.

If there’s one theme you may have noticed throughout all my lessons it’s the concept of collaboration. All of our success as a couple has been forged through constant conversations and compromise as we try to build a life that works for us as individuals, but also as a couple. That’s been a difficult task to achieve, and it’s something we still work through every day. The challenges never cease in a relationship, they just change as life progresses.

Kristen carries me through the tough moments. And I give her a helping hand when she’s faced with challenging circumstances. We make sure to talk through any decision when traveling or working. We try everything once before we decide if it’s not for us (hiking through the mountains of Vietnam in the sweltering heat was definitely not for us).

Without that teamwork or determination to build a happy future together, we probably wouldn’t have lasted on the road.

Every relationship will encounter the lessons above whether you’re on the road, or still at home. The difference is how you and your partner decide to tackle each scenario as it occurs in an environment that is always changing; an environment that may be void of the familiar routines you have at home; and an environment that lacks the immediate support system of close family and friends. You can hide from the terrible parts of a relationship in your home city, but on the road everything is laid out in front of you and your partner.

We are stronger for having thrown ourselves straight into the challenges of being a couple, while trying to define our new lifestyle. It hasn’t been easy, but what fun would it be if there weren’t any curve balls along the way?

Image credit: All images (except where specified) courtesy of Kavi Guppta.

Like this? Read more articles on digital nomads.

Can relationships on the road last as a digital nomad?

Kavi is a digital nomad who travels with his girlfriend, Kristen. He writes for Forbes and Strategyzer on subjects such as the future of work, marketing tech and biz innovation.
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