“Do you miss your husband?”
It’s the first thing people ask when they find out I currently live 6,000 miles away from the man I met, fell in love with, and married during a four-year stint in Singapore. I’m now back in my hometown in Norway, while he’s with his family in the Philippines – and it’s been more than one year since we said goodbye at Manila Ninoy Aquino International Airport. When I have to make small talk with people, the question about missing my husband is the one I dread most. I fear that if I really get into it, I won’t be able to keep a lid on how difficult the separation is.
Our attraction was a slow burn
I left my life in Norway to pursue a graduate degree in Singapore. Moving abroad had been on my mind for a long time, and I’d reached a point in my life where I felt I finally had the finances and emotional maturity to make the leap. As a Norwegian-born Vietnamese, I also wanted to try living in a country where I wasn’t obviously a minority. Singapore, an English-speaking Asian city, ticked that box. Alone in a foreign city, I was ready to chase new experiences without being encumbered by familial or social expectations. I was also getting over heartbreak that had plagued me for a year, and thanks to Tinder, I was reaping the benefits of living in a cosmopolitan city with no shortage of men who were interested in casual dating.
A year into my time in Singapore, Nick* came into my life.
We met at a community club choir group we’d both joined. I was 27, while Nick was 20 and had just finished national service. He had an outgoing personality, and didn’t make a strong impression on me as I’m naturally more introverted. I sensed he was interested, but I found him too friendly, and his energy could be exhausting to be around. But I guess life happens. After a couple of months of meeting regularly at practice, I warmed up to him, and we found ourselves hanging out more frequently. The more time we spent together, the more I realised we had a lot in common, especially our mutual love for gaming, tech, and all things nerdy. We became fast friends despite the age difference, and eventually, flatmates – Nick is Singaporean, but his family moved to the Philippines, where his mother was from. One night, over a couple of bottles of red wine and reruns of Star Wars films (see, told you we were nerds), we arrived at a point where we knew we wanted to become a couple.
We understood from the start that it wasn’t going to be easy. But I found myself factoring Nick into my future plans barely a month into the relationship. Singapore had started to feel like home to me, and I was keen to stay even though I knew finding a job would be a struggle.
Nick, on the other hand, wasn’t sure if Singapore would be part of his longterm plans. That discussion never really got off the ground. When I got a job in publishing, it felt as if the decision had been made for us both; we’d try to make it here in Singapore.
I was the breadwinner, but he was my support
But it was easier said than done. With a high school diploma from the Philippines and having spent two years away from school, Nick had trouble getting a place at a university in Singapore. He’d contribute to the bills when he found work, but as most of his stints were temporary unskilled work such as data entry, being a retail assistant, and doing warehouse work, I covered most of our expenses.
I didn’t mind. I liked that there was someone at home with me who would walk me to the bus stop in the mornings and be there waiting for me when I got home from work. I’ve never been fussed about gender norms, and it didn’t bother me that Nick wasn’t in a position to financially take care of me. The emotional support I got from having a stay-at-home-boyfriend was just as important.
Also, despite being younger, he was by far the more emotionally mature half in our relationship. My strengths (my ability to plan ahead, pay bills on time, and make sure that we had enough toilet paper) were equal to his ability to be forthright about his feelings, thoughts, and grievances when it came to work and his personal life. I’d go as far as to say that his maturity balanced out the age gap. In fact, the only time I feel the age difference is when we discuss pop culture (Britney Spears and Westlife do NOT count as “old music”) or historical events (he was born just before the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway).
Year two of our relationship, and our situation hadn’t changed. But the distance from my family and friends was beginning to take its toll on me. We went to Norway for Christmas, but it only left me feeling the intense loss of a support system when we returned to Singapore. This, combined with a growing dissatisfaction with the company I was working for, led to our first discussion about leaving Singapore. Nick was likely to have to go back to school in the Philippines, as undergraduate courses in Norway are largely taught in Norwegian. For my part, I wanted to have a steady career and felt that I would have more opportunities if I went home.
Getting married to ease the separation
We started to talk about marriage as a way of bridging the looming distance between us. I was pushing 30, and felt insecure about having neither a successful career nor a husband. In Norway, people tend to marry young. But more importantly, I wanted something symbolic to tether us together. I also didn’t have any doubts that Nick and I were in this for the long haul.
Emotional security aside, it was a practical move. After finishing school, Nick could join me in Norway with less bureaucratic hassle if he was my husband. Nick ran with the idea, and we got married in November 2016. It was a simple ceremony witnessed by just nine of our friends, before we headed for a bar in Tanjong Pagar where more friends joined us for drinks.
Not all our immediate family members know about our marriage, for a variety of reasons I don’t want to go into. My mother does know, but she’s aware that I’m fiercely independent, and so, lets me make my own decisions. We do intend to share the news with our families at a later stage, but probably when Nick moves to Norway in four or five years’ time. Then we can have a proper wedding celebration.
Still, I remember that when the solemniser pronounced us man and wife, the absurdity of the situation hit us. Here we were getting married, but going our separate ways the very next month. How were we going to make this work?
Tech doesn’t always make life easier
Sitting in my bedroom in my hometown today, I’m missing my husband. It’s been almost a year, and we’ve slowly been figuring out how to deal with the realities of a long-distance marriage. During our first few days apart, I googled endlessly to learn which apps would be perfect for long-distance relationships, search for articles about perfecting communication, and find hacks on how to get over this hump. I thought I was ready and armed to survive the ordeal.
Being newly married is hard enough when it involves two different people trying to get used to living with each other. For us, the distance just amplified those differences. It also didn’t help that video calls – usually a godsend for any couple in a long-distance relationship – hindered rather than helped us at the start.
Before parting ways, we made enthusiastic promises to Skype each other every day – conveniently forgetting that Nick loves the intimacy of video calls, while I loathe them. That’s because I feel awkward having a camera focused squarely on my face, and feel pressured to give my undivided attention to the person on the screen. When I get distracted, I always feel guilty.
For a month, I tried putting off our Skype date. But our relationship came under strain when Nick felt that I wasn’t giving him enough attention, and we had to figure out a way around my idiosyncrasies. Nick decided that the best way to overcome this was for us to play the same computer game while we Skyped – this can be done remotely as long as we play on the same server. I was initially resistant – I’m a solitary gamer while Nick is a social one who enjoys gaming with other people – but eventually yielded when he found a game that we could both enjoy.
As time passed, we somehow managed to strike a balance. We text almost every day, and continue to communicate through games that have a voicechat function, so we can play while we chat. Because of the seven-hour time difference, Nick sometimes sends me a recording of his play on other games for me to critique – something I also used to do when we lived together. It’s our way of keeping some of our previous routines going, to give us some semblance of normalcy. When we need to talk about more serious matters, we switch to Skype. We’ve learnt to adapt the ways we communicate to accommodate the distance.
I went into this with set ideas of what would work in a healthy long-distance relationship, but realised through trial and error that none of the tricks for the picture-perfect marriage worked for us. We’ve had to navigate personality quirks, habits, time-zone differences, living with our families after years of independence, and technological stumbling blocks. But we’re still going strong.
It’s about trust and getting on with it
The hardest part is dealing with the knowledge that our reunion is still far ahead of us, and we don’t have the financial means to visit each other more than once a year. Nick got into the university of his choice and is reading computer science. I’m still looking for fulltime employment, but I get by with small projects and part-time gigs.
To be honest, I miss Nick the most when I’m out socialising with people, because I inevitably get the sense that he’d enjoy meeting these people more than I do. Nick is more skilled at putting others at ease, and having him around always took a lot of the heat off me when it came to making small talk.
I also miss the numerous ways in which he always tried to make my days run smoother. It’s the little things – like bringing food to me when I worked late, rubbing my stomach when I had killer period pains, or waking up early when he didn’t have to, just so he could walk me to the bus stop and spend a little more time together. I even miss the way he calls me out when he thinks I’m not being fair, and of course, I miss the comfort of his physical presence.
I’ve learnt that when you’re in a long-distance relationship, you can’t focus on potential negatives. It will drive you crazy. For example, I don’t dwell on the possibility of Nick breaking my trust. Both of us are pretty laid-back, so we don’t set ground rules for each other on hanging out with other people, or give each other a play-byplay of what’s happening in our day or week. Instead of focusing on negatives, I choose to focus on the aspects of the relationship I can control, like keeping up our communication and making sure we’re always open and honest with each other.
Neither of us can know what the future has in store for us, so I’d rather not obsess over the what-ifs, but take pleasure in building a strong bond with the person I love, regardless of the distance.
*Name has been changed.
This story was first published in the December 2017 issue of Her World magazine.