Does Virtual Presence = Actual Absence?

It’s no secret that when keeping multiple relationships alive, time can be at a premium.  Even the most ardent lover cannot be in in two places at once.  For many, modern technology — particularly the ability to communicate 24/7 through devices we can carry on our person — helps to resolve some of the issues the clock poses by letting us be virtually present with partners, even if we can’t actually proffer a hug in person.

Some of my relationships have worked this way for a long time.  Which is why it came as a surprise when someone I have considered a romantic partner for years, albeit a long-distance one, recently expressed the idea that to her, I was just a “lover” — by which she meant an occasional physical partner and little more.  To her, maintaining a heart connection required more frequent in-person visits than we have been able to sustain.

Why was this a surprise?  Simply put, my experience has been that correspondence can keep someone very present and warm in my heart.  Yet it clearly didn’t work that way for her.  So my partner’s declaration caused me to wonder whether I had just been fooling myself for a good while.

As if having overheard, three days later, the relationship writer Ferrett Steinmetz published a disquisition on that very topic.  It turns out that his way of conducting long-distance relationships, and the rewards he derives, are analogous to mine.  His piece is well worth reading, here. The short version is that texting and other forms of communication mean that one person is thinking of another, and can be an adequate substitute for presence — with some partners.  He went on to say that if that wasn’t what the other person wanted, then they just weren’t a good partner for him.  But please read it in his words.  I’ll wait…

Okay.  Got it?  Do you agree with him?  Or do you agree with another friend of mine, who took issue with Ferrett’s (and, by implication, my) worldview: “To me the whole point of dating is physical company and sex. If I am not getting physical touch and in person conversation the person isn’t a boyfriend.  Even if I had a regular boyfriend, I wouldn’t call a second relationship a boyfriend unless I actually saw him in person once a month.  I guess I don’t know what you get out of texting 4 women each day with rare visits?”

In a way, she may be further affirming the idea popularly expressed in Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages that for some people, “quality time” and “physical touch” are the most significant aspects of a relationship, while for people like Ferrett and me, other expressions of affection can provide the nourishment and continuity that lets relationships thrive.

The upshot of that seems to be that understanding the personal chemistry of a relationship is not enough, nor is simple frequency of contact sufficient to keep a relationship charged.  Understanding how someone wants to communicate and to sustain is essential — as is recognizing when the amount of face time available for a given relationship is a threat to its continued function, irrespective of the history or depth of feeling.  Some partners just need more time than others, and for them to feel that they are being treated equitably requires that they not be treated equally, at least in this aspect of the relationship. (For more on this, see Beverly Diehl’s guest post here.)

No, nobody ever said poly was easy.  But treating people as they wish to be treated can be a good start.  For Ferrett, whether someone shares his way of communicating is part of determining their suitability as a partner.  For me, hearing that a partner and I have different preferences forces a decision about how to reconcile their needs with my availability.  For some, presence is a present; but for others, it is a basic need.