Lessons from One Year of Long Distance Engagement

Marriage is an insane proposal. ” – Aziz Ansari

Last weekend marks one year of being engaged for me. (Woo!) Not only was I engaged, I was in a long distance relationship, me in San Francisco, him in Seattle. This weekend, I’m going to cry in public in front of 100+ people as I make my vows to marry my best friend.

I’ve learned a few things about what it means to build a healthy, functioning relationship. I’ve discovered concepts I didn’t know existed or had poor and misunderstanding of, and I’ve gained insights through experiences I never had before.

I thought I would write a bit about what I’ve learned in the past year, one, to share in hope of greater usefulness for the world, and two, for my own record.

My friend Lera (hi Lera!) said that this would be a book on its own, and I technically could write a whole lot on the topic. I’m going to confine myself to just one blog post for now, though, because if I don’t, it’ll be our 10th or 50th anniversary before I come around to writing it.

Well, here we go.

Love is a skill

I came to learn more about relationships, ironically enough, when a long-term relationship came to an end. At 30, I realized that I knew very little about what makes the world go round.

I knew about relationships the way I know about cars. I was only capable enough to operate a car in good condition and drive from point A to point B on decent roads and in reasonable weather.

But, optimizing a car’s performance? Don’t look at me. Having the mental and motor skills to expertly take tight corners and navigate narrow mountain passes? I wouldn’t survive. Actually, at 30, I had spent more time reading my car’s specs and manual than I ever did on the nature of romantic love, relationship, and intimacy.

I found it funny that in all other areas of my life, if I wanted to improve, I’d do something about it, get a book, watch a video, go to a workshop. Why didn’t I do the same thing with relationships? Why did I fervently read up on typography and information architecture and Hindu mythology, and not on the neural wiring of a brain in love?

This is where I realized my first mistake: thinking that I already knew how to love, and what to do to build and maintain, and end a relationship.

As is my coping mechanism for learning a new skill, I threw myself at stuff like the neurobiology, attachment theory, dirty minds, chemistry, the four horsemen of the apocalypse, couple quibbles, more neurobiology, and learned a new language.

Let’s begin with the end.

Relationships are bucket lists for growth

During my last breakup, I discovered a helpful book called Coming Apart: Why Relationships End and How to Live Through the Ending of Yours. This book dispelled a number of myths about romantic love and introduced a key concept that I’ve carried.

The author asked a seemingly straight-forward question, why are we in relationships? Why do we fall in love? Why do we get together with anybody? According to her:

“In our lifetimes, we are each trying to do a single thing: to create our selves. We are all trying to solve our basic psychological problem—which is to answer in depth and to our own satisfaction the question, “Who am I?”

“This process of self-definition or self-discovery occurs through what I call “developmental tasks,” and it is our relationships, more than anything else in our lives, that help us accomplish the developmental tasks through which we define ourselves.”

I know, I know, this super bookish and academic definition may not sound Hollywood romantic at all. Yet, discovering who I really am, unpacking emotional baggages, taking possession of my sexuality, cultivating my creativity, untangling my anger, coming more fully into myself, that all sounds pretty enticing, even romantic.

But what does that have to do with luuuuuurve? Since we can’t do it the growing all by ourselves, relationships are the most natural way for us to get help from each other.

“Love is the medium whereby we offer one another this assistance, and, by this definition, a good love is one in which a fairly equal amount of assistance is being given and received by both partners.”

“…consciously or unconsciously we are always in a state of emotional evolution, and nothing spurs our emotional development more than our intimate relationships.”

Ok, so love = checking off developmental tasks off my bucket list?

What was I going to do next to test this theorem? Put up an ad for a “developmental task partner”?

Wanted: A boy who will help me solve and resolve my psychological developmental tasks. Must love cats.

Don’t scale for a problem you don’t yet have

When I met David, I was planning to leave town. Here I was, one foot out the door, ready to say “hasta la vista, baby” to Seattle, and in came this boy.

“We can’t do this!” I exclaimed. “We can’t start a relationship, we’ll end up getting hurt!”

“Whoa,” said Dave, “We don’t even know what this is. We’re just getting to know each other. You know what PG said. If you don’t have 2 million users, don’t scale for 2 million users.”

(I’m sorry, PG, I know you were talking about startups, not relationships.)

Somewhere in my psyche, I was already anticipating, and solving for something that didn’t even yet exist. My mind probably imagined something super far-fetched, like raising children long distance.

You can’t solve for a problem you don’t have. You can only solve for a problem you have right now.  (This is so obvious when I type it out like this, but the mind has a funny ways of creating illusions.)

Had I not taken a chance on dating this boy for fear of things not working out, I would have missed out on one of the greatest experiences of my life.

Independence is Secure Attachment, not emotional distance

As a self-proclaimed modern girl, I had a certain idea of what “being independent” meant. It meant not needing anybody for anything, right? It meant belching on top of my lungs “Here I go againnnn on my ownnnn….”

In an infantile way, I even thought of independence as stuff like this:

“Your left hand believes in shining armor. Your right hand thinks knights are for fairy tales. Your left hand says ‘I love you’. Your right hand says ‘I love me too’. Women of the world, raise your right hand.”

Several years ago, I would have totally raised a toast to all that with my right hand. And now, I’m embarrassed to even tell you that. This mentality conveniently trivializes one hand for the other (I mean, try to only use one hand), and it plays into the false notion that you can learn to love on your own, by yourself.

I’ve also come to learn about Attachment Theory, and realized that a lot of what I imagined “independence” to convey, was actually Avoidant Attachment, the behavior of passive aggressively creating emotional distance and isolation. It’s an illusion of independence, it’s really  disconnection.

You can’t learn to love by yourself

In this relationship, I’ve learned to love myself in ways I could not have learned on my own.

There is a popular belief out there that you can’t learn to love someone until you learn to love yourself. I used to subscribe to that belief. And now, I think of it as a reminder to not neglect my own feelings and needs and running around accommodating others at the expense of my own growth.

I’m not talking about learning about love as a feeling or a dopamine release. I’m talking about love as actions that demonstrate our capacity for compassion and empathy.

And this, this is something you only learn by doing. I could read every single book ever published on the topic, and it would merely be an intellectual exercise until I put what I’ve read to the test.

Have regular FaceTime, even in person

Because we saw each other once a month, we FaceTimed pretty much every night for two hours or more. (See above: do things that don’t scale.)

This regularly scheduled time taught us a couple things, that if we lived in the same city, we would probably have not dedicated an uninterrupted chunk of time to just talking to each other about our day, looking into each other’s face, working out conflicts, pair-bonding, and keep getting to know each other

In my past relationships, there was a point when I would “get lazy” about discovering or exploring who this other person was, while in fact, we can never know enough about each other, or as soon as we think we know somebody, they will change.

Thinking you *know* your partner, I’ve learned, can lead to detrimental effects. I’m not saying we should all get amnesic on each other a la 50 First Dates. I’m saying, Beginner’s Mind.

I discovered that there were times when we were in the same room yet totally disconnected; there were times when we were on FaceTime—or living in each other’s computer, as we call it—and we couldn’t be closer to each other emotionally.

A scheduled time, regardless of  geographical distances, to check in with each other, to have a dopamine release party, is the glue that binds. This also helps our friends understand and respect our couple boundaries, making it easier on everyone to know what to expect.

Make smooth transitions with separating and connecting rituals

I used to think rituals were silly and superstitious. Then, during my engagement, and in preparation for a wedding ceremony that I personally could relate to, not because “tradition says so”, I discovered that “rituals may be more rational than they appear.” It turns out, rituals help us in important ways to relate, connect, heal, create meaning, and make transitions.

For couples who live in the same city or under the same roof, it may not be a big deal to simply say hi and bye when they leave in the morning and come back at night. For us, since we saw each other once a month, we discovered that a reconnecting and separating rituals are so important, they can make a difference in how we feel and act in the hours or even days that follow.

This whole topic has been a new thing for me to learn about, since I carried some baggage of pre-conceived notions about rituals. Because of the status changes, from girlfriend to fiancee, and soon, wife, I’ve learned that there’s a difference between a change and a transition, and how rituals help us make sense of the transition.

I’ve learned to appreciate my partner *every* time I see him again, and when we separated, it was crucial for us to continue to stay emotionally connected. That’s what rituals help us do, to create a clear demarkation of a system status change, and minimize confusion and disruption to our emotional health.

A healthy relationship is full of vulnerability, full stop

This year I learned about the work of Brene Brown on Vulnerability, and chowed down everything she’s ever produced. I had so many misconceptions and mislead notions of things like guilt, shame, empathy, and compassion, that it would be an entire post by itself.

For so long, I have tried to live up to this fuzzy image of a strong, independent, go-getter girl. I could do it all, I could accomplish it all. I’m in it to win it.

This year, I’ve been so humbled to realize there’s a ton of power in softening up, in disclosing to my partner my “weak emotions”, of fully recognizing and acknowledging when I’m “needy”.

To prepare for marriage, David and I went through what seems like a gazillion topics from those “Questions to ask before you marry” books. At first, I thought it was about *me* getting to know *him*, and *him* getting to know *me*.

In that process, I learned more about myself than I realized, which sometimes took a lot of courage to share without fear of judgement, and fear that if I “said the wrong thing”, he would think less of me and love me less.

Learning to be vulnerable is one of the bravest things I’ve learned how to do, and I couldn’t have done that without being in a healthy relationship, and in turn, a healthy relationship enables me to be vulnerable, making me stronger.

Love is the widening of life’s possibilities

One night, after my yoga training, I got a ride home from Victoria Austin, who’s also a Zen priest at the San Francisco Zen Center. I asked her for what she suggests I think about as I write my wedding vows.

“Many people think of love as desire,” she said. “Love includes desire, but I think of love as something that, when you’re with each other, there’s a sense that the possibilities in life widen.”

That is my favorite definition of Love to date, and it’s such a succinct question, “Is there a sense of widening possibilities when I’m with this person?”

I have found that this question applies to many other kinds of relationships, not just with the romantic kind. Does my capacity to explore the outer and inner world increase? Am I kinder, more friendly to myself?

At my bachelorette party at Esalen, I saw a sign in the kitchen, it summed up my current understanding of love and relationship perfectly.

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P.S. You can follow our adventures on nikkianddavid.com

One Year in San Francisco

One year.

I’ve been in San Francisco one full year.

I’m sitting in the corner of the Cal Academy cafe in Golden Gate Park. My red wallet is taking a break, sitting quietly on the stainless steel table, covered by a receipt for two things: coffee with more cream than caffeine, and plain butter croissant. Outside, a fog named Karl is in full form, eating up the Cypress and Redwoods and the Eucalyptus trees by the giant penguin rock statue.

I put on Chris and Thomas’s Broken Chair, which my friend Adam told me about while we were walking by Mojo Bicycle on Divisadero a few weeks ago. (Hi Adam.)

I feel awfully lucky. I’m pretty much filled to the brim with gratitude to be sitting right here, writing these exact words.

Though I’ve wanted to move here long ago, circa 2007 or so, it took me a few years to make it happen. Sometimes, from the moment an idea is formed to the moment that idea comes to life takes a while.

When I told friends I was moving to San Francisco, they’d inevitably ask why.

Well, it’s been a year, so I thought I’d write down a couple reasons that prompted my move, and a few things I’ve learned along the way.


The Romance Begins

In high school, I read ferociously and wasn’t particularly discriminate about genres. I just wanted to get lost in another world. One day, browsing through a used books sales bin, I picked up Weird Like Us – My Bohemian America, a memoir about counterculture and San Francisco. It was the beginning of a long romanticization of all things San Francisco, the Beat Generation, Beat Poetry, Big Sur, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, On the Road.

In October 2007, I drove from Seattle to Long Beach, California on a temporary work relocation. I got to San Francisco late at night, rented a shoddy room in a sketchy hotel in North Beach/Chinatown for eighty bucks, and passed out in exhaustion from the road trip. In the morning, when I walked outside, the sky was as blue as blue can be, and it startled me. I felt like I had taken some other kind of trip.

Walking along the Embarcadero under a bright sun, a thought popped in my head, “I’m going to live here some day.”


Paul Graham

In the exuberance of Web 2.0 in 2007 and 2008, I went to a lot of startup meet-ups, dropped a lot of vowels, came up with silly startup names that could pass as Star Wars characters, and read a lot of Paul Graham.

Say what you will about Paul G., you probably won’t argue that he’s a prolific writer, and his writing sparks a lot of discussions and influences a lot of people’s thinking.

Coming out of Interaction Design school, I ate up everything Paul wrote about design. The one essay that’s stayed with me through the years, though, is Cities and Ambition.

“Great cities attract ambitious people. You can sense it when you walk around one. In a hundred subtle ways, the city sends you a message: you could do more; you should try harder.”

I’m not going to quote everything from the essay, because I’d end up copying and pasting pretty much the whole thing (I really recommend you read the whole thing though). But the main thing I took away is a comparison with two other great cities from two other eras.

Paul talks about Florence in the fifteenth century and Paris during the Belle Epoque. Florence had Donatello, Botticelli, Leonardo, and Michelangelo, among others. Paris had Gauguin, Matisse, Rousseau, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Picasso. (He goes into much more details about that in another essay, Taste for Makers.)

The idea is where you live matters through the messages it sends, the things you overhear in a coffee shop, the things you see when you walk past a window, the things *you* don’t seek out, rather, they seek you out instead.

“How much does it matter what message a city sends? Empirically, the answer seems to be: a lot. You might think that if you had enough strength of mind to do great things, you’d be able to transcend your environment. Where you live should make at most a couple percent difference.

But if you look at the historical evidence, it seems to matter more than that. Most people who did great things were clumped together in a few places where that sort of thing was done at the time.”

After having lived in a beach bungalow shack in Southern California, already idealizing wearing sandals in November, Kerouac’s Dharma, and that California branch of Spirituality, it wasn’t a big leap for me to embrace the effervescent entrepreneurial spirit of Silicon Valley.

In some way, I had a big case of Fear of Missing Out. I was born a few hundred years too late to live in Florence and Paris, but there was still time for me to make it to San Francisco.

I was 24 or 25. I didn’t even have as much as a plastic houseplant. I could pack up and went wherever I wanted. The time to make the move was right. And I thought about it and talked about it, but I did nothing. I was young, I could always do it next year.


Design & Yoga

The years went by, and I increasingly became deeply steeped in UX Design and Yoga. During the changing years of my late 20s, they were the only two things I knew for sure I wanted to have in my life, for the rest of my life.

One day, I woke up and realized, I was 29. If I wasn’t going to do something I’ve always wanted to do, and do it soon, it wasn’t going to happen, or, I’ll just be a year older when I do it.

I was already making frequent trips to San Francisco for Design conferences and Yoga workshops. I grew more and more frustrated with the lack of the kind of yoga that I wanted and needed in Seattle. For example, in San Francisco, within a 3 mile-radius, there are regular, multiple weekly classes on Vedic chanting, Yoga Sutras, Pranayama, and Ayurveda. In Seattle, my options were limited to variations of Bikram or vinyasa flow yoga, which is all fine and good, but not the only thing there is to learn about Yoga.

I’m not saying there isn’t Good Yoga in Seattle. There is. It’s just not as accessible and frequent, to my knowledge. And I’m guessing it has to do with a critical mass of public interest. I also became determined to study Iyengar Yoga, and I wanted to go to the source: The Iyengar Yoga Institute of San Francisco. At the same time, my teacher, Judith Lasater, was offering a one-year study program with her in 2013. (Basically Life said: “Go!”)

I wanted to not only push, but propel myself as a designer, in my yoga studies, and in my own personal growth. I also knew myself well. I knew that, though I had enough intrinsic motivation, I couldn’t grow nearly as much on my own as if I was surrounded by people who were just as fervently into the things I’m into.

“Nothing is more powerful than a community of talented people working on related problems. Genes count for little by comparison: being a genetic Leonardo was not enough to compensate for having been born near Milan instead of Florence.

Today we move around more, but great work still comes disproportionately from a few hotspots: the Bauhaus, the Manhattan Project, the New Yorker, Lockheed’s Skunk Works, Xerox Parc.”

It’s not that San Francisco was the only town where great work was happening. I’m not saying that in absolute terms, and that’s not even close to the truth anyway. I did, however, had the fear and perception that I was stagnating where I was.

“No matter how determined you are, it’s hard not to be influenced by the people around you. It’s not so much that you do whatever a city expects of you, but that you get discouraged when no one around you cares about the same things you do.”

The time was Now to stop talking and start packing.


Souls and Cities and Intuition

I know there’s often an urge to compare cities, and it’s very seductive. This City is better than That City. Rent is so high there. And it’s so dirty. But you have to pay so much taxes. It rains so much, how do you stand it? Well we have legalized weed and gay marriage, what have you done lately but act like privileged douchey tech children?

Every single argument for or against a city is valid from a personal perspective. In a yoga class, every single person comes with a different story, a different psychological history, injury history, genetic history. I would no more encourage someone to look at their neighbor to practice yoga than to say that a city is absolutely better or worse for all people, at all time.

I could tell you a hundred reasons why I moved, and no doubt you could refute me in a hundred and one ways why my reasons are terrible. Though I’ve listed a few things that prompted my move, I know someone, somewhere out there, would call b.s. on them. “There’s great yoga and great design and fantastic food and wonderful people in Seattle.” I would agree with all of that.

I suspect all my reasons are there to largely pacify that part of the human brain that demands an explanation. We’re uncomfortable with things that don’t have an explanation or seem illogical and irrational to us. I used to joke that I’m moving to San Francisco for the boys, and it didn’t matter if that was true or not, it was enough to satisfy people’s need to know why.

The biggest reason why I moved to San Francisco is because I followed the tiny voices in my heart, my intuition. There was no guarantee of anything going one way or another. Though I had some hopes and fears and best case and worst case scenarios played out in my head, I really had no idea how my life in San Francisco would turn out.

I asked myself, when I’m 80, sitting on my rocking chair, would I regret moving or not moving to San Francisco when I was 30? The answer was clear, I would regret that I didn’t do it more than regretting that I did.

“Engineers are taught to make decisions analytically and largely without emotion. When it comes to a decision between alternatives we enumerate the cost and benefits and decide which one is better. But there are times in our lives when the careful consideration of cost and benefits just doesn’t seem like the right way to make a decision. 

There are times in all of our lives when a reliance on gut or intuition just seems more appropriate–when a particular course of action just feels right.” – Tim Cook

For now, San Francisco is where I am. I’ve grown leaps and bounds here, and the growth spurt is quite uncomfortable at times. As life’s twists and turns would have it, I met a boy before I left Seattle, and not just any boy, the boy that I would be head over heels for and infinitely smitten with for the rest of my life (more on that later), and falling in love long distance is more than hard on the knees.

For now, when I walk home across Alamo Square park covered by the tall, wacky shaped trees, or when I look up at the giant colorful art murals in the Mission, or when I pass by the pink bunny with a skull in its mouth on my way to the San Francisco Zen Center, knowing that nothing lasts forever, I smile and thank all the people and whatever forces in the Universe that have made it possible for me to be here right now.

“I have no plans
No dates
No appointments with anybody

So I leisurely explore
Souls and Cities

Geographically I’m from
and belong to that group
called Pennsylvania Dutch

But I’m really a citizen
of the world
who hates Communism
and tolerates Democracy

Of which Plato said 2000 years
Was the best form of bad government

I’m merely exploring souls and cities
From the vantage point
Of my ivory tower built,
Built with the assistance
of Opium

That’s enough isn’t it?” – Kerouac, 34th Chorus, Mexico City Blues

Alamo Square Park

Walking home through the park.

The Female Human Being

“someday there will be girls and women whose name will no longer mean the mere opposite of the male, but something in itself, something that makes one think not of any complement and limit, but only of life and reality: the female human being.

This advance (at first very much against the will of the outdistanced men) will transform the love experience, which is now filled with error, will change it from the ground up, and reshape it into a relationship that is meant to be between one human being and another, no longer one that flows from man to woman.

And this more human love (which will fulfill itself with infinite consideration and gentleness, and kindness and clarity in binding and releasing) will resemble what we are now preparing painfully and with great struggle: the love that consists in this: that two solitudes protect and border and greet each other.” – Rainier Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet #7