For couples in a long distance relationships, Valentine's Day can...

For couples in a long distance relationships, Valentine's Day can be one of the hardest days of the year. Credit: AP / Bullit Marquez

My girlfriend and I met in South Dakota over the summer. I moved out with just my car and my computer to work at The Potter County News in Gettysburg (official slogan: “The place where the battle wasn’t”).

As I explored my temporary home, I realized that I had moved from Westchester, a county with a population of roughly 1 million people, to a county that holds just more than 3,000, in season.

Over my first month in Potter County, I became accustomed to loneliness. Everyone I knew was back on the east coast, and all I had to comfort me was my work at the newspaper. That is, until June 25 — when I met my now-long-distance girlfriend at the local car show.

The following night, I spent an evening with her just looking up at the South Dakota night sky. “Sitting amongst the stars and the oddly bright lights of the Gettysburg High School gym, I wasn’t lonely,” I wrote in my weekly column shortly after that night. “I had company from someone who could actually appreciate what she’d been living under all these years.”

My girlfriend grew up in Gettysburg and has spent her entire life in Potter County. Aside from the occasional traveling outside of that town, South Dakota is the only landscape she’s known by heart, and she opened my eyes to the wonderful people, locations, moments that Gettysburg has to offer.

I’ve been in relationships before, but nothing prepared me for the wave of emotion I had with her. Every time we took a walk or looked up at the stars, I realized that I would have to completely change my life to make sure I had her for the rest of it. I spent two amazing weeks with her, just to have to leave her, and like every young couple moving in different directions, we made a choice.

Luckily, we decided to stick together and tough it out. However, nothing could prepare us for the onslaught of criticism we’ve received over the last six months.

Not only because we are young, but because of the distance between us, people just assume that we can’t know love. Friends ask me questions like, “Oh, but do you actually like her?” and I always say yes. Nothing more and nothing less, because people who can’t fathom the idea of liking someone who you can’t physically see everyday aren’t worth the stress.

I can’t express just how unequivocally happy my girlfriend has made me. Like every relationship I’ve had, I care deeply for her, but she’s the first person to truly challenge me to be a better person. I see her life, and where she comes from, and it makes me want to be better, not only for her, but for myself. The sacrifices she makes to better the lives of her seven siblings, and her parents, truly make me rethink my struggles as a relatively financially stable middle-class student.

The downside is that long-distance relationships have a stigma against them simply because of social expectations. When you see a couple, you expect them to be next to each other, arms linked together, smiling. But when I talk about my girlfriend, I have to explain why she’s not here. The conversation immediately moves to the disadvantages of being apart, rather than to the advantages to holding onto someone you love. It’s hard to break free from socially ingrained notions about relationships.

Through it all, I’ve learned one key fact that I think a lot of people forget in these weird times — love unconditionally. The hard part of the relationship isn’t managing the time together, because we do that pretty well, it’s dealing with the constant struggle of keeping up a facade. We are supposed to appear happy all the time simply to mask the struggle of being apart from one another. We know the odds are stacked against us. We know that being separated by 1,700 miles isn’t the best-case scenario. But it sure doesn’t help that everyone seems to wants it to fail to validate some sort of subconscious belief.

My girlfriend and I always say the distance is making us stronger. We are learning how to be independent, all the while learning exactly what makes the other person tick. I see her face on my computer screen and it reminds me that she is my goal in life. She is the other side of the tunnel, something that a lot of people don’t get with the luxury of being with their partner everyday.

But like everything, it isn’t always magical, especially on days like Valentine’s Day.

Valentine’s Day is the hardest day we’ve had to face as a couple. We have to watch all the young couples be together all around us at our respective colleges while longing for the same thing. While my girlfriend and I work towards our future, and plan for ways to be together once I’m out of college, all I ask is that society turns down the pressure gauge. Let us get to where we feel comfortable before judging us like we have no clue what we are doing.

One of the most clichéd lines I’ve heard against long-distance relationships is that long-distance relationships aren’t relationships, they are just the promise of one. My girlfriend and I are trying to change that.

Jager Robinson is an intern for Newsday’s editorial board.