Long-distance relationships occur when lovers are separated by considerable physical distance. They live in two different cities, countries, or even continents and cannot routinely meet in real life due to their work and study obligations or for other reasons (such as the restrictions enforced because of an unprecedented global pandemic).
Long-distance relationships are not new, but with the emergence of internet chat rooms, online dating sites, and various other means of easily accessible online communication they have become increasingly common. Recently, they have become the only option for many people. This being the case, the old assumption that such relationships are automatically doomed has faded considerably in the last decades.
With so many options for communication and travel, it is not necessary to end a strong and happy relationship due to temporary distance alone. If both parties in a relationship acknowledge the challenges that come with distance and actively work to maintain their emotional, social, and mental connections, a long-distance relationship can bring fulfilment and happiness just like a ‘normal’ relationship would.
Psychologists often characterize adult romantic relationships as having three primary behaviours—attachment, caregiving, and sexuality. Maintaining healthy connections in these three areas is crucial for a romantic relationship to be mutually satisfying, although each of these behaviours will differ from couple to couple. Long-distance is but one of many possible forms of dating. Each unique situation will require partners to adjustments to make their relationship work on a day-to-day basis.
For humans as social animals, physical closeness is very important. We pick up on the slightest changes in emotion from each other’s facial cues and body language. Physical touch is a form of communication in itself. Physical proximity, be it sex or simply talking face to face, releases neurochemicals such as phenylethylamine, oxytocin, and dopamine, which are instrumental in building a connection with others; we also share pheromones, which are especially important in romantic relationships.
In long-distance relationships these physical manifestations of closeness are denied. People may experience signs of withdrawal resulting in increased levels of stress hormones, which in turn might lead to increased anxiety and even depression. If your or your partner’s ‘love language’ is strongly based on touch, a long-distance relationship may take an even bigger toll on your physical and mental well-being than for people whom tactile communication is less important.
With physical touch not being an option, long-distance relationships are highly dependent on maintaining all other possible forms of connection. And the only way to do it is through communication.
Communication is crucial for all human interactions, but long-distance romantic relationships require a conscious effort to create intimacy without touch.
Both parties need to share their needs and expectations, as well as keep communication active in day-to-day life. Of course, there is no need to give live updates on every little thing that happens (even though the compulsion to do so can be hard to ignore for some), nor to wait until your partner initiates a conversation. It’s best to find a pace that feels natural for you both. We all need to live our own lives—attending to a constant stream of information can be as tiresome as feeling neglected can be troubling.
With this in mind, it is also important to switch it up from time to time. Here is what we suggest:
Use a variety of communication channels. Text messages, photos, video calls. A surprise postcard now and then. ‘Meeting’ your partner in new ways can have a positive impact on the quality of your relationship. Also, the impression you get from just one form of communication may misrepresent a person’s overall personality—perhaps written words don’t come easily for them, but they can express themselves well in verbal conversations (or vice versa).
Avoid getting stuck in routine. Sharing rituals is great, but when the ‘good morning’ and ‘how was your day’ messages stay the same for months on end, they can lose their value. Make the effort to show that you are not just autocompleting the same messages every day and that you really care.
Involve your partner in your day-to-day life and decisions. Without treating it like an official report, tell your partner about the highlights of your day and ask for their input. What gifts would work best for your niece? Which breakfast options would they like the most? Broadening your range of topics adds interest to your conversations.
It is entirely possible and necessary to make shared plans when living apart.
Depending on your schedules, you can create shared rituals such as drinking coffee in the mornings. You don’t even have to call or message every time you do—just knowing the other person is doing the same helps you bond.
Put together a list of activities that you can do on your own and share your thoughts on the experience later—include things that you both might enjoy, as well as things that you could recommend to your partner. Going to the museum? Participating in an art class? Going to a local farmer’s market? Exploring the city? Trying a new car? The only limit is your imagination—have fun!
Share activities online. There are many things you can do online. Set up a Skype, Facetime or Zoom call and explore the internet:
Taking your time to connect over shared activities helps build intimacy and can show you a new aspect of your partner.
While minimizing emotional distance is important for maintaining a healthy romantic relationship, one aspect is sometimes overlooked in distanced relationships—social interaction with others. Just like with communication, making a conscious effort to include each other in the activities of your immediate social groups such as family, friends, and co-workers will strengthen the relationship.
Research has shown that a certain amount of ‘social accountability’ is beneficial for the emotional well-being of a couple. Establishing your status as a person in a relationship with your friends and family, even if your significant other is far away, will help you stay grounded and create a more unified view on where you are in life, both for yourself and for the important people in your life.
Long-distance relationships are primarily mental and emotional. But the sexual aspect is still important for our physiological and mental well-being. There are many ways to keep this part of your relationship alive.
The first step in crisis management for long-distance relationships is acknowledging that crises are just as likely as in any other relationship. Long distance it is far too easy to miss the signs and gloss over unpleasant details, but it is crucial that you make the time to address whatever seems off.
You would do well to remember that communication in a long-distance relationship is the responsibility of both participants. You have a certain amount of time between messages to consider what you will say, the chance to not pick up the phone if you are too tired at night. This wouldn’t be possible if you were meeting in person or living together.
Some people in long-distance relationships tend to idealize their partners. Their small flaws and messy habits are not right in front of your eyes, so it is easier to pretend they don’t exist. This can lead to a rude awakening when you finally do spend time together in person.
For others long-distance relationships have the opposite effect. They cannot stop worrying about their partner cheating or taking part in undesirable activities. This can be solved by both partners setting clear boundaries for what is and what isn’t acceptable and then practicing trust and planning ahead for instances where jealousy may be an issue. Talking about these issues in advance will make them much easier to resolve.
Sometimes people in long-distance relationships stay together by force of habit. Not interacting in person may tempt some to avoid difficult conversations or confrontations and cause a general lack of progress in the relationship. Sometimes people report feeling ‘trapped’. They want to talk about their fears and problems, but the short face-to-face meetings bring such an emotional high that problems are pushed aside until they go back to their every-day lives without having risked the conversations that are needed for growth.
Yes, breaking up long-distance is frowned upon, but sometimes waiting for that rendezvous hurts both partners in the long run. Only you can evaluate your relationship. If you find yourself waiting to meet in person just to break up, it is better to rip off the band-aid in the most considerate way available to you. You wouldn’t want someone to feel trapped in a relationship with you—it is fairly safe to assume this is true for your partner as well.
Couples in long-distance relationships often report anxiety about their future together. As long-distance relationships are usually not long-distance by choice and require many compromises, it can be hard to set clear goals for the future.
Nevertheless, it is crucial that both partners share their views on where the relationship is going early on. Is one partner ready to move to the other’s location? Is the end-goal moving in? What is your stance on marriage? Children? Pets? Finances? Goals and opinions need to be clearly communicated, as you don’t have the chance to bring up the issues naturally in person.
Knowing you are both on the same page helps reduce anxiety and unnecessary miscommunication.
Finally, remember that your relationship is your business. Only you can decide if it works for you. Be conscious of each other’s feelings and take care of each other. You will figure it out!
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