Long Distance Relationships

Technically, I have been in a long distance relationship for two years. Many people continuously ask me how I deal with this change of lifestyle, and I rarely give the same answer twice. Recently a handful of friends of mine have also begun to engage in LDRs. Again, they are now asking me how I deal with being in this type of relationship. Let me put it this way: I am NOT the posterchild. It is VERY difficult, and takes A LOT of work from both partners.

Today, however, I found a very interesting article from the Center for the Study of Long Distance Relationships and I have posted it below. Additionally, I have highlighted/bolded the many issues that I struggle with on a consistent basis.

Potentially, this article will help the others and me in finding ways to cope with LDRs. If you have any other suggestions, I would greatly appreciate your comments. Here's to Love, its such a crazy thing...

What is the most challenging thing about long distance relationships?

The most challenging aspect of a long distance relationship is maintaining the feeling of simply being part of one another’s lives. Couples that see one another only once a week or once a month often can feel disconnected from their partner. This disconnection can lead to an erosion of intimacy. Think of intimacy as requiring two components: 1) the sharing of emotions, and 2) inter-relatedness of daily activities. Couples in long distance relationships (LDRs) usually do a great job of sharing the emotions that they have for one another. But the second part of the equation, “interrelatedness” requires a great deal of effort. Interrelatedness means being somehow involved in your partner’s, often mundane, day-to-day activities, adventures, struggles, and accomplishments. Geographically close couples do this almost unconsciously as they chat about little events that are upcoming or recently past. These little events seem relevant when discussed right away, but they lose their interest and excitement when discussed in retrospect. For example, “Guess what happened to me at the grocery store?” would be a comment that geographically close couples would share later that night. Although the content may seem trivial, the unconscious connection formed between partners with each little interaction, such as this, forms the foundation of intimacy. But the same couple, placed in a long distance relationship, would likely not think to discuss this little adventure at the grocery store or would find it has lost it’s interest when brought up several days after the fact.

I sometimes compare intimacy to a rope that holds two people together. The inner core of the rope is the sharing of emotions between one another. But around this core are thousands of tiny fibers made up of each seemingly mundane exchange or experience that occurs between a couple. While no one fiber is terribly important, as a whole they create the true strength of the bond. Couples in LDRs usually have a great inner core, but by itself it will not be strong enough to hold the couple together. They have to really work on adding the outer fibers by learning how to share in each others world even while they’re apart.

What are the most important things one can do in order to maintain a happy, loving relationship despite long distances?

Our research found six critical areas that couples must tackle to keep a long distance relationship happy and healthy.

Stay Optimistic! When we looked at dozens of coping styles used by couples in long distance relationships, the only one that clearly stood out was staying optimistic about the relationship. When I work with long distance couples I focus on three parts to staying optimistic: Debunk the myths, challenge the nay-sayers, and focus on the positive. Research shows that, despite what many people think, LDRs do not have any greater chance of breaking up than any other relationship. LDRs report just as much satisfaction, intimacy, trust, and commitment as traditional relationships. People in LDRs do NOT have more sexual affairs than other couples. LDRs are NOT a “bad idea” and, in fact, are often the very best alternative of those available. Challenging the nay-sayers requires that couples not simply put up with others who tell them LDRs “never work.” Ask them how they know this, as research shows this is not true. We would not put up with someone telling us that our geographically close relationship was “doomed,” so don’t let them say the same thing about our LDR. Focusing on the positive asks couples to remember the advantages that come with an LDR (and there are many!)

Re-Learn How to be Intimate. This refers back to the answer for your first question. Couples in LDRs often use their precious time together or on the telephone to share heartfelt emotions in an effort to bond. But they don’t focus on the mundane issues needed to feel inter-connected and intimate. Our research found that what couples say and how they say it matters far more than how frequently they communicate. We use a five-step approach to re-learning intimacy.

a. First, find ways to
share in the little day-to-day events. If couples have access to email, send an email in the am discussing the day’s plans, and a second in the evening telling how everything went. Couples that talk nightly need to make sure to talk about how their day went and their plans for the next day. Couples with less contact can keep a diary of items that they want to share with their partner the next time they do talk. Without this, these little events will vanish from memory. Keep track of your partner’s events as well so you can ask about them and feel a part of them. Some couples use hand held tape recorders to “chat” with their partner throughout the day. The tape is then sent to the partner who can feel connected to their partner’s world. Although often couples share deep emotions on these tapes, the real focus should be run-of-the-mill chatter about the day. Some couples use Polaroid pictures or digital camera pictures to show their partner’s little things that go on during the day.

b. Second,
use technology to create intimacy. Couples in geographically close relationships create intimacy unconsciously as they chat with one another while doing other activities. This creates a feeling of “being in the world together” that is separate from the feelings shared when two people are wholly focused on one another.

c. Our research found that couples in LDRs that stayed together wrote to one another twice as often as those that broke up (even when we controlled for differences in trust, commitment, etc.)
Hand written letters (not email) have an important psychological impact that fosters intimacy.

Understand the pitfalls of talking on the telephone. Unfortunately, research shows that talking on the telephone has a number of important drawbacks. Arguments are more difficult to resolve, opinions are difficult to predict, couples feel misunderstood and attacked, and they may judge their partner as less sincere and intelligent then when talking face-to-face. Couples have to learn to pick up on subtle problems that occur while on the telephone and learn how to discriminate between problems that result from simply using the telephone and those that are more serious.

Use reminders of your partner frequently. There are many ways to keep your partner near psychologically, when they can’t be near physically. Photographs are the most obvious, but you can also now buy talking photographs in which your partner leaves a digitally recorded message that can be replayed with the touch of a button. Cards or letters with a favorite scent can help by tapping into a third sense along with site and sound.

Some things must be said. Couples in LDRs often don’t discuss certain topics that are critical to relationships. Faced with limited time together, couples often don’t want to “spoil” a weekend by bringing up issues. This leads to a tendency to postpone (often indefinitely) discussing important topics. Couples in LDRs can come to idealize their partner (downplaying the negative side) which works well until the couple re-unite. Then disillusionment can set in. To combat this effect we recommend that couples formalize a time to talk about the relationship and address problems that might otherwise fester. One specific topic that is often not addressed involves “ground rules” about interacting with other people that might be considered a threat to the relationship. For example, is it okay to go out with someone for dinner? Is it okay to go to a movie together? Some dating couples even allow for dating other people. In our study we found that about 30% of couples who discussed ground rules broke up, regardless of whether they decided to date others or not. But 70% of couples who did not discuss this topic broke up. Finally, we remind couples in LDRs to generously applaud the contributions of their partners. Men in LDRs in particular feel that their partners did not acknowledge their contributions.

Don’t Isolate Yourself! Research has found that those in LDRs very frequently cut themselves off from others. They use work as a distraction from the loneliness. They feel awkward when they’re out in public. Their ambiguous status – physically single but not romantically available – can be uncomfortable in certain social situations. Sometimes people feel lonelier when they’re out in public seeing other couples having fun. Frequently those in LDRs must focus on work while they’re apart in order to have time to spend with their partner when together. All of these contribute to a tendency to simply turn inward when separated. Yet, we know that the degree of social support from friends and family predicts both the emotional difficulty someone will have while separated and the likelihood that the relationship will stay together. Because of this we encourage those in LDRs to make an effort to spend time with friends and to get out and socialize. We also have found that having a confidant is very important. A confidant is a friend (other than the romantic partner) with whom concerns about the relationship and other important topics can be safely discussed.

Expect Disappointment. Couples in LDRs sometimes measure the success of their relationship by the perceived quality of the most recent time spent together. If the weekend went great then the relationship is doing well. If the weekend was a disappointment then the relationship is in trouble. All relationships have their ups and downs and geographically close relationships can absorb these ups and downs more easily by simply spending more time together. Separated couples sometimes languish in despair or anxiety in between a “down” time. Simply realizing that there will be some disappointing times together – and that this is normal – will help with those less than glorious weekends.

Do you think distance increases certain problems, such as jealousy, misunderstandings etc?

Yes, some problems may be made worse by distance. For example, even though we know that couples in LDRs do not cheat on one another any more than geographically close couples, we also know that those in LDRs worry more about cheating. Because they cannot visually enjoy the company of their partner in the same way as a geographically close couple can, they sometimes create a fantasy world in which their partner is cheating. This fantasy often would be dispelled in a geographically close relationship as couples enjoy company of one another unconsciously or consciously. In an LDR this monitoring is far more difficulty and these fantasies can get out of hand.

Also, as I discussed earlier, the use of the telephone can increase misunderstandings because of the lack of visual cues. A vast amount of information is conveyed by the facial expression or hand gestures or body position. This is all lost over the telephone and a simple comment can be greatly misunderstood. Also, as we’ve talked about above, some couples in LDRs are reluctant to discuss certain topics for fear of “rocking the boat” or “spoiling” time together. Thus when a topic is misunderstood they sometimes will not address this misunderstanding and it can escalate into something much greater than it originally had been.

I understand you have researched the topic widely. Could you share some of the highlights of the results you have found?

Our research, conducted at Purdue University in Indiana, looked at 200 couples in LDRs and 200 couples in geographically close relationships and examined hundreds of different aspects of the relationships. We also followed couples in LDRs over time to see what contributes to break ups among LDRs. We looked at people in LDRs to see how they coped with separation and to see what psychological effects separation had on them. We also attempted to estimate the number of couples in LDRs in the U.S..

I’ve also studied the literature on separated couples over the last 10 years and I believe we have the largest collection of research on separated couples in existence. A couple of additional research highlights not discussed above include:
Most people in LDRs experience some mild depression. This does not seem to improve with time or experience and is probably a type of “reflex” reaction to separation. The degree of depression is not enough to cause any significant difficulties (such as happens with major depression). Thus symptoms of major depression should not be attributed solely to the separation and reunion is unlikely to effectively treat this depression. Individuals must learn how to address this mild depression rather than wait and hope it will go away with time.

The emotional response to separation is relatively constant and predictable – protest, despair/depression, detachment. Protest can range from a mild, playful, “please stay” to significant anger. Despair and depression are ubiquitous, though mild, and this probably helps to prevent people from staying in the “protest” phase, which would be generally fruitless and very psychologically tiring. The “detachment” phase occurs as people move into the “apart” compartment that I talked about earlier. This is usually a healthy move but sometimes people become too detached and are unable to reconnect appropriately when they’re together. When working with couples in LDRs I usually try to assess each of these three phases to see if there are difficulties in one or more and then address each in turn.

Thanks for reading the ultra-long post, friends. Obviously, this is a topic that is very important to me and I appreciate your attention and time related to the matter. I find LDRs very difficult, and although I love Prince Charming with all my heart and all that I have, I do struggle with the LDR.

I dream of a day that he will be a part of my everyday life, physically and not just over the phone. I know that he throughouly enjoys his work, yet I wonder if he will always be excited over the notion of traveling each week. He was recently enlightened on a possible future project that would take him somewhere exotic and far-far-away. Although I am excited for him, is it wrong of me to be sad? To not want him to go? I want him here with me, is that selfish? We've been apart like this for the entire duration of our relationship, will I ever get used to it?

I know our relationship is worth it, that is not a question in my mind... but sometimes I still need help and advice regarding how to cope with being apart from someone you love so much, for the majority of the time.

Once, a while ago, I was offered a job in another US city... on the opposite side of the country. The guy I was dating at the time was supportive of my making my own decision, but was quite clear that our relationship would probably not last because he didn't 'do' long distance relationships. This statement caused us to fight, but I stayed. Food for thought.


tiffany said...

(long comment for the long distance relationship)
Perhaps I am a little confused. You are moving in together into his apartment in Chicago, but he travels so much it is like an LDR?

Please correct me if I am wrong.

In regards to the LDR, my husband and I felt similarly when we were dating. He would go out of town a lot for his directing gigs (months at a time) and go out of town for pleasure (weeks at a time) and go out of town for his job (days at a time).

It was very hard. We didn't set a date yet for our wedding after we were engaged and he was working in NYC December-March, and he was expecting we would be married by July--with nothing planned. Many fights. Talks. And much contemplation on my part thinking, "My husband will be away months at a time when he's directing professionally and this is his goal." What about kids? Our marriage?

Needless to say, based on my posts on JailDiet, I really enjoy my time alone now. But, it's taken about 6 years of getting used to. It still frustrates me when he plans to go out of town months at a time and it still angers me when we don't get to have dinner with each other for weeks at a time--and we live together. The old kiss in the morning and he wakes me up at night when he gets home is still hard. Our theater careers have us working until the wee hours of the night.

My guess is that moving in together will bring up some of these harsh and selfish feelings on both your parts. And the best thing to do is be honest no matter how selfish you sound. And sitting on these feelings and living through them when you can't escape to your own apartment is a good thing. You're making the right step by moving in. I predict good things to happen.

It just takes time.

Michele said...

Tiffany - your words enlighten me, and I am forever grateful for the 'advice' you always are so willing to offer. (Also, to clarify: Price Charming DOES travel Monday thru Friday for work, yes.) PS. I think it will work out too, it is just very frustrating to me that I sometimes feel like I'm missing out on many things that happen in his life, and vice versa. Aydame! Just a rough patch, just a rough patch...