Long Distance Relationships: Fractured or Fonder Hearts?
Whether it was the imaginary Canadian girlfriend in the 5th grade, the high school sweetheart that went to a different college, or the guy that smiled across the arcade bar and captured my heart despite a small voice in my head screaming that he lived five hours away, the people we allow ourselves to fall in love with aren't always conveniently located.
Long distance relationships have gained a particular reputation and it's fairly polarizing. There are those that will say that all long distance relationships end in both people separating, that the distance and time spent apart work against any couple who dare this impossible task and that those who even try are fooling themselves and wasting their time. I like to think of these people as Relationship Doomsdayers; they're always ready for the end and typically have a bag packed by the front door. And then there's the Unwitting Guilters. In some ways these people are worse than the Doomsdayers. They're the individuals that will say "if you work hard enough then you'll probably stay together", "if it's meant to be, then it'll work out", or my least favorite, "if you love each other enough blah blah blah blah blah" (note: excessive use of "blah" should not be read literally but rather as passive sign of my contempt for these individuals). Guilters will make you feel like they support your relationship but are actually laying down exit strategies for consoling you when things go wrong.
What both of these types of people are saying is that if/when the relationship ends it’s entirely your fault. Why? Because you didn't work hard enough, or because you should have seen it coming, or because your love wasn't strong enough. Doomsdayers and Guilters will look for any reason to tear down a long distance relationship (LDR, as the cool kids say) for the simple fact that they've yet to have a successful LDR themselves.
There is actually a lot of evidence to suggest that LDRs can produce a happy and healthy relationship. According to a study conducted in 2016 across three separate platforms 75% of engaged couples have been/are in long distance relationships. And it's estimated that 3.75 million relationships are considered long distance. An even more shocking statistic? Only 40% of LDRs end in separation whereas 85% of all conventional relationships result in a breakup. While I think it would be negligent to extrapolate a direct causation between successful relationships and distance, the statistics do raise an interesting question: how could distance be a contributing factor to people staying together?
It's my belief that we can break down the benefits of distance into three components: Value, Stimulation, and Challenge.
Value is exactly what it sounds like; regarding someone with significance and intimacy. Part of what Value does when we are separated from our significant other is force us to reflect on the good things rather than the bad. When we miss our lover we become hyper focused on those traits and attributes which brings us joy. Thus, we spend a greater amount of time thinking positively about the person we are in a LDR with and less time bogged down by slights. This leads us to place a significant weight on the time that we are able to spend with our significant other in person.I.e. if I spend time missing my boyfriend and then finally get the opportunity to spend time with him, I'm going to value that time more than if I had the availability to see him every day. This is just another way of saying that individuals perhaps don't take their significant other for granted as easily as someone who has immediate access.
Stimulation encompasses both mental and sexual passions between individuals. While stagnation can be a real issue in any relationship, LDRs offer a special opportunity to engage with your partner in different ways. It fosters creativity in attempts to maintain and build intimacy. Skype dates, television and movie apps which allow viewers to watch the same program in tandem, and relationship-building exercises like those found on JoMyGosh.com all allow from both partners to create intimacy without their partner being physically present.
The second component to Stimulation, the sexual aspect, can be a point of dissension between partners. Sexual frustration, unfaithfulness, and a feeling of a loss of intimacy can stem from partners being unable to cultivate a healthy sexual relationship. But, very much like the Value component, sexual intimacy is regarded much higher when the opportunities to perform are limited by distance. Furthermore, the opportunity to engage in alternative sexual activities such as "sexting", mutual masturbation via video chatting, and "phone sex" can help partners stay sexually intimate and even create conducive atmospheres for sexual exploration.
Challenge is the component that presents the highest risk vs. cost payout because no matter how much weight we put into Value and Stimulation, distance and time away from our significant other is always difficult. That being said a LDR can act as a crucible and let partners forge something stronger from the pressures of their relationship. Part of Challenge has a lot to do with communication. Arguments, misunderstandings, and hurt feelings are all but inevitable when it comes to a LDR. How both partners handle those situations affords the opportunity to generate great communication skills. Also, the simple fact that both partners choose to stay together despite the distance carries a lot of meaning. The act of committing your time, emotional and mental energy, and even finances (traveling is never cheap) to another person not living in the same area is a huge sign of commitment. It tells the other partner that they've willingly chosen to take on the known stressors of a LDR because staying with that person means more to them than the distance of being apart.
There has been a surprising amount of research studies conducted on LDRs and they all seem to say the same thing; that long distance relationships typically have a high success and satisfaction rate. According to Science Daily an “...article found that people in long-distance relationships often have stronger bonds from more constant, and deeper, communication than normal relationships”, which supports the Challenge component.
Ultimately, relationships are hard. And long distance relationships are even harder. But that doesn’t mean that they’re impossible and it even looks like a lot of good can come out of it. So the next time a guy tells you he’s moving to another state to start his medical residency and you feel the small pit of your stomach start to sink, stop and take a minute. This might actually turn out to be one of the best relationships you’ll ever have.