Our experience with friends and family may tell us otherwise, but long-distance relationships can and do work, according to recent research in the Journal of Communication (Jiang & Hancock, 2013) discussed in the Huffington Post.
Researchers uncovered the “special sauce” that works for these couples:
They engaged with their partner in a more intimate dialogue about their thoughts and feelings, while nurturing positive regard for their partner that marriage researcher John Gottman calls “positive sentiment override.”
The study took note of the ever-increasing number of couples involved in long-distance relationships brought on by the demands of educational pursuits, career development, or emigration. Couples Therapy Inc. regularly works with many international couples that meet this description. Advances in communication technology is a factor helping couples stay passionately engaged and emotionally connected.
The study comprised over 60 couples: some who were already in long-distance relationships, and others who were regularly in close physical proximity.
Long-distance couples in the study were highly trusting and had greater feelings of staying connected on a regular basis with their overseas partners, despite the separation.
Researcher Crystal Jiang explained how a successful long-distance relationship works :
“…our culture emphasizes being together physically, and frequent face-to-face contact for close relationships, but long-distance relationships clearly stand against all these values. People don’t have to be so pessimistic about long-distance romance. The long-distance couples try harder than geographically close couples in communicating affection and intimacy, and their efforts do pay back.”
Critics of the study, however, remind us that separation from a beloved partner is not desirable, but the research shows that resilient couples do adjust their behavior to nurture their intimacy.
Do long-distance relationships work? There has been additional research on long-distance couples. They tend to talk with each other less frequently but, what they do say is more intimate and self-disclosing. Apparently, this intimacy emphasis seeks to compensate for the lack of physical proximity. Online couples therapy is often prized by long-distance international couples to work through issues and to nurture a vibrant intimacy while separated by vast distances.
Ultimately, this research suggests that couples in long-distance relationships can, and often have, similar levels of marital harmony and connection as those who are geographically close to each other. While the key factor is that the relationship must be in overall good shape, it is useful to know that separation by itself, does not have a toxic effect on couples.
Interestingly enough, some research shows that long-distance couples may actually be happier with the quality of their conversation than couples who see each other on a regular basis.
How do long-distance relationships work? These couples don’t engage in idle chit chat. They talk about their feelings. They know that they can’t physically touch, so they reach out emotionally. Have a long-distance stress-reducing conversation. Talk about what impacted you today, and how you felt about it.
One of the challenges in a long-distance relationship is that different time zones and skew your understanding of each others schedule. Compare notes beforehand. When is the best time to connect? Do you prefer video conferencing most of the time, or will social media work too? Remember you want a predictable pattern of contact that works for both of you.
In general, research shows that long-distance relationships are more satisfying and less stressful when there’s a plan to be together at some point. You might have a different tolerance for being separated, and these differences may create tension. Talk about those differences in an open and vulnerable way.
Some partners refrain from making friends or having new experiences because they resent their need to be away from their beloved. Don’t make that mistake. Live your life, go places. Have experiences, and share them with your partner.
If you plan to visit one another don’t over plan your stay with too many activities. Time may seem precious, but remember the mere fact that you are both enjoying the novelty of being together will slow down your sense of time.
You will learn a lot about yourself when you are away from your significant other. You will look back and see how deeply attached you were, and how absence made your heart grow fonder.
Given the opportunity to deepen your connection, it may be wise for you to pretend that you are looking back on this time from some point in the future. What did you learn about yourself? Your partner? How did being apart deepen your connection? Reframe the experience as an opportunity for growth, and not just a difficult experience at the present moment.
Are you Connecting or Inspecting?
Let’s face it. The biggest issue with long-distance relationships is the fear of being cheated on. Trust is a Must. Trust never sleeps. It’s ok to have some anxiety but make sure you’re both on the same page. Don’t look for trouble by giving your partner an interrogation. They have a life to live, and they aren’t going to live like a monk just to reassure you. Make sure you give trust and deserve trust in return.
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. in Boston, Massachusetts, three seasons in Cummington (at the foothills of the Berkshires...) and in Miami during joint retreats with his wife, Dr. Kathy McMahon. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.