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Let’s Spend Some Time Apart: Long-Distance Relationships Are Deeper

A study takes a closer look at why absence makes the heart grow fonder

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Don’t feel so bad for couples who live apart. Absence, according to the latest research, does make the heart grow fonder — as long as there’s video-chat, IMing, telephones or texting.

About 3 million spouses in the U.S. live far each away from each other, even though they’d prefer to live together, and the new study, published in the Journal of Communication, found that the separation did not have such a negative effect on their relationships.

The researchers asked 63 heterosexual couples, half of whom lived together, and half whom were in long distance relationships, to keep a diary of one week of interactions with their beloved. The couples were young (mostly college students around age 21) and in love. The ones who lived apart had been separated geographically for an average of 17 months. The researchers, L. Crystal Jiang of City University of Hong Kong and Jeffrey T. Hancock of Cornell University, found, not surprisingly, that far-flung couples interacted fewer times per day. But these interactions were more meaningful.

(MORE: 10 Things Commuter Couples Need to Know)

The couples who were in what was once called “geographically impossible” situations tended to reveal more about themselves in each conversation and to idealize their partner’s response to each piece of self-disclosure. They also spent more time on each interaction. Such disclosures and idealizations, studies suggest, are the building blocks of intimacy. So it’s not surprising that the diaries reflected more satisfaction among the remotely placed partners. “The long-distance couples try harder than geographically close couples in communicating affection and intimacy,” says Jiang, “and their efforts do pay back.”

The couples who saw each other all the time, on the other hand, while recording more conversations, didn’t make such an effort and were more realistic about their partners’ responses. As Jiang and her colleagues wrote, earlier work on the effect of distance on the quality of relationships showed that “long-distance friends focus more on mutual understanding and trust while geographically close friends value practical help and consider ‘being there when needed’ an important feature of close friendship.”

(MORE: How Junior High Friendships Affect Adult Relationships)

Why does distance drive people to have deeper exchanges? The study doesn’t say, but it could be that communicating with somebody without having to worry about decoding their body language made them braver and more forthright. Or it could be that having only limited access to their partners made them want to use the time more meaningfully. Or it could just be that when they had the chance to communicate with their partner, they made it a priority and turned off the TV, looked away from social media or stopped multitasking.

There aren’t that many studies on long-distance relationships, even though 75% of college students claim to have had one at some point. However, as two-career couples become more normative and as the economy compels both halves of a couple to take whatever work they can get, even if it’s not in the same town, it’s an area ripe for more inspection. The recent story of Manti Te’o, who had what seemed to him a genuine long-distance relationship with a girlfriend who turned out to be a fiction, suggests that bonds formed through media can be quite potent. On the other hand, the high rate of divorce among returning war veterans suggests that it’s not simply a matter of setting up a Skype connection while the service members are overseas. Previous studies have looked at how couples cope with problems, such as jealousy and stress, and it’s not a trivial effort.

(MORE: Can Technology Help Fight  Military Suicide?)

One hint from the study for those who find themselves trying to sustain a relationship from afar: avoid e-mail. Couples who lived apart or who lived together both used e-mail about the same amount, which was not much. Among this age group, at least, e-mail was the least romantic form of communication. Score one for modern technology.

20 comments
junemvcmarketing
junemvcmarketing

Cool article, thanks so much for posting! It's very relevant in this day and age as (I believe), long distance relationships have become more common. Thankfully, there are numerous apps to make it easier to manage like social media (Skype, Facebook etc), email (of course) , apps (like Memeoirs and snapfish) and less-expensive travel! It all makes it worthwhile and having been there myself, it's a good time. 

claritin_sk8er
claritin_sk8er

Totally right about the e-mail! My Bf and I tried that and we both agreed that it doesn't work. Actually, LDR doesn't even work for us. We now agree on not committing to LDR when we are separated. We are both young and make things difficult, however, we always end up back together somehow. This chaotic 'LDR' has been going on for two years and we were thinking about quitting. On the otherhand, we realised that we made it halfway through college. Now, we just focus on living in the moment and let fate decide if we will be together by the time we both graduate. I think the only things that keeps us going are trust and working hard in what we are doing. 

skyboy
skyboy

I really agree with you .

meadow8
meadow8

As an unfortunate LDR expert, it depends completely on what you mutually see as the ultimate goal or outcome. If you progress along in a never ending LDR with no real plans for eventually being together, nope, doesn't work (did that for 8 years!). Alternatively, if it's a temporary separation with eventual end, of course it can work. I met my husband when I was in NYC and him Australia. I eventually moved to Australia but we lived apart for 2 years. Now for work, I moved to Hong Kong while he finishes phd. Not forever, but it works for us. And it's true, when we talk, we pay more attention to the conversation.

TJordanMcDaniel
TJordanMcDaniel

personal experience says , this is total bull , and honestly , makes me sick to my stomach .

RosiDelrio
RosiDelrio

LDR relationships don't work.  And these subjects they followed were in their early 20's when people make the most mistakes.  Moral of this study, take it slow and ladies, don't sleep with the guy right away.

jdrch
jdrch

As a veteran of 2 LDRs, I'll say this:

1) LDRs might be more suited for introverts who enjoy solitude than extraverts

2) Disagreements can be tougher to resolve remotely

3) The lack of physical contact in LDRs forces partners to be emotionally intimate in ways that result in them discovering more about each other's personality than they may have otherwise

4) Because distance carries some expectation of communications delay (even though it really doesn't matter nowadays) there's less pressure to respond immediately to something and more time to think things through

jd998bb
jd998bb

nah sayers...its about dispelling the myth that those relationships are unsustainable and ill advised. Not about the sample size and age thereof... BTW...ask just about any of the 4 million vets that have spent collectively YEARS apart from their families about this... Yes, there are failures, but, on the whole, many have stronger more understanding relationships in the end. I too have spent considerable time away from home, in the MidEast among other locations...and I can tell you firsthand, you pay more attention to somebody you only get to talk to once a day...rather than passing each other 30 times a day mumbling in the hall while your distracted....:)

youseless
youseless

@cjh2nd @GeraldBowman@mrbomb13You're quite right, it's a small sample. But not a lot of studies have been done in  this area yet, and how to negotiate the college/career/family combo is a growing issue, so I thought it was worth sharing. Your Mileage May Vary, of course!!

GeraldBowman
GeraldBowman

Since when is doing a survey of 63 college age couples a scientifically valid study? This is about a valid as a "volcano" project by a third grader.

diane_mx
diane_mx

I was in a long distance relationship for 6 years,my boyfriend and I travelled back and forth (Mexico and Canada) and we valued every second we got to spend together. We chatted everyday,  texted and used video-chat as well. We've now been married for 4 years (1 while we were still apart) and I couldn't be more in love. We got to know each other well and we now value the fact that we can live together and are grateful to have each other.

YeleyanahHystck
YeleyanahHystck

I am not sure if I'd agree on this, although I've heard my boyfriend told me once that "absence makes a heart go fonder". I told him I don't believe on that. Both absence and distance make me feel abandoned. It's my opinion, that's how I feel about it.


elena12345
elena12345

The sample is too small and not representative. Therefore, the conclusion is not appropriate. 

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

Been in a serious long-distance relationship for almost a year, and it's definitely been worth all of the effort!

It makes you truly appreciate the (limited) time you can really spend with each other!

QiongYao
QiongYao

中国俗语:小别胜新婚。Chinese old saying:temporary leave is better than new marriage.

cjh2nd
cjh2nd

wow, they asked 63 whole couples, in the age range where you don't (typically) understand what real "love" is and are probably still in, or just out of, college, with no experience in the real world having to worry about money, work, etc.  i'm not really sure i'm going to put too much stock into this

meadow8
meadow8

@RosiDelrio Lol, what does sleeping with someone have to do with LDRs? Not connecting your moral of the story. In fact, LDRs often give you just that, time to get to know each other. 

RosiDelrio
RosiDelrio

@jd998bb the military have horrible relationships.  They get married young because they need a place to come back to after deployment, not because they want to spend the rest of their lives with one person.  They are in a rush to get things started because they may not live very long, and if they do, they come back waaaaaay messed up.


mrbomb13
mrbomb13

@cjh2nd 

You have a valid point there.  The authors should have taken that into account.