Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: Love in Long-Distance Relationships

A long-distance relationship or LDR is typically an intimate relationship that takes place when the partners are separated by a considerable distance. No one is geographically undesirable anymore but many are geographically challenged with the goal of maintaining love at a distance.

There are 115,000 troops in Iraq with an anticipated 34,000 more to be sent as support to Afghanistan. That leaves a lot of Home Fires burning.

There’s the man I met on a plane who couldn’t retire or sell his house as planned so he spends half the week in Phoenix and half with his wife in Florida.

There are those caught in the cycle of visa regulations; those who need medical treatment far from home and those who stay in different places to accommodate children’s school calendars.

In addition, there are the many couples who have “met” online and for whom long distance is the original context of their relationship.
Whether by choice or necessity, long distance relationships bring stress and possibility. Whether you are geographically at a distance from your partner or you feel like you have a long distance relationship with the partner sitting next to you, it is worth asking: What improves love at a distance? What damages it?

Why Are We Doing This?
The reason that a couple is at a distance will affect their expectations, their responses and the impact on their relationship. Did you choose the situation together? Are you dealing with a situation that life put on your path? Are you in a new long-distance on-line relationship with hidden expectations that one or the other will relocate?

Clarification Together of why you are in a LDR , the logistics, the timeline, the feelings and the expectations, eliminates hidden hurt and resentment and opens up the decision making process. Think of it as an on-going process:

“But if you are semi retired – why are you traveling two weeks a month?”
“But you have already been deployed twice – how can we do this again?”

Feeling helpless in the face of increased distance or changed time-lines partners understandably lose the focus and have to blame someone. Too often, they blame each other. A process that allows them to vent ,as well as to discuss that they are on the road together trying to figure out how to deal with the challenges, is very important.

How Are We Doing this?

Relationship Security is a function of the sense of trust, faith and commitment one has in one’s partner and the relationship. It is what makes love at a distance possible. There are a number of strategies that have been found to enhance relationship security that may facilitate love at a distance ( Stafford & Canary, 1991).

Relationship Maintaining Strategies at a Distance

An invaluable component of a secure relationship is an optimistic attitude toward your partner and the future. This is often re-enforced by and reflected in your resiliency i.e. a realistic acceptance of life’s situation, a belief in self, a belief in your partner, a sense of spirituality, exercise, creativity, problem solving, and a sense of humor.

Validations of commitment and support are crucial when things are difficult and homecoming feels far away. The down-side of a long distance relationship is that the partner is not there. The benefit is often unexpected as new efforts are made by each partner to compensate. Partners often don’t take each other for granted. They send and save the e-mails and voice messages. They store up what they plan to say and look forward to hearing what the other has to say – their communication is often intended to reassure and connect.

Disclosure of feelings, concerns and confidences validates the trust that the other accepts who you are. One aspect of an intimate relationship is the status of the confident. The feeling and reminder that talking to the partner is different than talking to anyone else is relationship affirming whether it is being done on the phone in a letter or email.

Sharing Tasks
Even miles and countries apart, partners can partner. An important consideration is to try to balance partnering on positive plans as well as problem tasks. Planning or even fantasizing together about the next vacation or the short weekend coming up is crucial -it keeps desire and hope in the forefront.

In terms of problem situations, it is crucial to remember some of the ideas in the blog “What is Couple Psychological First Aid?” which stressed the value of listening and containment. The fact that he tells you the kids were sick while you were on the road or she lets you know the horses got out of the corral while you were deployed DOES NOT IMPLY BLAME OR NEED FOR SOLUTIONS – it means he/she is venting and sharing life with you.

Asking if your partner is ok, checking to see if more help is needed, complimenting what he/she did, and wishing you were there goes a long way.

Hint: If the problem was solved – even in a way you would not have done it – accept and appreciate it. Partners at a distance need supporters not supervisors.

Sharing Social Networks
Whether together or at a distance, sharing social networks is a crucial source of mutuality, and mirroring of a couple’s relationship by others. Talking and updating about social connections is a viable way to feel connected at a distance.
Social networks can serve to compensate for support needs when partners are away.

Cameron and Ross (2007) suggest that a gender difference found in sustaining long-term relationships is that married men have a more difficult time because they rely primarily on their wives for social support whereas their wives rely also on family and friends. This difference is likely reversed with military couples where the male in the military has a “band of brothers” to connect with. See blog “A Military Program Offers a Message for Couples.”

Technical advances- emails, cell phones, text messages, face book, Twitter, Skype offer resources and connection for love on the run, love on the phone and many new ways for lovers at a distance to maintain their intimacy.

Part of the power of a back and forth text message is the brevity, insider codes, attribution of meaning and intimate privacy of “for your eyes only.” These technical advances fuel the imagination and erotic desire that we have described as important in claiming and re-claiming sexual desire. See blog “Reclaiming Sexual Intimacy in Your Relationship”.

Disruptions and Dilutions of Long Distance Relationships
Research suggests that one of the factors that leads to termination of long-term relationships is negativity (Cameron, & Ross, 2007).

Negativity here does not refer to sharing and handling problems but rather to pessimism, high anxiety about the relationship and continued conflict. Part of what escalates the decline in the relationship is the reaction to the negativity. Given the nature of long distance relationships where there is no face to face contact or opportunity to use other activities to de-escalate the tension or even physically connect as a way to reduce pessimism or anxiety, relationship security becomes very difficult.

Addictions The advances in communication work against long-distance lovers when their efforts to connect become obsessive and are driven more by panic ,insecurity, and lack of self-esteem than love and connection. When the typical e-mail or text “Miss you” “Love you” “Wish I was there” is not reassuring but cause for more demands of reassurance, it often pushes the partner away. It may warrant consideration of professional help.

As described in the blog “Secrets, Lies and Relationships,” the betrayal of commitment to a partner jeopardizes the possibility of a genuine and secure relationship. When the betrayal is part of a secret life “on the road,” it rarely satisfies anyone for long as it is often underscored by guilt, lack of authenticity, distrust and resentment. If being at a distance means commitment is not possible then that issue needs to be owned and addressed.

Some say that the most difficult part of a long-distance relationship is the homecoming. Some partners, in fact, admit that their relationship works because there is no definite homecoming- they keep separate apartments, he is at sea for months, she is career military. Most partners however long for the homecoming. Notwithstanding the joy and excitement of reconnection, however, adjustment is not easy because homecoming is not an event – it is a process. Here are some homecoming tips:

•You both developed coping styles when separated – be it friends, the gym, music, books – don’t suddenly give them up or ask your partner to give up his/hers. If constructive, these are valuable ways to regulate anxiety and enhance functioning. Tell your partner about them, include your partner in some – go slowly and add the “We” experiences to what you both found helpful.
•Assume the best – Recognize changes as valuable. If your partner now does for himself/herself what you did – celebrate the fact that this separation has enhanced both your coping skills.
•Recognize that love at a distance often supports the best and most idealized version of our partner. It is a valuable thing. Don’t be upset if you can’t hold on to that thrilling image when your partner is at home fighting for the TV remote. It just means we are all human. It doesn’t discount the magic.
•Keep the communication going but be realistic. If you tended not to complain or share negatives while your partner was on the road don’t lay them all out now. If you were sending loving emails and receiving sexy text messages don’t stop completely but adjust your communication to include the component you didn’t have- your partner!

If there is a reason to love at a distance and you work together –you will find a way.

For Further Reading:
Cameron, J. & Ross, M. (2007) In Times of Uncertainty: Predicting the survival of Long-Distance Relationships. The Journal of Social Psychology, 147 (6), 581-606.
Stafford, L.,& Canary,D. (1991) Maintenance Strategies and Romantic Relationship Type, Gender and Relational Characteristics. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships Vol.8., No.2,217-242.