Research Shows How Couples Who Do Long Distance Are Different From the Rest of Us


When you tell someone you're in a long-distance relationship, it usually prompts a certain reaction: a look of pity, followed by the inevitable "Why?" Why would you subject yourself to the torment and inevitable failure of a long-distance relationship? 

Because that's what the consensus among the public seems to be; that any relationships requiring regular travel, late night phone calls, and a zip code change are doomed to fail. But are they?

Despite reports that almost 75% of college students say they have been in a long-distance relationship (LDR) and 24% of online users with recent dating experience say they've used the Internet to maintain a LDR, there's a notable lack of research on the effects of distance on relationships. Well, except to point out that distance will likely kill a romantic connection in the end.

But research by Cornell University in 2013 paints a startlingly different picture. In examining the communication and interaction between 63 couples in long-distance relationships, the researchers found that not only can couples survive long distances, they can often be healthier than traditional couples, too. And the reasons why are compelling.

When communication is crucial, it becomes more meaningful.

When you see your partner regularly, it's easy to take communication for granted. The physical intimacy can often trump the emotional. As a survivor of an LDR herself, blogger Grace Buchele Mineta wrote, "I realized I could spend months living with someone without having a 'real' conversation." With her now-husband, however, nearly two years of long-distance communication strengthened their bond. 

This may be because, for couples who live apart, communication is paramount to building intimacy. They may not interact as often as those who live in close proximity, yet when they do communicate, it can be more meaningful.

In a 2013 study titled "Absence Makes the Communication Grow Fonder," professors L. Crystal Jiang and Jeffrey T. Hancock found that romantic pairs communicating long distance built stronger bonds. As Dr. Jiang said, "Long-distance couples try harder than geographically close couples in communicating affection and intimacy, and their efforts do pay back." A 2013 Queen's University study of LDR couples also found that "the further apart the couple was, the better they were doing with respect to satisfaction, intimacy and communication."

With tools like Skype, Facetime, WhatsApp and even Snapchat, couples can keep in constant contact. So while some of us are zoned out on Netflix with our partners on the couch, couples who live apart are actually talking.

Missing someone can allow romance to flourish.

Boredom can be the death of any relationship, specifically in the sex and romance department. Wouldn't it be great if every time could feel special? For couples who only see each other sporadically, extraordinary tends to be the norm. This could be due to the fact that LDR couples are more likely to talk about sex. And as Karen Blair, psychologist from the University of Utah, points out, these types of conversations lead to greater intimacy. 

When you're only seeing someone once a month, it makes sense to put in a little extra effort. After all, a lot of LDR couples don't always know when or how often they'll be seeing each other. LDR couples are forced to flirt and court one another on an ongoing basis. 

Kristen P. Mark, director of the Sexual Health Promotion Lab at the University of Kentucky, also points out, "Sure, you miss your partner and ache to see them again, but that ache is exactly what fuels the desire and passion in the relationship. Missing out on the mundane allows for your relationship to flourish on the ups of life."

Not getting caught up in day-to-day problems leaves room to focus on the important stuff.

Almost all couples are guilty of fretting over the small stuff. Day-to-day troubles cause the most problems in relationships, with issues like not listening and not cleaning up being among the most popular instigators. This isn't as much of an issue because LDR couples don't have to deal with the everyday responsibilities that many couples fight about. While falling into an everyday routine with a partner is nice, LDR couples show us it's important to make our time together special as well. 

In fact, what would be considered boring, everyday details can be a source of bonding in LDR couples. Telling each other about the details of the day is not just about passing the time, but rather about letting partners in on aspects of life they wouldn't see otherwise. As therapist Robert Navarra told U.S. News, "Talking about nothing is what sort of cements the relationship in terms of intimacy, so that they can talk about more intimate issues as they need to."

Distance deepens the trust between two people. 

One of the biggest hurdles for any couple is trust. That can be compounded exponentially when you're living in different ZIP codes. When you aren't constantly around each other, there is no way to verify what the other person is doing, who they're with and all the other insecurities that contribute to doubt and mistrust between couples.

But ironically, when you live near your partner, that access to your partner's phone, Facebook or email can decrease trust, as the access can feed doubt and mistrust we may already harbor. How many of us have gone through a partner's private messages or texts when having an episode of self-doubt or full-blown jealousy? 

With LDR couples, that simply isn't an option. You've got to take a leap of faith.

"I had no choice in a long-distance relationship. Even if I wanted to monitor my boyfriend's behavior, I couldn't," Mineta said about dealing with her trust issues. What other option do they have than to believe the other person at their word? Sure enough, the 2013 study on LDRs found that the long-distance relationships involved just as much positive trust as the geographically close ones. 

Being independent can help you become interdependent.

We've all had those friends who, the moment they're in a relationship, cease to exist as an independent entity. They either morph into their partner or disappear altogether. Being in an LDR forces couples to have their own lives. Unless they just decide to hunker down with Skype and takeout food every night, they can't spend all their time with their partner.

Is it lonely? It can be. But many compensate for the loneliness by throwing themselves into other things. In the process, those in an LDR become stronger, more confident individuals, which can foster interdependence in the relationship. Interdependence is when two people can depend wholly on one another, but maintain their individuality. Which, everyone can agree, sounds like the basis for a healthy relationship.

As Barton Goldsmith, psychotherapist and blogger for Psychology Today explains it,

"The healthiest way we can interact with those close to us is by being truly interdependent. This is where two people, both strong individuals, are involved with each other, but without sacrificing themselves or compromising their values."

So instead of watching yet another episode of that show you hate together in an effort to bond, it's better for your relationship to take up that hobby you've been putting off, visiting that friend you haven't seen or just taking some time for yourself.

LDRs come with their own set of problems. Let's face it, not seeing your partner can get really lonely. However, couples toughing it out long distance are not doomed to fail. They might even be able to teach the rest of us a thing or two.