For years, the common wisdom has been that long-distance relationships are painful and unlikely to succeed.
But a growing body of research shows that not only do long-distance partners suffer no decrease in relationship quality and satisfaction, some may actually experience improvements[1-4].
Many people in long-distance relationships report heightened love and intimacy, better conversations, and fewer arguments compared to those in close proximity[3,4].
While you may not personally be in a long-distance relationship at the moment, research shows that such arrangements are increasingly common.
According to one study, 3 out of 4 engaged couples have, at some point, been long-distance with each other. A rise in grad school attendance and dual-career couples is responsible for the increasing prevalence of long-distance relationships[5,6].
If you’re faced with the prospect of a long-distance relationship, should you consider it? If you’re in one right now, how can you make it work?
A large study found that there are four major factors that predict positive outcomes in these relationships: greater distance, a positive attitude, low levels of psychological distress, and certainty of reunion.
“…it’s not distance that’s the problem, but how you handle it.”
?Rachel Cohn & David Levithan
Counterintuitively, greater geographic distance between partners is linked to better verbal and sexual communication, greater feelings of intimacy, and higher relationship satisfaction.
While the research has not pinned down the reasons for this trend, one explanation stands out: Couples who are further apart may be forced to develop better strategies for maintaining their relationship.
For example, many long-distance couples use extended video chat sessions as a way of staying present in each other’s lives.
These chats work best when they’re not formal, sit-down sessions, but instead take place amidst partners’ daily activities. This might mean keeping the video running in the background while cleaning, reading, cooking, eating, working, watching TV, or falling asleep. This kind of video-chatting makes couples feel that they are hanging out together.
Additionally, extended video chats may decrease what researchers call idealization, the disregard of negative traits in a partner[1,4,6].
At first blush, this may seem like a bad thing. But research shows that the idealization that tends to occur in long-distance relationships may lead to an increase in break-up rates upon reunion—a whopping 1 in 3 couples break up within 3 months of returning to live in the same city.
Reducing idealization might be key to the long-term success of a relationship, by making the transition from long-distance to close quarters more seamless.
“Distance means so little when someone means so much.”
People who believe that long-distance relationships generally last and are satisfying tend to have more satisfying, higher-quality, long-distance relationships.
It seems that having a positive attitude about long-distance creates a self-fulfilling prophecy, where partners are more optimistic and therefore better able to interact positively—which leads to greater relationship satisfaction and validates the initial optimism.
3. Psychological Distress
“…whenever I start feeling sad, because I miss you, I remind myself how lucky I am to have someone so special to miss.”
If one or both individuals have high levels of depression or anxiety, this decreases the likelihood of positive relationship outcomes.
If you’re wondering if this applies to you, consider how often in the past month you’ve felt worthless, tired for no reason, so nervous that nothing could calm you down, or so sad that nothing could cheer you up.
The causal direction here is unclear. It could be that being anxious and depressed leads to relationship problems. Or, it could be that relationship problems lead to anxiety and depression.
In either case, if you or your partner are experiencing anxiety or depression, now may not be the right time to try long-distance.
“Missing someone gets easier every day because even though you are one day further from the last time you saw them, you are one day closer to the next time you will.”
Knowing when you and your partner will live in the same place again, and being satisfied with that plan, is a major contributor to long-distance relationship quality[1,14].
In many situations, knowing when you’ll be permanently reunited may be tough. It’s important to plan ahead as much as possible, and have open conversations about your future plans.
“There are no goodbyes for us. Wherever you are, you will always be in my heart.”
If you’re contemplating living apart from your partner, take comfort knowing that it’s possible—and, in some cases, probable—to have a satisfying long-distance relationship.
But be sure to agree on an end date for your separation, keep a positive attitude, and make liberal use of video chat.
And, don’t be troubled by the amount of distance—being half a world away can actually strengthen a relationship.
1. Dargie, E., Blair, K.L., Goldfinger, C., & Pukall, C.F. (2015). Go long! Predictors of positive relationship outcomes in long-distance dating relationships. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 41, 181-202.
2. Du Bois, S.N., Sher, T.G., Grotkowski, K., Aizenman, T., Slesinger, N., & Cohen, M. (2016). Going the distance health in long-distance versus proximal relationships. The Family Journal, 24, 5-14.
3. Jiang, L.C., & Hancock, J.T. (2013). Absence makes the communication grow fonder: Geographic separation, interpersonal media, and intimacy in dating relationships. Journal of Communication, 63, 556-577.
4. Kelmer, G., Rhoades, G.K., Stanley, S., & Markman, H.J. (2013). Relationship quality, commitment, and stability in long?distance relationships. Family Process, 52, 257-270.
5. “Long Distance Relationship Statistics | What are the stats?”. longdistancerelationshipstatistics.com.
6. Neustaedter, C., & Greenberg, S. (2012, May). Intimacy in long-distance relationships over video chat. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 753-762). ACM.
7. Cohn, R., & Levithan, D. (2010). Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares. New York: Knopf Books for Young Readers.
8. Stafford, L., Merolla, A.J., & Castle, J.D. (2006). When long-distance dating partners become geographically close. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 23, 901-919.
9. McNeal, Tom (2014). Far Far Away. New York: Random House Children’s Books.
10. Horn, K., Arnone, A., Nesbitt, K., Desllets, L., Sears, T., Giffin, M., & Brudi, R. (1997). Physical distance and interpersonal characteristics in college students’ romantic relationships. Personal Relationships, 4, 25-34.
11. Biggs, M. (2009). Self-fulfilling prophecies. The Oxford Handbook of Analytical Sociology, 294-314.
12. Ott, Cheryl (2012). Stubborn love: A recommitment to live when giving up seemed so much easier. Bloomington, IN: Westbow Press.
13. Kessler, R.C., Andrews, G., Colpe, et al. (2002). Short screening scales to monitor population prevalences and trends in non-specific psychological distress. Psychological Medicine, 32, 959-956.
14. Maguire, K.C. (2007). “Will it ever end?”: A (re) examination of uncertainty in college student long-distance dating relationships. Communication Quarterly, 55, 415-432.