At any one time many, if not most, couples experience forced separation. Approximately one-third of college students are in a long-distance relationship. By definition, the vast majority of military personnel deployed overseas are separated from their partners and families. Dual-career couples or couples in which one or both partners must travel for work also encounter regular separations that can last for anywhere from a few days to months at a time. Despite the adage that “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” living apart can have painful, opposite effects. Researchers have long known that geographical proximity is one of the key factors that keeps close relationships close.
There are some excellent online sites devoted to helping people cope with long-distance relationship and family situations. including the U.S. Military, a New York Times column on working mothers and an ABC story on working parents who travel. I’ll cover some of their tips later, but first, let’s take a look at some of the latest psychological research on the factors that contribute to long-term relationship success
Purdue University researchers Ji-yeon Lee and Carole Pistole compared college students in geographically close and geographically distant relationships to find out which personality factors were most strongly related to satisfaction. They were particularly interested in adult attachment style,
an approach to understanding relationships that focuses on the way people mentally represent the people they love. Attachment style provides a sensible way to look at close relationships. If you’re securely attached, you don’t like, but don’t mind, being separated from your romantic partner. It’s if you’re not securely attached that you become vulnerable to the most negative effects of a long-distance relationship. You need that partner around or you become so anxious and depressed that you can’t adequately carry out your daily responsibilities.
In the Lee and Pistole study, a large sample (536) of college students (61% female) completed an online survey on the two dimensions of attachment: anxiety and avoidance. They answered questions that measured anxiety such as “I need a lot of reassurance that I am loved by my partner” and avoidance with questions that included “I want to get close to my partner, but I keep pulling back.” People who are securely attached would disagree with both of these statements. The insecurely attached include those high on either anxiety, avoidance, or both and therefore would disagree with one or both of these items. The participants also answered questions about how much they can self-disclose to others (“I would not be afraid to share with my partner what I dislike about myself”). With regard to their current relationship, the participants also indicated how satisfied they were (“Do you ever regret your relationship?”). They also answered questions about their tendency to gossip to their partner about their daily interactions with other people such as their appearance, social behavior, and grades. Finally, people were asked to say how much they idealized their partners (“My partner and I understand each other completely”). Idealization may seem like a negative aspect of a relationship but for the purposes this research, it was actually considered a strength. If you idealize your partner, it means you’re more in love and more likely to overlook your partner’s actual flaws.
Obviously, in a correlational study such as this, it’s not possible to conclude that anything caused anything else. However, the authors used sophisticated statistical controls to rule out virtually all the possible confounds that could interfere with the main targets of interest in the study- namely, attachment style and relationship satisfaction in close vs. distant relationships.
In general, people in both long-distance and geographically close relationships with insecure attachment styles disclosed less to their partners, idealized them less, and were less satisfied. However attachment and satisfaction differed for people in close vs. long-distance relationships. People who were anxiously attached in a long-distance relationship were painfully aware of the partner’s absence. In a geographically close relationship, you can be anxiously attached but your partner’s presence will provide you with reassurance. If your partner is not physically close, you won’t have that regular solace. Moreover, without your partner around to provide that comfort, you’ll be more likely to find your partner to come up short and therefore will be more critical and less satisfied. For people who are avoidantly attached, the pain of separation will disrupt their well-honed defenses against getting too close to someone else.
How do these results translate into daily life, if you’re someone in a long-distance relationship? Lee and Pistole suggest that it’s important to recognize that the tactics that work in a geographically close relationship don’t always translate to the long-distance ones. Disclosing too much about your personal foibles can actually hurt the long-distance relationship by leading your partner to idealize you less. You can also actually benefit from gossiping. Again, this may seem counter-intuitive, but if you think about the function of gossip, it makes sense. By talking about the activities of the people in your world, you bring that world more into focus for your long-distance partner. You can also benefit from looking carefully at your own attachment style. Geographic distance will be hard on you if the absence of your partner triggers your insecurities. Because your partner isn’t around to reassure you, it’s possible that you’ll turn these insecurities into criticism of both the partner and your relationships.
To make a long-distance relationship work, then, this research suggests that you:
- Understand your own attachment style. You can actually take a brief online quiz to assess your own attachment style. If you find that you’re in one of the two insecure attachment style categories, you may be at risk for problems when your significant other must travel or live away from you.
- Keep your partner up-to-date on what’s going on around you. The Lee and Pistole study showed the advantage of gossip as a way to bridge the miles between distant partners. By letting your partner know what’s happening in your environment, you create a more vivid image in your partner’s mind of the people and places around you now.
- Focus on the positive. The more satisfied couples err on the side of over-idealization when they think about their partners. It’s not healthy to be completely unrealistic, but putting those rose-colored glasses on the relationship can help you navigate through the disappointments you’ll invariably face due to the forced separation between you.
- Keep the self-criticism to a minimum. Partners who were high on self-disclosure actually had unhappier long-term relationships than those who kept their doubts about themselves in check. Along with the idea that a little idealization isn’t a bad thing in romance, allow your partner to have those same rosy glasses on when thinking about you.
- Make time to stay virtually close to your partner. Long-term relationships place a particular strain on people with insecure attachment styles. Even if you’re securely attached, but especially if you (or your partner) are not, make time for regular check-ins with each other. This doesn’t mean you have to stay in constant Facebook or online chats, but schedule a time each day (or whatever schedule works for you) when you and your partner can simulate, at an emotional level, a geographically close relationship.
There are definitely challenges of living apart for keeping your relationship strong and vibrant. Absence may not make the heart grow fonder, but if you follow these tips, your heart – and your relationship- can survive.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2012
Lee, J., & Pistole, M. (2012). Predictors of satisfaction in geographically close and long-distance relationships. Journal Of Counseling Psychology, 59(2), 303-313. doi:10.1037/a0027563