“The closer you are to someone, the more intolerable is the distance between the two of you.” – Tea
Being physically close to your partner is central to romantic love. Indeed, temporal and geographical closeness typically increases emotional closeness, and this often makes distance seem intolerable. Some kind of distance, however, must remain, even between two lovers. What is the nature of such distance, and is it indeed intolerable?
Two types of closeness
We may distinguish between two types of closeness (or distance): physical and psychological. The relation between the two types is complex. Sometimes physical closeness promotes emotional closeness—and at other times a measure of distance can enhance emotional closeness. There are certain things that we are able to perceive better from a distance.
Romantic Ideology promotes closeness in the sense of fusion—the ideal romantic couple remains together "always and forever"—and any violation of physical closeness is often assumed to be "intolerable." This is clearly far too simplistic. The word "intolerable" is defined as something that is impossible to bear or deal with. Accordingly, our main issue is whether romantic love makes it easier or more difficult to endure a temporal or geographical distance from the beloved. Put differently, the issue is whether the romantic heart is patient, calm and ready to wait, or whether it is impatient, excited and impetuous.
The patient and impatient heart
Romantic love often involves impatience, which is an expression of a narrow temporal perspective. Indeed, the romantic heart is typically described as impatient: In the words of Elvis Presley, "It's now or never; tomorrow will be too late." The theme of an impatient heart and disregard for time is expressed in another Presley song: “One night with you, is what I’m now praying for” as such a night “would make my dreams come true.” If one night is sufficient for fulfilling one's intense desires and dreams, then time is destructive to love and waiting is intolerable.
It is hard to be patient when your whole body is on fire. The heart becomes impatient with matters that appear to be superficial and to have merely extrinsic value, as it wants to achieve its goals as fast as possible. In such cases, the heart is less willing to invest resources, including time and effort. In profound love, when you believe that paradise is around the corner, there is no need to rush into anything. Having a patient heart is an expression of profound love; while this heart can become impatient in certain circumstances, such as during sexual arousal, the general mood is that of calm, peaceful elation. For the impatient heart, any distance or delay is intolerable. For the patient heart, distance is part of the meaningful profound togetherness; hence it is able to tolerate some types of distance.
Can partners cope with a temporal distance—that is, can they tolerate waiting? Patience entails the capacity to endure waiting (without becoming annoyed or upset) and to persevere (being able to endure calmly, especially when encountering difficulties or frustration). Passion entails a susceptibility to fervor, being easily excited or agitated, and the propensity to feel emotions intensely. Profound lovers are both patient and impatient, as profound love involves both the excitement of sexual desire and the calmness of profound love.
In contrast to romantic impatience, which diminishes the role of time in love, lovers often speak about their patient heart—their readiness to wait for the beloved “till the end of time." Consider the following description a married woman gave about her feelings while waiting for her married lover. "I always came earlier to our meeting place. Though I was very excited to see him, I felt a kind of calm elation. I had all the patience in the world, as I knew that he would always come, and then I would be in heaven. Sometimes, I even wanted the waiting to last a bit longer, as it felt so good." As profound romantic love takes account of long-term aspects, there is no reason to be impatient while the beloved is absent. When you know that paradise awaits you, you are more likely to feel pleasurable expectation rather than impatience (see here).
Sexual desire is more partial and brief. It does not last continuously and when it is ignited, it demands immediate fulfillment. It is hard to be patient when you are experiencing the flames of sexual desire. As The Platters nicely put it, “When your heart is on fire, you must realize, smoke gets in your eyes.” Since romantic love also involves sexual desire and the longing to be with the beloved, partners may also be impatient and intolerant when the other is not around.
We have seen that lovers can tolerate temporal distance, but can they also tolerate geographical distance? Geographical proximity has been considered essential to romantic love, in part because sexual interaction, which is part of such love, necessitates close proximity. Moreover, in the past, the seeker’s “one and only” was likely to be found not far from where the seeker lived, as this required considerably less resources and effort than distant relationships.
In our cyberspace society, geographical distance has lost some of its adverse aspects. Indeed, there are now increasing numbers of romantic couples that live at a geographical distance from each other. A "commuter marriage," for example, is a relationship between people who are married and intend to remain so, but nevertheless live apart, usually because of job locations, educational demands, or dual-career pursuits. To be together, they travel regularly, typically on weekends but sometimes less frequently. Compared to close-proximity relationships, these distant relationships are characterized by higher levels of relationship quality on several indices, including adjustment, love for the partner, fun with the partner, conversational quality, and improved communication. The commitment level among distant couples is actually similar to that of geographically close couples. Accordingly, distant relationships enjoy a higher rate of survival (Kelmer et al., 2013). Sometimes, living apart is more conducive to profound long-term love than living under the same roof; for a growing number of couples, geographical distance promotes emotional closeness (see here).
Optimizing the distance
I have argued that the view that temporal and geographical distance is intolerable is usually a characteristic of romantic relationships in which passion, and in particular sexual desire, is central. In such relationships the romantic heart tends to be impatient. In profound love the issue is more complex, as in addition to the passion in these relationships, such love also includes calmness and patience, which are a reflection of the trust between the lovers and the high value given to their togetherness.
In profound love, temporal and geographical distance can be tolerated in certain circumstances. Although profound love can bridge the greatest distance, small temporal and geographical differences are meaningful as well. The ability to cope with great distances does not reduce the importance of coping with small ones. Profound love is often described in terms of grand deeds, such as being able to move mountains. Love can indeed induce such deeds, but in everyday life, little things mean a lot.
Profound love involves various physical (and psychological) distances, and although in the moment some of them might be perceived to be intolerable, profound love can bridge them. We can speak here about local (or limited) intolerability, which presents challenges but does not ruin the pillars upon which such love is based. On the contrary, it is often the case that these distances deepen love further, making it more meaningful.
In light of the above considerations, optimizing temporal and geographical distances is crucial for profound love. In contrast to the romantic ideal of unity and fused identity, being too close to a partner can, in some circumstances, decrease love. Some kind of distance, providing a greater personal space and enabling greater personal flourishing, is essential for profound love. Significant physical distance might indeed harm the relationship; however, a more limited distance can be beneficial. Optimizing the types and the extent of various distances in romantic love should take account of various personal and circumstantial factors; the process of doing this can, to some degree, be cultivated and is essential for profound love.
Ben-Ze'ev, A. & Goussinsky, R. (2008). In the name of love: Romantic Ideology and its victims. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kelmer, G., Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2013). Relationship quality, commitment, and stability in long-distance relationships. Family Process, 52, 257-270.