Distance Is the New Closeness
Why does geographical distance increase romantic closeness?
Posted January 13, 2014
“Absence makes the heart grow fonder.”
Geographical proximity and frequent face-to-face contacts have long been considered as crucial for promoting romantic relationships. However, a growing body of research indicates otherwise: long-distance relationships often have equal or greater value in maintaining and promoting romantic relationships. Can we say then that (geographical) distance is the new (romantic) closeness? Is living apart together better than living together?
Closeness and romantic relationships
Closeness is a crucial element determining emotional intensity. Because emotions are highly personal, they are usually elicited by those who are close to us. When a person is detached from us, we are unlikely to have any emotional attitude toward her. Distance typically decreases emotional intensity, as it is contrary to the involved and intimate perspective typical of emotions. Love includes the wish to become as close as possible to the person we love.
Geographical proximity has indeed been considered essential to romantic love, one reason being that sexual interaction, which is part of such love, involves behavior such as fondling, caressing, kissing, and making love that necessitate geographical 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 in the case of distant relationships.
Despite the above considerations, there are now increasing numbers of romantic couples who live at a geographical distance from each other. Commuter marriage is one such example. A commuter marriage is a relationship between people who are married and intend to remain so, but nevertheless live apart, usually because of the locations of their jobs, educational demands, and dual-career pursuits. They travel regularly in order to be together, often on weekends but sometimes less frequently. Distant relationships are a growing form of romantic relationship. Thus, more than 3.5 million Americans live apart from their spouses for reasons other than divorce or discord, and their number is increasing. Technologies, such as phone calls, videos, instant messaging, texting, and e-mails, enable direct and immediate communication that sustains a continuous meaningful romantic relationship despite the geographical distance.
It should be noted that the sector of the population that conducts a distant relationship is not genuinely representative of the whole population. Thus, couples in a distant relationship are on average more affluent and more educated. This may affect the universality of the empirical findings concerning distant relationships.
The considerable increase in distant romantic relationships can be (at least partially) explained by referring to the increased value placed on personal flourishing in romantic relationships, as well as in marriage.
The importance of personal flourishing
In his book, Passionate marriage, David Schnarch proposes to distinguish between the other-validated model of intimacy and the self-validated model. The other-validated model leads to the expectation of acceptance, empathy, validation, and reciprocal disclosure from one’s partner. This prevailing model involves profound dependency, in which a significant part of one's identity is based upon the other. As an alternative to the other-validated model, Schnarch proposes the model of self-validated intimacy, which relies on each person maintaining his or her own autonomy and self-worth. In this model, the foundation of long-term marital intimacy is differentiation, which is the ability to maintain one's sense of self while in close contact with the partner.
In line with the above distinction, we may distinguish between other-validated and self-validated models of romantic relationships. In the prevailing model of other-validated relationship, the value of the relationship is measured by the partner's attitude toward you. In this model, the agent's personal flourishing is secondary in assessing the value of the relationship. In the self-validated model, personal flourishing as well as joint flourishing is at the basis of romantic profundity. Joint flourishing is at the center of the attitude of love, as love is concerned with being with the other in certain ways. The personal flourishing of each partner is implied in joint flourishing. Love is not merely, or even mainly, a crush, but rather the wish to flourish together with a flourishing partner for many years. In Aristotle's view, human flourishing is not a temporary state of superficial pleasure; it refers to a long period involving the fulfillment of the natural human capacities.
About two centuries ago when love began to be recognized as an essential element of marriage, the prevailing model of marriage accorded with the other-validated model. As the man was the main, and often the sole, provider, his satisfaction was essential for the continuation of the relationship. A century later, when a greater percentage of women began to work and earn outside the home, the rate of divorce increased by a similar percentage. For those women, the partner's validation was of lesser concern. When the percentage of women going to work continued to increase considerably, the issue of individual flourishing became more significant, and since then the self-validated model has become more widespread.
When personal flourishing is at the center of the romantic relationship and marriage, the geographical closeness to the partner becomes of less importance. Moreover, very close geographical proximity to the partner may in many circumstances impede, rather than nurture, personal flourishing. It certainly does so when love is not profound.
Personal flourishing is indeed more evident in commuter marriages. Thus, commuter couples with dual careers are more satisfied with their work than are dual-career, single-residence couples. Karla Mason Bergen (2006) argues that many commuter wives describe their marriage as "the best of all worlds"; others describe it as "torn between two worlds." It is the best of all worlds as the wives are both independent and interdependent; they take advantage of opportunities for personal fulfillment, while still keeping their marriages intact. They are torn between two worlds, as their life is actually taking place in these two different environments. It should be noted that these commuter wives did not describe their experience as "the worst of all worlds." They framed the commuting arrangement as either positive or unproblematic for their husbands.
The romantic value of distant relationships
“Relationship at a distance can do things for the heart that a closer, day-to-day companionship cannot.” Thomas Moore
Having established that distant relationships can enhance personal flourishing, I turn to examine whether they can also enhance the romantic value of the relationship. I will do so by referring to Sternberg's three basic components of romantic love: intimacy, commitment and passion.
Generally speaking, intimacy is greater in long-distance relationships than in geographically-close relationships. Results of several studies indicate that communication in long-distance dating is more intimate, more positive, and less contentious than in geographically close dating. Long-distance couples report more intimate talk and activities. Openness and positivity—two strategies that may involve intimate self-disclosure—are the most frequently observed strategies in their communication, and these significantly contribute to relationship stability and satisfaction. All these types of behavior ultimately lead to greater intimacy (Jiang & Hancock, 2013).
The higher-levels of intimacy mentioned here refer to an average measure and there are romantic circumstances in which intimacy is higher in geographically close relationships as they have more frequent face-to-face communication. This is particularly true in the case of profound love.
Commitment and trust are important in all romantic relationships, but in long-distance relationships they have greater significance as there are more opportunities for events to occur that could threaten the commitment. Indeed, Laura Stafford (2005) argues that long-distance romantic couples (including both dating and married couples) generally enjoy equal or even higher levels of stability, satisfaction, commitment and trust than in comparable geographically closer couples. Whereas in geographically close relationships co-residence is perceived essential to the romantic relationship, in commuter marriage it is commitment rather than co-residence that is more important. The greater personal space typical of distant relationships does not necessarily involve sexual freedom. Indeed, the romantic commitment in commuter marriage is high and accordingly the percentage of extramarital affairs is similar to that of standard marriages. Divorce rates also appear to be similar.
Laura, a divorcee in her early forties, said that when she and her former husband lived in a commuting marriage, “I felt good about having my own personal space so I did not have extramarital affairs. After eleven years of marriage, when we moved with our three girls to a house of our own and I stayed in the house every day, I felt that my personal space and freedom were being violated by my husband and as if I was in captivity; at that time I began to have affairs.”
There is no clear empirical evidence concerning whether passion, which is expressed in sexual desire, is more or less intense in distant relationships. There are conflicting considerations on this issue. On the one hand, such relationships often provide a kind of change that may stimulate greater sexual intensity within the relationship. On the other hand, the limited time frame in which the sexual activities occur can be a stressful factor, as there is less opportunity for the couple to relax together and take their time. Moreover, if the sex is unsatisfactory, there may not be a chance during that visit to take it easy and try again, and the partners may have to go their separate ways feeling frustrated or disappointed until their next visit. Generally, even if there are moments of greater sexual intensity, the overall satisfaction from sex is unlikely to be higher and it may in fact be lower in comparison to co-residing couples' sexual satisfaction.
There is then a general correlation between personal flourishing and the romantic value of the relationship. This is understandable in light of the central place that intimate romantic relationships have in our life. However, this correlation is not perfect. Sometimes when love is very intense it may hinder the person from concentrating on her work, thereby reducing her overall personal flourishing. Such a phenomenon, which is typical at the beginning of a relationship, does not usually last for a long time. In the long run, profound love increases positive emotions and the energies of the lover, who typically experiences a calm-energy state that is ideal for personal flourishing.
"Absence diminishes mediocre passions and increases great ones, as the wind extinguishes candles and fans fires." François de La Rochefoucauld
Determining the optimal geographical and temporal distance is crucial for personal and joint flourishing. In contrast to the romantic ideal of unity and fused identity, being too close to the beloved may, 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 may harm the relationship; however, a more limited distance may be beneficial.
Personal flourishing is central to profound love, but there are various ways to achieve it. Distant relationships are one such manner, which for many couples suits their lifestyles and helps their relationships. Of course, it is not beneficial for all people in all circumstances. Thus, it may be good for a certain period in one's life, but when people get older and their relationship satisfaction derives more from calmness, rather than excitement, a distant relationship may be of lesser value. There are also other ways to achieve and ensure your personal space that are less expensive and more convenient.
Distant relationships involving profound love are a growing phenomenon that more and more people find useful. It seems then that (geographical) distance might indeed be the new (romantic) closeness, though it does not eliminate the value of other types of romantic closeness.
Bergen, K., M., (2006). Women's narratives about commuter marriage. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
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.
Stafford, L. (2005). Maintaining long-distance and cross-residential relationships. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum.