The iHuman Experience

Redefining long distance relationships.

Posted Sep 21, 2014

(The following is a guest post written by my former graduate student, Margery Wang, who is currently completing her pre-doctoral internship at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.)

Romantic relationships play a dominant role in our collective lives. When it comes to family, friends, or a lover, it is the successful establishment of a deeper association and emotional connection with another individual that renders our life meaningful. For many, social connections not only provide us with pleasure and comfort, but they also influence our physical and emotional health in a variety of ways. It has been well documented that people who have satisfying relationships also tend to be happier, to have fewer health problems, and to live longer than those who have fewer social ties (Coleman, 2011). In our modern society obsessed with happiness and ultimate gratification, then, it appears unsurprising that love exists as the single most universally desired human emotion by people of all ages, race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. As such, love may indeed be answerable as the most wonderful of all things in life, but even the most wonderful blessings can have a downside.

In modern society, popular culture is often suffused with countless images of the dreaminess and preoccupation of individuals in love. Human nature dictates that a great source of comfort and happiness lies in the existence of an intimate connection with a significant other. Intimate connections are deepened through shared emotions, vulnerabilities and the working through of problems. For long-distance romantic relationships, then, this poses difficulties as it is impossible to replicate the exact intimate connection through virtual means. It is certainly safe to say that all relationships require a kind of distance between two people; an absence that inflames the soul, creates space for personal growth, and allows room for excitement. Still, under what exact circumstances does absence make the heart grow fonder? And in what way does absence instead make the heart wander?  My doctoral dissertation, The iHuman Experience: Redefining What It Means To Be Connected At A Distance, begins to rectify this disparity.

This study examined the accounts of eight individuals, ages ranging from 22-29, who experienced at least one failed long-distance romantic relationship (LDRR). The goal was to explore the meanings that they attached to their relationship experiences and to the ways in which they attempted to stay close to their partners when geographically separated. The main question guiding the study was why individuals felt unable to stay close to their partners and maintain a satisfactory relationship from a geographic distance. The role of commitment, interdependence, self-preservation, communication, socio-environmental factors, and psychological variables in LDRRs were explored in order to understand the nature of the intimate bond that the couple shared.

Based on the analysis of semantically rich data, participants reported managing constraints as an individual and as a unit through mediated channels such as email, telephone, Skype, texting, and instant messaging. Overall, the results support the notion that digital mediums feel mechanical, do not impart the same emotional connection as face-to-face communication, and at times, may even hinder a relationship beyond repair. Without being able to have face-to-face conversations on a regular basis, miscommunication and arguments between couples had the tendency to remain unresolved for long periods of time. Due to the impersonal and ubiquitous nature of mediated communication, many participants explained that not only were digital mediums responsible for creating ruptures in the relationship, but that they were also ineffective in the resolution of said conflicts. Participants reported feeling disconnected and removed from the interactions, and claimed that digital mediums made communicating more difficult because of the lack of social cues involved. The lack of sincere and profound conversations, mundane undertones, high distractibility, and even awkward silences were viewed by participants as highly responsible for the erosion of relationship quality and love attitudes within the relationship. All participants explained that feelings of hopelessness manifested in such occurrences, and that risks of affairs increased as both physical and emotional needs went unmet.

For many of the participants, the degree of unequal responsibility repeatedly activated intense feelings of resentment, anger, hopelessness, and even shame in response to perceived rejection. A common issue within the narratives was an idea of moral obligation to talk with one’s partner at the expense of going out and having fun with friends. Due to the ease of digital communication and the necessity for maintaining daily communication, there is a need for conversations to be daily, regular, and with purpose. In situations where the perceived difference in effort to initiate contact and ignite passion were high, participants were prone to act out on the temptation to receive affection from proximally close potentials in order to fulfill the needs that were otherwise unmet from a distant partner. 

According to many of the participants, the absence of physicality was not only frustrating, but it also meant that they could not physically comfort or support one another in the way that one would like to, or in the way that one would be expected to in a partnership. As a result, it was common for individuals to struggle with feelings of not being there for one another, and feeling even more disconnected as a consequence. In general, people like to feel needed, to feel wanted, and to have someone around when they are in need of physical and/or emotional support (Goff, Goddard & Jackson, 2007). When the ability to comfort one another is impossible, partners tend to struggle with feelings of loneliness and helplessness, making an already hopeless situation appear even more futile. In situations where words do not hold the same value, touch appears to be an even better substitute to impart an emotional tenderness that would otherwise be lost. In this way, the function of touch is multifold in its necessity to sustain a relationship. It signals a communicative factor, it offers a form of intimacy that words cannot express, and it serves a psychological function in the progression of a growing relationship. Many participants admitted that as a result of tactile deprivation, they found it difficult to remain faithful and that their acting out of attaining closeness and intimacy from others led to the eventual demise of the relationship.

Furthermore, the impact of over-reliance on idealization is unanimously documented at the root of relationship demise. Idealizing a partner from a distance manifests as experiencing the other on their best behavior. It focuses on only the positive traits of the other by monopolizing on the positives at the expense of faults, and it involves discounting personality quirks, annoying habits, and other oddities that are not as clear at a distance (Lee & Pistole, 2012). Although the widely accepted notion is that idealized couples tend to be happier, it is important to note that while idealization does indeed present as a protective factor in the psychology of romantic love, the problem with idealization is not fully revealed until a couple is able to end the geographic separation and become proximal. When this happens, the sudden irruption of reality transcends all idealized images of one’s partner and of the relationship and becomes not only overwhelming, but also disappointing and unsettling. For many participants, it was only during moments of reuniting when romanticized notions that were fostered at a distance dissipated and the benefits of idealization were replaced with the imperfect reality of the relationship. In such cases, newfound conflict arose and the immediate dissolution of the relationship typically followed as a result of idealization loss.

The central thread that ran throughout this research was the disconnection experienced by people who were geographically distant. What remains clear is the notion that relating at a distance can be incredibly challenging, as there are more than just miles between partners. When LDRR individuals are tired and continuously tested without receiving clear benefits and rewards, many other factors come into play and it can become increasingly difficult to feel as if the situation is out of their hands. Missing a loved one is common, feeling alone and hopeless is more frequent than not, and needing comfort and support during times of hardship generally leads one to resent the relationship as well as one’s partner. Even with all that said, it would be wholly erroneous to say that all LDRRs are doomed to fail. Most simply, LDRRS are hard to maintain and in order to make them work, open communication is a must, trust is key, planning ahead is essential, healthy expectations are integral, and an understanding of what both partners need in order to stay happy and emotionally connected is absolutely necessary. With the right attitude, discipline, patience, support, and commitment to work through the emotional strains of a long-distance relationship, the outcome of “tested love” can prove to be not only worthwhile, but also richly rewarding.

References

Coleman, L. M. (2011). Improving relationship satisfaction – Qualitative insights derived from individuals currently within a couple relationship. The Family Journal: Counseling and Therapy for Couples and Families, 19(4), 369-380.

Lee, J. & Pistole, M. C. (2012). Predictors of satisfaction in geographically close and long-distance relationships. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 59(2), 303-313.

Goff, B. G., Goddard, H. W., Pointer, L., & Jackson, G. B. (2007). Measures of expression of love. Psychological Reports, 101, 357–360.