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Long-Distance Relationships, Revisited

The pandemic and technological change prod us to revise our perspectives.

Key points

  • During the pandemic, ways in which we communicate with and otherwise relate to other people changed significantly.
  • Important relationships, from the closest like a lover through the most casual, like a co-worker, have been forced into distant communications.
  • Information that is potentially lost, distorted, or misunderstood when communicating virtually can require adaptation in interpretation.
  • The role we want someone to play in our lives might require re-evaluation but efforts can strengthen the integrity of a close relationship.
Source: Edar/Pixabay

My blog, “Life, Refracted,” began with discussions of committed romantic relationships, loving at mid-life (quite possibly once children are grown), appreciating the potential of long-distance relationships, and navigating their challenges.

With the pandemic, many more relationships were forced into new territory: physical contact became problematic and people sought ways to remain close to those they loved most dearly. They sought to maintain their own homes, work, communities, and personal well-being as best they could. At the same time, they suddenly needed to redefine connections to the outside world.

Technology made virtual contacts with others possible. Jobs migrated online, along with ways to learn, share, teach, and buy anything from toilet cleaner to watch batteries. Our relationships to time shifted as people gave up commuting, battled isolation, and yearned for fresh air and movement. I wrote about “When a Close Relationship Goes Virtual,” detailing some potential benefits and challenges that accompanied the forced situation of relating across distances, broadening the scope of “long-distance relationships” to include relationships other than those between romantic lovers.

Many relationship boundaries have become blurred. During the pandemic, our natural needs for social contact as well as commitments that tied us to contacts with others for purposes of work or other activities redefined who we spoke to in what format and how often. Telephone calls came to feel more intimate than meetings on screens. They became limited to contacts with people whom we could reach in person. Caller ID allowed the recipient to pick up or ignore by choice, introducing a constant ambiguity about whether a caller was being actively ignored or rejected and forcing close relationships farther and farther from spontaneity and thus closer and closer to business appointments.

At the same time, more and more business transactions and logistical arrangements have been taking place online, punctuated by a rare “live chat” when we were desperate for human help and actually managed to access some. “Breakout rooms” became welcome gifts, when we could “meet” new people either randomly selected or because they shared a particular interest or curiosity. Precious in-person contacts with our casual acquaintances or strangers dwindled as we avoided public places, physical connections, and, especially, crowds.

What has happened to our close relationships with children, whether school-aged or grown; with other family members, whether historically close or formal and distant; with friendships, whether communal (family-like, with an emphasis on the “we”), historical (based on shared memories or important developmental milestones), or transactional (an explicit or tacit agreement that participants will “give” and “receive” equally from the relationship)?

Complicating all of this, the world has changed so drastically. In the mid-20th century, studies done by or inspired by Ted Newcomb at Bennington and Leon Festinger at MIT, documented the “Proximity Principal,” the idea that we feel most connected to those with whom we have repeated contact—roommates become best friends, neighborhood friends become spouses, workers we see most often become prized colleagues. These findings have bowed to the pressures of geographic mobility and the aid of electronics, permitting easy connection across time zones, geography, and personal acquaintance. Many intimate relationships begin online and end when material life intrudes. They cannot survive "going live."

At the same time, many people have decided that love relationships are too burdensome, or disposable and easily replaceable, or damaging to one’s personal goals, priorities, pursuits. Birth rates have plummeted as people in developed societies choose not to reproduce. Families of choice often replace families of kinship in living arrangements, celebrations, support. Beyond asking if fear of intimacy is becoming a new normal, we can ask “How are all these relationships managed at a distance?”

With adjustments and compromise.

Source: Geralt/Pixabay

Challenges: What stands to be lost in a relationship that becomes geographically distanced?

  • Physical contact. People need to be in the same physical space to share touch, energy, eye contact (and with it true synchronization), honest information, emotional contagion, and timely feedback that renders the relationship more responsive to the people involved in it than a preschooler in parallel play.
  • Shared context. Relationships that endure separation lose the common context of what Richard Hackman called the “ambient stimuli” in a situation—what people experience (and can be influenced by) simply because they share a common environment. From time of day to weather effects to extraneous sounds that unconsciously influence our moods and behavior, people in distanced relationships are exposed to separate sets of environmental factors. In addition, their experiences might be embedded in separate cultures that influence perceptions, attitudes, beliefs. Outright differences or subtle nuances can impact the way the relationship is managed. As John Bargh has demonstrated (reference below), someone in a warm climate who is drinking iced tea may behave more coolly towards another than a person living in a chilly one, who is sipping hot tea. Separate contexts mean that two people may be embedded in separate networks of other relationships. One may have parental duties or work demands or family expectations that are absent for the other.
  • Mistaken or distorted communications of intent or reactions. We filter what we perceive, and what we perceive is already distorted by the context in which we receive it. The greatest risks from long-distance relating range from assumptions that lead you down a misguided path to misinterpretation, most critically in appreciating the meanings of silences. Without solid communication to question problematic interpretations, assumptions, trust can be eroded. We may suspect betrayal. Worse, opportunities to build or maintain firm foundations in the relationship are lost, we miss making new shared memories, celebrating together, offering needed understanding, providing responsive care and caregiving, and repairing potential misunderstandings in a timely manner.
Source: philm13410/Pixabay

Opportunities. At the same time, long-distance relationships provide us with unique opportunities to improve communication and to strengthen the relationship through our struggles to maintain it.

  • Communication. By using words to help each other interpret body language, we can better identify our own cognitive and emotional reactions and teach someone else to better understand them as we do. By using words in this manner, we come to trust their potential and can improve their use to clarify misunderstandings or resolve conflicts. We can form agreements about how two people will deal with conflict (Is ignoring the other person permitted? What do you need from each other?). Concerns about privacy, self-disclosure, and the sharing of confidential information—or refusal to share it—can be explored.
  • Strength through struggles. Certain challenges are built into long-distance relationships: can you develop strategies to help the other deal with adversity, including painful absences? Can you form new rituals and reinvent traditions, retaining meaning that is relevant? Can practice in managing separations and reunions help you built creativity, trust, and faith in the future? Can the distance help you use times of reflection to clarify expectations of each other and to explore differences in perception, style, goals, dreams, and memories?

Copyright 2021 Roni Beth Tower.


Bargh, John (2018). Before You Know It: The Unconscious Reasons We Do What We Do. Simon and Schuster.