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Can Long-Distance Relationships Really Work?

New research offers surprising findings on absence and fondness.

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Absence makes the heart grow fonder, they say. But despite this positive adage, 56.6% of people perceive long-distance relationships (LDRs) to be less happy and satisfying than geographically-close relationships (GCRs)—and less likely to survive over time.

So which is more accurate?

A new study in the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy warns against negatively stereotyping long-distance relationships (Dargie, Blair, Goldfinger, & Pukall, 2015). As it turns out, long-distance relationships may be higher-quality and more stable than many of us may assume—but only if certain conditions are met.

Researchers from Queen’s University examined the relationships of 1,142 20-something individuals (30% were out of college) of different sexual orientations (77% were straight). Surprisingly, they discovered few differences between LDRs and GCRs on a variety of meaningful indices of relationship quality.

Are LDRs worse off? Not according to the people in them. The scholars found no evidence that LDRs are at all different from GCRs in:

  • Intimacy
  • Communication
  • Relationship satisfaction
  • Commitment
  • Sexual communication or satisfaction

If there is no difference between LDRs and GCRs, how do we help people who are struggling in their LDRs? Are there certain factors that help predict more intimacy, better communication, more satisfaction, and stronger commitment?

If some couples in LDRs are making it work much better than others, how do they do it?

New evidence suggests certain features of LDRs are linked to more positive relationship outcomes. In general, the stronger relationships tend to have individuals who are less distressed, hold more positive attitudes about LDRs, feel more relationship certainty, and (while this might be counterintuitive), maintain a greater physical distance apart.

Why would greater distance tend to predict more positive relationship evaluations?

The researchers suggest this could be a form of cognitive dissonance (i.e., justifying staying in such a distant relationship by interpreting it as awesome) or it could reflect a type of idealization that other scholars have observed in LDRs. Consider: If a couple only sees each other on special weekends or visits, they may not need to witness or manage the daily inconveniences or annoyances that could come in a GCRs; instead, they evaluate their relationship based on short periods of time when both individuals are on their best behavior.

The take home?

The current study (Dargie et al, 2015) found no support for the idea that LDRs are different in quality from GCRs. Psychological distress does not help a long-distance relationship, but relationship certainty does, and so too does a generally positive view towards LDRs and their potential to survive. Simply being in a long-distance relationship is no kiss of death for a couple. Perhaps a better predictor of positive outcome lies in our ability to fight the negative stereotypes and support those in their LDRs who want to...go the distance.

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Dargie, E., Blair, K. L., Goldfinger, C., & Pukall, C. F. (2015). Go long! Predictors of positive relationship outcomes in long-distance dating relationships. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 41(2), 181-202.

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