How to Make Long-Distance Relationships Work

... and why more distance may actually be better than less.

Posted Sep 20, 2016

Milles Studio/Shutterstock
Source: Milles Studio/Shutterstock

Can love thrive—or even just survive—geographical separation? It’s not uncommon for couples to be challenged by long distance. College students deal with this problem all the time (nearly 50 percent of them, by some estimates), as do young professionals, whose work and career goals might require geographic mobility.

Despite the potential hardships, not all couples consider exactly how the transition to long distance will affect their partnership. Couples, for example, might shift from seeing each other all the time to seeing each other once every few months, a change with serious consequences for their daily lives. FaceTime, Skype, and other technology can help, but can’t be counted on to alleviate all aspects of the problems that result from dating long distance.

A recent study of more than 1,000 men and women currently in relationships tried to add clarity to the effect of dating long-distance by comparing the experiences of people in long-distance relationships with those in geographically close relationships (Dargie et al., 2014). At the heart of the investigation was an attempt to identify the specific personal and relationship characteristics that predict healthy and happy relationships.

In other words, the researchers wanted to know what makes a long-distance relationship work. What are the major factors that impact important facets of a relationship like commitment, intimacy, and good communication?

The findings are quite revealing. They suggest that certain objective factors and subjective relationship judgments promote healthier long-distance relationships. These include:

  1. Low psychological distress. People who are less anxious and less depressed tend to report greater intimacy in their long-distance relationships, as well as more commitment, communication, relationship satisfaction, and sexual satisfaction. It could be that relationship problems cause these people to become stressed and unhappy, or it could be that psychological distress adversely affects relationship functioning. 

    Strategy: Do what you can to reduce psychological stress and tension at the individual level; such relief could benefit the relationship.
     
  2. Distance. Not all long-distance couples are the same—some are cross-country, while some are just across a state. Surprisingly, data from this study showed that the more actual distance between individuals in relationships, the more positive their relationship outcomes (intimacy, communication, relationship satisfaction, and sexual satisfaction). 

    Strategy: Engage in frequent visits (which are associated with more sexual satisfaction), but don’t be too focused on how many miles you're separated from your partner. Couples who live very far apart might have a heightened awareness of their long-distance relationship and might be especially compelled to invest a lot of energy into building feelings of connection and intimacy. Those are healthy relationship behaviors.
     
  3. More relationship certainty. How confident are you in your partner and the future of your relationship? The more certainty couples reported about their long-distance relationship, the more intimacy they experienced and the more commitment, communication, relationship satisfaction, and sexual satisfaction they reported. 

    Strategy: Foster a sense of stability in your relationship by discussing and planning its future. When couples see themselves as a team working through a geographical separation with the same goals in mind, they feel more grounded and certain about their relationship.
     
  4. Have a positive attitude about long distance. People who thought long-distance relationships could be satisfying tended to report that theirs had more intimacy, commitment, communication, and relationship satisfaction. 

    Strategy: Talk openly about what it means to be in a long-distance relationship and bring to light any misconceptions (e.g,. that such relationships are less happy, etc.). By challenging false or negative beliefs about long-distance relationships, you might be able to create a unified belief that such relationships can and do succeed. This belief may become a self-fulfilling prophecy, although the data provided allow for an alternative explanation—that people shape their judgments based on their own experiences.

Most people think that long-distance relationships are less satisfying and less likely to last (Dargie et al., 2014), but the data from this study disagree. People in long-distance relationships reported having the same level of relationship satisfaction—and sexual satisfaction—as their geographically-close counterparts. Long distance is not an insurmountable challenge: Many couples weather the difficulty quite well.

Reference

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, 181-202.