Staying Close: How to Sustain a Long-Distance Relationship

Here is how to maintain matches made in heaven, separated on earth

Posted Mar 09, 2019

In today´s world, many partners live apart.  Not just in different zip codes, but in different cities and time zones, sometimes in different parts of the world.  Job opportunities, educational aspirations, and family responsibilities often separate couples for extended periods of time, relegating their communication to long distance methods of maintaining relational quality and intimacy.  In fact, some couples have always lived apart. The prevalence of online dating offers access to a global pool of potential suitors, which can result in matches made in heaven geographically challenged on earth.  

Maintaining long-distance relationships (LDRs) involves reliance on many of the same principles as maintaining short-distance romance. Ironically, many couples that live in the same city are less able to sustain a healthy relationship than others who live on opposite sides of the globe.  So when you are separated, what is the secret to relational success?

The answer involves the balance of two dueling clichés. Either long-distance partners experience a sense of out of sight out of mind, or absence makes the heart grow fonder. 

In the balance, relational quality depends on how you spend your time both together and apart.  

Relational Maintenance Behaviors

Jennifer M. Belus et al. (2019) studied LDRs and found that relational maintenance behaviors (RMBs) predicted relational satisfaction—either positively or negatively, and relational satisfaction, in turn, mediated the association between RMBs and well-being.[i]

Their study did not focus on military couples or a college population; their participants were adult civilians, with an average age of 31.  Study participants reported almost daily contact with their partners during geographic separation.  For partners reporting contact more frequently than once a day, the vast majority reported average contact of six times daily.  

Regarding communication methods, participants primarily selected options that included a visual image of their partner, such as a video call.  They also opted for methods that were both convenient and quick—like phone and text messaging. Belus et al. note that participant’s video and phone preference is consistent with prior research finding that the ability to see or hear a romantic partner may enhance a sense of connectedness.  

What did the couples talk about while separated?  They reported topics that were of moderate importance, and either neutral or positive in nature, rarely negative in tone.

Timing Matters 

The results by Belus et al. cast doubt on the notion that when it comes to RMBs ability to increase increasing relational satisfaction, the more the better.  In reality, the association between RMBs and relationship satisfaction is apparently more nuanced.  

Belus et al. found that not all RMBs are equally effective in sustaining positive relationships. They found that “intrapersonal RMBs used before, during, and after separation was associated with relationship satisfaction, as were dyadic RMBs during separation. More specifically, intrapersonal RMBs used before separation and during separation and dyadic RMBs during separation were associated with greater relationship satisfaction, where those used after separation were associated with lower relationship satisfaction.”  They give an example of an intrapersonal RMB after a couple has reunited as one partner considering the impact the separation had on his or her relationship.

In discussing their results, they suggest that RMBs used before and during separation may equip partners to engage in the effective use of time apart through an increased amount of thinking and processing of the separation—both before and during.

The Comfort of Consistent Communication

Kaitlyn Goldsmith and E. Sandra Byers (2018) compared positive RMB used in LDRs to those used in geographically close relationships (GCRs).[ii]  Among many other findings, they found that the only RMB long-distance couples used more frequently than their geographically cozy counterparts was what they termed “introspective behaviors,” which they define as electronic and phone contact while separated.  

They also note, however, that many couples are separated during weekends as well as the workday, regardless of geographical distance, making introspective behaviors important in all relationships. They suggest that the significance of separation may account for long distance partners engaging in such communication more consistently. 

Preserving the Partnership

Whether partners are separated by an area code or an ocean, when it comes to maintaining quality relationships, research provides good news. Communication technology paired with a commitment to consistent contact can increase the chances of healthy, quality relationships withstanding the test of time, and distance.

References

[i] Jennifer M. Belus, Kimberly Z. Pentel, Matthew J. Cohen, Melanie S. Fischer, and Donald H. Baucom. "Staying Connected: An Examination of Relationship Maintenance Behaviors in Long-Distance Relationships." Marriage & Family Review 55, no. 1 (2019): 78-98.

[ii] Kaitlyn Goldsmith and E. Sandra Byers. “Maintaining long-distance relationships: comparison to geographically close relationships.” Sexual and Relationship Therapy (2018): 1-24.