The Ups and Downs of Long Distance Relationships

You never know where or when you’re going to find love. It could be with that cutie you bump elbows with at your local coffee shop or someone you met through an online dating site who lives in the next town over. Or it could be with a man who lives halfway around the world—and then what do you do? You can’t just turn your back on love because of a few hundred miles, can you?

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As the saying goes, absence makes the heart grow fonder. And with long distance relationships, the anticipation of a reunion can be thrilling. It’s no wonder that Tim Loving, Ph.D., an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin and co-editor of “The Science of Relationships,” found that “love,” “idealistic distortion” (the tendency to see a relationship in an overly-positive light) and “intimacy talk” all ranked stronger from people in a long distance relationship.

“If you’re only seeing each other every couple months, it’s like you’re always going on a first date again,” Loving notes. “Who doesn’t love the uncertainty and arousal of the first date?”Loving also points out that long distance relationships can offer an incredibly appealing, best of both worlds kind of work/life balance. During the week, you can focus on your job and friends, while on the weekends, you can focus on your partner.

Jackie*, 37, couldn’t agree more: “I liked the freedom of the long distance relationship and how I always had time for my girlfriends and myself—it was like being single and in a relationship at the same time. And when you saw each other, it was exciting and felt ‘new.’ ”

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Staying Close When You’re Far Apart

But how do you sustain that spark from afar? “If you want to get a long distance relationship working,” relationship expert Rachel Sussman advises, “you do need to have some rules as far as how and when you’re going to communicate with each other.”

Thanks to technology—from texting and emails to video chat—communicating is easier than ever. But you still have to devote a lot of time and energy to reach out and (virtually) touch someone.

Jennifer*, 34, has been calling or Skyping her boyfriend in Ireland every day for a year, while Christy*, 28, felt tethered to her phone, constantly texting her boyfriend for six months. And Ben*, 33, instant messaged his girlfriend everyday for four years until they finally moved to the same city to be together.

As Jackie, a three-time LDR (long distance relationship) veteran, can attest: “Your relationship is only as good as your partner—meaning, it’s wonderful if you’re both putting in that effort. It’s awful if they—or you— are not.”

And the distance can make anyone extra anxious. Without proximity to bring you together, you might wonder about a lot of big questions very early on. Where is this relationship going? Will they ever move to be with me? Am I investing more in this relationship (financially, emotionally) than they are?

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Focus on the Big (and Little) Picture

To avoid this early pitfall, Sussman warns you can’t just go with the flow in a long distance relationship. She recommends being direct and setting up your expectations and boundaries early on. Sussman encourages her clients to not be shy about asking questions like: “Are you looking for a serious relationship? And would you want one with me?”

It might be a touch clingy to ask about these things in a relationship with a local, but if you’re going to make the investment in a long distance relationship, it’s better to put all of your cards out on the table. “Play fewer games,” Sussman advises.While you’re busy chatting about the bigger picture, don’t forget to talk about the small things. Loving encourages people in long distance relationships to talk about where they went that day, who they hung out with, even what they had for lunch.

“It’s all of those little day things that really connect us to people,” Loving notes. “There’s something powerful about knowing that you can spend time with somebody when it’s not always exciting and new and fresh.

That kind of realness is precisely what Ben craved. After four years of living in different countries, Ben found the hardest part was, “I couldn’t share the daily random things with my girlfriend. That really annoyed me.”

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Jackie had a similar concern about missing out on the little things when you’re in a long distance relationship and only see each other on a handful of weekends. “That day-in, day-out time together says so much more about a person than how they are when you’re only with them for 48 hours,” she says. “Anyone can be fun, sexy and interesting for 48 hours.”

It’s funny to think about, but the boring routines of everyday life—grocery shopping or hitting up Bed Bath and Beyond together—can become a bit of a fantasy for those in a long distance relationship. In a proximal relationship, you’re constantly sharing the mundanity of a trip to the grocery store or unwinding on the sofa after a long day at the office. You want to find ways to share that normalcy with your long distance partner to cultivate closeness.

Of course, the best way to keep your bond strong is to visit each other. That’s sounds like a “duh,” but it’s easy to get complacent about spending time together in person when you have such easy access to Skyping and texting. But they’re no replacement for face time. Loving argues, “The Internet hasn’t been around long enough in our evolutionary history to say that we’ve adapted to substituting Skype for skin-to-skin contact.”

The Challenges of Being Apart

Dawn*, 38, started to feel like Skype was a “chore” in the long stretches between visiting her boyfriend of almost two years. She started missing the ability to have physical contact, and the natural lulls in their video chat conversations made her question their compatibility. When they would visit each other, she would get caught up worrying about how little time they had to spend together before it was time to head home again. “I felt like I was missing out on being able to spend time together without thinking that every moment is extra important,” she says. “From the time one of us arrived to see each other, we were already counting down the minutes until we had to separate again.”

As Dawn pointed out, it can be stressful to feel you’re on the clock and your time is running out. Eventually, this emotional rollercoaster with no end in sight caused Dawn and her partner to have an unceremonious break up via text message.

A way to troubleshoot this kind of hiccup is to keep making plans to see each other. Loving notes, “It helps you get through those lonely nights because you know it’s coming—you know there’s something exciting.”

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The common thread of the advice from experienced long distance relationship participants Ben, Jackie and Jennifer? Plan. Date a planner, be a planner, make plans—that’s what keeps you together. “Once it turns into a relationship and you want to keep it together, you have to be more calendar-oriented than a regular couple would,” points out Sussman. “So you’ve got to say, who is going to visit whom and when.”

Although Kim, 42, is certain she’ll see her long-distance boyfriend again, without any plans on the calendar, she feels like she’s just going through a long, drawn out break up. And when they do finally reunite, she admits she worries whether she’ll still feel the same about him.

Loving says that Kim’s concerns are valid. “Anywhere from the three to six month mark, we stop having these strong associations with people,” he says. “So if you don’t see someone somewhat regularly, you’re not going to allow that person to be associated with all of that good stuff that you think about them.”

Certain obstacles—finances, time and perhaps the schlepping—can start to mount and for some, the burden can feel one-sided. But if you want your LDR to last, you can’t let those issues fester. Sussman advises finding a balance to avoid building the kind of resentment that can lead to a break up. She suggests, “If one person is doing all of the traveling, the other person should at least offer to chip in or say, ‘How can I make this worth your while when you’re here?’”

Stick It Out—Or Walk Away?

If you’re both putting in the effort and making time for each other in the short term, there might very well be a long term. And at a certain point—sooner than a local couple would ever start talking about it—you should feel comfortable asking about that touchy four letter word: m-o-v-e.

But if your long distance love seems resistant to coming up with a mutually agreeable strategy for eventually living in the same place, Loving sees this as a big red flag—and time to do some soul searching. “What’s the point?” he asks. “Why are you avoiding a living, breathing partner who could be down the street? What does that say about you?”

Another reason to move on: If you find yourself preoccupied with worry over the state of your long distance relationship and when you’ll hear or see from your partner next, and they’re putting in less and less effort into keeping the relationship going, it’s time to pull the plug.

As Loving points out: “It could be a wonderful person for you, but not a wonderful person who lives 300 miles away.”After all, romantic love is all about closeness.

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