Here’s how to improve your chances for fulfillment.
Posted Jun 11, 2018 by Andrea Bonior Ph.D.
In this age of Skyping and texting, it seems that maintaining a long-distance relationship would be easier than ever before. Gone are the days of paying such sky-high rates for long-distance calls that they need to be rationed like precious jewels. No longer must someone in a long-distance relationship pin all their hopes on their 3 p.m. mail delivery, awaiting a letter whose news is at best four days old. Why, we’re no longer even in the days of having to wait for your loved one to settle in with their computer to check email: Instant responses are all but demanded now (perhaps a plus and a minus!). But ask anyone who’s in a long-distance relationship: Technology can’t make up for everything. The lack of regular physical proximity still seems to make many long-distance relationships as emotionally tough as ever.
And yet, many of us are trying them. One survey found that 24 percent of respondents had used email/or the Internet to maintain a long-distance relationship (were there any long-distance daters who didn’t?). And the good news is, studies have found that, at worst, long-distance relationship quality does not differ significantly from geographically close relationships, and in some cases, it might even be better.
Will yours survive? What makes the difference? Thankfully, there are specific considerations that will improve your chances of healthy, lasting love. Here’s what to keep in mind.
1. Prioritize your schedules well.
Different work or school schedules, sleep preferences, and time zones can all wreak havoc on even the most well-intentioned couples when it comes to making time for communicating with each other. Often, a couple can settle into a pattern through inertia, even when it turns out that pattern doesn’t work particularly well for one or both. When are you at your best? When can you devote private, unrushed time to the conversation? How do you feel about spontaneous texts? Who has a more flexible schedule? What feels like your most intimate part of the day — or the time when you crave connection the most? Who should initiate the contact? Do you prefer a set time no matter what, or should it vary by the day? There’s no limit to the types of communication arrangements that can work, as long as they feel mutually satisfying. Be mindful about how you choose a rhythm that works for you so that resentment and frustration don’t build after falling into a pattern that doesn’t feel convenient or supportive.
2. Make sure your goals — and potential endgames — are in the same ballpark.
In general, research shows that long-distance relationships are more satisfying and less stressful when they are understood to be temporary. This makes intuitive sense, as it is easier to keep your eye on the proverbial prize and work together to get through the hardship of being apart, rather than being hopeless and feeling like it will never end. But what happens when one person is more okay with the status quo than the other, or one person is more motivated to find a way to be physically together than the other one is? If one partner views the separation as a temporary hurdle that will end in a major commitment — engagement or moving in together for good, for instance — while the other partner views the distance as a simple necessity that may have to be sustained for the long term, there is bound to be friction. Talk continually about the expectations of exactly what the outcome of your separation will be, and when.
3. Don’t rely solely on technology.
Many long-distance couples may thank their lucky stars for Facetime, video-conferencing, texting, and all the other technological advances that have made it so much easier to stay in real-time contact with their loved one. But let’s not forget the power of having something physical that reminds you of your partner. Keeping a piece of clothing around that still smells like your partner, having a special token that serves as a symbol of your commitment, or displaying a gift from them prominently in your bedroom can serve as proximal reminders of their presence. And don’t underestimate the joy of receiving something tangible from them: a funny postcard, an unexpected gift, or a delivery of your favorite candy — care packages are not just for parents of college students.
4. Focus on quality communication.
Interestingly enough, some research shows that long-distance couples may actually be more satisfied with their communication than geographically close couples are. This may be because they realize how precious their communication opportunities are, and they generally don’t have to waste words on day-to-day logistics (“Why didn’t you take the trash out?” or “But I want Chinese food — we just did Mexican last week”). Use this to your advantage. If you are in a long-distance relationship, you lack the ability to have a high quantity of communication compared to couples that are together in close proximity, but you do have the potential to even exceed them when it comes to quality. If you have daily bedtime conversations, for instance, give a little thought beforehand to the most important parts of your day to talk about. Realize that since you may not have the benefit of facial expression or physical touch, you’ll sometimes need to be a little more deliberate in the words you use. Understand the deficits of a phone call — or even a Skype session — and plan accordingly to make sure you say the things you mean to say. That can help you make sure that the most important, intimacy-building conversations are still being had, no matter how many states (or countries!) separate you.
5. Let the “boring” details become connection.
Bear in mind that a focus on quality communication need not mean you are leaving out the smaller details of your day. It is easy to grow apart if you have no clue what the daily rhythm of your partner’s life is like: Who do they talk to on their lunch hour? What podcasts are they into now? What have they been trying out for dinner? How have they been redecorating their room? Who’s been driving them crazy at work? Don’t make the mistake of thinking that the “boring” details of your day should be a mystery to your partner. Of course, no one wants to listen to nothing but a list of minutiae, but the key is staying in each other’s lives enough that you have a feel for the cast of characters and contexts that make up daily living for them: This helps keep you close, even when the miles do not.
6. Don’t over-plan your time in person.
One significant way that long-distance relationships feel markedly different than geographically close ones is that when you are actually together in person, it often feels there is no time to waste. But this can be a double-edged sword. Yes, it may make you less likely to bicker about who forgot to change the toilet-paper roll, but it also might make you succumb to the urge to pack your time together so full that it stresses out one or both of you. I’ve worked with many people in long-distance relationships who report that they feel quite a lot of pressure to make every in-person moment count; if they only see their partner every two months, for instance, then they understandably want to treat it like a special vacation each and every time. But you mustn’t forget that relationship intimacy is built in small moments as well as big ones: spontaneous movie-watching on the couch as well as playing tourist to the sights of your town or finding the hottest restaurants. Make sure to build some breathing room into the times you spend together. Downtime is not wasted time, but rather the opposite: helping both of you breathe and connect.
7. Don’t put your life on hold.
There is no doubt about it: Long-distance relationships require some sacrifice. But it’s important to be careful not to sacrifice more than is necessary, which can breed resentment and regret over time. This is especially risky when the long-distance part of the relationship is supposed to last only a brief period of time but unexpectedly needs to be extended longer, whether due to military deployment, employment challenges, or unexpected financial setbacks. In these cases, one partner may have delayed or even avoided spending time cultivating friendships, interests, or hobbies in their locale, because they didn’t think it was worth it — and now they are a couple of years in, wishing that they at least had truly been living more fully in the meantime. It’s one thing to look forward to finally being in the same place as your partner; it’s quite another to postpone being truly engaged in your life until then. Make sure that you are trying your best to make the most of the life you have in your own locale, in the here and now. Don’t isolate yourself, spin your wheels at work, or keep yourself from “bothering” to seek out a sense of community or purpose. Live each day fully, whether your partner is absent or not. Added bonus? It will make the time apart go faster.
8. Reframe the situation as a positive — and believe in it.
Given the positives that accompany some long-distance relationships, it may very well make sense to celebrate your situation as something that can bring benefits despite its drawbacks. Furthermore, if you both can remind yourself of the ways that being apart can make you appreciate each other more (research shows that you may be more likely to idealize your partner when you’re in a long-distance relationship), then this can help you feel more positive about what the distance can bring. Cognitive reframing is helpful across all kinds of difficult life situations, as it helps bring hope and can give us a sense of control. Long-distance relationships are no different. Try to segue from a focus on how unlucky it is to not be able to live in the same place to how this challenge can help you grow together even stronger.
9. Know the difference between “checking in” and “checking up on.”
And this brings us to the major sticking point in many long-distance relationships: the fact that you don’t really have a sense of what your partner is up to, day in and day out. Do you worry that you are “out of sight, out of mind”? Or do you believe quite fully that absence makes the heart grow fonder? You can give yourself a break and acknowledge that long-distance relationships may bring slightly higher worries about infidelity than geographically close ones do, and this is totally normal. But don’t let it fuel behavior that veers toward suspicion or hovering. When you want to connect, connect. When you want to hear your partner’s voice, call them. When you want to text a question, text a question. But don’t play games of detective: Your partner will pick up on the intrusive nature of your inquiries, and they will not feel welcome. You’ve chosen the leap of faith required to be in a long-distance relationship, and you simply can’t know for sure what they’re doing all day: The more you can relax into that, the better off you will be.
10. Let yourself trust — and earn that trust yourself.
This brings us to one of the most important factors in making any relationship last: trust. The work to build — and keep — trust goes both ways, with your earning it being every bit as important as having it in your partner. And lest you think this is only about the potential for sexual infidelity, it’s important to remember that there are many ways that breakdowns in trust can erode a relationship, even outside of a romantic affair. Can you count on your partner in ways big and small — are they there for the phone call when they said they’d be or are you frequently shelved when something more “pressing” comes up? Do they stick to the plans you’ve made to fly out to see each other, or do they routinely push back the date, because work got too busy? Do they remember what’s important to you, and listen in ways that make you feel heard and understood, or does each new conversation feel separate, like they weren’t paying attention last time, or like their mind is somewhere else altogether? All of these questions can apply to yourself as well, of course. Are you being the partner that you are worthy of having?