Sex Question Friday: How Do You Keep A Long-Distance Relationship Sexy And Strong?

Every Friday on the blog, I answer readers’ questions about sex, love, and relationships. This week, I’m answering two related questions that came in on the topic of long-distance relationships:

“Can long distance relationships actually work?”

“Are there any tips for keeping long distance relationships (that can't touch as often physically) sexy or strong that are supported by any psychology or science?”

Thanks for these great questions! Long-distance relationships certainly pose some unique challenges, but it is very much possible for these relationships to remain as strong as those in which the partners are geographically close. I could actually speak to this from a personal standpoint, given that in the 15 years my partner and I have been together, we’ve done the long-distance thing for 5 of them! But let’s take a look at what the science says instead.

Many people might naturally assume that, due to the lack of physical intimacy, people in long-distance relationships would be less satisfied and more likely to break up than people who are geographically closer to their partners. However, research finds that this isn’t the case. Most studies I’ve seen report no difference in relationship satisfaction based on the distance between couple members, and some studies have actually found that the greater the distance between couple members, the more satisfied they are with their relationship [1]. Furthermore, couples in long-distance relationships aren’t at a greater risk of breaking up either [2].

Why is that? Some psychologists might suggest that cognitive dissonance plays a role here. In other words, people in long-distance relationships put forth a lot of effort to keep things going despite being rewarded with physical intimacy on a very infrequent basis, so perhaps they psychologically justify this inconsistency by appraising their partner or relationship is very positive terms (e.g., “I’m putting a lot of work into a relationship with a person I almost never see, so I probably wouldn’t do this unless my partner was truly amazing!”).

In contrast, others might argue that there’s a selection effect at play here, such that only those who have relatively strong relationships to begin with are even willing to consider going long-distance. Of course, other explanations are certainly possible, but what’s clear from the research is that being far apart from your partner doesn’t necessarily mean that your relationship quality has to be any lower.

So if you’re in a long-distance relationship, what can you do to keep it going strong? The best research-based advice I can offer is to communicate—and to communicate frequently. Every couple differs in their preferred mode of communication—some make old fashioned telephone calls, while others text, e-mail, and/or video chat. One of these is not necessarily better than the other, and most people mix it up depending upon where they are and what they have access to, but also in the interest of being spontaneous and creative. The key is finding a reliable way to communicate, because communication is linked to an array of benefits in long-distance relationships, including less loneliness and greater feelings of closeness [3], not to mention lower levels of jealousy [4].

Another thing that may help to keep a long-distance relationship strong is making future plans with your partner. Future plans not only give you something to look forward to, but they are also a type of relationship investment, and research shows that investments help to promote commitment [5].

As for keeping long-distance relationships “sexy,” many long-distance couples opt for some form of cybersex [6]. This is not to say that cybersex is for everyone, though; indeed, some people avoid cybersex because they find it awkward, while others have privacy concerns about who might see any photos or videos they share [6]. For those who are interested in cybersex, there are now computerized sex toys available that you can control remotely, which presents a novel (albeit expensive) new sexual option that you might consider.

In short, long-distance relationships can certainly work. In fact, the quality of these relationships tends to be just as high, if not higher, than those in which the partners are geographically close. However, coping with the distance requires that you have excellent communication skills and that you and your partner identify reliable and mutually satisfying forms of communication.

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[1] Dargie, E., Blair, K. L., Goldfinger, C., & Pukall, C. F. (in press). Go long! Predictors of positive relationship outcomes in long-distance dating relationships. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy,

[2] Kelmer, G., Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S., & Markman, H. J. (2013). Relationship quality, commitment, and stability in longdistance relationships. Family Process, 52(2), 257-270.

[3] Aguila, A.P.N. (2009). Living long distance relationships through computer-mediated communication. Social Science Diliman, 5(1-2), 83-106.

[4] Dainton, M., & Aylor, B. (2002). Patterns of communication channel use in the maintenance of long distance relationships. Communication Research Reports, 19, 118-129.

[5] Goodfriend, W., & Agnew, C. R. (2008). Sunken costs and desired plans: Examining different types of investments in close relationships. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

[6] Greenberg, S., & Neustaedter, C. (2013). Shared living, experiences, and intimacy over video chat in long distance relationships. In Connecting Families (pp. 37-53). London: Springer.

Image Credit: 123RF.com

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