How Do You Make A Long-Distance Relationship Work?

A reader submitted the following question:

"I'm in a long-distance relationship and it's tough. Are there any tips or tricks to help keep a relationship alive when you can't physically be with your partner very often?"

Great question! You're not alone in finding the experience of a long-distance relationship to be difficult. However, while these relationships undeniably pose some unique challenges, it's definitely possible for them to not only work out, but to be just as strong as relationships in which the partners live close to one another.

Although it might be tempting to assume that people in long-distance relationships are necessarily less satisfied and more likely to break up due to a lack of physical intimacy, research finds that this isn’t the case. In fact, most studies I’ve seen on this topic report no difference in relationship satisfaction based on the distance between couple members. Believe it or not, some studies have even found that the greater the distance between partners, the more satisfied they are [1]! Research also indicates that people in long-distance relationships aren’t necessarily more likely to break up either [2]. 

How do we explain this? Perhaps cognitive dissonance plays a role. What I mean by this is that people in long-distance relationships put forth a lot of effort to keep things going despite the fact that they're only rewarded with physical intimacy on a very infrequent basis. So, perhaps they psychologically justify this inconsistency by re-evaluating their partner or relationship is very positive terms, with the thought process being something like this: “I’m putting a lot of work into a relationship with someone I almost never see, so I probably wouldn’t do this unless I had a truly amazing partner!”

Alternatively, perhaps there’s a selection effect at work, such that only those who have relatively strong relationships to begin with are even willing to contemplate a long-distance arrangement. Of course, other explanations are possible; however, the research is clear that living far away from your partner doesn’t necessarily mean that your relationship quality has to be low. 

So if you’re in a long-distance relationship, what can you do to keep it healthy and strong? The best research-based advice I can offer is to communicate early and often. Every couple differs in their preferred mode of communication—phone calls, text (or sext) messages, social media, e-mail, and/or video chat. It doesn't really matter which one(s) you do--the key is finding a reliable way to stay in touch. Communication is linked to an array of benefits in long-distance relationships, including less loneliness and greater feelings of closeness [3], not to mention less jealousy [4]. 

Another thing that may help keep a long-distance relationship going is continuing to make future plans with your partner--you know, like planning what you're going to do the next time you see each other, or where you're going to go on your next vacation. Future plans not only give you something to look forward to, but they are also a type of relationship investment. Research has found that investments (both those you've made in the past and those you plan to make in the future) help to promote relationship commitment and stability [5].

In order to maintain passion in a long-distance relationship, many couples opt for some form of cybersex [6]. Of course, cybersex isn't for everyone; indeed, some people avoid it because they find the experience to be awkward, while others have privacy concerns about who might see the 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 option worth considering.

In short, long-distance relationships can definitely work out, and 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 strong communication skills.

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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 long‐distance relationships. Family Process52(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/ginasanders

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