Nurturing long-distance relationships

Communication is key in nurturing long-distance relationships

Man and woman chatting on skype

Just as business, economics, and politics have changed due to globalisation, personal relationships have changed as well. More couples are separated when one partner moves, perhaps hundreds or thousands of miles away, to pursue opportunities in his or her career or education. The increasing popularity of social networks, which know no borders, also results in people from all around the world meeting online and forming relationships, sometimes not making physical contact for months or years while engaging in emotionally fulfilling relationships.

The current global inter-connectedness helps such relationships flourish, while also making it easier for couples separated by life circumstances to stay in touch. However, it clearly leaves something lacking. How can people maintain their relationships over the miles as well as resist the temptations that remain all too near?

Until recently, long-distance relationships almost always started out like most physically close relationships. Individuals met in person—at work or social functions, through family or friends—before becoming couples. Only later, due to a life-change, did they have to separate from each other for brief periods of time. The times spent apart were transitory and the couples regularly came back together, even if only to be separated again.

But recently, more people are able to meet online, through chat rooms, social networking or dating websites, and carry on a romantic relationship for some time before ever meeting in person. Before the internet, people would occasionally meet and fall in love through written correspondence [as penpals], but forming a relationship while physically separated is much more common now, and has led to an explosion in long-distance relationships, many of which do not culminate in person for months or even years.

Regardless of the origin or nature, the most crucial factor in keeping a long-distance relationship alive and flourishing is communication. While made easier by email, text-messaging, and social networks, communication between partners in long-distance relationships must nonetheless be frequent, meaningful, and open. It must be frequent because partners must compensate for the physical connection they miss. The lack of physical intimacy also implies that communication must be deep and meaningful. Physical contact is an amazingly efficient way to convey feelings for each another, whether through a meaningful look or a special touch. It is often difficult to say the same things verbally—much less with a keyboard!

For relationships that begin online, this issue may only become apparent once the couple has met in person and then part. Once both enjoy physical intimacy, they may find it harder to live without it, and meaningful communication becomes all the more crucial.

It’s important for communication to be open and candid when partners are not physically together. When verbal or written communication is all you have, every word—and every silence—takes on an entirely new meaning. It’s best if couples can talk on the phone or use video calling services as much as possible. In these means, the copious information contained in a person’s vocal intonations and fluctuations is not lost, and facial expressions can be appreciated over video calls. But when most communication is written [through emails or text messages], the main threat to a relationship is vagueness or unexpected breaks in contact.

These failures in effective communication force partners to interpret them in their own way—and that’s where misunderstandings begin. In a regular relationship, such issues might get resolved with a minute or two of face-to-face interaction. However, in long-distance relationships, with less regular communication, misunderstandings can fester and take on lives on their own [especially if one or both partners are inclined toward self-doubt or harbour anxiety about the state of the relationship].

In a long-distance relationship, communication also has to be both spontaneous and planned. Unexpected texts and emails are the lifeblood of any relationship, but when partners don’t see each other for long, these little surprises take on even greater meaning, giving couples the little jolt of romantic adrenaline that they crave during absences.

A significant amount of communication between partners must be planned as well. They need to be able to expect to hear from each other at certain times to retain a sense of normalcy and routine in the relationship. In couples that stay together, routines provide comfort. And doing things to simulate regularity when apart helps maintain the sense of togetherness over the miles. Even a regular “good morning” or lunchtime chat can reassure partners that they are still together in a meaningful way.

clockOnce a routine is established, it is essential to maintain it, or at least let the other person know when an “appointment” will be missed. Unexpected absences may increase anxiety about the relationship—and possibly arouse suspicions of infidelity. Trust takes on a much greater weight in long-distance relationships. In ordinary relationships, one can get reassurance about a partner’s fidelity fairly quickly—perhaps every night when both come home and spend time together. In distant relationships, though, both have to work hard at the trust factor—an occasional text message or email may not be assurance enough, especially since the person could be anywhere—and doing anything—while sending it.

Couples in such relationships must also work harder to deserve that trust by staying faithful to their partners. Temptations abound, more so when your partner is away for long and other attractive people are near all the time. Physical intimacy is not totally removed from emotional intimacy.

So the more meaningful, open and frequent communication couples enjoy, the less tempted they will be to give in to illicit opportunities. The more often partners keep in touch, the more deterred they may be from doing something they won’t want to talk about. Ultimately, fidelity comes down to remembering your obligations to your partner. Remember, distance and time apart make outside options more tempting, but no less wrong.

Long-distance relationships are not for everybody. Those who strongly crave physical contact—holding hands, cuddling on the couch, kissing or making love—will be frustrated by long-distance relationships, despite the partners’ best attempts to maintain emotional intimacy through regular and open communication. Such people will need frequent visits to satisfy their needs [which is perfectly legitimate], and they will be more tempted by opportunities outside the relationship. If such people are going to be separated from their partners for long periods of time, they have to decide if the relationship still satisfies them, especially before they do anything that would hurt their partners. But for people whose needs are oriented more towards emotional closeness with physical intimacy being just the frosting on the cake, long-distance relationships can be very fulfilling—and they open up a whole world of romantic possibilities!

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Mark D White is a professor in the Department of Political Science, Economics, and Philosophy at the College of Staten Island/CUNY, where he teaches courses in economics, philosophy, and law. He has written and edited a number of scholarly and popular books, and blogs.


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