Being apart is not as satisfying as being together. Certainly true, common sense would say. Well, not so fast. New, more recent research suggests that long-distance relationships can be, and often are, at least as emotionally satisfying as geographically close ones.
The new research comes from Purdue University(i), where researchers studied attachment patterns of individuals in the United States and South Africa who for various reasons were in a committed (married or unmarried) long-distance relationship. The conclusions of the study are that, with a few caveats, love at a distance can be a well-functioning, if not ideal, committed relationship.
Earlier studies had identified severe distress, loneliness, emotional roller-coasters, and generally very problematic outcomes in the separation-temporary reunion-separation cycle of relationships where one or both individuals are pursuing a career goal in another geographic area. Anecdotal evidence abounds as to the heartaches and dissatisfaction of these arrangements, of the tearful goodbyes and too short reunions. The common assumption is therefore that all long-distance relationships are inherently stressful and more vulnerable to break-ups.
By studying attachment patterns between people in close relationships, Purdue researchers have identified the characteristics that make these relationships endure and flourish. Read more to see how they arrived at their conclusions and what they recommend to couples in these situations.
Attachment is the glue that holds the relationship together, that gives the parties a sense of belonging, of having a safe haven and a secure base from which to depart and return to in safety, and which provides comfort and protection from external threats.
Therefore, it is the level of attachment that appears to determine the strength and satisfaction in the relationship, not the geographic distance. In other words, attachment behaviors that maintain proximity (and therefore safety), such as calling, exchanging cards, emailing, talking, reaching out, being emotionally oriented toward each other, and sharing intimate details, are more geographically-independent than we might think.
Being securely attached, “glued together” in the right way, does not entirely eliminate sadness, crying, loneliness, anger, guilt, restlessness, contact seeking, and yearning that comes with separation. These stress reactions are natural and appropriate. One would rightly question the sincerity of an attachment that did not include the temporary manifestation of these emotions in times of separation. Underneath these reactions, however, the certainty of the relationship’s footing and the steadiness of feelings provided by a secure sense of attachment cast these strong emotions in an entirely acceptable and non-threatening light.
So, what does it take to create or strengthen a securely attached relationship? The Purdue researchers have identified the following as helpful conditions:
- Maintain communication, via whatever technical means are available, from phone calls to webcams.
- Speak openly to each other about the pain of separation, and acknowledge the severity and inevitability of the stress reaction associated with being apart.
- Accept that communication, reunion, and re-separation are cumbersome and occasionally delayed or blocked by bad weather, bad connections, or just bad luck.
- Renegotiate the unique goals of the relationship and an equitable division of tasks, making sure that each party knows what the other expects in terms of availability and effort. Goals and tasks are different for long-distance than they are when in close proximity. They are also different for each couple’s situation.
- Anticipate and plan for emotional reactions to separation and distance, identifying what it means to each party to be away and for the other to be away. Time and opportunity should be planned for appropriate “grieving” and emotional expression, in the manner that is most appropriate for each party’s personality.
- Validate each other’s way of coping with the challenges of separation, even if the approaches are different.
- Make predictable reunion and communication plans and stick to the agreed-upon schedule. Predictability and dependability are very important in confirming the sense of safety and security of each party in each other.
- Verbalize the contradictory feelings that can exist between doing something we love in a faraway place (such has having a great job assignment) and the desire to be with the person we love.
With these suggestions in mind, the chances of making love at a distance work better are improved. My common sense approach tells me they are likely to be right. What do you think?
(i) Pistole, C. M. (2010). Long-distance Romantic Couples: An Attachment Theoretical Perspective. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 36(2), 115-125. doi: 10.1111/j.1752-0606.2009.00169.x