Love in Long-Distance Relationships This Emotional Life - PBS

Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS

Relationships / Blog

    Suzanne Phillips, PsyD

Suzanne Phillips, PsyD's Bio

Dr. Phillips is a licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomat in Group Psychotherapy and Co-Author of Healing Together.

Love in Long-Distance Relationships


A long-distance relationship or LDR is typically an intimate relationship that takes place when the partners are separated by a considerable distance. No one is geographically undesirable anymore but many are geographically challenged with the goal of maintaining love at a distance.

·        There are 48,000 US troops in Iraq and 94,000 US troops in Afghanistan. That leaves a lot of Home Fires burning.

·        There are folks like the man I met on a plane who couldn’t retire or sell his house as planned, so he spends half the week in Phoenix and half with his wife in Florida.

·        There are those caught in the cycle of visa regulations; those who need medical treatment far from home; and those who stay in different places to accommodate children’s school calendars.

And….There are many couples who have “met” online and for whom long distance is the original context of their relationship.

Whether by choice or necessity, long distance relationships bring stress and possibility. Whether you are geographically at a distance or feel like you have a long distance relationship with the person next to you, it is worth asking:  What improves love at a distance? What damages it?

Here Are Some Factors That Play A Role:

Why Are We Doing This?
The reason that a couple is at a distance will affect their expectations, their responses and the impact on their relationship. Did you choose the situation together? Are you dealing with a situation that life put on your path? Are you in a long-distance on-line relationship with hidden expectations that one or the other will relocate?

Clarifying Together - Knowing why you are in a LDR , the logistics, the timeline, the feelings and the expectations, eliminates hidden hurt and resentment and opens up the decision making process. Think of it as an on-going process:

·        “But if you are semi retired – why are you traveling two weeks a month?”

·        “But you have already been deployed twice – how can we do this again?”

Feeling helpless in the face of increased distance or changed timelines, partners can lose the focus and start to blame someone.  Often, they blame each other.  Having a way to vent, as well as discuss the challenges is very important.

How Are We Doing this?

Relationship Security is a function of the sense of trust, faith and commitment one has in one’s partner and the relationship. It is what makes love at a distance possible. There are a number of strategies that enhance relationship security that may facilitate love at a distance (Stafford & Canary, 1991).

Relationship Maintaining Strategies:

An invaluable component of a secure relationship is an optimistic attitude toward your partner and the future. This is often re-enforced by each partner’s own resiliency i.e. acceptance of life’s situation, belief in self, belief in partner, spirituality, creativity, problem solving, and sense of humor.

Affirmations of commitment and support are crucial when things are difficult and partners are at a distance. The down-side of a long distance relationship is that the partner is not there. The upside is the degree to which partners come to appreciate each other. No one is taken for granted. Partners send and save the e-mails and voice messages. They store up what they plan to say and look forward to hearing what the other has to say – their communication is often intended to reassure and connect.

Disclosure of feelings, concerns and confidences with your partner only happens when you trust your partner and believe he/she accepts you. Being confidantes to each other is a mutual compliment. The feeling and reminder that talking to the partner is different than talking to anyone else affirms your relationship whether it is being done on the phone, in a letter or email.

Sharing Tasks

·        Positive Plans -Even miles and countries apart, partners can partner. An important consideration is   partnering on positive plans as well as problem-solving tasks. Planning or even fantasizing together about the next vacation or the short weekend coming up is crucial - It keeps desire and hope in the forefront.

·        Problem Situations -In terms of problem situations, the ability to listen and contain the feelings your partner is sharing is invaluable. The fact that your partner tells you the kids were sick while you were on the road or she lets you know the horses got out of the corral while you were deployed- DOES NOT IMPLY BLAME OR NEED FOR SOLUTIONS – it means he/she is venting and sharing life with you. Asking if your partner is ok, checking to see if more help is needed, complimenting what he/she has done, and wishing you were there goes a long way.

·        Hint: If the problem was solved – even in a way you would not have done it – accept and appreciate it. Partners at a distance need supporters not supervisors.

Sharing Social Networks
Whether together or at a distance, sharing social networks is a crucial source of mutuality for couples. Talking and updating about friends and social connections is a viable way to feel connected at a distance. Social networks can also be sources of help and support when partners are away.

Technical advances- emails, cell phones, text messages, face book, Twitter, Skype offer resources and connection for love on the run, love on the phone and many new ways for lovers at a distance to maintain their intimacy. Part of the power of a back and forth text message is the brevity, insider code, and intimate suggestion of “for your eyes only.” These technical advances fuel the imagination and erotic desire.

What Disrupts and Dilutes Long Distance Relationships?

·        Negativity-Research suggests that one of the factors that lead to termination of long-term relationships is negativity (Cameron, & Ross, 2007).  This is primarily caused by pessimism, high anxiety and continued conflict in the relationship.

·        Reaction to Negativity -Part of what escalates the decline in the relationship is the reaction to the negativity. When there is no face to face contact or opportunity to de-escalate the tension or even physically connect as a way to reduce pessimism or anxiety, relationship security becomes very difficult.

·        Addictions -The advances in communication work against long-distance lovers when the efforts to connect become obsessive and are driven more by panic, insecurity, and lack of self-esteem than love and connection. When the typical e-mails or texts “Miss you” “Love you” “Wish I was there” are not reassuring but cause for more demands of reassurance, they can push the partner away.

·        Betrayal -The betrayal of commitment to a partner jeopardizes the possibility of a genuine and secure relationship. When the betrayal is part of a secret life “on the road,” it rarely satisfies anyone for long as it is often underscored by guilt, lack of authenticity, distrust and resentment. If being at a distance means commitment is not possible then that issue needs to be owned and addressed.

What about Homecoming?
Some say that the most difficult part of a long-distance relationship is the homecoming. Some partners, in fact, admit that their relationship works because there is no definite homecoming.  They keep separate apartments, he is at sea for months, and she is career military.

Most partners long for the homecoming or life together.

Notwithstanding your joy and the excitement, it is important to recognize that homecoming is much more than the day you have been waiting to be together – it is a process.

For couples that have been separated by military service, the reunion is only the start of a process that includes return, readjustment and reintegration (Mateczun & Holmes, 1996). The couple has to renegotiate life, find a “new normal”, and use flexibility to draw upon the journey each of them has taken to enhance the journey they will now continue together.

For couples who have never permanently lived together, the decision to live together brings with it the start of a new way of relating and the necessary adjustments and joys that living “ up close and personal” offer.

  Some Homecoming Tips:

·        Recognize that homecoming or finally being together is a process that takes some time. Be patient and assume the best as you readjust together.

·        You both developed coping styles while living apart– be it friends, the gym, music, books – don’t suddenly give them up or ask your partner to give up his/hers. Don’t make fear-based decisions. Recognize change as valuable.

·        Recognize that love at a distance often fosters the best and most idealized version of our partner. Don’t be upset if you can’t hold on to the thrilling image of your partner when he is home fighting for the TV remote or she is complaining about the garbage. You are both human - there is still magic.

·        Communicate, but be realistic. If you didn’t complain about problems while your partner was on the road, don’t lay them all out at once. If you were sending loving emails and receiving sexy text messages, don’t stop completely but don’t forget -your partner is home!

If there is a reason to love at a distance- believe in each other and you will find a way to make it work and a place to be together.

For Further Reading:

Cameron, J. & Ross, M. (2007) In Times of Uncertainty: Predicting the survival of Long-Distance Relationships. The Journal of Social Psychology, 147 (6), 581-606.

Mateczun, J.M., & Holmes, E.K. (1996) Return, readjustment and reintegration: The three R’s of family reunion. In R. J. Ursano & A.E. Norwood (Eds.) Emotional aftermath of the Persian Gulf War: Veterans, families, communities, and nations (pp.250-282 Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press, Inc.

Stafford, L., & Canary, D. (1991) Maintenance Strategies and Romantic Relationship Type, Gender and Relational Characteristics. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships Vol.8. No.2, 217-242.