Long-Distance Relationships: Can They Work?

The possibilities and obstacles of long-distance relationships

long distance relationship -- man in airplane looking into his luggage with sunset through the window

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In our increasingly mobile and connected world, we have opportunities to meet and learn from people from all over the world. And with these opportunities come more chances of finding love, sometimes thousands of miles away from home.

Long-distance relationships (LDRs) used to be an anomaly, often happening later in an established couple. One member would have to move for studies, work, or military service, and the relationship had to adapt to this change. But nowadays, we can fall in love at a distance too—with the internet, it's easier than ever to establish relationships, romantic or otherwise, even before seeing the other person "in real life", or IRL.

What challenges do LDRs have that typical relationships do not? How can people in an LDR ensure the success of their relationship? We will explore these questions in this article.

Particular Challenges of Long-Distance Relationships

Although every romantic relationship has challenges, long-distance relationships have a set of potential issues that are particular to the geographical distance between the members. Here are some of the challenges identified in research:

  • Financial strain related to travel
  • Negotiating boundaries between local friends and the distance partner
  • High expectations around face-to-face meetings given how infrequent and short they are
  • Trouble having a realistic view of the state of the relationship
  • Having more extreme emotions related to the relationship

Financial strain is an obvious factor that every person in a long-distance relationship has experienced. Whether it's the high fuel costs of driving hundreds of miles, or the time and financial commitment of frequent airplane travel, couples on LDRs need to budget for travel costs just as they would other costs like a mortgage, food, and clothing.

The boundary negotiation is a trickier element to manage. People in long-distance relationships can develop jealousy towards their partner's local friends, often complaining that they spend "too much time" with them. There is also the risk of your partner developing an intimate relationship or falling in love with someone else while you are away. Establishing clear boundaries, being honest, and understanding that people need social interactions face-to-face will go a long in defusing these potential problems.

Expectations vs. Reality

When we spend time with our partner every day, or at least regularly, the interactions contain a lot of mundane, every day things like being sick, doing groceries, cleaning your teeth, or just sitting exhausted in front of the TV. However, in LDRs, the expectations that face-to-face meetings will be magical, full of amazing sex, and romantic, often hit the wall of, well, how life actually works. These high expectations can often make partners disappointed and resentful that the time spent together was not "like what they imagined".

It's also very easy to dismiss or ignore growing relationship trouble because of distance. We assign it to stress, to the distance itself, to missing each other, rather than actual behavior of disengagement. It's more difficult to gauge whether our partner is really committed to the relationship because we do not see their behavior on a daily basis.

Finally, research has shown that feelings of excitement, jealousy, love, and anger tend to be more extreme in people in LDRs. This means the potential for emotionally-fueled decisions, for unnecessary fights, and for piercing disappointment, as discussed above.

Ensuring the Success of Long-Distance Relationships

After these challenges, it seems almost impossible to be happy in LDRs. But this is far from being the case. Yes, LDRs have challenges and difficulties that do not arise in geographically close relationships, but it doesn't mean they can't work.

Research by Guldner and Swenson suggests that time spent together in person is not a factor for relationship satisfaction. In other words, being happy in a relationship depends a lot less on time spent together than we think.

What does it depend on, then? Recent research looking into the survival rates of LDRs looked at the effect of negative emotions (such as jealousy, anger, sadness, etc.) and relational security (how secure, safe and committed people feel towards each other). As you can guess, couples with fewer negative feelings and a higher feeling of security tended to still be together one year after the first survey, whether they were in an LDR or in a same-city relationship. However, they also found a gender difference: negative emotions in men had an effect on long-distance relationships, but not on same-city couples. There was no such difference for women.

What does this mean? It means that maintaining positive feelings and interactions (Gottman's 5-to-1 ratio applies to LDRs too) and making partners feel secure, safe, and committed were just as important for LDRs as for same-city relationships. In other words, what you do in a geographically close relationship also applies to LDRs.

In terms of communication, video or phone are better than emails and text. However, face-to-face contact was especially important and made a big difference for people in LDRs. In other words, LDRs worked the same way as same-city relationships as long as the two people met in person at least a few times a year. If you want maintain a healthy LDR, save money for traveling and plan on meeting regularly.

Otherwise, the same general rules for romantic relationships apply: communicate openly, make your expectations and needs clear, strive for intimacy and trust, and be trustworthy. It is important to keep your promises and maintain your commitments. If you plan on speaking on the phone once a day, for example, consider this an essential part of maintaining your relationship. It is not optional or "only when you have time".

A Word From Verywell

Long-distance partners are still people. The distance tends to make them less "personal" to us, but by maintaining frequent and open lines of communication and by fostering trust and positive emotions, it is possible for an LDR to work, even long-term.

In fact, as the research cited here suggests, LDRs work pretty much the same as geographically close relationships. Treat them the same way, and you should be able to make it work.

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Article Sources
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  • Guldner GT, Swensen CH. Time Spent Together and Relationship Quality: Long-Distance Relationships as a Test Case. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. 1995;12(2):313-320. doi:10.1177/0265407595122010.

  • Cameron JJ, Ross M. In Times of Uncertainty: Predicting the Survival of Long-Distance Relationships. The Journal of Social Psychology. 2007;147(6):581-606. doi:10.3200/socp.147.6.581-606.

  • Dainton M, Aylor B. A relational uncertainty analysis of jealousy, trust, and maintenance in long‐distance versus geographically close relationships. Communication Quarterly. 2001;49(2):172-188. doi:10.1080/01463370109385624.