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What Science Has to Say About Long-Distance Relationships

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If there’s one word we associate with long-distance relationships, it’s “doomed.” While texting, video chatting, and a host of apps make it easy to talk to your boo whenever you want, wherever you are, living far apart is still a challenge a lot of couples can’t overcome.

Many people embark on some kind of long-distance relationship at some point during their lives, whether it’s a high school sweetheart with different college dreams, a study abroad fling turned long-term, a brief separation while transitioning into a new job, or regular time away because of military deployment. Almost 3.5 million married couples in the U.S. live apart, and as many as 75 percent of current college students have been or are in long-distance relationships—though no doubt many have been the victim of the Turkey Dump, that college rite of passage when droves of long-distance couples from high school break up over their first weekend back at home together.

Here’s what science has to say about how people cope, and what the odds are for a happy ending are. Keep in mind that technology is changing how we view distance, and a long-distance relationship in the early 1990s was vastly different than one in 2015. (For reference: Skype debuted in 2003.)

1. Long-distance relationships aren’t any unhappier than geographically close ones.

A 2014 study of more than 700 long-distance partners and 400 geographically close partners found not that many significant differences between the two types of relationships. People who lived far away from their romantic partners were not more likely to be unhappy in their relationships than people who lived close to their special someone. The researchers write that "individuals in long-distance dating relationships are not at a disadvantage."

2. Distance can enhance some types of communication.

A 2013 study by researchers from Cornell University and the City University of Hong Kong found that distance can breed intimacy. In analyzing people’s diaries of their texts, phone calls, video chats, and other communications with their long-distance partners, the researchers found that long-distance couples felt more intimate with each other compared to geographically close couples, in part because the LDR couples disclosed more about themselves in their interactions. Another group of researchers previously found that long-distance couples reported lower levels of “problematic” communication, including significantly less “minor psychological aggression towards one’s partner.” It's hard to snap at your partner when you have to pick up the phone to do so.

3. Being apart makes you idealize your partner. 

That same study found that long-distance couples tended to idealize their partners' behaviors. After all, it's a lot easier to imagine your boyfriend as a chivalrous hunk when you don’t have to look at his dirty laundry or watch him talk with spinach in his teeth. 

4. Couples are happier if distance is understood to be temporary. 

A 2007 study by Katheryn Maguire, a researcher who specializes in relationships and distance communication, found that long-distance partners who were certain that they would reunite with their partners were more satisfied and less distressed—understandably—than those who didn’t know when or if they’d ever live in the same city as their beau again. However, the study didn’t test whether these couples were more likely to break up, just that they reported being happier with a little certainty that one day they’d live in the same city again. 

5. Some people actually prefer long-distance relationships. 

In the same 2007 study, some participants reported that they knew they would reunite with their partners, but were unhappy with that outcome. Others felt uncertain about their future with their long-distance partners, but didn’t care much. This “suggests that there is a subset of individuals who may prefer to remain in a perpetual [long-distance relationships],” Maguire writes, and some people “may actively seek out a long-distance relationship so they can have the best of both worlds (a romantic relationship and plenty of autonomy).”

6. Women adjust to distance more easily.

A 1994 study of college students in long-distance relationships found that women adjusted better to both the initial separation and the eventual breakup. Breaking up actually decreased women’s distress levels. Meanwhile, men who were broken up with were the most distressed, compared to women who were broken up with or men who initiated their breakup.  

7. Long-distance couples think they won’t break up…

A 2012 study by University of Denver psychologists followed 870 young people in the U.S. (not just students) in both long-distance and proximate relationships. Compared to people who lived close to their significant other, people in long-distance relationships were more likely to perceive that they would still be dating a year later, and that they would one day marry that partner. By the time researchers sent them a follow-up questionnaire four months later, however, long-distance couples weren’t any more stable. One-fifth of them had broken up—about the same as the individuals who were dating someone close to home. 

8. …But a significant number of long-distance couples do break up upon reuniting.

A 2006 study of 335 students at Ohio State University found that a full third of long-distance relationships end within three months of reuniting in the same city. 

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Big Questions
What Is Foreign Accent Syndrome?
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One night in 2016, Michelle Myers—an Arizona mom with a history of migraines—went to sleep with a splitting headache. When she awoke, her speech was marked with what sounded like an British accent, despite having never left the U.S. Myers is one of about 100 people worldwide who have been diagnosed with Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS), a condition in which people spontaneously speak with a non-native accent.

In most cases, FAS occurs following a head injury or stroke that damages parts of the brain associated with speech. A number of recent incidences of FAS have been well documented: A Tasmanian woman named Leanne Rowe began speaking with a French-sounding accent after recovering from a serious car accident, while Kath Lockett, a British woman, underwent treatment for a brain tumor and ended up speaking with an accent that sounds somewhere between French and Italian.

The first case of the then-unnamed syndrome was reported in 1907 when a Paris-born-and-raised man who suffered a brain hemorrhage woke up speaking with an Alsatian accent. During World War II, neurologist Georg Herman Monrad-Krohn compiled the first comprehensive case study of the syndrome in a Norwegian woman named Astrid L., who had been hit on the head with shrapnel and subsequently spoke with a pronounced German-sounding accent. Monrad-Krohn called her speech disorder dysprosody: her choice of words and sentence construction, and even her singing ability, were all normal, but her intonation, pronunciation, and stress on syllables (known as prosody) had changed.

In a 1982 paper, neurolinguist Harry Whitaker coined the term "foreign accent syndrome" for acquired accent deviation after a brain injury. Based on Monrad-Kohn's and other case studies, Whitaker suggested four criteria for diagnosing FAS [PDF]:

"The accent is considered by the patient, by acquaintances, and by the investigator to sound foreign.
It is unlike the patient’s native dialect before the cerebral insult.
It is clearly related to central nervous system damage (as opposed to a hysteric reaction, if such exist).
There is no evidence in the patient’s background of being a speaker of a foreign language (i.e., this is not like cases of polyglot aphasia)."

Not every person with FAS meets all four criteria. In the last decade, researchers have also found patients with psychogenic FAS, which likely stems from psychological conditions such as schizophrenia rather than a physical brain injury. This form comprises fewer than 10 percent of known FAS cases and is usually temporary, whereas neurogenic FAS is typically permanent.

WHAT’S REALLY HAPPENING?

While scientists are not sure why certain brain injuries or psychiatric problems give rise to FAS, they believe that people with FAS are not actually speaking in a foreign accent. Instead, their neurological damage impairs their ability to make subtle muscle movements in the jaw, tongue, lips, and larynx, which results in pronunciation that mimics the sound of a recognizable accent.

"Vowels are particularly susceptible: Which vowel you say depends on where your tongue is in your mouth," Lyndsey Nickels, a professor of cognitive science at Australia's Macquarie University, wrote in The Conversation. "There may be too much or too little muscle tension and therefore they may 'undershoot' or 'overshoot' their target. This leads to the vowels sounding different, and sometimes they may sound like a different accent."

In Foreign Accent Syndromes: The Stories People Have to Tell, authors Nick Miller and Jack Ryalls suggest that FAS could be one stage in a multi-phase recovery from a more severe speech disorder, such as aphasia—an inability to speak or understand speech that results from brain damage.

People with FAS also show wide variability in their ability to pronounce sounds, choose words, or stress the right syllables. The accent can be strong or mild. Different listeners may hear different accents from the speaker with FAS (Lockett has said people have asked her if she's Polish, Russian, or French).

According to Miller and Ryalls, few studies have been published about speech therapy for treating FAS, and there's no real evidence that speech therapy makes a difference for people with the syndrome. More research is needed to determine if advanced techniques like electromagnetic articulography—visual feedback showing tiny movements of the tongue—could help those with FAS regain their original speaking manner.

Today, one of the pressing questions for neurologists is understanding how the brain recovers after injury. For that purpose, Miller and Ryalls write that "FAS offers a fascinating and potentially fruitful forum for gaining greater insights into understanding the human brain and the speech processes that define our species."

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Live Smarter
The Easy Way to Reduce Robocalls on Your Smartphone
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We can shoot a Tesla into orbit, but we still can’t stop telemarketing scam artists from calling us. The Federal Trade Commission fields an average of 375,000 complaint calls every month about these nuisance solicitations, which often disguise their identities using spoof numbers and are hoping to trick you into revealing your financial information. They’re annoying, illicit, and insulting, but they can be reduced.

According to Verge writer Chris Welch, robocalls sent to iPhone or Android smartphones can be thwarted a number of different ways. Many major cell carriers offer apps that block numbers suspected of being fraudulent. AT&T calls theirs Call Protect, for example, and alerts you when an incoming call seems dubious. You can then choose to ignore it or put it on a permanent block list. T-Mobile has Scam Block, which keeps tabs on known scam numbers and prevents them from getting through.

These services range from being free to leaving a minor ($2.99) surcharge on your monthly bill. For more aggressive blocking, third-party apps like Nomorobo and RoboKiller maintain huge databases of scam numbers and use them to compare incoming calls—once a robocall is detected, it’s cut off.

If you’re still not satisfied with one of these options, you may want to consider a hardware upgrade: Recent models from Samsung like the Galaxy S and Note use a Smart Call feature to curtail unwanted calls.

People who get calls on conventional landline phones shouldn’t give up hope, either. Broadband services like Spectrum (formerly Time Warner Cable) have a version of Nomorobo that will block calls from confirmed scam numbers.

[h/t the Verge]

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