What Science Has to Say About Long-Distance Relationships
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.