Volume 7 , Issue 1 - February 2012 Print | Email
Love Knows No Distance

Vol7 - 1, Long Distance Relationship GlobeAlthough Valentine’s Day is typically considered a day devoted to romance, I like to think of it as a time to celebrate all kinds of love:  a weekend getaway with your honey; a bottle of wine and conversation with your best friend; flowers from dad; lunch with mom; or a homemade card for that cute guy/gal who sits next to you in class.  But for many people, celebrating their relationships is not as simple as delivering flowers or making a dinner reservation.  These individuals are geographically separated from their loved ones, and therefore face certain challenges that we often don’t consider when we’re involved in geographically-close relationships.    

Numerous statistics demonstrate that a high proportion of Americans are involved in a variety of long-distance relationships (LDR), whether those relationships are romantic, platonic, or familial.  For example, some surveys estimate as many as 90 percent of Americans have at least one long-distance friendship.  Long-distance dating relationships are also fairly common, particularly among college students, constituting anywhere from 25 to 50 percent of dating relationships on residential campuses.  Commuter marriages have also become increasingly common in the past three decades with the U.S. Census Bureau reporting about 3.6 million Americans living apart from their spouses.  Due to work, school, and military deployment, many of us are also separated from our extended families.  So I’m willing to wager that you currently have at least one relationship that can be considered “long-distance.” 

Perhaps due to their prevalence, popular culture is saturated with stories and advice related to LDRs.  Hollywood periodically revisits the long-distance relationship, with recent films such as “Going the Distance” (2010) or “Like Crazy” (2011).  The Internet is also an abundant source of information.  A simple Google search for “long-distance relationships” results in over 22 million hits.  There is a multitude of blogs and online communities where individuals can learn and communicate about LDRs.  For example, wikiHow offers readers “18 steps to make your long-distance relationship work.”   There’s even a Complete Idiot’s Guide to Long-Distance Relationships!  A consistent theme in these movies, websites, and books is that LDRs are often problematic and require a considerable amount of effort to succeed.  

Vol7 - 1, Grandparents video chattingThrough my research, I have found that many of these challenges stem from our cultural assumptions about what close relationships should be like.  For example, we assume that close relationships (particularly romances and friendships) require face-to-face interaction, such as going out on Friday nights or watching favorite TV shows together.  When spending time together face-to-face becomes impossible, we tend to believe the relationship will fade away.  These assumptions shape our expectations about relationships and the absence of face-to-face interaction in LDRs violates our expectations.  Therefore, we have to deal with the reality of our relationships not always living up to our idealized expectations.  We must understand that, in comparison to our proximal relationships, it may take greater effort, flexibility, and patience to maintain our LDRs.  So here are three suggestions to help make your LDRs lasting and satisfying.  

First, a considerable part of the “extra effort” is making time for one another.  Typically, there are numerous competing demands in our lives.  Due to a hectic lifestyle, it may be difficult to find sufficient time to communicate with your long-distance loved ones.  However, don’t wait for a free moment to magically appear; you must make the time.  As contrived as it may sound, I suggest arranging phone dates or Skype dates with your long-distance loved ones.  Setting aside a special time to talk creates a ritual that can prevent lags in communication.  Also, find creative ways to interact.  For example, pursue a common hobby or project and provide each other with progress updates.  Watch your favorite TV shows and text about the funny or dramatic parts during commercials.  Play online games together like “World of Warcraft” or “Words with Friends.”  I often arrange with my long-distance best friend to see the same movie individually and then talk about it afterwards over the phone.  Setting aside time to share something reiterates the importance of the relationship and allows you to remain connected.  

Hearing one another’s voice or seeing one another’s face is also significant.  We often take our loved one’s presence for granted.  But when we are not able to see their facial expressions or hear them laugh, these nonverbal cues become incredibly valued.  So my second piece of advice is to use technology to your advantage!  There are so many options available that provide these nonverbal cues – don’t simply rely on text messages or e-mails.  For example, call your loved one on Sunday nights to fill them in on your week or post a video message on their Facebook page wishing them a “Happy Monday.”  Or, take them on a webcam tour of your freshly renovated kitchen or new office.  For those in romantic relationships, video chatting can provide a semblance of intimacy (even if it may be awkward at first!).  Sure, video chatting and lengthy phone calls may require additional time and effort, but this extra effort not only demonstrates that you are invested in the relationship, it will also make you feel like you are still involved in your loved one’s life despite not being there in person.

Vol7 - 1, Girl on phone Last, being creatively and spontaneously thoughtful will also serve your long-distance relationship well.  Limited face-to-face contact frequently prevents those in LDRs from behaving impulsively.  Those involved in LDRs aren’t able to have spur-of-the-moment dinner dates, shopping trips, or pick-up basketball games like those in proximal relationships.  It is easy to become frustrated by the degree of planning and coordinating that is required to maintain your LDR.  Therefore, it is important to think of creative ways to enhance the novelty within these relationships.  

For example, consider sending your loved one a care package with their favorite candy or a book you know they’ll love.  Finding a package sitting on their front stoop is likely to make their day.  I remember being quite giddy when I received packages from my parents while away at college!  Or, send an “out of the blue” message via text, Facebook, or e-mail.  It’s a quick and easy way to let your loved one know you are thinking about them.  Or, crazy as it may sound, send your loved one a letter or greeting card.  Since we have become so dependent on technology, it is likely we have forgotten how exciting it is to receive a hand-written letter.  The gesture doesn’t have to be grand or expensive.  

More often than not, it’s the “little things” that are most important.  The realization that you cannot see your loved one in person whenever you want can sometimes be particularly depressing, but doing thoughtful things not only demonstrates that you care for one another, but more simply proves the relationship still exists and still is important.     

So as much as we’d like to believe relationships magically maintain themselves, we actually have to invest a considerable amount of time and energy for our relationships to work.  Long-distance relationships may require even more effort to maintain, but if you are willing to have realistic expectations, to make time for one another, and to be thoughtful, your relationships are likely to thrive.  Remember, moving away from our loved ones does not mean those relationships cease to exist.  Relationships can exist across telephone lines, in cyberspace, and even within our memories.  So this Valentine’s Day, consider letting your long-distance friends, romantic partners, and/or family members know just how much your appreciate their love no matter how many miles are between you.  

Vol7 - 1, Jessica SmithJessica Smith (jsmit198@utk.edu) is a lecturer at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, TN, USA, where she earned her Ph.D. in May 2010.  Her dissertation examined women’s long-distance friendships during various life course transitions.  She also examines how the use of communication technologies impacts relationship maintenance.  At UT, she teaches interpersonal communication, public speaking, and communication theory.   This essay appeared in the February 2012 issue of Communication Currents.  Communication Currents is a publication of the National Communication Association.
  Communication Currents is a publication of the National Communication Association
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