Communication Currents

Absence may make the heart grow fonder, but …

February 1, 2007
Interpersonal Communication

The adage “absence makes the heart grow fonder” may hold true. Many people in long-distance relationships say that the being away from their partner makes the time they are together special; every day they are together is like Valentine's Day. The absence, they say, helps them to appreciate their partner more and makes the relationship stronger. In fact, people in long-distance relationships tend to maintain their relationships longer, be less likely to break up, and be more in love and satisfied than people in geographically close relationships. Long-distance partners think fond thoughts and some even report they enjoy the anticipation of the reunion and the excitement of being together. People in long-distance relationships tend to be more idealized and romanticized.

And, people in long-distance relationships often believe if “we can survive this separation, we can survive anything.” Not so.

Though absence may make the heart grow fonder,when you are absent, the heart is fickle rather than fond, for many long-distance couples when they move to the same location. Recent research has revealed that the likelihood of breaking up sky rockets after the couple moves to the same location. That is, you may be more likely to maintain your relationship when you are apart than after you move to the same town.

Why? There may be several reasons. First, some individuals in long-distance relationships seem to miss the romantic heartache of being apart. Not surprisingly, individuals say the time together is no longer special; they feel taken for granted, and the excitement is gone. One interviewee said she “missed missing her partner.”

Second, most people say there are some advantages to a long-distance relationships. They may not even notice these advantages until after they are in the same location and discover they miss some aspects of their prior long-distance arrangement. In addition to missing the romance, many didn't realize how much freedom they had. After coming back together, most individuals report missing their freedom to spend their time the way they wanted. Their partner was confined to the weekends. All of a sudden someone else is there for you to schedule around and coordinate with. You can't just go out with the girls without “touching base.” Or work late at the office without letting him know. One partner may feel smothered by all the time together. And some highly motivated career-driven individuals may actually prefer the autonomy to focus on their career with the security of knowing someone out there loves them.

Third, maybe your partner or your relationship just isn't as great as you thought, or maybe you didn't really know him as well as you thought. Imperfections are forgotten or forgiven when time is limited. People tend to avoid fights or bringing up potential areas of conflict as they don't want to “spoil their time together” or when apart, “I just didn't want to get into it over the phone.” So issues stay hidden. Many couples say they fight more when they live nearby.

It's not just avoiding fights. If your relationship is too good to be true, it probably is. Individuals in long-distance relationships tend to have much more idealized and romanticized views of their partners than people living in the same location. When you have only weekends, you put your best foot forward. People stop looking their best or being on their best behavior all the time. In other words, they become like normal couples. On the knowledge front, almost everyone says they learn something new about their partner, something they didn't know when they were apart, or at least had forgotten about. And though some people are in for some pleasant surprises, people report learning four times as much negative information as positive. Cute quirks become annoying habits. Time is now available to discuss and discover issues, such as beliefs and values that simply never came up before.

Of course the biggest change for couples is simply having more time together. As one person said, “the best thing about being in the same city is having more time together, and the worst thing about being in the same city is having more time together.”

So maybe your relationship failed because you are a romantic who desires the pain of separation, maybe your partner wasn't so great after all (or not as compatible), or maybe you just didn't realize all of the changes that would happen. In the first case, there may not be much you can do. You may be in love with a romanticized idea of being in love. For others, here are some things that might help.

First, when you are long-distance, be normal. Talk often; don't avoid arguments. Don't put on hold all those issues that couples are supposed to talk about, like future plans, beliefs, and values. Let the person see the real you. Spend time with each other's friends and families when you are together. (Don't just go out--or stay in--with just the two of you). Learn how you each get along with the other's friends and family. Sometimes this will lead to breaking up. But, if this is the case, you probably would break up after you move closer to one another. So as painful or unromantic as this might seem, letting go sooner rather than later is not always a bad thing.

Second, realize that change is inevitable when you move together. Be patient. Be flexible. Give each other time to adjust. People fantasize about how wonderful it will be when they are together. People don't think about having to readjust their lives, their schedules, or their living space. You didn't expect to have to change your work schedule, or coordinate with your partner more, or spend time with each other's friends and families. And you certainly didn't realize how much “alone time” you would lose. Or for some, how much alone time your partner still wants.

Third, keep a bit of romance. Simply being together isn't so special anymore. You may find yourself actually having to workharder to maintain your relationship than you did when you were apart. Absence is no longer on your side to make your heart grow fonder. Set aside some special time. Continue the fond thoughts. Perhaps even say (or e-mail) the same loving romantic “nothings” that filled your phone conversations and emails.

Many couples break up in the first three months after coming together. Though every day together seems like Valentine's Day when you are in a long-distance relationship, if you are prepared you can make the transition to the same location. If you can survive the first few months together, well then, you might discover that it doesn't take absence to make the heart grow fonder after all.

About the author (s)

Laura Stafford

Bowling Green State University