July 18, 2013 at 8:46 AM ET
Long distance relationships never work, the colloquial wisdom goes. Or rather, they'll work for a while: You’ll trade a few texts, Skype a few times, maybe even visit once in a while. But the heartache of being apart and living separate lives will start to wear on you, and soon enough, things will fizzle out.
Not true, according to a small but growing number of social science studies. Long-distance relationships are, in many ways, stronger than relationships between couples who live together or close by, shows a new study published today in the Journal of Communication.
“While the public and the science community hold a pessimistic view towards long distance (LD), this research provides compelling support for the opposite side – long distance is not necessarily inferior to geographically close dating,” says Crystal Jiang, an assistant professor of communication at City University of Hong Kong.
Jiang's research found that people in long-distance relationships reported feeling emotionally closer to their partners than people in relationships with people who were literally -- geographically -- closer. Long-distance couples also reported sharing more with their partners, and feeling like their partners were really listening.
“You always hear people say ‘long-distance relationships suck’ or ‘long-distance relationships never work out,’” Jiang says. “Indeed, our culture, particularly American culture, emphasizes being together physically and frequent face-to-face contact for close relationships, but long-distance relationships clearly stand against all these values.”
It’s especially reassuring to hear this now, as so many couples today are living apart. Three million Americans live apart from their spouses (for reasons other than divorce or discordance), Jiang says. It's a trend that’s has spawned the term “commuter marriages” in recent headlines reflecting the new realities of tough economic times -- you've got to go where the job is, after all. And many college students, not surprisingly, live apart from their partners – up to 50 percent are in a long-distance relationship, according to one estimate in a 2005 report.
It gets harder to estimate how many non-married, non-college students are in long-distance relationships, but according to one estimate, 14 percent of dating relationships were long-distance, according to the Center for the Study of Long-Distance Relationships. (Yes, such a thing once existed; sadly, it has closed).
Last January, Nicole Kendrot, who’s now 26, moved back to her home town of Rochester, N.Y., and decided to give online dating a try. She soon met Richard Smith, who lived in Rochester, and the two started dating. But just two months into their relationship, Kendrot was offered a web designer job in New York City, 333 miles and a six-hour drive from Rochester, with the company she was freelancing for. She felt like she had to take the job, and moved in May of last year. Since then, she and Smith have been dating long distance.
“It hasn’t been as hard as I expected it to be,” says Smith. The couple talk at least once every day via Google Hangout, which means they get to see each other's faces every day, too. They sometimes use the Google service to just, literally, “hang out” – they tore through the first three seasons of “Arrested Development” on Netflix together that way.
In the new study, 63 heterosexual dating couples independently completed online surveys every day for one week. Their ages ranged from 18 to 34, but the average age was 20, and most were college students. About 80 percent of the couples considered their relationship committed or serious, and the average length of their relationships was 22 months. On average, the long-distance couples had been separated for about 17 months.
Researchers asked them to track their interactions with their partners: how often they communicated, how long they talked and what they used to do it – phone calls, video chats, instant messages, email, texting or seeing each other face-to-face.
The couples in long-distance relationships reported interacting with each other a little less often every day than the couples who lived close by. But the separated couples reported “experiencing greater intimacy” – or, feeling closer to their partners, as intimacy is defined here – than the couples who were geographically closer.
That’s definitely been the case for Smith and Kendrot.
“Not only does it force you to keep in touch, it forces you to make an effort to do that,” Smith says. In other words, if you’re dating someone nearby, it gets easy to take the relationship for granted, and to maybe not put in as much work as you should, he says. “But if you’re in a long-distance relationship for a year, it’s pretty certain you really like that person,” he continues. “If you don’t put in a good amount of effort, you just stop talking to each other.”
Kendrot agrees. “Every day, you make that choice to be in it,” says Kendrot, who next week will be moving back to Rochester to be with Smith full time. (She was able to work things out with her job so she can work remotely.) “It’s not the hardest thing in the world, but it’s definitely not an easy situation.”
The study also found that people in long-distance relationships reported being more open with their partners, and that their partners were in return more open with them, something that sounds right to Ally Cuneo, 20, whose husband, Michael, 21, was deployed in May.
“You have to have more trust in each other with distance,” says Cuneo, who lives in Kailua, Hawaii. She and her husband, who's a Marine, have been married for nearly two years, during which he’s been deployed twice. “We’re completely open and honest with each other. There’s nothing we hide, there are no secrets," she says.
But the reason you see your faraway lady- or gentleman-lover in such a rosy light may be precisely because he or she is far away, points out Dr. Gail Saltz, a New York City psychiatrist and frequent TODAY contributor. This new study, and others before it, have shown that long distance partners tend to idealize each other, or see them in unrealistically positive terms.
“It’s easier to hold on to this idealized view of the other person when you’re not with them all the time,” Saltz says. That idealization can make the reunion difficult, once the honeymoon vibes have worn off. Cuneo says last time her husband returned after a long deployment, she had to remind herself, "He's been gone for eight months; he's not going to remember I like the dishwasher loaded a certain way."
But it's a generally positive takeaway message here for couples in long-distance relationships. It's so hard to be away from each other, but your relationship really can take it, Jiang says. (In fact, past research has shown that long-distance couples are no more likely to break up than geographically close couples.)
“If being geographically apart is inevitable, people should not despair,” Jiang says. Long-distance relationships “are not doomed to fail,” she says, at least not more easily than relationships between two people who live close by. “I think such findings give people confidence given long-distance romance is much more common nowadays,” she says.
Melissa is a health reporter and editor for NBCNews.com and TODAY.com. Sometimes she tweets things here: @melissadahl.