How To Make Long-Distance Love Work


Couple saying goodbye on train
Make your bond strong enough to weather the distance.

Here's why: When psychologists talk about intimacy, they're generally referring to two components. The first is the ability to verbalize fairly deep vulnerabilities—for instance, to say "Do you love me?" and "I miss you." The trickier, almost subconscious part is maintaining the feeling of being intermingled in your partner's life, a state the experts often refer to as "interrelatedness." Couples that are geographically close establish this by discussing the mundane details of daily life, whether it's the fact that you had to take a different route to work because of road construction, or that you have a 2 p.m. meeting with a new client, or that you had a turkey sandwich for lunch.

The fact that you had a turkey sandwich for lunch is so trivial that its shelf life is even shorter than that of the sandwich itself—if you don't talk to your partner on the day you ate it, you're probably not going to mention it. "The problem is when you get a couple that is very good at sharing the deep emotional things but doesn't know anything about each other's lives," says Guldner. "You ask them, 'What's going on with your partner today?' and they have no idea. This happens fairly frequently in long-distance relationships, especially in military ones, and it erodes a fundamental part of intimacy—people stop feeling like they're connected. You have to do things to try to create that interrelatedness."


But intimacy has its costs. The closer you are to someone, the more likely you are to miss them. "Missing" involves several different feelings and thoughts, says Ben Le, an assistant professor of psychology at Haverford College in Pennsylvania who studies romantic relationships. These include sexual desire and longing, thoughts about the future and what the partner is doing, and behavioral tendencies such as looking at pictures of your partner or talking to friends about him or her.

For me, there was a defining moment of missing my husband. It was after his first visit, a quick, four-day trip during which we went to several of the Loire Valley chateaux that surround Tours. At one chateau, as we descended a narrow spiral staircase, we both remarked—almost simultaneously—that the staircase sagged inward toward its central support beam. (Actually, I think we both said "Whoa.") Several days later, after Andy had returned to the States, I was walking down the stairs of my language school and was blindsided by an intense pang of missing him. It took me a few minutes to figure out why, but I realized that the steps tilted inward, just like the ones at the chateau. The sagging stairs had been only momentarily interesting when we'd seen them together. But days later, experiencing something similar while I was alone triggered a memory that made me miss Andy acutely.

Missing a loved one actually involves something much deeper than wanting to be around them. Whether you know it or not, your relationship is an important part of your self-concept; when your partner leaves, you might—at least initially—have to redefine your sense of self. This redefining takes many forms, Le says. For example, at the beginning of a relationship, as two people become closer, they shift their language and begin to use "we" statements where they once would have used "I" ones—for instance, "We slept in Saturday morning," or "That's our favorite restaurant." When couples are spending significant amounts of time apart, partners inevitably are using more "I" language, simply because they're alone more.