"The absence of a partner could, in the short term, result in a loss of part of the self," Le says. "As the long-distance relationship persists, it's likely that the self-concept would shift to account for that LDR—being a 'person in a relationship' would shift to being a 'person in a long-distance relationship.'"
In retrospect, I think my missing Andy on the school staircase was part of a struggle between what I'll call my EuroSelf and my AmeriSelf. My EuroSelf got used to experiencing strange new things on its own. It drank Saumur at lunch, marveled at 12th-century stained glass, and talked in broken French with everyone from farmers to former diplomats. My AmeriSelf, on the other hand—the responsible working girl, the loving partner, the someday mom—had been temporarily left behind. A funny thing started to happen, though, as I got over my initial panic: I started to laugh at my verbal missteps; I began to appreciate the charm of my unusual hosts; I realized my husband and I could live apart temporarily. The EuroMe started to merge with the AmeriMe, and I began to truly enjoy myself, despite the fact that Andy was thousands of miles away.
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Some people in LDRs aren't so lucky, however, especially if the separation lasts a significant amount of time. Guldner's research shows that most couples tend to go through three phases of separation: protest, depression, and detachment. The "protest" phase can range from mild and playful—"Please stay"—to significant anger. Once an individual has accepted the separation, he or she might experience low-level depression, mostly characterized by slight difficulty concentrating, trouble sleeping, and the feeling of being a little down. "Unfortunately, that seems to be a reflex," Guldner explains. "In other words, it persists. It continues with each separation and, in fact, sometimes worsens with each separation. There is very little one can do to prevent it." Some people experience this in a more pronounced way than others.
In the detachment phase, each person begins to compartmentalize his or her life, breaking it down into the sections with a partner and the ones without. It's an effective coping mechanism that allows the individual to be in a relationship while doing what has to be done—until the occasional moment of weakness, that is. One day, while checking my email in the language school's crowded computer lab, I heard the young Asian girl next to me sniffling quietly at her computer. A glance in her direction revealed a live Web-cam feed of a young man alongside an instant-messaging chat box. She typed her goodbye in language characters I couldn't identify, closed the window containing his image, and wiped her eyes before walking away. No matter how well-established your coping mechanisms are, a moving image of your loved one from half a world away carries a particularly powerful emotional punch.
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As the number of LDRs continues to grow, there is hope that in the future we won't have to accept detachment from our partners in the same way we do today. Cornell University scientists, for example, have started researching "minimal intimate objects" as a supplementary means of communication. Imagine both you and your partner spending your days at a computer. In the taskbar of your computer screen, you see a small box with a little circle. When you click on your circle, the corresponding circle on your partner's screen lights up: a quick, one-bit message that's nonintrusive but establishes an ambient awareness of you. As you work, you're right there with each other.