In A Long-Distance Relationship? Tips To Keep The Love Strong

blowing kisses

You're apart physically, but learning to maintain emotional strength will save your relationship.

Remember years ago when bad boy superstar actor Russell Crowe got arrested and charged with second-degree assault and fourth-degree criminal possession of a weapon, after attacking an employee at the Mercer Hotel in New York?

As Crowe later explained to David Letterman, he repeatedly tried (and failed) to call his wife in Australia. I'm not condoning the use of a phone as a weapon, but what an example of how tough a long-distance relationship can be. It's tough enough to make even the calmest person edgy (much less a hard-rocking gladiator with a temper).

When I heard about Crowe's rage, I'd just spent three months living in France apart from my husband, Andy, while attending a language institute. 

My first reaction on the day I arrived—exactly six months after Andy and I married—was not aggression, but something closer to hysteria. Exhausted by 15 hours of travel, I actually cried in my coq au vin when my hosts, who had already revealed their penchant for public displays of affection, asked me how my husband felt about my leaving him for so long.

Later that night, despair escalated into a full-blown tantrum to rival Crowe's when I realized I only had one minute's worth of prepaid cell-phone time left. It's a scenario many long-distance lovers know all too well.

Despite the teary goodbyes, lonely nights, flight delays, and outrageous phone bills, an estimated 14 million Americans are currently in long-distance relationships (or, LDRs). That number includes couples of all kinds, from those who fell for each other while living on opposite coasts, to those who've been married for years but decided to live apart due to international opportunities.

How do they do it? The simple answer is that (barring the occasional attack on a hotel clerk) long-distance relationships really CAN work—and work well!

In fact, research suggests that LDR couples don't break up at any greater rate than traditional, geographically close ones. Plus, multiple studies have found that LDR couples' levels of relationship satisfaction, intimacy, trust, and commitment are identical to their geographically close counterparts.

LDR couples might worry more about infidelity, but they don't actually cheat more.

LDRs are nothing new, of course. Military personnel, academics, truckers, salespeople, athletes, and entertainers have loved across the miles for years. Experts attribute the growing number of LDRs today to a few factors:

The working world looks different and requires more training than previous generations.

"There are more women having careers, and there's more specialization these days," says Seetha Narayan, author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Long-Distance Relationships. "Many couples invested a lot in their careers, and now they have to follow through. They usually think of it as temporary—this is for now, I'll put some time into building my résumé and expand my future options."

The world is a smaller place.

"Before, people met one another by proximity," explains Greg Guldner, PhD, director of the Center for the Study of Long-Distance Relationships. "You married your classmates and you ran into people who lived in the same town. That's really changed now with the types of careers people take. There are many, many more conferences; this is a theme that comes up over and over again. People meet someone at conferences that are either national or international."

Technology is also increasing the number of people who are meeting at a distance. Consider the growing popularity of online dating services. People look in the four zip codes around them, and if that doesn't work they expand their search.

"Because of the isolation that's built into our society right now, people are more willing to take a risk with a long-distance relationship," Guldner says. Add it all up and you've got a lot of people logging a lot of cellphone minutes.

Unless, of course, it costs your significant other 31 cents a minute to call your international cell phone, in which case you must ask him to call you on a pay phone down the street.

When you finally make it to said pay phone, which is no easy task when you consider that the phrase "yield to pedestrian" doesn't have much resonance with the average French driver, you then obsess over the nasty pay-phone receiver and how many people have breathed all over it, or touched it with fingers that have been God-knows-where.

In other words, my phone conversations with my husband were not exactly the breathless, romantic calls I'd imagined they'd be—the kind where you whisper sweet nothings into your lover's ear. Instead, we spent three months communicating through emails, text messages, and quick phone calls, usually about the most prosaic of things.

As it turns out, that's one of the surest ways to a successful LDR.

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, that you have a 2pm 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.

Guldner says, "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. 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 him or her. "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 your partner is doing, and behavioral tendencies—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 them around. Whether you know it or not, your relationship is an important part of your self-concept; when your partner leaves, you might 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 used "I" ones. For example: "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.

Says Le, "The absence of a partner could, in the short term, result in a loss of part of the self. 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 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 her 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, and 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.

Some people in LDRs aren't so lucky, 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.

Guldner explains, "Unfortunately, that's a reflex. 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 remain in a relationship while tending to their obligations ... 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.

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.

Researchers at the now-defunct Media Lab Europe in Dublin, Ireland, developed a prototype aiming to create that same perception of togetherness using "radio frequency identification" technology to network furniture.

For instance, you might be sitting in your living room and an image of a coffee cup would suddenly appear on your coffee table, alerting you that your partner was enjoying his morning coffee. One of the lead researchers, Dipak Patel, who also works for British Telecom, hopes to pick the project up again soon.

Although it might sound a little bizarre—and there are some inevitable privacy complications—the basic awareness of your partner's "presence" might help maintain the intimacy that's so important.

Of course, there will never be a real substitute for living in the same place as your significant other. I'd be remiss if I didn't disclose the fact that, after my return, Andy and I had several discussions about space—namely, that in the three months I was gone he'd developed the habit of sleeping spread-eagle, taking up the whole damn bed.

In the end, living apart allowed us to expand ourselves by adapting who we are as a couple. It's not matching red-leather pants, but that's my kind of marriage.