The Challenge of Long-Distance Relationships

By Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

More and more young couples are struggling with launching two separate careers at the same time that they are launching a relationship or a marriage together. Having spent endless hours with each other in college, grad school or during a first job, they feel ready to commit to each other. Having focused time and intent on a career-in-the-making, they feel equally committed to their vocations. Often enough, the first rung of the ladder at their respective careers is in different cities. So,being Generation Yers — modern, forward thinking, and ambitious — they decide that a few years of distance won’t hurt. After all, they are meant for each other. They are meant for their jobs. And they are meant to have both.

Maybe.

The strains on a long-distance relationship are many and intense. Frequently, couples in this situation quote “absence makes the heart grow fonder” as a way of reassuring themselves and each other that their love will sustain them over the difficulties of distance and time. But unless both partners are committed to doing the very hard work of being together alone, their relationship will soon fall to another, equally common saying: “Out of sight, out of mind.” The immediate demands of work and the availability of attractive, available singles can, and regularly do, overwhelm good intentions and even love.

What can a couple do to preserve their love and relationship over the miles? Here are some key characteristics of couples that make it.

Both members of the couple are committed to the commitment. All relationships have their ups and downs. All relationships have times when one or the other partner feels held back, misunderstood, not given enough, left in the dust, or any of a whole host of less-than-wonderful feelings. The couples that make it, whether they live together or apart, are those that understand that this is a natural part of a long-term commitment. Working through difficult times usually strengthens and betters the relationship.

The long-distance couple is especially challenged during these times. When people live together, there are hundreds of little opportunities every day to connect, to reassure, to touch, to pick up a conversation that was too hard to finish an hour ago, to try again and again. The long distance couple needs to take the time to phone, to e-mail, to stay in contact even when it would be so much easier and more pleasant not to.

Both members keep their partners visible to the people around them, as well as to themselves. Couples who live together generally share at least some friends, go home to each other at the end of the day, and make references to each other quite often, just because it’s a natural part of the day. They may not realize it, but being so visibly “coupled” helps create a context for themselves within their community and workplaces that helps to maintain the couple. People around them see them as part of a couple, not as single and available.

The colleagues and friends of a person in a long-distance relationship aren’t as apt to see their friend as part of a couple because the couple isn’t visible. It falls on each member of the couple to make it happen anyway. Pictures on the desk, references to phone calls and conversations, stories about the partner, and introducing the partner to everyone during visits are all ways that a person makes it clear that he or she is “coupled.” The result is support for the relationship.

The arrangement meets the needs of both people. When one or the other is making a sacrifice or doing a favor by accepting the long-distance arrangement, the couple is already in trouble. Under strain —and strain in long-distance relationships is a given— a saint quickly becomes a martyr and complainer. Torn between the demands of work and the complaints of the partner, the other partner feels betrayed and angry. It’s an unusual relationship that can weather this type of accommodation.

The arrangement is within each partner’s physical “intimacy zone.” There is no “right” amount of physical contact required for any relationship. Different people have different needs for physical intimacy. But couples that last generally have a shared idea about how much togetherness, touching, and sex is enough. For some people, a long-distance relationship is the perfect answer to the level of physical intimacy the couple wants or can tolerate. For others, the lack of contact puts enormous strain on the relationship, making the partners vulnerable to conflict and affairs if they don’t make an adjustment in how they are living.

Both people are focused on their careers when they are working and on each other when they are together. One of the advantages of a long-distance arrangement is that when at the job, each partner can be totally immersed in the demands of the job. The structure allows long days and late nights, without worrying about the needs of the partner. This can be fine, as long as the same kind of focus and time go into the couple when the couple is together. There’s nothing more destructive to a long-distance couple than the pull of a briefcase full of work brought home from the job.

Couples that succeed put boundaries around their time together so that they have the time and space for intimacy and renewal. If there’s no getting away from bringing some work home, these couples set aside time for both people to do something separately so that neither partner feels like he or she is taking second place to work during couples time.

They consider carefully whether they have what it takes to add a “third career” (child-rearing) to the mix. Yes, people with children can manage a relationship in which jobs keep the parents apart. But it is much, much harder. Now there are three careers to juggle: partner A’s, partner B’s, and the third career — raising the kids. Managing two careers is hard enough. Adding a third (or more) person’s needs complicates things immeasurably.

A very basic consideration is that the two-city relationship is a creation of and for adults. Kids don’t choose it. Most can’t stand it. Kids need time when they need it. No matter how well-intentioned the adults are in terms of giving the children “quality time” when they are around, the children’s needs are not likely to be on the same schedule.

Managing the situation so that the children are attached to both parents and so that the parents remain attached to each other is a far more complicated issue than can be discussed in the scope of this article. Suffice to say that it requires an enormous amount of commitment, attention, and selflessness to make it work. The wise couple considers very carefully whether they have the energy and devotion to stretch themselves even further.

Yes, it can be done. Successful long distance relationships do exist, many of them happily. Most such couples see it as a stage in their relationship. Both partners agree that they need to work in different cities to pay their career dues. They do it so that they will have more money and more choices later on. Still other couples see it as a way to develop some financial security before they bring children into their marriage and the world. Still others find that they really like the arrangement and sustain a loving distance from their partners for many, many years. As with all relationships, the key to success is that the partners are committed to each other and to their own way of being a couple.

 

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2006). The Challenge of Long-Distance Relationships. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 27, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/the-challenge-of-long-distance-relationships/000692
Scientifically Reviewed
    Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Jan 2013
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