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The Challenge of Long-Distance Relationships

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.

The Challenge of Long-Distance Relationships

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Marie Hartwell-WalkerDr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.

Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2018). The Challenge of Long-Distance Relationships. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 21, 2019, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.