How can you build and sustain a meaningful and happy relationship while long-distance? In this episode, Dr. Rachel Vanderbilt, the Relationship Doctor, explains how you can maintain your long-distance relationships.
I met my husband when I was a freshman in college. We sat across from each other in our computer science lab during the first week of class. We started dating officially a few months later and spent the rest of the school year practically inseparable. Like a lot of freshmen, I struggled greatly to effectively acclimate to college, and perhaps not like a lot of freshmen, wound up being dismissed for poor academic performance over the next summer. I was faced with a decision about my relationship at that moment—moving home to attend community college would mean I would be 9 hours away from him.
It wasn’t really even a question for us that we would stay together, and I don’t recall ever having an explicit conversation with him about what we would do. I traveled to my old college town to see him maybe once a semester, and then we visited each other when he was home on breaks from school. We video chatted every night and texted as often as we could throughout the day. That year, I applied to transfer back to a four-year school and ultimately made the decision to attend a university only three hours away from my then-boyfriend. We were able to see each other more frequently during that time, but it was still another three years until we lived in the same place. So, for those doing the math, we were long-distance for about four years.
I often get asked about how to make long-distance relationships work. The truth is, it won’t always work—long-distance relationships are notoriously difficult for some people. The reality is that long-distance relationships typically stem from necessity, such as military deployment, going away to college, or work availability constraints. The stress of transitioning to long-distance can be difficult to overcome.
To understand your long-distance relationship, we should first talk about how we make our relationships work when we live in the same place.
What is relationship maintenance?
The things that we do to keep our relationship in “good repair” are called relationship maintenance behaviors. What behaviors qualify as relationship maintenance? Research has identified seven categories of relationship maintenance behaviors:
Positivity: being cheerful, optimistic, or in a decent mood around your partner.
Assurances: discussing your future with your partner and intentions to stay together and actively planning with them.
Relationship talk: having open conversations about concerns in the relationship or the overall state of the relationship.
Self-disclosure: sharing your thoughts and feelings with your partner.
Understanding: not being judgemental toward your partner and actively giving forgiveness.
Networks: interacting with friends and family together.
Tasks: doing your chores or providing tangible help to your partner.
Many of these behaviors are routine, regular tasks that we do that also happen to be in service of our relationship. This could include doing our regular chores because it’s time for them to be done, cooking dinner because you are hungry, or talking about your day because that’s how you wind down after work.
Other behaviors are more strategic and are done specifically with the goal of putting effort into the relationship. This can be telling your partner you love them when they look like they need to hear it, having a conversation about a relationship concern after something happens, or doing one of your partner's chores when you notice they are overwhelmed.
The same behaviors can be routine sometimes and strategic other times. Sometimes we tell our partner we love them because it’s just what we do, whereas other times we tell them we love them because they need to hear it and we want to comfort them on purpose.
How is this different in long-distance relationships?
Some research has looked at how couples who are in long-distance relationships uniquely enact relationship maintenance behaviors.
Long-distance partners go through cycles of physically separating and coming together. For couples who are not in close geographic proximity, enacting maintenance behaviors can occur prior to a separation, during a separation, and after a separation. Behaviors that serve to maintain the relationship can be intrapersonal (cognitive), dyadic (between both partners), or network (between third parties) in nature.
Research has found that engaging in intrapersonal maintenance behaviors before, during, and after a separation can help decrease feelings of uncertainty about the state of the relationship. Intrapersonal behaviors are largely about thinking through the situation. Before a separation, you may prepare for what that time will be like. During a separation, you may think about your partner and the relationship and remind yourself about the positives of your partnership. And afterward, you may reframe negative feelings caused by the separation.
During a period of separation, dyadic maintenance behaviors are the most effective at reducing feelings of uncertainty. Engaging in frequent communication with a partner can help keep the relationship strong. This communication can be pseudo-face-to-face such as through video chatting, or less immediate like through texting.
How can you maintain your long-distance relationship?
As someone who has been through a long-distance relationship before, I have a few recommendations for how you can make the best of what can be a difficult situation.
Reframe what a long-distance relationship means. It's easy to get in your head about a long-distance relationship somehow being less good than a geographically close relationship. The truth is, being in a relationship while physically apart can be healthy. When my husband and I were first together, we were inseparable. While many people think of that as a good thing, we were jealous of the times when we would be apart and we struggled to be independent. Being apart allowed for us to develop our individuality, and identify activities that made us happy, while still being in a wonderful partnership.
Develop a communication plan and try to stick to it. Whether this means texting each other throughout the day or having a set video chat in the evening, making decisions about how often you want to communicate before you move to long-distance can set clear expectations for what will make your partnership happy and fulfilling. You may also want to schedule set moments for intimacy while apart, which could be as simple as a virtual cooking date, or watching a TV show together once a week. Being flexible when life happens is important, but also having and maintaining consistent check-ins or setting virtual dates is crucial.
Plan for and talk about future in-person moments. It is important to look ahead at what is coming and to build excitement for those moments together. Some people recommend setting a firm time to see each other next during every in-person visit. I wouldn’t go that far, but knowing an approximate timeframe for the next meet-up can help ease some of that uncertainty and also the sadness of leaving one another. Once you have a firm date, working together to plan that time together can make your time apart feel less bad. Also, try to tell your partner about how excited you are to see them next.
Generally, the best way to be in a long-distance relationship is to buy into it wholeheartedly. Embrace the time to be an individual and to work on yourself. Make the time you have together exciting, enjoyable, and something to actively look forward to. Set up a communication plan and a virtual date plan that will work for you. Long-distance doesn’t have to be some horrible, completely gut-wrenching experience. Try to work toward making the most out of the situation while growing and maintaining your partnership.