If you want to thrive as a long-distance couple, first figure out what stage your relationship is in. Then plan accordingly.
A leading online women’s magazine recently did a run-down of the ten most highly searched relationship questions on Google. The results were pretty shocking. The #1 most-asked question turned out to be: “How to make a long distance relationship work?”
That’s interesting. We’re all usually told to do everything we can to avoid long-distance relationships.
What’s going on here? Google doesn’t give an opinion. But it seems more people do find themselves in long-distance relationships these days—despite all the traditional warnings.
Long-Distance Relationships in the 21st Century
According to one study, about three million married Americans now live apart from their spouse at some point during their marriage. Part of the explanation may be economic. These days it’s typical for both partners to work. Which means that sooner or later one of you may have to move for a job assignment.
Another reason for the apparent uptick in long distance relationships is that many relationships these days start out long-distance. Almost 40% of heterosexual American couples today actually meet online. For same-sex couples, it’s more than 60%. If you’re looking for love online, it’s easy to get attracted to someone who lives a bit farther away than you’d ordinarily consider practical. Before you know it, you’re part of a long-distance couple.
If you’re looking for love online, it’s easy to get attracted to someone who lives a bit farther away than you’d ordinarily consider practical. Before you know it, you’re part of a long-distance couple.
There are also lots of new, creative ways for couples to stay in touch. According to one study, the average long-distance couple exchanges 343 text messages—and spends eight hours on the phone or video together—in a typical week. There’s now a whole micro-industry devoted to supporting long-distance relationships—through special apps, special web sites, and even long-distance interactive sex toys.
So, Is There Hope for Long Distance Relationships?
With all these innovations, do long-distance relationships stand a better chance than they used to? Two recent studies found that people in long distance relationships report equal levels of relationship satisfaction, and even better levels of satisfaction on some measures, than conventional couples.
So let’s ask the obvious question: Are we now at a point where friends and family should finally stop warning couples against long-distance relationships? The answer, I think, depends on where you happen to be in your relationship when you face the decision to go long-distance or not.
The Stages of Love
Relationships tend to go through three distinct stages. In Stage One, if you’re lucky, you meet someone, fall in love with them, and miraculously they love you back. If you’re like most people, that’s better than winning the Lotto. You do weird things together that nobody in the world does except people in Stage One, like staying up all night talking.
One might call Stage One the stage of inspiration. Most couples idealize each other a bit at this point. That’s actually a good thing. It helps create the necessary emotional conditions for the two of you to bond as a couple.
But sooner or later the idealization crumbles, and you realize that in certain ways, large or small, you’re actually quite incompatible. You may wonder at times why in the world you ever chose this person. Welcome to Stage Two, the stage of frustration and disappointment.
Most break-ups occur during Stage Two. That makes sense, since not all relationships are meant to be.
Most break-ups occur during Stage Two. That makes sense, since not all relationships are meant to be. Stage Two confronts you with problems to figure out—problems you don’t yet know the answers to. Solving these problems together is how you eventually build enough confidence in yourselves as a couple to get to Stage Three—the stage of creative mastery.
In Stage Three you emerge again as individuals. We’re going to spend a lot of time in future episodes discussing the best ways to accomplish this. For now, let’s just say the main thing is to get over the idea that the two of you were magically put on earth to meet each other’s needs.
Three Kinds of Long Distance Relationships
There are three different kinds of long-distance relationships, depending on what stage you’re at when you’re forced to go long-distance.
1. Long-Distance Relationships in Stage One
People in Stage One typically need a lot of reassurance from each other. Remember, in Stage One there’s a lot of idealization going on. It takes a lot of reassurance to keep all that idealization going.
Happily, with electronic technology, you can now reassure each other on a near-continuous basis. There are a zillion creative ways to stay in touch—from texting, to video, to interactive online games. You can even build yourselves a virtual love-nest online using Google Drive or Google Sites, filling it with images, videos, letters, and anything else that makes the two of you feel good.
Research suggests that idealization lasts a bit longer in long-distance relationships. Which makes sense, since you’re both putting your best selves forward. If you’re among the 27% of long distance couples who start out long distance—usually due to having met online—this can be a particular burden.
Research suggests that idealization lasts a bit longer in long-distance relationships. Which makes sense, since you’re both putting your best selves forward.
The best solution is to be conscious, right from the start, that you’re at least somewhat under the spell of an illusion, and that this is nature’s way of creating a romantic bond between two people.
Stage One is the early childhood of a relationship. Your feelings are going to be very immature. Treat them the same way good parents treat their children. Give them all the love, acceptance, and reassurance you can. And don’t forget to enjoy them while they’re still young.
2. Long-Distance Relationships in Stage Two
One might think of Stage Two as the “terrible two’s” of a relationship. You’ve discovered things about your partner that you don’t like so much, and the childish parts of your mind aren’t happy about that at all. Surviving Stage Two requires the same kind of patience a parent needs to get through their child’s toddler years.
One of the best ways to handle a two-year-old who’s having a tantrum is to pick them up and let them cry it out on your shoulder. It’s the same thing in a relationship. Often the best things you can do with an unhappy partner is to hold them tight, let them exhaust their frustration in tears, and tell them it’s going to be okay.
Often the best things you can do with an unhappy partner is to hold them tight, let them exhaust their frustration in tears, and tell them it’s going to be okay.
The lack of physical contact can be a real problem for a long distance couple. We’re not built to manage emotional relationships in the absence of physical touch.
Texting is notoriously bad for managing problems. A phone conversation is infinitely better. But without the reassurance that comes from physical touch, a phone call won’t be sufficient for the kind of epic blow-outs you might encounter in Stage Two.
A long distance relationship in Stage Two may often require you to assume more responsibility for taking care of your own feelings, hard as that may be. Picture in your mind an angry two-year-old crying on their parent’s shoulder. In a Stage Two long-distance relationship, you may often have to be both the two-year-old and the parent, at the same time.
Oh, and one more thing—try not to argue or complain by text. Two-year-olds don’t understand text. They don’t fully understand words either. The only thing they really understand are warm, sturdy arms to hold them when they need to be held.
3. Long-Distance Relationships in Stage Three
Once you survive Stage Two, with any luck your relationship feels a bit more grown-up. By Stage Three you trust each other more, so you don’t need quite so much reassurance all the time. That can be wonderful news for a long distance relationship.
The main problem in Stage Three is you might not have quite as much motivation to stay connected. All couples eventually begin to take each other for granted. That’s normal. In Stage Three, you’re meant to turn outward to encounter the world together, rather than focusing so much on each other.
Just because you’re not under the same roof doesn’t mean you can’t continue to take on the world together.
So what’s the best way to stay connected? Simple. Just because you’re not under the same roof doesn’t mean you can’t continue to take on the world together. You’ll just need to make sure you have joint projects that are meaningful to both of you.
For instance, if you both love to travel, you might subscribe to the same travel magazine, so you can flip the pages in tandem—or whatever the digital equivalent of that might be. The time you spend planning your next trip can be as important for your relationship as the trip itself.
Bottom line: Long distance relationships are never easy, but more and more couples these days are finding ways to make them work. Before you start one, though, see if you can figure out what relationship stage you’re in—then plan accordingly!
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Please note that all content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.