Alone Again, Naturally: Why Do We Do Long-Distance Relationships?
The problem of trying to maintain a long-distance relationship is something with which I am very familiar, having done over three years of long distance in a six and a half year relationship. Prior to that, I always swore off long-distance. In fact, when I had a partner who would go home to visit family for two plus weeks, I would insist we not speak until his return. So, why did I do it with this later partner? Was it something about how we related to one another that made me feel it was worth it? It wasn’t a see-you-on-the-weekends distance: she was doing medical school in London, England while I toiled away in Montreal, Canada.
In our technical wonder-age, it seems to me, that people are now more readily agreeing to long distance than previously. It’s certainly easier with video chat apps like Skype and phones that connect us to the internet wherever we are. But that convenience doesn’t take away from the loneliness of rarely being able to spend actual face-to-face time with your favorite person in the world. Physical intimacy, according to Psychology Today, is “based on a deep biological need.”
Lack There Of
Starting with infants needing to be held and touched for healthy development- connecting with others physically continues to be essential throughout life. Researchers suggest that there is a link between depression and the absence of physical intimacy. A long distance relationship can mean a lack of physical intimacy between individuals for years–in my former relationship, we were only able to see each other once or twice a year for a week or two at a time. When you think about how often an in-person couple usually touches one another in a day or week, that’s a big difference.
Let’s Start with the Concept of Dating
This process in which we seek to find someone with whom we feel a bond is great in theory. You can meet someone who has all the idealized qualities, but if you don’t connect, don’t click, then they become just another human being who maybe also enjoys Sleater-Kinney and Orange is the New Black.
According to Moira Weigel’s Labor of Love: the Invention of Dating, it was only around 1900 that dating became common. That was the point at which women began to leave their homes and moved to the city to work at jobs that let them mingle. Before that, young people, especially women, were closely supervised and people had little opportunity to bond. The opportunity to date changed all that. You could meet your match and love could blossom.
When the First World War began in 1914, men went off to battle and the women stayed behind. These were probably the earliest true long distance dating relationships, with yearning lovers pulled apart in the midst of early courtship. Couples often had to wait months between letters, as they could easily be delayed or lost.
Research shows that distance often allows partners to keep a more idealized view of one another when apart. This would certainly have been true of war-torn couples, what with one partner off to help save the world. Communication would be cut by lengthy delays and lost letters, so many relationships were fraught with insecurity and jealousy. Telegrams were expensive and probably rarely used, so it really did come down to letters going back and forth.
Certainly, without social media, long-distance was maintained in ways that were far less simple to implement. If a pining woman missed a phone call from her soldier love, there was no follow-up text to explain when he would try again. The cliché of waiting by the phone for a date existed for a reason–it would have been so easy to miss calls.
The WWW, depending on how you look at it, is either the destroyer or savior of dating. My first partner and I met in person through friends, but she then sought me out via my Geocities web page. No longer did people need to wait by the phone. We could be contacted by email, on MySpace and then Facebook, on mailing lists and message boards. In fact, all these emails and web pages allowed us more in-depth access to our partners as we could supplement in-person hangouts with written stories about our days.
Smartphones were launched in the mid-2000s and their effect on relationships has been studied many times over ever since.
people feel more intimately connected even when apart.
people are less invested in moments when a phone is pinging away with notifications.
A study in Psychology of Popular Media Culture pointed out that people who were dependent on their smartphones were generally less secure about their relationships. Also, those people who thought their partners were addicted to smartphone use were less satisfied in the relationship. That implies an interesting dynamic in a long-distance relationship, as you sort of have to be constantly on your phone in order to keep in touch.
Apps like Grindr and Tinder have changed the playing field for dating. They make it easier to meet people who don’t live in the same city as you. I knew someone who would use a dating app while on a cross-country road trip to meet people for the one night he was staying when passing through a town.
This has changed things too for couples in long-distance relationships: how daunting to know that your out-of-sight-out-of-mind partner could be meeting new people without even leaving the house. Technology, while making aspects of long-distance communication easier, can also make it easier to feel suspicious and ignored. Why hasn’t your partner texted back? It’s been four hours! It’s easy to assume the worst when assessing situations, especially when your partner isn’t there for you to read their expressions or evaluate their tone of voice.
These kinds of anxieties can occur in in-person relationships too, but physical intimacy goes a long way; sometimes just being held by a partner can be enough to calm anger and lessen resentment.