Remember that old saying: “Absence makes the heart grow fonder”? Well, there’s something to that.
With more and more couples trying to make it work over long distances today than ever before, new studies are popping up everywhere about the success — or failure — of long-distance relationships. And a lot of those studies tell us that long-distance relationships can actually be stronger than geographically close relationships.
But it’s a little more complicated than absence making the heart grow fonder. Long-distance relationships require a lot of trust, open and honest communication, and patience. They don’t work for every couple. They can be painful and frustrating, and occasionally maddening — but so can any relationship, right?
With that in mind, I dug into some of the psychology behind long-distance relationships, and learned what makes them worth it.
The Psychology Of Long-Distance Relationships
It’s easy to assume that a relationship (or friendship) can fall apart as soon as two people are separated. When you don’t see each other every day, you’re probably less inclined to think of each other, get occupied with other relationships, and quickly lose touch.
Actually, the opposite is true: it’s hard-wired into our DNA to maintain a relationship through separation. This has been observed in some of our closest relatives like chimps and bonobos — primates will put more effort into a friendship or bond (demonstrated by social grooming and other acts of affection) after they have been separated for a long time. Similarly, humans spend more time talking when they are apart from each other, and tend to have longer, more intimate conversations than they normally would.
So absence really does make the heart grow fonder, in that sense. We are more inclined to show affection and intimacy toward people we love when we’re away from them for a long time. But what does that mean for a relationship?
A Stronger Bond: Imagine an ordinary evening at home with a significant other. Maybe you cook a meal together, chat about your respective days, and watch a show or movie. You have plenty of time to talk, or just sit around and enjoy being together.
Now, imagine an hour-long phone or video call with the same person. What kinds of things do you talk about, when time is limited and can’t interact beyond talking? A 2011 study found that conversations between couples over video chat are often more in-depth and meaningful than a day-to-day conversation. As a result, long-distance couples can form a stronger bond while separated than they would in person.
Trust: Trust is a crucial element in any relationship, but when it comes to long-distance, trust is everything. Not being able to see your partner or know what they are doing at all times can actually increase trust — most couples find they have more freedom to live their own personal lives, while still trusting their partner to stay loyal to them.
Sex And Intimacy: Believe it or not, distance in a relationship can have a positive effect on intimacy. While most long-distance couples cite a lack of physical intimacy as their biggest challenge, that doesn’t mean it’s a dealbreaker. In fact, the anticipation of seeing one another again after a long separation generally positively affects sexual satisfaction in a relationship. While being apart is a challenge, it makes being together again that much better.
Making Plans: Establishing a plan for the future is an important foundation of a healthy relationship. A 2016 study on the impact of joint-planning in a marriage revealed that couples who plan for a future together and consider their partner in every decision are more likely to stay together. As obvious as that sounds, it’s easy for a couple to go along without establishing long-term plans; discussing the future can get uncomfortable, and we all tend to avoid it when we can.
In a long-distance relationship, on the other hand, plans are all you have. It’s impossible to have a committed relationship without establishing when you will see each other, how you will make it work, who might be able to move, and so on. Long-distance encourages couples to make plans together and look forward to a future that accommodates each partner’s needs and desires.
Worth The Wait
I met my partner while studying abroad. Being from different countries, we both figured it couldn’t last — but when the time came to split up and go back home, neither of us wanted to end things. So we decided to give it a shot. Four years later, we’re still together. We both travel a lot, and often have to spend months at a time apart, but the distance has never had anything but a positive impact on our relationship.
So, maybe I’m biased. But in my opinion, long-distance relationships are always worth it. Distance improves your communication, increases trust, encourages you to make plans together, and reminds you of how much you miss each other.
Of course, no relationship is perfect — long-distance relationships can be as stressful and heartbreaking as any relationship. But for a couple who loves and trusts each other, physical distance shouldn’t be a problem. No matter how long you have to be apart, it’s always worth the wait.