Distance doesn’t destroy relationships, you do

By Emily Feek

The first thing that comes to mind when you think of a long-distance relationship is the ill-fated high school couple after graduation.

Long-distance relationships sometimes feel destined to fail; when it’s hard enough to maintain a relationship in the same town, how are we expected to maintain one miles apart? And yet, we do.

Those of us who have moved several hours (or states) away from our friends and families to attend college often maintain long-distance relationships with the people we care about, but we need to be intentional about how we go about it.

Technology has undeniably changed the way we communicate. Whether you think it’s for the better or worse, the truth of it is that the advent of the internet revolutionized communication by making it nearly instantaneous.

Having such easy access to people makes it easy for us to feel connected without putting effort into the relationship. Just maintaining contact isn’t always enough — sometimes you need deeper connection than a meme or a quick hello can offer.

According to Ulrich Beck and Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim’s book “Distant Love,” which investigates different types of long-distance relationships, “Intimacy at a distance depends on firm arrangements if the inner bond is to be sustained.”

They refer to intimacy in a romantic context, but it’s possible to be intimate in non-romantic ways, and the sentiment stands. We have to commit ourselves to our relationships, and in a long-distance one, that may mean scheduling out Skype calls or promising to text daily.

It’s easier to find the time to see someone when you live next door or across campus. The easiest way to maintain a close relationship is face-to-face, in-person contact. The thing is, we can get pretty close to having that over the Internet.

When boomers (ha ha) talk about how technology has changed the way we communicate, they probably mean earlier forms of communication that lacked context. (And on a related note, the telephone was also criticized for similar reasons as modern technology. People thought it would remove the need for face-to-face interaction.)

Non-verbal communication, the cues and intent we convey through anything other than our words, actually accounts for about 93% of our communication about our feelings, if you subscribe to UCLA Professor Albert Mehrabian’s 1981 theory.

Earlier computer-mediated forms of communication — text and email — removed all of those non-verbal cues. Even speaking over the phone is harder to interpret, though it conveys tone that text doesn’t.

Now that we have access to communication means like FaceTime and Skype, we’re the closest we can get to face-to-face communication without actually being together.

And that means we’re back to square one, relationship-wise; we can see each other and communicate the way we normally would in-person. The only barrier to our relationships when it comes to distance is us.

Long-distance relationships aren’t doomed from the start, they just require effort beyond what we might put into our relationships with our roommates or neighbors.

Studies of long-distance relationship satisfaction, such as the study by Gretchen Kelmer et al. published in the journal Family Process, have found that long-distance relationships are not inherently linked to lower satisfaction.

Many participants in the study in long-distance relationships actually reported higher levels of satisfaction and commitment than those closer together, though the study acknowledged the more positive results could be linked to romanticization of long-distance partners.

But overall, the message boils down to this: people in successful long-distance relationships remain committed to each other and make time for each other, just like we would for family and friends back home (which we might consider to be lower-stake relationships).

According to Kelmer et. al, “those who have a stronger connection and commitment are those who are more likely to be able to remain together through geographical separation.”

The study also found that long-distance couples were just as likely to break up with their partners as geographically close couples, but the real takeaway is that they aren’t more likely to, either. The idea that long-distance relationships are doomed to fail isn’t accurate.

Couples, friends and families that remain close despite being miles apart don’t just magically make things work. It’s easy to default to the cynical view that we can’t be close to each other without being there, or that being separated just makes it easier to lie and cheat.

That’s not necessarily wrong, either. The truth, as it usually is, is somewhere in the middle.

Yes, distance means it’s easier to hide things and keep secrets, but it can also be an exercise in trust and dedication. We have the means to maintain relationships like never before, thanks to technology, that allows for nonverbal communication in addition to speech, but we have to use it correctly.

Even though technology makes everyone easily accessible, we have to be accountable for the effort we put into relationships. We need to make time to talk to the people we care about even if it isn’t easy, and we have to allow ourselves to be vulnerable when we talk to them, too.

If technology does offer a real threat to our relationships, it’s probably not the lack of nonverbal cues. It’s the lack of accountability that does it.

Just talking to someone isn’t enough to have a solid relationship. It’s harder to be open and vulnerable when the person you’re talking to isn’t in the same room, but that’s the kind of communication we need to keep up with in our more intimate relationships.

Distance and technology don’t spell out doom for our relationships. We do.

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