Long Distance Relationship Frequently Asked Questions

Top Frequently Asked Questions

How common are long distance relationships?

Long Distance Relationship Statistics: The best estimates suggest that there are 3,569,000 married persons in the United States who live apart for reasons other than marital discord in 2005 (the latest data available).

This is 2.9% of all US marriages.

Compared to 2000 there are 839,000 more people in a long-distance marriage than in 2005. There was a 30% relative increase in the rate of long-distance marriages between 2000 and 2005 (2.36% of marriages in 2000 and 2.9% of marriages in 2005).

Newlyweds have an even greater chance of being long-distance early in their marriage with one study of 600 couples showing 1 in 10 were long-distance during some portion of their first 3 years.

Pre-marital couples are harder to study though research shows an estimated 4.4 million college students (20-40% of all students in some studies) are in LDRs. One study of dating relationships estimated 1 in 7 (14%) were long-distance. Extrapolating from census data it is likely that 3.5 million dating couples are long-distance.

Overall, there are just over 7 million couples (14-15 million individuals) in the US who consider themselves in a long distance relationship.

Are long distance relationships becoming more common?

Compared to 2000 there are 839,000 more long-distance marriages in 2005. There was a 23% relative increase in the rate of long-distance marriages between 2000 and 2005 (2.36% of marriages in 2000 and 2.9% of marriages in 2005). Greater exposure to far away singles accounts for part of this trend. “People travel for their work, they commute farther, they generally travel more than we did just a few decades ago.

All of these things make it more likely that they’ll fall for someone who doesn’t live nearby,” says Dr. Guldner. The rise of Internet dating services predictably contributes to “coast-to-coast couples” – those who live on opposite ends of the nation and met on the web, but have a real, not just a virtual, relationship. Society has finally started accepting long distance relationships as a viable alternative.

So not only are there more long-distance sparks flying these days but people are far more likely to fan the flames of these romances rather than assume they would never work.

Do LDRs work? Do long distance relationships work?

Despite what many people believe, LDRs do not break up at any greater rate than more traditional, geographically close, couples.

Multiple studies comparing LDRs to geographically close couples find the same rates of breaking up over time.

Rates of Break-up for LDRs Versus Proximal (Close) Relationships (PR) from 5 Studies

  • 30% PR and 27% LDR over 6 months
  • 21% PR vs 37% LDR over 3 months*
  • 35% PR vs. 42% LDR over 6 months*
  • 23% PR vs 11% LDR over 6 months
  • 25% PR vs. 8% LDR over 1 year

*Not a statistically significant difference (i.e., rates are statistically equal)

Do couples in LDRs have less satisfying relationships?

Multiple studies have measured relationship quality and compared couples in LDRs to those in geographically close relationships.

Couples in LDRs report identical levels of relationship satisfaction, intimacy, trust, and commitment.

How often should long distance couples visit one another?

This is one of many questions about the demographics of long distance relationships, that is, the easily quantifiable parts such as how far apart couples live, how often they visit or call one another, how long they were together as a geographically close couple prior to having to separate, and so forth.

I break down long distance relationships into four broad areas – demographics, the personality of each person in the couple, the support system for the relationship, and the quality of the relationship itself. Research has shown clearly that of these four components, demographics has the least to do with the success or failure of a long distance relationship.

Couples therapists who focus on long distance relationships have understandably suggested frequent face-to-face visits. Yet when researchers carefully looked at this question, the largest and best designed studies found no relationship between how often couples visited one another and how likely they were to stay together. I realize that this seems contrary to common sense, so in the book (Long Distance Relationships) I discuss in more detail each of the studies that looked at this question. This is one of several insights that research has provided that clashes with the opinions of many “experts.”

The good news is that couples should feel free to visit one another however often you can afford to do so.

Do couples in long distance relationships cheat on one another more frequently?

A common worry among couples in long distance relationships is that their partner (or they themselves) will have an affair while they’re separated.

Common sense suggests that because partners can’t keep an eye on one another they might be more prone to wander. Researchers have examined whether couples in long distance relationships have more affairs than geographically close couples. These studies produced both good news and bad. The good news is that all three studies showed that couples in long distance relationships had no greater risk of having an affair than geographically close couples. It seems that the risk of having an affair is related more to the quality of the relationship between the couple, and the personalities involved, than on mere opportunity.

Now for the bad news: despite what the statistics say, those in long distance relationships worry much more about affairs than those in geographically close relationships.

What is the most challenging thing about long distance relationships?

The most challenging aspect of a long distance relationship is maintaining the feeling of simply being part of one another’s lives.

Couples that see one another only once a week or once a month often can feel disconnected from their partner. This disconnection can lead to an erosion of intimacy. Think of intimacy as requiring two components: 1) the sharing of emotions, and 2) inter-relatedness of daily activities. Couples in long distance relationships (LDRs) usually do a great job of sharing the emotions that they have for one another. But the second part of the equation, “interrelatedness” requires a great deal of effort. Interrelatedness means being somehow involved in your partner’s, often mundane, day-to-day activities, adventures, struggles, and accomplishments.

Geographically close couples do this almost unconsciously as they chat about little events that are upcoming or recently past.

These little events seem relevant when discussed right away, but they lose their interest and excitement when discussed in retrospect. For example, “Guess what happened to me at the grocery store?” would be a comment that geographically close couples would share later that night. Although the content may seem trivial, the unconscious connection formed between partners with each little interaction, such as this, forms the foundation of intimacy. But the same couple, placed in a long distance relationship, would likely not think to discuss this little adventure at the grocery store or would find it has lost it’s interest when brought up several days after the fact.

I sometimes compare intimacy to a rope that holds two people together. The inner core of the rope is the sharing of emotions between one another. But around this core are thousands of tiny fibers made up of each seemingly mundane exchange or experience that occurs between a couple. While no one fiber is terribly important, as a whole they create the true strength of the bond. Couples in LDRs usually have a great inner core, but by itself it will not be strong enough to hold the couple together.

They have to really work on adding the outer fibers by learning how to share in each others world even while they’re apart.

Long Distance Relationship Advice

What are the most important things one can do in order to maintain a happy, loving relationship despite long distances?

Our research found six critical areas that couples must tackle to keep a long distance relationship happy and healthy.

1. Stay Optimistic! When we looked at dozens of coping styles used by couples in long distance relationships, the only one that clearly stood out was staying optimistic about the relationship. When I work with long distance couples I focus on three parts to staying optimistic: Debunk the myths, challenge the nay-sayers, and focus on the positive. Research shows that, despite what many people think, LDRs do not have any greater chance of breaking up than any other relationship. LDRs report just as much satisfaction, intimacy, trust, and commitment as traditional relationships. People in LDRs do NOT have more sexual affairs than other couples. LDRs are NOT a “bad idea” and, in fact, are often the very best alternative of those available. Challenging the nay-sayers requires that couples not simply put up with others who tell them LDRs “never work.” Ask them how they know this, as research shows this is not true. We would not put up with someone telling us that our geographically close relationship was “doomed,” so don’t let them say the same thing about our LDR.

Focusing on the positive asks couples to remember the advantages that come with an LDR (and there are many!)

2. Re-Learn How to be Intimate. This refers back to the answer for your first question. Couples in LDRs often use their precious time together or on the telephone to share heartfelt emotions in an effort to bond. But they don’t focus on the mundane issues needed to feel inter-connected and intimate. Our research found that what couples say and how they say it matters far more than how frequently they communicate.

We use a five-step approach to re-learning intimacy.

  • First, find ways to share in the little day-to-day events. If couples have access to email, send an email in the am discussing the day’s plans, and a second in the evening telling how everything went. Couples that talk nightly need to make sure to talk about how their day went and their plans for the next day. Couples with less contact can keep a diary of items that they want to share with their partner the next time they do talk. Without this, these little events will vanish from memory. Keep track of your partner’s events as well so you can ask about them and feel a part of them. Some couples use hand held tape recorders to “chat” with their partner throughout the day. The tape is then sent to the partner who can feel connected to their partner’s world. Although often couples share deep emotions on these tapes, the real focus should be run-of-the-mill chatter about the day. Some couples use Polaroid pictures or digital camera pictures to show their partner’s little things that go on during the day.
  • Second, use technology to create intimacy. Couples in geographically close relationships create intimacy unconsciously as they chat with one another while doing other activities. This creates a feeling of “being in the world together” that is separate from the feelings shared when two people are wholly focused on one another. Purchase a hands-free cordless phone (about $50-99 in the US). This allows one to do laundry or clean up or other chores while talking to their partner simultaneously (this is called “parallel communication” in the research world). This can change the whole feel of a telephone call and produce much greater intimacy in the long run.
  • Our research found that couples in LDRs that stayed together wrote to one another twice as often as those that broke up (even when we controlled for differences in trust, commitment, etc.) Hand written letters (not email) have an important psychological impact that fosters intimacy. Scenting these letters with a particular cologne or perfume also can have a profound effect for some couples.
  • Understand the pitfalls of talking on the telephone. Unfortunately, research shows that talking on the telephone has a number of important drawbacks. Arguments are more difficult to resolve, opinions are difficult to predict, couples feel misunderstood and attacked, and they may judge their partner as less sincere and intelligent then when talking face-to-face. Couples have to learn to pick up on subtle problems that occur while on the telephone and learn how to discriminate between problems that result from simply using the telephone and those that are more serious.
  • Use reminders of your partner frequently. There are many ways to keep your partner near psychologically, when they can’t be near physically. Photographs are the most obvious, but you can also now buy talking photographs in which your partner leaves a digitally recorded message that can be replayed with the touch of a button. Digital recording key chains are inexpensive and can record several seconds of your partner’s voice. More expensive are digital video telephones that send a live picture of your partner every few seconds while you talk on the telephone. Cards or letters with a favorite scent can help by tapping into a third sense along with site and sound.

3. Some things must be said. Couples in LDRs often don’t discuss certain topics that are critical to relationships. Faced with limited time together, couples often don’t want to “spoil” a weekend by bringing up issues. This leads to a tendency to postpone (often indefinitely) discussing important topics. Research has shown that while couples in LDRs argue less frequently than others, they also progress more slowly. Similarly, couples in LDRs can come to idealize their partner (downplaying the negative side) which works well until the couple re-unite. Then disillusionment can set in. To combat this effect we recommend that couples formalize a time to talk about the relationship and address problems that might otherwise fester. One specific topic that is often not addressed involves “ground rules” about interacting with other people that might be considered a threat to the relationship. For example, is it okay to go out with someone for dinner? Is it okay to go to a movie together? Some dating couples even allow for dating other people. In our study we found that about 30% of couples who discussed ground rules broke up, regardless of whether they decided to date others or not. But 70% of couples who did not discuss this topic broke up. Finally, we remind couples in LDRs to generously applaud the contributions of their partners.

Men in LDRs in particular feel that their partners did not acknowledge their contributions.

4. Don’t Isolate Yourself! Research has found that those in LDRs very frequently cut themselves off from others. They use work as a distraction from the loneliness. They feel awkward when they’re out in public. Their ambiguous status – physically single but not romantically available – can be uncomfortable in certain social situations. Sometimes people feel lonelier when they’re out in public seeing other couples having fun. Frequently those in LDRs must focus on work while they’re apart in order to have time to spend with their partner when together. All of these contribute to a tendency to simply turn inward when separated. Yet, we know that the degree of social support from friends and family predicts both the emotional difficulty someone will have while separated and the likelihood that the relationship will stay together. Because of this we encourage those in LDRs to make an effort to spend time with friends and to get out and socialize. We also have found that having a confidant is very important.

A confidant is a friend (other than the romantic partner) with whom concerns about the relationship and other important topics can be safely discussed.

5. Expect Disappointment. Couples in LDRs sometimes measure the success of their relationship by the perceived quality of the most recent time spent together. If the weekend went great then the relationship is doing well. If the weekend was a disappointment then the relationship is in trouble. All relationships have their ups and downs and geographically close relationships can absorb these ups and downs more easily by simply spending more time together. Separated couples sometimes languish in despair or anxiety in between a “down” time.

Simply realizing that there will be some disappointing times together – and that this is normal – will help with those less than glorious weekends.

6. And Finally, Learn the Art of Long Distance Sex. Couples therapists recognize that a couple’s sexual experience often parallels and predicts the overall relationship intimacy. Fortunately, research has shown that couples in LDRs report just as satisfying sex lives as their geographically close counterparts. When reuniting, couples in LDRs often report a “honeymoon” effect complete with intense and novel sexual escapades (one of the advantages of LDRs). When apart, couples need to learn how to be sexual without being physically close. Usually this involves either telephone sex or erotic letters, pictures, or videos. In dealing with couples in LDRs I’ll often assess each person’s comfort with the idea of long distance sex. Do they feel comfortable talking “erotically” over the telephone? Are they comfortable with self-pleasuring? If they want to make long distance sex part of their relationship then we work on making them more comfortable with these activities. They can start by reading sexual fantasies over the telephone (or even just to themselves first).

There are even books that teach people how to write erotic fantasies. Sometimes the sexual component of the relationship is so important to one or both partners that the quality of telephone sex can actually make or break the relationship.

Is there anything you would advise AGAINST doing?

Yes. Don’t isolate yourself socially. Don’t worry about how often you can or can’t see one another – research shows it doesn’t matter that much.

Don’t worry about infidelity – people cheat because of personality issues or problems with the relationship, not because of distance (couples in LDRs are no more likely than others to cheat on one another). Don’t take advice from others too seriously – there are no “musts” in long distance relationships. LDRs are more similar to traditional relationships than they are different. Don’t let someone tell you that you “must” talk to one another every night or that you “must” see each other once a month. The research shows this isn’t true.

Many people stress that it is important to maintain separate lives, and not merely sit home and wait for the partner to return. Can you explain why this is so important?

Yes. Maintaining separate lives supports long distance relationships in many ways. It contributes to being social, which we’ve already talked about. It allows one to be productive and to grow as a person – one of the great advantages of an LDR. Our research found that those in LDRs who were in school, for example, compared to those in geographically close relationships, were generally more successful and found their education more interesting, rewarding, and constructive. Thus, couples can still have an intimate caring relationship with the one they love, AND they can both develop in ways that they couldn’t have otherwise. Couples in LDRs often talk about something researchers have called “compartmentalization.” This refers to psychologically breaking their life up into distinct compartments – one the life they have when they’re together with their partner, and the other the life they have when apart. When they are separated they move into the “apart” compartment and focus on work or self-improvement or socializing; thoughts about the partner are present but not paramount or all consuming. This helps them psychologically deal with the separation. Those who just “sit by the phone” have not developed an “apart” compartment and they still try to live in the “together” world even when they’re not.

This uses a tremendous amount of psychological energy that could be used in much better ways.

When I work with someone who is truly devastated by an LDR it often involves teaching them how to develop an “apart” compartment and how to move away from the “together” world and into this new compartment at appropriate times.

Do you think distance increases certain problems, such as jealousy, misunderstandings etc?

Yes, some problems may be made worse by distance.

For example, even though we know that couples in LDRs do not cheat on one another any more than geographically close couples, we also know that those in LDRs worry more about cheating.

Because they cannot visually monitor their partner in the same way as a geographically close couple can, they sometimes create a fantasy world in which their partner is cheating. This fantasy often would be dispelled in a geographically close relationship as couples monitor one another unconsciously or consciously. In an LDR this monitoring is far more difficulty and these fantasies can get out of hand.

Also, as I discussed earlier, the use of the telephone can increase misunderstandings because of the lack of visual cues. A vast amount of information is conveyed by the facial expression or hand gestures or body position. This is all lost over the telephone and a simple comment can be greatly misunderstood. Also, as we’ve talked about above, some couples in LDRs are reluctant to discuss certain topics for fear of “rocking the boat” or “spoiling” time together.

Thus when a topic is misunderstood they sometimes will not address this misunderstanding and it can escalate into something much greater than it originally had been.

I understand you have researched the topic widely. Could you share some of the highlights of the results you have found?

Our research, conducted at Purdue University in Indiana, looked at 200 couples in LDRs and 200 couples in geographically close relationships and examined hundreds of different aspects of the relationships.

We also followed couples in LDRs over time to see what contributes to break ups among LDRs. We looked at people in LDRs to see how they coped with separation and to see what psychological effects separation had on them. We also attempted to estimate the number of couples in LDRs in the U.S..

I’ve also studied the literature on separated couples over the last 10 years and I believe we have the largest collection of research on separated couples in existence. A couple of additional research highlights not discussed above include:

Most people in LDRs experience some mild depression.

This does not seem to improve with time or experience and is probably a type of “reflex” reaction to separation. The degree of depression is not enough to cause any significant difficulties (such as happens with major depression). Thus symptoms of major depression should not be attributed solely to the separation and reunion is unlikely to effectively treat this depression. Individuals must learn how to address this mild depression rather than wait and hope it will go away with time.

· The emotional response to separation is relatively constant and predictable – protest, despair/depression, detachment. Protest can range from a mild, playful, “please stay” to significant anger. Despair and depression are ubiquitous, though mild, and this probably helps to prevent people from staying in the “protest” phase, which would be generally fruitless and very psychologically tiring. The “detachment” phase occurs as people move into the “apart” compartment that I talked about earlier. This is usually a healthy move but sometimes people become too detached and are unable to reconnect appropriately when they’re together.

When working with couples in LDRs I usually try to assess each of these three phases to see if there are difficulties in one or more and then address each in turn.

Do you have any statistics on the “average” couple in a long distance relationship?

The following table shows both the average (median) response and the range of 95% of LDRs from a sample of over 200.

  • How far apart do they live?
    • Average: 125 miles
    • 95% range: 30 miles to 950 miles
  • How often do they visit one another?
    • Average: 1.5 times a month
    • 95% range: once a week to once every four months
  • How often do they call one another?
    • Average: once every 2.7 days
    • 95% range: at least once a day to once a month
  • How long are their telephone calls typically?
    • Average: 30 minutes
    • 95% range: 2 minutes to 1 hour 20 minutes
  • How often do they write one another (not including email)?
    • Average: three letters a month
    • 95% range: never to every other day
  • How long do they expect to be separated before they can move closer to one another?
    • Average: 14 months
    • 95% Range: one month to four years

[more on long distance relationships]

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