How to Make a Long Distance Relationship Work
If you weren’t long distance before, you might be now. Here’s how to make it more bearable for both of you.
Long distance relationships are rarely ideal for couples, but they can be especially difficult for those who have to endure them due to their jobs or unforeseen circumstances, like a mandated quarantine.
According to Susan Gadoua, a therapist who specializes in long-term relationships and marriages, long distance couples tend to fall into two categories: those who want to live apart and those who have to live apart.
Some couples are actually happier living apart and have no plans to change it. Gadoua says they’re typically referred to as “apartners” in the therapy world, and in their case, they want to continue living apart with no end date in mind. More common, however, are couples forced to live apart because of their careers or family obligations. Gadoua gives the examples of one partner being deployed in the military or having to move to care for a loved one.
Time spent apart (not by choice) can be a natural cause of tension and stress in any relationship. “This stress may include the financial strain of paying two rents or mortgages, lack of co-parenting support, or feeling generally disconnected from each other,” Gadoua says. So what exactly happens when two partners are far from each other? Other than the obvious, why is it so hard?
“Distance can make the heart grow fonder, but it can also feed negativity,” she says. “The distance creates gaps in communication, and when there's a blank space, we tend to fill the space with a negative idea or belief.”
Here are some of the most common issues couples face, and why open conversation is the backbone of a healthy long distance relationship.
Distance can feed negativity—and it’s not your fault.
Oftentimes, if there were any trust issues before living apart, they can be exacerbated by a distant living arrangement. But even without existing tensions, remoteness and lack of contact can create inevitable negative thought loops and affect our capacity for empathy.
“Whenever we have distance from another person—and this goes for any person (a parent, a boss, a friend), not just a significant other—we begin to objectify them,” explains Gadoua. “We see them less as the whole person they are and we begin to see them as the ‘other,’ which can make it easier to be upset with them.”
Don’t bottle things up.
While you’re bound to feel occasionally upset or frustrated at a long distance situation, especially if it’s out of your control, Gadoua cautions people to be aware of these emotions if they escalate.
“When negative emotions begin to build, it’s time to say or do something to reconnect with your significant other,” she says. “Don’t let things fester and don't wait to say or do something until you're so upset that you might say or do something you regret.”
Become more comfortable addressing conflict.
Another red flag to heed is how you’re managing conflicts, specifically if one partner is conflict avoidant. “When upsets are not expressed or talked about, they tend to grow,” she explains. “These situations can end where the angry partner says they want out abruptly. Their partner, who had no idea anything was wrong, may feel ambushed and upset because, not only did they not know anything was wrong, they were never given the opportunity to work on the relationship and make things right.”
You’re not physically together, so you can’t interpret body language, intonation, or mood changes. There’s no way to show how you’re feeling—with long distance, you have to tell each other.
Consistent communication is the key.
Gadoua encourages frequent, honest dialogue, and to watch out for long gaps in communication—gaps that weren’t agreed on. “That could be a sign one (or both) of you is distancing emotionally,” she says, adding that relationships can reach a point where there’s so much disconnection it becomes hard to retrieve.
“The good news is that you can generally see this happening and, therefore, take action to get things back on track,” Gadoua says. “Relationships must be nurtured to stay alive.”
Initiate contact in a balanced way.
Contact is crucial, and you both have to work to ensure it’s not one-sided. Each member of the couple should work to initiate contact with calls and texts—if only to let the other person know they’re thinking about them.
Designate one-on-one time.
Frequent, informal messages are fantastic, but it's also important to pencil in actual moments to talk and focus on each other. A scheduled video conference with your partner may not sound romantic—but if you think about it, how is that any different from locking in a dinner date reservation and sticking to it? Planning and adhering to phone or video chat “dates” will help you both clear your busy schedules and prioritize each other. No more playing phone tag or misconstruing a missed call.
Don’t be afraid to go old-school.
“Sending your significant other cards or gifts in the mail never goes out of style and tells them ‘you matter,’” Gadoua says. “Maybe it's because the message arrives physically, or perhaps it's knowing your partner went out of their way to mail you something, but it’s an extra-sweet gesture.”