How To Do A Long Distance Relationship

My heart went out to Russell Crowe when the bad-boy superstar was arrested and charged with second-degree assault and fourth-degree criminal possession of a weapon after attacking an employee at the Mercer Hotel in New York. As Crowe later explained to David Letterman, he had repeatedly tried and failed to call his wife in Australia. I’m not condoning the use of a phone as a weapon, of course, but long-distance relationships can be tough enough to make even the calmest person edgy, much less a hard-rocking gladiator with a temper.

When I heard about Crowe’s rage, I’d just spent three months apart from my husband, Andy, in Tours, France, attending a language institute and living with an unconventional host couple in their fifties. (By “unconventional,” I mean that they had matching red leather pants. He gardened in his Speedo. Their home had leopard- and zebra-print decor and dozens of stuffed — by a taxidermist — animals. I’ve seen her breasts. Have I said enough?)

My first reaction on the day I arrived, exactly six months after Andy and I were married, was not aggression but something akin to hysteria. Exhausted by 15 hours of travel, I actually cried in my coq au vin when my hosts, who had already revealed their penchant for public displays of affection, asked me how my husband felt about my leaving him for so long. Later that night, despair escalated into a tantrum to rival Crowe’s when I discovered I had only one minute’s worth of prepaid cell-phone time left.

It’s a scenario many know all too well. Despite the teary goodbyes, lonely nights, flight delays, and outrageous phone bills,
an estimated 14 million Americans are currently in LDRs
an estimated 14 million Americans are currently in LDRs, according to the Center for the Study of Long Distance Relationships. That number includes couples of all kinds, from those who fell for each other while living on opposite coasts to those who’ve been married for years but decided to live apart while she takes that plum international assignment or he goes back to school.

Long-distance relationships can work
How do they do it? The simple answer is that, barring the occasional attack on a hotel clerk, long-distance relationships can work — and work well. Research suggests that they don’t break up at any greater rate than traditional, geographically close ones. Plus, multiple studies have found that LDR couples’ levels of relationship satisfaction, intimacy, trust, and commitment are identical to their geographically close counterparts. LDR couples might worry more about infidelity, but they don’t actually cheat more.

LDRs are nothing new, of course. Military personnel, academics, truckers, salespeople, athletes, and entertainers have loved across the miles for years. But experts attribute the prevalence of LDRs today to a number of factors. One is that the working world looks a lot different, and requires different training, than in previous generations. “There are more women having careers, and there’s more specialization these days,” says Seetha Narayan, author of “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Long-Distance Relationships.” “Many couples invested a lot in their careers, and now they have to follow through. They usually think of it as temporary — this is for now, I’ll put some time into building my resume. Do you love and expand my future options.”

Second, the world is a smaller place. “Before, people met one another by proximity,” explains Greg Guldner, Ph.D., director of the Center for the Study of Long Distance Relationships. “You married your classmates, you ran into people who lived in the same town. That’s really changed now with the types of careers people are taking. There are many, many more conferences — this is a theme that comes up over and over again: People meet someone at conferences that are either national or international.”

Technology is also increasing the number of people who are meeting at a distance. Consider the growing popularity of online dating services. People lsumook in the four zip codes around them, and if that doesn’t work, they expand their search. “Because of the isolation that is built into our society right now, people are more willing to take a risk with a long-distance relationship,” Guldner says. Add it all up, and you’ve got a lot of people logging a lot of cell-phone minutes.

There are an estimated 7 million long-distance couples in the U.S., including 2.5 to 3 million long-distance marriages. Between 1999 and 2002 (the most recent data available), the number of long-distance marriages increased by 385,000. The average couple in an LDR lives 125 miles apart, visits each other 1.5 times a month, calls one another every 2.7 days to talk for 30 minutes, and expects to be separated for 14 months.

Source: Center for the Study of Long Distance Relationships
Unless, of course, it costs your significant other 31 cents a minute to call your international cell phone, in which case you must ask him to call you on a pay phone down the street. When you finally make it to said pay phone — no easy task when you consider that the phrase “yield to pedestrian” doesn’t have much resonance with the average French driver — you then obsess over the nasty pay-phone receiver and how many people have breathed all over it or touched it with fingers that have been God-knows-where. In other words, my phone conversations with my husband were not exactly the breathless, romantic calls I’d imagined my phone conversations with my husband were not exactly the breathless, romantic calls I’d imagined they’d be, the kind where you whisper sweet nothings into your lover’s ear.

Instead, we spent three months communicating through emails, text messages, and, yes, quick phone calls, usually about the most prosaic of things. As it turns out, that’s one of the surest ways to a successful LDR.

Here’s why: When psychologists talk about intimacy, they’re generally referring to two components. The first is the ability to verbalize fairly deep vulnerabilities — for instance, to say “Do you love me?” and “I miss you.” The trickier, almost subconscious part is maintaining the feeling of being intermingled in your partner’s life, a state the experts often refer to as “interrelatedness.” Couples that are geographically close establish this by discussing the mundane details of daily life, whether it’s the fact that you had to take a different route to work because of road construction, or that you have a 2 p.m. meeting with a new client, or that you had a turkey sandwich for lunch.

The fact that you had a turkey sandwich for lunch is so trivial that its shelf life is even shorter than that of the sandwich itself — if you don’t talk to your partner on the day you ate it, you’re probably not going to mention it. “The problem is when you get a couple that is very good at sharing the deep emotional things but doesn’t know anything about each other’s lives,” says Guldner. “You ask them, ‘What’s going on with your partner today?’ and they have no idea. This happens fairly frequently in long-distance relationships, especially in military ones, and it erodes a fundamental part of intimacy — people stop feeling like they’re connected. You have to do things to try to create that interrelatedness.”

Intimacy has its costs
But intimacy has its costs. The closer you are to someone, the more likely you are to miss them. “Missing” involves several different feelings and thoughts, says Ben Le, an assistant professor of psychology at Haverford College in Pennsylvania who studies romantic relationships. These include sexual desire and longing, thoughts about the future and what the partner is doing, and behavioral tendencies such as looking at pictures of your partner or talking to friends about him or her.

For me, there was a defining moment of missing my husband. It was after his first visit, a quick, four-day trip during which we went to several of the Loire Valley chateaux that surround Tours. At one chateau, as we descended a narrow spiral staircase, we both remarked — almost simultaneously — that the staircase sagged inward toward its central support beam. (Actually, I think we both said “Whoa.”) Several days later, after Andy had returned to the States, I was walking down the stairs of my language school and was blindsided by an intense pang of missing him. It took me a few minutes to figure out why, but I realized that the steps tilted inward, just like the ones at the chateau. The sagging stairs had been only momentarily interesting when we’d seen them together. But days later, experiencing something similar while I was alone triggered a memory that made me miss Andy acutely.

Missing a loved one
Missing a loved one actually involves something much deeper than wanting to be around them. Whether you know it or not, your relationship is an important part of your self-concept; when your partner leaves, you might — at least initially — have to redefine your sense of self. This redefining takes many forms, Le says. For example, at the beginning of a relationship, as two people become closer, they shift their language and begin to use “we” statements where they once would have used “I” ones — for instance, “We slept in Saturday morning,” or “That’s our favorite restaurant.” When couples are spending significant amounts of time apart, partners inevitably are using more “I” language, simply because they’re alone more.

“The absence of a partner could, in the short term, result in a loss of part of the self,” Le says. “As the long-distance relationship persists, it’s likely that the self-concept would shift to account for that LDR — being a ‘person in a relationship’ would shift to being a ‘person in a long-distance relationship.'”

In retrospect, I think my missing Andy on the school staircase was part of a struggle between what I’ll call my EuroSelf and my AmeriSelf. My EuroSelf got used to experiencing strange new things on its own. It drank Saumur at lunch, marveled at 12th-century stained glass, and talked in broken French with everyone from farmers to former diplomats. My AmeriSelf, on the other hand — the responsible working girl, the loving partner, the someday mom — had been temporarily left behind. A funny thing started to happen, though, as I got over my initial panic: I started to laugh at my verbal missteps; I began to appreciate the charm of my unusual hosts; I realized my husband and I could live apart temporarily. The EuroMe started to merge with the AmeriMe, and I began to truly enjoy myself, despite the fact that Andy was thousands of miles away.

Some people in LDRs aren’t so lucky, however, especially if the separation lasts a significant amount of time. Guldner’s research shows that most couples tend to go through three phases of separation: protest, depression, and detachment most couples tend to go through three phases of separation: protest, depression, and detachment. The “protest” phase can range from mild and playful — “Please stay” — to significant anger. Once an individual has accepted the separation, he or she might experience low-level depression, mostly characterized by slight difficulty concentrating, trouble sleeping, and the feeling of being a little down. “Unfortunately, that seems to be a reflex,” Guldner explains. “In other words, it persists. It continues with each separation and, in fact, sometimes worsens with each separation. There is very little one can do to prevent it.” Some people experience this in a more pronounced way than others.”
Detachment phase

In the detachment phase, each person begins to compartmentalize his or her life, breaking it down into the sections with a partner and the ones without. It’s an effective coping mechanism that allows the individual to be in a relationship while doing what has to be done — until the occasional moment of weakness, that is. One day, while checking my email in the language school’s crowded computer lab, I heard the young Asian girl next to me sniffling quietly at her computer. A glance in her direction revealed a live Web-cam feed of a young man alongside an instant-messaging chat box. She typed her goodbye in language characters I couldn’t identify, closed the window containing his image, and wiped her eyes before walking away. No matter how well-established your coping mechanisms are, a moving image of your loved one from half a world away carries a particularly powerful emotional punch.

As the number of LDRs continues to grow, there is hope that in the future we won’t have to accept detachment from our partners in the same way we do today. Cornell University scientists, for example, have started researching “minimal intimate objects” as a supplementary means of communication. Imagine both you and your partner spending your days at a computer. In the taskbar of your computer screen, you see a small box with a little circle. When you click on your circle, the corresponding circle on your partner’s screen lights up: a quick, one-bit message that’s nonintrusive but establishes an ambient awareness of you.

As you work, you’re right there with each other.
Researchers at the now-defunct Media Lab Europe in Dublin, Ireland, developed a prototype aiming to create that same perception of togetherness using “radio frequency identification” technology to network furniture (no, that’s not a typo). For instance, you might be sitting in your living room, and an image of a coffee cup would suddenly appear on your coffee table, alerting you that your partner was enjoying his morning coffee. One of the lead researchers, Dipak Patel, who also works for British Telecom, hopes to pick the project up again soon. Although it might sound a little bizarre — and there are some inevitable privacy complications — the basic awareness of your partner’s “presence” might help maintain the intimacy that’s so important.

Of course, there will never be a real substitute for living in the same place as your significant other. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t disclose the fact that, after my return, Andy and I had several discussions about space — namely, that in the three months I was gone, he’d developed the habit of sleeping spread-eagle, taking up the whole damn bed. But in the end, living apart allowed us to expand ourselves by adapting who we are as a couple. It may not be matching red-leather pants, but that’s my kind of marriage.
Distance “Do’s”

Your LDR doesn’t have to mean long-distance misery. Here’s what the experts suggest:
Make a plan. It helps to establish a plan that includes an approximate timeline for how long the seitemtion will last — and, to the extent possible, a schedule for predictable visits. “If you can mark down on a calendar when the visits will take place, it keeps you reliable to your friends and colleagues and makes life less crazy,” says Seetha Narayan, author of “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Long-Distance Relationships.”

Discuss ground rules. If you’re not explicitly committed, it might be a good idea to set boundaries about interactions with other people that could pose a threat to the relationship. According to research by Greg Guldner of the Center for the Study of Long Distance Relationships, only 30 percent of couples who discussed such rules broke up, regardless of whether or not they decided to date others — but 70 percent of couples who didn’t discuss the topic split.

Deal with conflict immediately. Particularly for newer couples, dealing with problems as they arise is key, even if it means spoiling the reunion weekend, Narayan Burtner says. And without the luxury of body language, you’ll be forced to communicate well, a skill that can only help you down the road.

Share the details of your daily life. Guldner suggests emailing at least twice a day — once in the morning to share what’s on tap for the day ahead, and once in the evening to recount what happened. And be sure to send handwritten letters — they help to foster intimacy, Narayan Burtner says, since they’re concrete reminders of your loved one that can be carried around in a pocket or a purse.

Don’t sweat the small stuff. Though dealing with conflict is important, couples should remember that they will be particularly sensitive just before and after a reunion. “If one person is picking a fight or acting cranky or finding fault, and it’s inexplicable, just let it go — it has more to do with the transitions than with anything real that’s going on,” Narayan Burtner advises.
Learn the art of long-distance sex. If you’re uncomfortable with the idea of phone sex, Guldner suggests reading sexual fantasies over the phone (or even just to yourself, at first). If you can’t do that without giggling, send an erotic email with the help of
Develop a strong network of friends and family. “Couples who have those kinds of networks tend to endure, and people report more satisfaction with the relationship and in life if they have this support,” Narayan Burtner says.

Stay optimistic — and forget the naysayers. A positive outlook is an LDR’s best friend. “Studies show that the only coping style in long-distance relationships that seems to predict mental health as well as a satisfying relationship is when both people realize that it’s a very reasonable option — that it works just fine,” Guldner says. “It has its own issues, just like anything else. But don’t let people convince you that [LDRs] don’t work.”

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