“Absence makes the heart grow fonder” is one of those obnoxious and inspirational quotes everyone seems to tell couples starting out on their first long distance relationship. Oh, your boyfriend of three years is going to college out-of-state? You will be ok. Distance makes the heart grow stronger.
It would be a nice sentiment if it wasn’t accompanied by that nagging thought in the back of the speaker’s mind (that they are much too polite to actually say): I give them four months. Six, max.
For couples “new” to the whole long distance relationship thing, I highly recommend Chris Bell’s Book: The Long-Distance Relationship Survival Guide
Or, of course, my own book (written right after my husband and I moved to Tokyo and our LDR ended) My Japanese Husband Thinks I’m Crazy: The Comic Book
However, a study in the Journal of Communications has shown that absence might truly make the heart grow fonder and that couples who participate in a healthy long-distance relationship can have more meaningful interactions than couples who see each other daily. Apparently you can judge how meaningful an interaction is. How novel.
Science aside, my husband and I both agree that the nearly two years of long distance before marriage did the most to strengthen our relationship. Or, more specifically, we have both decided that we communicated most efficiently when we lived in different cities. When we had to work for it (Skype, email, video messages, etc), we treasured what the other person said. But when we live together like most “normal” couples, we only vaguely listen to what the other person says in between Netflix episodes, our weekly jog, and arguing over whose turn it is to take out the garbage (it is always his turn).
Every time I tell someone that doing the whole “long distance relationship” thing actually strengthened my relationship, they laugh. Or look skeptical.
I don’t blame them.
But before you judge your friends in long distance relationships, check out these 13 ways that long distance relationships can help, rather than hurt, a couple:
1. The knowledge that if your survive the distance, your relationship can survive anything
Once upon a time, boy met girl, they fell in love, and lived happily ever after in the same house for the next three generations.
That was then. This is now.
Between study abroad, job transfers, the “two body problem,” and a million other reasons for couples to live in different cities, long distance relationships are becoming mainstream. Or, if not mainstream, at least more socially widespread.
And more than anything else, these long distance relationships are becoming a viable alternative to breaking up.
According to a study done by Cornell University (see a longer article on Huffington Post, here) between a quarter and one half of college students are currently in a long distance relationship. I believe that.
However, as anyone in college can tell you, most of these relationships do not last. Between late-night “study sessions,” parties, and “break-vember” (the nick-name many college students give the first November of their Freshman year – most high school sweethearts call it quits around this time), successful long distance relationships are few and far between.
And I’m sure that means a lot of things, but to most of my friends in long distance relationships, it means that if they can survive the distance, they can survive anything.
[For more, check out: The Hardest Part of a Long-Distance Relationship – 12 steps for making it work]
2. You don’t have to be presentable all the time – you can have off days.
You can go weeks without shaving. You can wear sweatpants all day. You can skip wearing makeup. You can stream Netflix if you’re feeling lonely.
You’re allowed to mope and feel depressed every once and a while because the love of your life lives half-way across the world. Basically, when you’re in a long distance relationship you can have “off” days. And no one can judge you for it.
3. Long distance relationships are a lesson in effective communication
I didn’t think it was possible, but early in my married life, I realized I could spend months living with someone without having a “real” conversation. If Ryosuke and I didn’t specifically set aside time to have a heart-to-heart, we could go days, weeks, or even months without talking about how he really felt when I put my feet up on his chair during dinner [hint, he didn’t like it].
After all, don’t rock the boat if everything is going smoothing. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. [insert similar “everything is fine” phrase].
[For more, check out: Don’t Blame the Distance – 6 Tips for Skyping During a Long Distance Relationship]
During the nearly two years of long distance, we would chat on Skype for an hour each morning (my morning, his evening) and an hour and a half each evening (my evening, his morning). What did we talk about for 2-4 hours every day? Honestly, looking back, I have no idea.
But man, those Skype calls were fun.
Despite the 6,272 miles between us, I felt so close. We were so comfortable together.
It was only almost a month into our honeymoon when we realized something was wrong. Somewhere along the road when we started living together, we forgot how to communicate. We came to the conclusion that if we didn’t set aside an hour a day to talk about our feelings, emotions, insecurities, and dreams, those thoughts often got swept under the rug and replaced with more “fun” topics like “did you see what Clarissa posted on Facebook? What is she doing?” or “I think they should model the next Disney princess off of me because…”
Some of the best conversations we had were living in separate cities – at 8am in a dream-muddled half-awake state while eating leftover Udon for breakfast. Sure, it wasn’t fun to sleep alone, (and face it, being in a long distance relationship can be grueling, lonely, and frustrating) but man… those conversations were killer.
Dr. Crystal Jiang, of the department of communication at the City University in Hong Kong claims “Long-distance couples try harder than geographically close couples in communicating affection and intimacy, and their efforts do pay back.” (You can read her full transcript, here)
A similar study by Cornell University revealed that while couples in a “normal” relationship tended to have more daily interactions than couples in a long distance relationship, the couples who had hundreds of miles in between them tended to have longer, more meaningful conversations. The university told 63 heterosexual couples, half of which were a long distance relationship, to keep a communication diary and spend the next couple weeks completing questionnaires about their relationships. The distance between the couples varied between 40 and 4,000 miles.
Those in a long distance relationship reported feeling a stronger bond than couples who lived in the same city. They also claimed to feel their partners shared more of their thoughts, feelings, and emotions. To be fair, I’m not exactly sure how one measures the amount of emotions their partner shares, but Cornell is a pretty legit University – so I have to believe they know what they are talking about. (Once again, I am quoting from a Huffington Post article, here)
The takeaway: Cornell thinks that heterosexual couples in long distance relationships are emotionally closer than couples who live in the same city.
4. For it to work, both parties must be equally committed
You can’t half-ass a long distance relationship. As soon as you start to pull back, it becomes painfully obvious that your heart is no longer in it. I’ve written a couple of posts on my blog about surviving a long distance relationship and the comment section of those posts are filled with men and women who are desperate to “win back” their significant other who has been slowly drifting away.
Sadly, I rarely have any advice to give.
One of the first (and most important) things I learned about long distance relationships is that it does not work if both people are not equally committed. And the advice I give all new couples: if you are not 100% committed to making it work, don’t even try.
I’m not saying you have to be ready to walk down the aisle before starting a long distance relationship. You don’t need to have “the marriage talk” with them yet. Heck, you don’t even have to think they are “the one.”
But they need to be a contester for “the one.”
Your five-year plan does not have to center around them… but if they don’t pop up in your 1 year, 5 year, or 10 year plan, what is the point of doing the distance? Really, think about this.
If the love of your life moves halfway across the world, that is not cause to break up just yet. But if the love of your life moves halfway across the world and neither of you has any intention of altering your future to end up in the same city, you should think twice about starting a long distance relationship.
After all, doing the distance for two years while your boyfriend is stationed in California is very different than doing the distance with a German exchange student who is unwilling or unable to move back to the states.
You will have to give up some things to make the distance work. But, if done right, it won’t seem like a sacrifice at all.
For a long distance relationship to work, both parties must be equally committed because staying in a long distance relationship is not the “path of least resistance.” You are either 100% committed or wavering on the edge – and if you are wavering on the edge, it is pretty obvious.
I can’t count the number of friends in “normal” relationships who have stayed in relationships because it was easier than ending it. They knew their five year plan didn’t include their current boyfriend, but just didn’t “feel like being single, right now.” So they stayed together.
That doesn’t work in long distance relationships. If you’re not fully committed, the hours of Skype, Facetime, and email don’t seem worth it. While I found myself second-guessing our relationship in the earlier, pre-long distance months, after we lived apart, I knew my husband was committed.
If he wasn’t committed, he wouldn’t skip that party with his friends to Skype with me after a long day at work. Even though it got a bit lonely, that security of knowing that he was just as committed as me was the best feeling in the world.
[For more, check out: The Four Stages of a Long-Distance Relationship – Surviving the Separation]
5. You get to experience the life-changing love that you thought only existed in movies
Being in a long distance relationship seems to bring out the inner romantic in everyone. There is something about living several hundred miles away from the love of your life that makes you get creative.
It’s a bit odd, but some of the most romantic men and women I have ever met spent part of their time in a long distance relationship.
6. They force you to be independent in your relationship
We all know those girls (and to avoid sexism, I will also say boys) who lose themselves in every relationship. Some people haven’t figured out how to be independent in a relationship. They become an extension of their significant other and, to be quite honest, lose that special “spark” that made you want to be friends with them in the first place.
Couples in long distance relationships rarely have that problem. Living apart from your significant other or spouse is a great way to preserve the essence of who you are even though you are in a relationship. This is especially critical for younger couples (high school and college age) who haven’t yet cemented their independence in the “real world.”
It is difficult to live vicariously through your significant other when you don’t share a zip code.
7. You get really good at planning
I’m going to go out on a limb and say it is impossible to have a long distance relationship without a plan. Can you imagine how silly that would be?
I’m going to hold off having a romantic or physical relationship with anyone else, on the off chance that the person I am madly in love with will move to my city. Keep your fingers crossed!
Yes, long distance relationships require a lot of complicated things like love, commitment, trust, and emotional compatibility – but they also require a plan. Some of the plans are short-term (ironing out details for the next visit), some are mid-term (I will spend two months of the summer in New York waitressing and staying in his apartment while he works an internship), and some are long-term (when I graduate from college in a year and a half, we will get married and move to Japan).
Remember when I said that long distance relationships require communication? A lot of that communication comes in the form of elaborate planning.
And if practice makes perfect, most long distance couples have gotten the complications of planning down to an art. By the time I graduated college, my then-fiancé and I had our three month, six month, one year, and five year perfected down to a series of twenty second sound bites.
We felt confident and secure in our life plans.
8. The relationship is more than physical
You can’t have a “friends with benefits” long distance relationship. Long distance relationships are more like “friends without benefits.” All talking, no sugar.
However, as painful as celibacy may be (and believe me, it can get hard – no pun intended), you rarely have to worry that your significant other is only putting up with you for sex.
Long distance relationships, by definition, are anything but physical.
These relationships take a lot of emotional work. They require a terrifying level of communication and commitment. As I mentioned before, you can tell when someone doesn’t have their heart in it.
Really, just read any of the comments from love-struck long distrancers on this post. Or this post. Or this post. They throw around words like “soulmate,” “other half,” “meant to be together,” and “love of my life,” like nobody’s business.
Perhaps you idealize your partner when you don’t see them daily, but people in long distance relationships are some of the sappiest romantics I’ve ever found on the internet.
If you need more proof, check out the sub-reddit for Long Distance Relationships. Talk about a loving support group.
9. Your Trust will grow exponentially
I was honest and upfront with my then-boyfriend in the days leading up to his flight back to Japan. “I have trust issues,” I told him, “So, you know, this might not work out.”
He laughed and assured me everything would be fine. I almost believed him.
But as time progressed, a funny thing happened: I got better at trusting him.
It’s funny, when we lived in the same city, I used to fret and wonder what he was doing on nights I had to work late. Who did he eat dinner with? Who is that girl who just posted on his Facebook wall? Even though we spent most our time together, I couldn’t help but wonder what he did when I wasn’t around. Maybe he had a girl on the side. I had friends who were the “other woman” for men with girlfriends who were completely in the dark.
I had no choice in a long distance relationship. Even if I wanted to monitor my boyfriend’s behavior, I couldn’t. And that feeling of helplessness was magical. It was like a great weight was lifted off my shoulders. Even if I wanted to, I physically could not stalk my boyfriend’s every move…. And so I gave up.
Besides, we Skyped every morning during breakfast, sent texts throughout the day, and Skyped every evening for dinner. Between the Skyping, letter writing, texts, and video messages, there wasn’t a lot of room left to cheat.
I knew more of what he was doing during our stint in a long distance relationship (mostly because we would run out of things to talk about) than I did when we went to the same school. It was eerie.
10. It is full of exotic travel and adventure
Every time my husband came into town, I got to do all the touristy things that locals skip over. Our days were filled with beer factory tours, Tokyo Disneyland, a St. Patty’s Day Parade, taking rowboats out on the lake for a romantic lunch, and street performers. Every visit was special.
Every time I got off the 11 hour bus ride, my husband would be waiting with a bouquet of flowers and chocolate; every time he got off the bus, I would be waiting with (badly) homemade breakfast. Sometimes, when the bus got to be too much, we would meet in the middle for a weekend of exotic travel. We went skiing, climbed mountains, soaked in hot springs, and rowed across several man-made Japanese lakes.
We would see each other between one and three times a month – but it was more than “seeing each other.” Each weekend was like a mini-vacation.
Now, happily married in a small apartment, we miss those days when we had an excuse to pack up and leave for the weekend. Responsibilities are no fun at all.
11. Both parties get plenty of “me” time
It is very easy to idealize your partner’s behavior when you don’t spend all day with them. Along with fostering independence, long distance relationships give you plenty of “me” time.
Because I knew about how much time we would spend on our daily Skype sessions (between one and four hours), I could plan my day accordingly. Each day had “me” time factored in between Skype dates, homework, work, and cooking. This was important because we are different people with different needs. My husband is more of an extrovert, he can go weeks without any “me” time and be perfectly happy. If I don’t get at least thirty minutes of “me” time a day, I get cranky.
When we lived apart, I could get my “me” time whenever I needed. Now that we live together, I send my husband on errands to get my “me” time.
I’m sure some people find the startling amount of alone time, well, lonely, but I found it refreshing.
12. Long distance relationships teach you to clearly express, plan, and adjust your expectations
Couples in long distance relationships communicate. For fun. It’s weird. All that communication has benefits, though (aside from the male half of the relationship miserable) – both parties get very good at effectively communicating.
Effective communication, in turn, leads to being able to express your expectations more clearly.
13. You learn how to prioritize time with your significant other
Like most “selfish Americans,” I get so caught up in doing my own thing that I sometimes forget that my husband also has needs. Specifically, I forget to appreciate, acknowledge, and respect how he spends his day, not because I don’t care, but because I am often so caught up in how I am spending my day that I forget to check in with him.
My husband tells me it is completely natural. “You get so used to seeing me, that you stop actually seeing me.” (In one of his rare, deep moments)
During our nearly two years of long distance, my friends learned early on that I couldn’t do dinner unless it was before 8pm (when I lived in America) or that unless it was a special occasion, dinner was out of the question (when I lived in Tokyo). Night-time was for Skyping with my then-fiancé.
We would set laptops up in the kitchen and cook together while we chatted about our day. Sometimes we would cook the same thing; sometimes he would finish twenty minutes ahead and munch on stir-fry while I scraped burnt salmon from the frying pan. Then I would pour a glass of wine, turn the lights down low, and pretend we were at a fancy restaurant together (while I munched on burnt salmon). We would laugh, joke, and talk about everything under the sun.
About once a week, one of us would cancel our Skype dinner date to hang out with friends, but we would always let the other one know ahead of time.
So just remember….
Long distance relationships are not for the faint of heart. They are full of meaningless arguments, jealousy, sleeping alone, and second-guessing whether it is “really worth it.”
I did it for two years – and then I married the man.
Yes, being in a long distance relationship is difficult, but when it is with the right person, it isn’t half bad. It taught us a lot about ourselves, things we might not have figured out otherwise.
So next time your friend tells you about how her and her boyfriend will be doing the distance during his first year of college, don’t count them out just yet. Who knows what will happen. They might just make it after all.
If you liked this post, please check out my comic book on Amazon! My Japanese Husband Thinks I’m Crazy: The Comic Book