In today’s world of increased travel, internet, and smartphones, one type of relationship has become more common: the Long Distance Relationship. Chances are you have experienced one yourself or have a friend who has. You may know some of the challenges that come from being together as a couple, but distant physically – the bittersweet dreams of reuniting with the loved one, and the pain that follows when you realize it isn’t happening soon, or when you do reunited and the relationship turns sour instead of sweet. The truth about reuniting with a distant loved one is not all rosy and sweet.
In a recent study, Laura Stafford and her colleagues at Ohio State University got a clear picture of what really happens when long distance couples reunite. The good, the bad, and the ugly.
When reunion occurs, most couples experience some good changes to their relationship that strengthen them and make their dreams come true.
More face-to-face time
As would be expected, being closer geographically allows for more time to spend together face to face. This opens up opportunities to try new activities together, like cuddling during a romantic movie or taking each other to new favorite hang outs.
Relating to each other in deeper, more personal ways. Even though we may talk frequently when we are apart, there is something about being physically close that allows us to open up in new ways. This can often lead to increased seriousness of the relationship.
Realization of partner’s positive characteristics
Some characteristics of our romantic partners are not visible from a distance. We also have more opportunities to see them in social settings where we can get a clearer picture of how they respond to people other than us.
With the good changes also come some bad changes. The important thing to remember is that these bad changes often happen at the same time as the good. These changes are usually not threatening to the relationship, but can make the reunion less sweet than desired.
Loss of autonomy
When you are distant, you often feel you have more independence. Outside of scheduled skype chats or scrolling through Facebook, your time is yours to use as you please. You build friendships and daily routines that work best for you without the need to consider someone else. When you close the gap and reunite, you may find that you lose some of your autonomy. You may feel more self-conscious about what you do when your partner can more easily see what you are doing. You may also find less time to spend with your new friends, and maybe even lose some of those friendships.
Time and scheduling difficulties
In addition to losing your autonomy, you may also find it difficult to sync your schedules. While it is easy to plan an hour to talk online, you may find that new work or school schedules conflict more than you thought they would. This can either lead to less time with each other than you would like, or having to reschedule yourself to work better with your partner’s schedule.
One of the more surprising changes that may occur is the need to get to know each other again. When we are distant, we might think we know each other very well, but when we become closer we may start to see new things and realize we don’t know nearly enough about our partner. While this can be bad, it can be turned into a good. Enjoy this time to get to know each other in new ways.
There are some changes that occur during the reunion of long distance relationships that are often unintended side-effects of being close again. Some of these side-effects occur instead of the good effects, while others are side-effects of the bad changes. Unlike the bad changes which are just unique struggles to the reunion of long distance partners, these side-effects can threaten the relationship and ultimately lead to its end.
Realization of partner’s negative characteristics
While closeness can help us see more of the positive characteristics of our partner, it may do the opposite and bring up negative characteristics. These may include harmless traits, like a bad habit, or major red flags like immaturity or poor communication. While not all negative characteristics threaten relationships, those couples in the study who split up after reuniting were more likely to see major negative characteristics than the positive characteristics.
With the new closeness comes new problems to resolve. One common change in relationships upon reuniting is not only increased instances of conflict, but more difficult challenges to resolve. When we become close again, the issues we face as a couple change, whether it be conflicts over scheduling or conflicts about what to have for dinner. While increased conflict can be serious, if you catch these patterns early on in the reunion phase you can often take the time to improve your conflict resolution as well.
For couples in the study, one of the biggest differences between those couples which stayed together and those which split up was how they experienced the changes to their seriousness and closeness in their relationships. Instead of experiencing increases in closeness as a couple, some couples may find the opposite happens and they begin to feel more distant. In other words, becoming physically close ends up increasing emotional distance for the couple. This may be the result of disappointment if expectations are not met during the transition or a recognition that your relationship was founded on things like autonomy which are lost when the distance is closed.
When autonomy is a major part of our relationship during long distance, we may adopt behaviors which end up inspiring jealousy when we become close. For example, during a college class we may be assigned an opposite-sex partner for a project and have their number in our phone. When we are distant, we may not think anything of it, but when our partner comes back to us what might they think when they see the person call or text us? Not all couples experience jealousy like this, but even when you are apart consider how your behaviors may look when the distance is closed.
If you are currently in a long distance relationship and about to reunite, don’t let the many possible changes scare you. Remember, many of the things we hope to happen in our relationships as a result of reunion do happen, but also keep in mind the possible changes.
Before the reunion occurs, take some time to talk together as a couple about some of the possible challenges that may arise. Use this time to create realistic expectations about the reunion and chances are, even the possible negative changes will strengthen your relationship.
Also, try taking our RELATE assessment together before the big move so you know where to focus your discussion.
Written by: Dallin