By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Licensed Counselor.
Long-distance relationships are a challenge.
There are three different types of long-distance relationships. There are those people who prefer living apart. I see this mostly in people in midlife or later years. They have had relationships before, then they spent a period alone and have gotten comfortable living by themselves. They’re not sure they want to give up their independence and accommodate another person in their living space.
The shelter at home of the coronavirus has resulted in couples spending more time together with an increase in arguments and even domestic violence. Sometimes too much togetherness is a bad thing, and people can find together begin to have more than normal conflicts.
Then there are those people who are newly in a relationship. Maybe they met on vacation, or while traveling, or increasingly they met online. Someday they’d like to move and live together, but they’re just not sure about the relationship yet. They struggle with building a relationship with a lot of distance between them.
The most challenging type of long-distance relationship is those couples who would prefer to be living together, but the circumstances are keeping them apart. Military families often must endure long periods of separation. Sometimes one of the partners needs to live separately to care for an ailing parent. And increasingly, with two-career couples, particularly in government or corporate management, one may be working in one city while the other is working many states or countries away. All these enforced separations present challenges. There are ways to strengthen and maintain long-distance relationships, but there are inherent dangers.
Maintaining good communication when you’re apart can be difficult.
When you live together, you talk to each other a lot. Sometimes there’s conflict, but when you live in the same place, you can talk it out and resolve those conflicts. Modern communication makes it more feasible to stay in contact. You can email, text, or videoconference. But none of those distance communication methods has the intimacy of being able to reach out and touch your partner’s hand or hug them.
The majority of human communication happens through nonverbal communication. Even video conferencing isn’t as effective with communicating nonverbally. Emails and texts are notoriously open to misinterpretation. You can’t tell what the tone of voice was, and it’s hard to pick up on sarcasm.
Poor communication can lead to negativity when you’re apart.
When you don’t know what your partner is thinking or what they meant by that, you start to imagine all sorts of things. When you live together, you can ask your partner, “what did you mean by that.” But when you live apart, you can spend a lot of time between phone calls ruminating about what your partner was thinking and what they meant by that.
Separations can make trust issues worse.
Lack of trust is a problem couples commonly bring to therapy. Sometimes it’s because one partner has damaged the trust between them. Maybe there’s been an affair or secrets between them. Once trust has been damaged, it’s hard to rebuild. Many people enter a relationship already having trust issues. They may have trust issues from childhood or previous relationships. Some people are insecure, and some people value their privacy, even if it means keeping their partner at a distance.
One of the ways to improve trust in a relationship is to be extremely open and honest. If you’ve got nothing to hide, it doesn’t matter if your partner checks your email or your text messages. When you live together, you know what time your partner gets home at night. But when you live apart, there’s plenty of opportunities for your partner to be doing things they shouldn’t be. Not knowing leads to doubt, and doubt makes trust issues worse.
When you’re living apart, you don’t see your partner realistically.
Couples who live apart, particularly if it if it’s a new relationship, or if they are early in their relationship when the separation occurs, only see one or two facets of their partner. You see the things they want you to see. We all want to be liked, and we tend to engage in “impression management.” On a date, you try to put your best foot forward.
When you live together, you see them in the morning when their hair is a mess. You see them when they’re sick. You see all the flaws. Seeing your partner when they are vulnerable can increase your feeling of closeness. Seeing them when their greedy, selfish, and disrespectful can make you question the relationship. The challenge of long-distance relationships is wondering what other facets your partner has that they’re not revealing to you.
People change over time.
Life experiences can change us. Couples who live together share those life experiences and tend to change in the same direction. Couples and long-distance relationships are each having separate experiences. Some for the good and some not so good. Sharing verbally, over the phone, your experience with your long-distance partner is not the same thing as the two of you having gone to that concert together.
You may hear about your partner’s job or coworkers, but when you’ve never met them, you haven’t experienced those people in the same way your partner has. While it may be true that absence makes the heart grow fonder, it’s also true that when you can’t see your partner, your eyes may start to wander.
It’s easier to defer problems when you live apart.
People tend to bottle up their negative feelings whether those feelings have to do with the relationship or come from other sources. One of the ways couples grow closer to each other is by working through those problems and negative emotions. When you live apart, it’s important not to defer dealing with issues. It can be tempting to make that short phone call or text a positive moment in your day. But that hides the reality of your life from your absent partner.
People living in long-distance relationships can become conflict avoidant. Afraid of damaging the relationship, their problems never get discussed. Eventually, these issues can fester and poison the relationship, or if you do begin to live together, you may continue to be conflict-avoidant, which prevents you from developing close emotional intimacy.
Contact can become an afterthought when you live separately.
When you’re apart, particularly when you don’t know your partner’s schedule, exchanging communication can become one person’s job. One person may sit by the phone or watch their email waiting for their partner to contact you. It’s imperative for communication to be a two-way street and for each person to take an active role in communicating, but that’s not always possible.
When you’re living separate lives in separate places, you both can get busy. The result is that rather than spending an hour each night over dinner talking, your communication can get reduced to the bare minimum. What should have been a lively discussion between the two of you may be confined to a single sentence text. One or both partners can begin to feel that they are an afterthought in their partner’s busy life.
Are you in a long-distance relationship? Are you considering one?
If so, please leave a comment and share your experience with others who are facing the same situation.
Staying connected with David Joel Miller
Six David Joel Miller Books are available now!
Bumps on the Road of Life. Whether you struggle with anxiety, depression, low motivation, or addiction, you can recover. Bumps on the Road of Life is the story of how people get off track and how to get your life out of the ditch.
Dark Family Secrets: Some family secrets can be deadly.
What if your family secrets put you in danger?
Letters from the Dead The third in the Arthur Mitchell mystery series.
What would you do if you found a letter to a detective describing a crime and you knew the writer and detective were dead?
Casino Robbery is a novel about a man with PTSD who must cope with his symptoms to solve a mystery and create a new life.
Planned Accidents The second Arthur Mitchell and Plutus mystery.
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