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Ask Dr. Loving: Are Long-Distance Relationships Rewarding?

"DX" posted the following over at the Ask Dr. Loving section of my website, drloving.net:

I'm wondering if there are any studies about long distance relationships? There's just so much knowledge I believe to be gained from focusing on such a very difficult but highly rewarding relationship type.

Dear DX;

You are exactly right; there's a lot to be learned by looking at the dynamics of long-distance relationships (or what those of us in the business affectionately refer to as "LDRs"). Fortunately, researchers have not neglected this common relationship context. Please see our previous posts by SofR contributor Dr. Jennifer Bevan (see here and here).

Additionally, below I've pasted an excerpt from our book, where I answer the question: Is distance bad for relationships?


This article was adapted from the book Science of Relationships: Experts Answer Your Questions about Dating, Marriage, & Family.

Rose-Colored Glasses Are Your Friend

LDRs may help us like our partners more. Seriously. One of the key benefits of LDRs is that we don’t see our partners every day. That’s right, I said it. Although being away from someone we care about can be challenging, it turns out that distance allows us to wear the rose-colored glasses of love for longer than we’d get to if we lived with or near our partners. Researchers call this idealization, in that we exaggerate our partners’ positives and ignore their negatives. In a typical proximal relationship, however, we ultimately become more aware of things that make our partners less than, how shall we say…perfect. To be clear, idealizing a very horrible relationship partner (e.g., an abusive partner) is in no way a good thing. But for the majority of relationships, a little idealization goes a long way.1 One of the real beauties of LDRs is that individuals idealize their partners for longer because they are less likely to have to be around their partners during all the day-to-day mundane aspects of life. Put another way, it’s easy to overlook the annoying things about your partner if you only have to experience them every now and then (and, believe it or not, you can be annoying too, so that distance likely keeps your partner attracted to you as well).

*     *     *

Given what I’ve noted, it should come as no surprise that individuals in LDRs actually tend to be more satisfied with their relationships relative to individuals in proximal relationships1 and are less likely to need their partners to help them feel good.2 It’s true. The idealization experience is partially responsible for this finding; it’s a lot easier to be happy with a partner whose faults are less apparent (e.g., you’re more attractive if I don’t know that you trim your nose hair every day). Some researchers suggest that the reason for the idealization is that people in LDRs engage in restricted communication, such that they’re less likely to talk about or otherwise display the less than positive aspects of their personalities.1 It is also possible that people who choose to stay together in the face of geographic separation are just more committed in the first place; otherwise, they would wave goodbye and move on to the next partner. This potential bias in research looking at LDRs does not, however, account for the fact that breakup rates of LDRs increase dramatically once the couple is no longer geographically separated, especially when couples were apart for particularly long periods of time.3 Given these findings, one could argue that distance, and maintaining that distance, is good for relationships.

Yet there are other forces at play here—relationships thrive on novelty.4 The rewards or passion we experience for a partner are greater when the time we spend with our partners is both special and novel (e.g., going to the movies is better than watching Wheel of Fortune at home). Again, LDR couples are at an enormous advantage when it comes to maintaining novelty in their relationships. Think about it: When couple members do get to see each other, one of the partners is spending time in a novel environment (because they are visiting the other partner in his or her digs). Or, if couple members meet somewhere else (the “meet half-way” approach), the environment is novel for both of them. Sure beats the hour-long conversation that goes something like this (Note: What follows is a dramatization that may or may not reflect the author’s actual life):

Partner A: Where do you want to eat tonight?

Partner B: I don’t know, where do you want to eat tonight?

Partner A: I asked you first.

Partner B: You give me three options and I’ll choose one.

Partner A: (providing three options, most likely all of which are “regular” options)

Partner B: How about we just order a pizza.

Partner A: Fine.

Compare that exchange to the following conversation that may occur between couple members in a long-distance relationship:

Partner A: I missed you so much. I can’t wait to show you this new restaurant I found in a really cool part of town.

Partner B: Sounds great. Let’s have sex first.

Partner A: Great!.

You get the picture (of this example, that is).


Want to read more? You can get our book here.

Interested in learning more about relationships? Click here for other topics on Science of Relationships. Like us on Facebook to get our articles delivered directly to your NewsFeed.

1Stafford, L., & Reske, J. R. (1990). Idealization and communication in long-distance premarital relationships. Family Relations: Journal of Applied Family and Child Studies 39, 274–279.

2Le, B., & Agnew, C. R. (2004). Need fulfillment and emotional experience in interdependent romantic relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 18, 423–440.

3Stafford, L., & Merolla, A. J. (2007). Idealization, reunions, and stability in long-distance dating relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 24, 37–54.

4Aron, A., Norman, C. C., Aron, E. N., McKenna, C., & Heyman, R. E. (2000). Couples' shared participation in novel and arousing activities and experienced relationship quality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 273–284.

Dr. Tim Loving - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Loving's research addresses the mental and physical health impact of relationship transitions (e.g., falling in love, breaking up) and the role of friends and family during these transitions. He is an Associate Editor of Personal Relationships and has been funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

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