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Distance and Relationships: “Stuck in the Middle with You”

Q: A lot of research has been done on long distance relationships, and internet articles abound with advice for those couples. However, what about couples who aren't quite long distance, but certainly aren't geographically close? My partner of over a year and I are navigating this sort of relationship right now (as college students on a budget), where we either live 50 to 90 minutes apart by car, depending on whether school is in session or not. As committed as we are, and as excited as we are, it's not always easy to know how to handle this sort of "middle distance" relationship. Is there any research on this? Thanks!

A: As you might have read about in the research you’ve done, long-distance relationships are full of contradictions.1 For every drawback of long-distance relating—the boring commutes, lonely Friday nights, uncertainty about the timing of the next visit—there seems to be a silver lining. Take, for instance, research suggesting partners can learn to communicate better by seeing each other less.1 Or, consider recent research showing partners can benefit from missing one another.2 

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. What is a long-distance relationship, anyway? And does your “middle distance” relationship qualify as one? It depends. One the one hand, you and your partner are just close enough to see each other regularly. On the other hand, you’re just far enough away that the drive can put a serious strain on your wallet and time for school. Although researchers have offered different definitions of long-distance relationships,3 your relationship qualifies as one since the distance keeps you from seeing each other as often as you’d like.4 

With this in mind, much of the research on long-distance relationships does indeed apply to your situation. But so does a lot of other research on close relationships. Research on relational uncertainty and expectations seems especially relevant, so let’s focus on that.

All dating relationships, such as the year-long relationship you’re currently in, involve periods of uncertainty.5 Generally speaking, uncertainty increases when relationships change in some way.6 And regardless of whether the changes are positive or negative in nature, partners must develop and/or revise their communication routines and norms. Consider, for example, when partners transition from a casual dating relationship to a serious one. The increased time that the partners spend interacting brings not only fun and excitement, but also greater opportunities for irritation and conflict.5 Moreover, as partners become closer emotionally, they often ratchet up their expectations for the quality of their communication. In short, intimacy and uncertainty seem to go hand in hand as dating relationships develop.7

Normal fluctuations in relational uncertainty, however, can be compounded by outside factors,8 such as a tight budget, school- or work-related stress, and, of course, distance.1,4 In addition, let’s not forget that you likely have friendships and family relationships to maintain, and maybe even a part-time job. Without doubt, it’s a challenge to maintain your romantic relationship while also managing these other demands.

Taken together, the frustrations you’re feeling are likely a manifestation of unclear or shifting expectations. This is important because much, if not all, of our communication is filtered through expectations.9 When our expectations for maintaining relationships are unclear (or repeatedly violated), we can feel angry, hurt, or confused—feelings that feed back into uncertainty. 

Check out the follow-up from article from Dr. Merolla where he gives four tips for navigating long-distance relationships.

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1Sahlstein, E. M. (2004). Relating at a distance: Negotiating being together and being apart in long-distance relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 21, 689-710.

2Le, B., Korn, M. S., Crockett, E. E., & Loving, T. J. (2011). Missing you maintains us: Missing a romantic partner, commitment, relationship maintenance, and physical infidelity. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 28, 653-667.

3Merolla, A. J. (2010). Relational maintenance and noncopresence reconsidered: Conceptualizing geographic separation in close relationships. Communication Theory, 20, 169-193.

4Stafford, L. (2005). Maintaining long-distance and cross-residential relationships. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

5Solomon, D. H., & Knobloch, L. K. (2004). A model of relational turbulence: The role of intimacy, relational uncertainty, and interference from partners in appraisals of irritations. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 21, 795-816.

6Knobloch, L. K., & Solomon, D. H. (2002). Intimacy and the magnitude and experience of episodic relational uncertainty in romantic relationships. Personal Relationships, 9, 457-478.

7Knobloch, L. K. (2010). Relational uncertainty and interpersonal communication. In S. W. Smith & S. R. Wilson (Eds.), New directions in interpersonal communication research (pp. 69-93). Los Angeles: Sage.

8Dainton, M., & Aylor, B. (2001). A relational uncertainty analysis of jealousy, trust, and maintenance in long-distance versus geographically-close relationships. Communication Quarterly, 49, 171-188.

9Burgoon, J. K. (1993). Interpersonal expectations, expectancy violations, and emotional communication. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 12, 30-48.

Andy J. Merolla - Associate Professor of Communication Studies, Baldwin Wallace University
PhD, The Ohio State University

Andy’s research examines communication processes involved in the maintenance of relationships, especially in the context of difficult circumstances. His research includes topics such as interpersonal conflict, forgiveness, geographic separation, and individuals’ experiences following natural disasters. He has also studied communication across cultures. He teaches courses in communication theory, conflict management, interpersonal communication, nonverbal communication, and research methods. 

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Reader Comments (1)

Relationship are long or short mostly dependent on the emotional connection and bonding. Yes it is likely to increase or decrease based on the distance but not an influencing factor for those who are strongly bonded or connected

August 12, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterjacky
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