Maintaining a Long-Distance Relationship

As rewarding and pleasurable as they may be, relationships are always challenging. In this day and era, the landscape of relationships has begun to change, and geographic separation has become reality for many people in romantic relationships. From military spouses and students to people travelling and moving for work, long-distance relationships are often a choice people make to maintain established intimate relationships. Geographic distance is often approached as a stressor that can potentially threaten the bond, the attachment, and the stability of the relationship. Although scientists find that the overall relationship satisfaction is not reduced in people with long-distance relationships, all fingers point towards consistent communication as the most critical element of a successful, fulfilling, and satisfactory relationship. 

Much is said about the crucial role of communication in every relationship, but what does that mean and how does it play out in a long-distance relationship? Geographic distance often comes with time difference and our needs as humans vary throughout the day. We want to feel energized in the morning – thus the coffee – and we need to relax at night – thus herbal teas, a glass of wine, or milk with honey. When a relationship is in the same time zone, those phases concur. When the time zone is different for each partner, the relationship is constantly on call as awake partners have different needs from sleeping partners and the relationships cannot meet all needs at the same time. Another common challenge that partners face in long-distance relationships emerges from different social networks. In geographically close romantic relationships partners either share a common social network of friends or gradually become parts of each other’s social networks. In long distance relationships, this is not always possible, and jealousy may arise and cause the relationship to wear off. 

Have we established yet that long-distance relationships are challenging? Yes? Good. Now, let’s address something important. Every human being has the need to be seen, heard, and known. From little kids’ attention-seeking behaviors to overwhelming parents and jealous partners, the need for another human being to devote to us undisrupted time, attention, and care is always underlying. In long-distance relationships partners tend to spend more time with their partners on the phone, but with all the distractions around, the communication becomes less pleasurable. So, let’s take a moment to dive deeper into some communication strategies that you can use to enhance the quality of your long-distance relationship. 

Tip 1: Letters

Some days are chaotic. No matter how much time you spend texting, chatting on the phone, and facetiming you never seem to get the attention you need in order to feel seen, heard, and known. Small talk only covers some needs, like catching up and making sure someone is safe, but does not work as well with being vulnerable and connecting with your partner(s). A creative alternative would be to write a letter. Yes, I know, outdated and time-consuming. However, try to take 20 minutes and just scribble down anything that comes to your mind. You can use some of the following questions to help you out:

  • What happened today/yesterday/this week/this month that made you think of your partner?
  • What did you see/hear/smell that made you miss them?
  • What is one thing that you miss the most while away?
  • What is one thing that you miss the least while away? (Don’t be scared to be funny)
  • What is the part of the day that you miss them the most?
  • What have you been doing to cope with your missing your partner?
  • How have you been able to calm yourself down when you miss them the most?
  • What is one thing they don’t know about how you feel?

Write anything that crosses your mind without trying to make it “make sense”. We often spend much more time trying to explain what we feel than experiencing it, but allowing yourself to experience your emotions towards your partner can help you both understand each other better.   Do not judge what you write and try to be honest and frank with yourself. There are no right or wrong emotions, only emotions that are or are not experienced. How you feel is always right for the situation you are in; thus, allow yourself the validation. 

When you finish writing, take a moment to breathe and recuperate. This process requires insight which can be tiring. After you breathe, you can make a decision on whether you want to share your letter with your partner or not. By putting the emotional experience of your relationship into words, feelings of vulnerability and fragility may come up, which, in turn, can make the letter scary to share. On the other hand, the same feelings might allow space for deep emotional connection and intimacy with your partner. Whatever is true for you, and whether you decide to share your letter or not, making some time to communicate with the recipient on the other end can be liberating in and of itself. 

Tip2: Opportunities for communication

What often happens with phone communication – which takes up much space in long distance relationships – is that without being aware, we tend to multitask. We may be finishing up a paper, doing laundry, and planning for the next day’s grocery shopping while facetiming with our long-distance partner. Remember, that we all have a fundamental need to be seen, heard, and known. To meet this need, we need uninterrupted time for communication. One way to make this time is to schedule a stable “Us-Time” weekly. Write down your schedules, review them, and find one hour in the week that you can be available and relaxed: this will be your “Us-Time”. There are numerous things you can do in this hour. Here are some suggestions:

  • Discuss about the next time you plan to see each other. How will that be? How will you feel? How do you want to be picked up? What do you want to do with your partner? etc. Do not be afraid to be silly, exaggerate, and go big. Dreaming together is a wonderful way to bond. 
  • Watch an episode of a series you love. When you are done, take some moments to discuss it. If you both loved or hated it, this is a great reminder of the things you share that keep you together. If you had differing opinions, then find some time to joke about how different you are and how your differences make your relationship interesting.

Tip 3: Eroticism 

Sex can be tricky for long-distance partners. In the western world we are taught to define sex in a monogamous, heteronormative way and we end up thinking about it as a process oriented toward the “goal” of penis-vaginal penetration. However, sex is a much broader term and being in a long-distance relationship gives you the advantage to take your time and explore the aspects of sex and sexuality that we often disregard. Here are some ideas:

  • The Highlight conversation: All relationships in which partners are sexual have sex-related highlights. Taking turns, pick a time in your relationship when your libido reached its highest or the sex was extremely pleasurable. Describe the context in which it happened, what preceded it, what were the positions you used, what were the sensations you experienced, and what you enjoyed the most. Try to be specific; this will allow your partner(s) to grasp what turns you on and repeat it while it also gives you the opportunity to be explicit about your sexual needs and satisfaction. This can be empowering as well. 
  • The Fantasy conversation: Many people have sexual fantasies, but not many of us ever talk about them. Our fantasies may originate from our past, our childhood, our life experiences, or even the porn we have consumed, and they are often accompanied with guilt and shame – not your fault; it’s our sex negative culture. It is not an easy conversation to have, but if you can dig into them and find the one you feel least ashamed of, you can try sharing it with your partner. Again, make your description as specific as you can, sharing what you like about this fantasy, how does it make you feel as a sexual being, and how long you have had it. If you do not have one, you can use a movie clip or even a porn clip that turns you on and have the same conversation. 

Tip 4: Sarcasm, games, and humor

Enough with the conversations! If you do not feel like talking, having fun is equally, if not more, important. Humor plays an important role in relationship satisfaction and allows space for partners to share, bond, and stay close without expectations or risks. Humor and fun are particularly important elements for long-distance partners as they are the only breath and break that the relationship can take from the “on call” status on which it usually is. From texting games to board games, and from puzzles to trivia and quizzes, there are a handful of online games that you can play regardless of the distance that separates you. 

No matter how far apart, what is crucial for long-distance relationships to last and continue to generate pleasure, happiness, and satisfaction is that you create a common reality, a common universe that exists parallel to your individual ones. This common reality requires that you both provide time and request time from your partner to be seen, heard, and known; communication is the key to creating and maintaining a space which allows all partners involved to feel intimate, close, and true to each other, regardless of the geographical distance between you.

If you need help navigating or maintaining your long-distance relationship, call 215-922-5683 to schedule an appointment with a therapist at the Center for Growth.