Written by Jess Brink
Being in a long-distance relationship is a phenomenon that many individuals experience at least once in their lives. When embarking on this journey, many tend to cite the saying “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” for both comfort and motivation. Research suggests that this saying may hold some truth, and many individuals in long-distance relationships report higher trust levels and better communication than those of closer proximity (Jiang & Hancock, 2013). Although face to face contact is of vast importance in relationships, research suggests that long-distance partners more commonly report greater satisfaction in their relationships than geographically close couples (Stafford & Merolla, 2007). One explanation for this may be increased “romantic idealization” in long-distance couples; romantic idealization refers to describing and thinking of the relationship and one’s partner in unrealistic positive ways (Stafford & Merolla, 2007). Long -distance relationships seem to be the key to happiness, better communication, and increased trust, but once the members of the couple move closer geographically, these effects may change (Stafford & Merolla, 2007). Stafford and Merolla (2007) also considered what happens when long-distance couples move closer geographically.
Does distance make the heart grow fonder?
Laura Stafford and Andy J. Merolla of Ohio State University decided to look at romantic idealization in long-distance relationships, in comparison to geographically close relationships. In the first study, they hypothesized three different outcomes: 1) long-distance couples idealize the relationship more than geographically close couples; 2) long-distance couples think of their conversations more positively than geographically close couples; and 3) long-distance couples experience less face to face communication than geographically close couples do (Stafford & Merolla, 2007). In a study containing 122 heterosexual couples, with 58 being long-distance, the researchers had participants fill out several surveys examining idealization, partners’ perceptions of romantic love, communication satisfaction, and the amount that the couples think and talk about their shared pasts (Stafford & Merolla, 2007). Through this study, Stafford and Merolla (2007) found that long-distance couples do tend to think of their relationships in unrealistic positive ways, particularly in relationships with less face-to-face communication. More recent studies (e.g., Jiang & Hancock, 2013) have concluded that long-distance couples express a higher level of intimacy than geographically close couples. Stafford and Merolla (2007) found that couples in long-distance relationships report higher satisfaction than those in geographically close relationships. Texting, video chats, and scheduling to see one another in person can aid satisfaction in these long-distance relationships. As it was previously mentioned, face to face contact can be extremely important to maintaining a relationship. Although many long-distance couples report higher levels of satisfaction while apart, what happens when the couple members move closer together?
Does the heart stay fond when couples move closer together?
In a second study, Stafford and Merolla (2007) reached out to the individuals who participated in the first study. Participants were asked to complete additional surveys, addressing if they had moved closer to their partners and if they were still involved with the same partners. The study revealed that couples who went from long-distance relationships to residing in similar locations were twice as likely to break up, compared to couples who remained in long-distance relationships (Stafford & Merolla, 2007). They also found that couples with the highest levels of idealization were most likely to break up upon becoming geographically close (Stafford & Merolla, 2007). One explanation for these break ups is that individuals do not live up to the impossible standards that were held by their partners while separated (Merolla, & Castle, 2006; Sahlstein, 2006; Stafford, Stafford & Reske, 1990). Another explanation for the demise of long-distance couples when they reconcile is that the couple members are strangers in some ways. During the time that the couples were separated by distance, they may have grown to believe that they had a deep understanding of their partners. The distance allowed them to ignore potential flaws and to remain unaware of changes in their partners (Stafford & Merolla, 2007). Upon moving closer to a long-distance partner, it may be useful to have a discussion about what to expect. Discussing expectations of the relationship with a partner can help negate any negative feelings that could possibly occur if those expectations are not met. Additionally, one should try to let one's partner know about any new, important changes in one's life. The more a partner is aware of personal changes, the less likely it will be that these changes will have a negative impact on the relationship at a later time.
What does this mean for long-distance couples?
In long-distance relationships, the lack of face to face communication can make the relationship stronger and happier, provided that the couple remains long-distance. However, more time spent face to face can be vital in keeping a long-distance relationship successful once the couple moves closer together. Although a high level of relationship idealization can be the kiss of death for long-distance couples once brought together, a certain level of idealization in any relationship is considered necessary for growth and satisfaction (Murray & Holmes, 1997). Long-distance relationships can be difficult, and moving closer together can be more difficult on the couple in the long run. Therefore, if you find yourself in a long-distance relationship, it is important to spend as much time with your partner as possible. It is also important to try to stay positive, but not overly positive, about the relationship. Perceptions of the relationship should be kept within realistic bounds, with just a little bit of fantasy sprinkled in.
Jiang, C, L., & Hancock, J. T. (2013). Absence Makes the Communication Grow Fonder: Geographic Separation, Interpersonal Media, and Intimacy in Dating Relationships. Journal Of Communication, 63(3), 556-577.
Sahlstein, E. (2006). The trouble with distance. In D. C. Kirkpatrick, S. D. Duck, & M. K. Foley (Eds.), Relating difficulty: The process of constructing and managing difficult relationships (pp. 119–140). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Stafford, L., & Merolla, A. J. (2007). Idealization, reunions, and stability in long-distance dating relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 24(1), 37-54.
Stafford, L., Merolla, A. J., & Castle, J. (2006). When long-distance dating partners become geographically close. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 23(6), 901–919.
Stafford, L., & Reske, J. R. (1990). Idealization and communication in long-distance premarital relationships. Family Relations, 39, 274–279.
Murray, S. L., & Holmes, J. G. (1997). A leap of faith? Positive illusions in romantic relationships. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 23, 586–604.
Dr. H. Colleen Sinclair
Social Psychologist, Relationships Researcher,
Ms. Jessica Utley
Lab Manager of the Social Relations Collaborative and Blog Editor