Pure Sex, Pure Love

The Challenges of Long-Distance Relationships

A few months ago I received a letter from Jeff Klein, a 32-year-old BustedHalo reader. He’d recently begun dating someone who lived seven hours away. Was it feasible to have a relationship? They both led busy, professional lives and had active social lives in their respective cities. What was my advice, Jeff asked. Was a long-distance relationship a good idea?

A long-distance relationship (LDR) is one in which partners reside in separate geographic locations for some reason (work, school, etc.) and reunite (each weekend, each month, a few times a year) for time together. According to academic research on LDRs—yes, academics study long-distance relationships!—voluntary LDRs are on the rise, and as women advance in the educational and professional realms, it’s even more likely that the modern couple will spend some time physically apart today than it was just a decade ago.

Jeff and I began an email exchange on this topic, and from it evolved this column. It’s terrific when that happens, because my hope is for Pure Sex, Pure Love to be a collaborative effort. After Jeff and I discussed this issue on email, I posed some questions to you, the BustedHalo readership, in a survey. So many of you shared your thoughts and experiences with long-distance relationships that this column is a bit longer than usual. Since I want this to be your space, I’ve added as many comments and perspectives as I could.

What are some of the challenges and benefits of long-distance relationships? What does it take to make a long-distance relationship work?

Speed limit
It’s difficult enough to discern what is a healthy and suitable pace for a ‘normal’ relationship, Jeff said, but in LDRs, setting the emotional pace is even harder.

“How often is it appropriate to call my girlfriend? What if we don’t have the same expectations about how often we’ll visit in person? How will we know when it makes sense to call the relationship serious or exclusive? Of course, these are all typical questions for any relationship, but it’s so much harder to define an answer when “faceless communications”—emails, IMs, and phone calls—form the bulk of the interaction between us.”

“Some 52% of BustedHalo survey respondents said they believed a long-distance relationship move more ’emotionally slowly’ but the rest felt that distance shouldn’t affect the pace of emotions.”

According to a recent BustedHalo opinion poll, some 85% of respondents had been in a long distance relationship. Of those, 37% said they spoke on the phone daily, 52% said they emailed daily 26% said they IMed daily.

Elizabeth, 27, said communication is the hardest part of her current long-distance relationship. “The man I am dating doesn’t really like to talk on the phone and is terrible with email. I, on the other hand, love emailing and phone conversations.” At first, they two saw each other enough in person that this wasn’t a big deal, but now that the visits are spaced further apart, this is becoming a “major drawback,” she said. “We both really like each other, but the communication issue is about ready to make me say forget it. A long distance relationship must have regular communication or it goes nowhere.”

Marathon or sprint?
In LDRs, time together is precious, so there’s pressure to make every moment count.

On those cherished weekends or mini-vacations together, the emotions that can normally evolve slowly when a couple sees each other regularly have to get off the ground fast: “While an ideal relationship would move along with the consistent pace of a marathon runner, a LDR often feels more like a series of sprints,” said Jeff Klein in our email exchange. “This is particularly challenging when it comes to the question of physical intimacy. The temptation to engage in sex or sexual behavior is amplified when two people are feeling such pressure to find ways to connect with each other more deeply.”

For young-adult Catholics who are waiting until marriage to express their sexual intimacy, this desire to connect can reach a fever pitch. So—marathon or a sprint? Some 52% of BustedHalo survey respondents said they believed a long-distance relationship moves more ’emotionally slowly’ but the rest felt that distance shouldn’t affect the pace of emotions.

Beth, 26, said she knows all about the pressure to dash into intimate moments: “Each time you see each other is like a honeymoon period. You put everything on hold to be with each other because you can’t be together all of the time.” This isn’t practical as an emotional solution, Beth said. “It has no resemblance to real life, so the couple will have to live closer together at some point to see if they are truly able to be in each other’s everyday lives.”

But Christina, 25 said that in her experience, the physical distance of LDRs can allow for emotional closeness and intimacy beyond what an in-person relationship usually offers. “You get to know each other really well on a very intimate level. It’s easier to express exactly what you are feeling because there is that buffer [of distance] there.” Of course, Christina said she’s struggled with what to do in those short in-person visits: “When you are in the same place, it can become very intense physically very quickly. I think the worst part is having to leave each other again after having been together.”