Long Distance Relationship Benefits Include Greater Intimacy, Study Says

07/18/2013 12:12 pm ET | Updated Aug 12, 2013

The prevailing wisdom has it that distance strains romantic relationships, and that being close to your partner or spouse is the clearest path to happiness.

But new research argues that absence might truly make the heart grow fonder and that couples who live apart have more meaningful interactions than those who see each other daily.

The study, published in the Journal of Communication on Thursday, found that men and women in long distance relationships were more likely to share meaningful thoughts and feelings than those who were not. They also tended to idealize their partners' behaviors, leading to a greater sense of intimacy.

"If being geographically apart is inevitable, people should not despair," said study researcher Crystal Jiang, an assistant professor with City University of Hong Kong. "They are capable of communicating intimacy."

Jiang and researchers with Cornell University asked 63 heterosexual couples -- roughly half of whom said they were in long distance relationships -- about their typical communication. On average, the participants were just under 21 years old, had been in their relationships for nearly two years and had been living apart for 17 months.

Couples who lived apart tended to have fewer daily interactions, but those interactions were longer and more meaningful, with each person revealing more about him or herself. The researchers are not certain why, exactly, distance tended to foster deeper interactions, but they do suggest that couples who live apart may idealize their partners' personal disclosures.

Rachel Sussman, a licensed psychotherapist and author of The Breakup Bible: The Smart Woman’s Guide to Healing from a Breakup or Divorce (who has also blogged for The Huffington Post), said that the nature of long distance relationships has changed dramatically, not just because of the ubiquity of technology, but more specifically because of access to video chat programs.

"I think Skype and FaceTime really do help -- you're seeing someone's face and having those facial expressions really makes a big difference," she said. "Sometimes when we're on the telephone, we can be distracted, but if you're sitting down for a video chat, then you're really focused on each other."

The study's researchers write that technology has been a major driver in the proliferation of long distance relationships. According to data cited in the study, some 3 million Americans now live apart from their spouses for reasons other than divorce or problems, and between a quarter and one-half of college students are currently in long distance relationships.

But Sussman doubts the new study tells the full story.

While communication may be strong in long distance relationships -- possibly even stronger than in geographically close relationships -- the research doesn't consider what she dubbed the "loneliness factor" or other stresses that come with living apart. She acknowledged that as a relationship therapist, she sees couples when they're already experiencing problems, but in her experience, couples in long distance relationships second guess their relationship when they're apart, and often feel lonely.

"Mostly what I see is that long distance relationships can be really stressful," Sussman said.

Most research looking at long distance relationships to date has focused on the negatives -- how couples cope with the problems outlined by Sussman. But the authors of the new study say it offers a glimmer of hope to those separated by distance.

"Long distance relationships are not doomed to fail, [and they are] at least not easier than geographically close ones," Jiang said. "I think such findings give people confidence, given long distance romance is much more common nowadays."

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