Long-dis­tance re­la­tion­ships can pose many chal­lenges. Melissa Ray­worth ex­plains.

Ottawa Citizen - - YOU -

When peo­ple ask how my hus­band and I get through months spent on dif­fer­ent con­ti­nents, the con­ver­sa­tion al­ways turns to tech­nol­ogy.

Just a gen­er­a­tion ago, longdis­tance calls were rare and ex­pen­sive. To­day, a video call costs noth­ing, and it takes only sec­onds to con­nect. We can pop in on each other through­out the day, and sup­ple­ment those calls with on­go­ing mes­sag­ing con­ver­sa­tions to share ev­ery­thing from lit­tle jokes to big feel­ings at a mo­ment’s no­tice.

It’s al­most as if we’re in the same room much of the time.

Only we’re not. And that’s the chal­lenge: Dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tion brings us a lot of con­nec­tion, and it’s prob­a­bly the rea­son many cou­ples are at­tempt­ing long-dis­tance re­la­tion­ships these days. But the il­lu­sion of in­ti­macy and phys­i­cal pres­ence isn’t the same as ac­tu­ally be­ing to­gether. A shared vir­tual ex­is­tence comes with speed bumps that cou­ples may not al­ways see com­ing.


To com­mu­ni­cate well, we need to see how oth­ers re­act to what we’re say­ing, says Ge­orge Loewen­stein, a pro­fes­sor of eco­nomics and psy­chol­ogy at Carnegie Mel­lon Univer­sity. “This kind of syn­chronic­ity of com­mu­ni­ca­tion,” he says, is very im­por­tant and some­thing ro­man­tic part­ners ex­pect.When com­mu­ni­ca­tion with your part­ner hap­pens over typed mes­sag­ing, phone con­ver­sa­tions and grainy video calls, and that vi­tal in­for­ma­tion is lost, a part­ner can eas­ily seem inat­ten­tive or out of sync.

And even on a par­tic­u­larly clear video call, which seems to of­fer us a chance to look di­rectly into the room where some­one is, there’s a cru­cial piece miss­ing: If you look at the other per­son’s face while you’re speak­ing, they see you look­ing slightly away from them. If you look into the cam­era to give them the sense that you’re look­ing di­rectly at them, then you’re not re­ally see­ing their fa­cial ex­pres­sion and pick­ing up on small, non-ver­bal clues.

What to do: Un­der­stand that you’re miss­ing this in­for­ma­tion, and dis­cuss it.


It’s our in­stinct to as­sume that other peo­ple are like us and to find ways that we’re sim­i­lar, says Cait Lam­ber­ton, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of mar­ket­ing at the Univer­sity of Pitts­burgh, who stud­ies on­line be­hav­iour and de­ci­sion-mak­ing.

“In re­la­tion­ships, it would ac­tu­ally be awk­ward to seek out ways you’re dif­fer­ent,” she says. “When you talk, you seek out ways you’re the same.”

But when we share daily life with a part­ner in per­son, a fuller pic­ture emerges: We no­tice dif­fer­ences be­cause they ap­pear in front of us. And in long-term re­la­tion­ships, we no­tice our part­ner grow­ing and be­ing im­pacted by new ex­pe­ri­ences.

“In the on­line world, you have a much more im­pov­er­ished set of clues,” Lam­ber­ton says. “You’re go­ing to as­sume this per­son is go­ing to re­main the same as they’ve al­ways been.”

What to do: Keep ask­ing ques­tions about daily ex­pe­ri­ences, Lam­ber­ton says, and check in about changes. And if you’ll be mak­ing oc­ca­sional vis­its to see each other in per­son, don’t just stay in week­end va­ca­tion mode, says Galena Rhoades, as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Den­ver. Make sure you see your part­ner in var­i­ous set­tings, like at work and with new friends, to know more about their daily life.


Long-term cou­ples, espe­cially those rais­ing a fam­ily and run­ning a house­hold to­gether, have many dif­fer­ent kinds of con­ver­sa­tions on a given day. In the real world, we usu­ally keep them rea­son­ably sep­a­rate: We don’t talk about which gro­ceries we need while we’re on a ro­man­tic Fri­day night date.

Even in close-prox­im­ity re­la­tion­ships, there are times when “those dif­fer­ent kinds of talk get kind of mixed up to­gether,” Rhoades says. But the prob­lem is more com­mon when you’re com­mu­ni­ca­tions are lim­ited by miles and time zones. What to do: Be sen­si­tive. Make room for dif­fer­ent kinds of con­ver­sa­tion, and no­tice when it’s clear which kind your part­ner is look­ing to have. And if your part­ner makes a mis­step, be pa­tient.


“Tech­nol­ogy is only as good as the in­ter­net con­nec­tion, which is of­ten not so great,” Loewen­stein says. “It’s so dif­fi­cult not to, on some un­con­scious level, blame the other peo­ple. To di­rect the frus­tra­tion to the per­son you’re com­mu­ni­cat­ing with.”

Long-dis­tance phone calls, espe­cially over Wi-Fi, can also in­clude a slight de­lay. So it’s easy to talk over each other with­out re­al­iz­ing your part­ner has more to say. If a lot of calls are marked by this frus­tra­tion, cou­ples can start as­so­ci­at­ing part­ner in­ter­ac­tion with an­noy­ance and stress.

On days when the tech con­nec­tion is per­fect, cou­ples may have the op­po­site prob­lem: In­stant and free ac­cess across the miles can make us feel ob­li­gated to be in con­stant touch. We may feel pres­sure to share all de­tails in­stantly, which can be ex­haust­ing. And that also leaves no time for pro­cess­ing thoughts.

What to do: Be pa­tient, and re­mind your­self that tech­nol­ogy re­mains im­per­fect. The beauty of writ­ing letters, says Rhoades, was that peo­ple took time to syn­the­size and sum­ma­rize their ex­pe­ri­ences, and found care­fully cho­sen words. Long-dis­tance cou­ples who grant them­selves that same time may find they say more — with more mean­ing — than they do in a con­stant stream of dashed-off com­men­tary.


Tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vances have made main­tain­ing long-dis­tance re­la­tion­ships eas­ier, but dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tion is also chal­leng­ing.

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