Many couples must separate physically for a variety of reasons, including career and academic advancement, military deployment, immigration restrictions, or familial obligations. Long distance relationships are becoming increasingly common [1] and graduate students and early careers professionals have even more reasons why they might need to live apart from their partners.

Being prepared by knowing the challenges ahead can help to ensure that your relationship and career are actually strengthened by the time apart.

While there are many obvious detriments to being apart from a committed partner, there are also some advantages. Those who separated physically for work reported having more autonomy and satisfaction at work as well as experiencing more creativity [2,3].

And while the difficulties are numerous, being in a long distance relationship can be as satisfying and stable as being in a physically close relationship [4]. In fact, one study found that individuals in long distance relationships actually report higher levels of communication and dedication, and lower levels of feeling trapped and feeling likely of breaking up when compared to close proximity couples [5].

Challenges

Even with these advantages for the relationship, being physically distant from one another can put an added strain on the relationship. Sadness, crying, guilt, anger, restlessness, and yearning are all common reactions to being apart [6]. These can be exacerbated through activation of our exploratory systems, that is, exposure to a new job, new people, and a new routine which can prioritize proximity to the partner [7].

What’s worse is the lack of understanding that is common for others who, despite their good intentions, may not understand the struggles of being in a long distance relationship. Experiencing closeness, whether with an understanding friend or with your partner, can provide the security needed to reactivate our inner creative and adventurous selves.

Reuniting after living apart can be one of the most difficult aspects of long distance relationships. High expectations and time apart can make the transition less than ideal. It is important to remember that it is common for couples to have difficulty with this transition despite the hype and desire to be together again.

Proximity to the partner can be gained through other means prior to reunions. You can help close the gap psychologically through memories or symbolically through pictures, phone calls, video chats, or social networking. Here are some other ways to help deal with the challenges of a long distance relationship.

Surviving a Long Distance Relationship

1. Get Creative

There is no single formula of how to stay in touch, but thanks to modern technology there are more ways than ever to stay connected. Use social media to view and share pictures, write handwritten letters back and forth, watch movies or cook together on video calls, and find other unique ways you can connect to one another.

2. Expect Some Awkwardness

Many couples are surprised to find that they need time to adjust when meeting face to face after time apart. Allow yourself some time to adjust to being together each time you meet and discuss ways that you can acclimate with your partner.

3. Lower Expectations

While this might sound pessimistic, it can be a practical way to avoid feeling disappointed or let down when reuniting. Many people overly romanticize their relationships when they’re away only to find themselves in the mundane routines with their partner. Expect that while you will be overjoyed to see him or her again, you will also have times where running errands or doing chores won’t feel particularly special.

4. Grow Apart

Growing apart is inevitable and fighting it will not only stifle the both of you but lead to tension and conflict. Accept that you and your partner will grow in your own ways and encourage this. By fostering growth, you will deepen your relationship and allow you and your partner to reach your full potential.

5. Share Your Work

Does your partner really understand what you do? Instead of saying you have a paper due or are working a new project, send the instructions or outlines of what you’ll be doing. Projects you’re working on are just an abstract idea you talk about until you share the details.

Some ways you can make your work more concrete are to send class syllabi, requirements for your internship, or your job description. This will only make your successes and challenges with your work easier for your partner to understand, and help them support you more effectively.

6. Connect With Others

Develop and maintain your own community that can offer you support and help you gain your own independence. It can also be helpful to talk to others with experience in long distance relationships as a way to share your struggles and successes. Utilize forums and online groups dedicated to those facing the challenges of being far away from loved ones.

7. Learn Something New

Use the time apart as an opportunity to try a new sport or take up a hobby you’ve always wanted to try out. Even if you don’t end up with a lifelong hobby, you can keep your brain sharp and learn more about yourself.

8. Practice Self-Care

Taking better care of yourself can help with the turbulent emotions and lack of companionship. Use the time apart to develop your own independent system of dealing with feelings of loneliness and anxiety.

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9. Foster Your Independence

Being away from what is familiar makes you learn how to navigate the world on your own without relying on the comfort of your loved one. Embrace your newfound freedom that will undoubtedly prove beneficial even after you reunite with your partner.

10. Plan Ahead

Always know the next time you’ll be seeing each other. Even if it’s three months away, it’s so helpful to be able to countdown the days until you know you’ll see your partner again. It allows you to make plans, feel excited, and know that being apart isn’t forever.

11. Have Difficult Conversations in Person

You can’t always make this happen, and it’s hard to be willing to do this for fear that you’ll mess up that precious time together. However, having difficult conversations in person can actually foster closeness and intimacy. Many partners are able to support and feel more supported by their partner in person, and big issues or decisions are more easily explored when you can be physically supported by your partner.

 

The challenges of living apart are as numerous and unique for each couple as the solutions. Graduate school is a stressful time that can be taxing on a relationship no matter how strong or close the two of you are. By having open communication, addressing issues as they come up, and finding your own support system you can keep your relationship strong no matter how many miles are between the two of you.

 

References

[1] Guldner, G. T. (2003). Long distance relationships: The complete guide. JF Milne Publications, Corona, CA.[2] Sahlstein, E. M. (2004) Relating at a distance: Negotiating being together and being apart in long-distance relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 21(5).[3] Mietzner, S., & Lin, L. W. (2005). Would you do it again? Relationship skills gained in a long-distance relationship. College Student Journal, 39, 192-200.[4] Stafford, L. (2005). Maintaining long-distance and cross residential relationships. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum[5] Kelmer, G., Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S., & Markman, H.J. (2012). Relationship quality, commitment, and stability in long-distance relationships. Family Process, 52(2), 257-270.[6] Bowlby, J. (1973). Attachment and loss: Vol. II: Separation. New York: Basic Books.[7] Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss: Vol. I: Attachment. New York: Basic Books.

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Margherita Gaulte, MA, MS

Margherita Gaulte, MA, MS

Margherita is a Denver native and graduate of Metropolitan State College of Denver where she earned her undergraduate degree in Psychology with a minor in Criminal Justice. She earned her Master’s in Forensic Psychology from Argosy University DC and is completing her PsyD in Clinical Psychology at Pacific University in Oregon. Currently, she is completing her internship at the Florida Department of Corrections and plans to reunite with her partner back in Oregon after graduation. She has worked in correctional facilities in Virginia, Oregon, and Florida and uses Gestalt Therapy as a primary orientation. Her research interests focus on using mindfulness techniques to combat burnout, resiliency, and compassion fatigue for correctional staff. Outside of work she spends time practicing yoga, meditation, writing, and trying out new sports.
Margherita Gaulte, MA, MS

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