The loves lifeby Stanley Davidge, a 25-year-old chain manager for a national restaurant chain, is absolutely exceptional.
For most of the day, Davidge, who lives in South Carolina, is in touch with his girlfriend Angela Davila, who lives in Virginia and is looking for a job. Even though they are six hours apart by car, they "shoot the police and stuff" on FaceTime when Davidge takes a break from work, call each other in the car and at the end of the day watch TV together. through a website so they can have a split screen. "It's almost like we're in the same room together," he says of tandem streaming.
The way in which Davidge and Dávila maintain their relationship does not impress anyone familiar with the Internet and smartphones. But given the richness of human history, it's amazing that two people in different places can maintain such a rich relationship without a lot of financial or logistical problems, and not think about it.
It's hard to say whether long-distance relationships are more common than a generation or two ago, although some scholars suggest that they are. "They're there, and we think they're increasing," says Laura Stafford, a communications scientist at Bowling Green State University who has studied long-distance relationships.
But the many forms that long-distance relationships take make it really hard to count: Couples (married or not) can live apart because they attend different universities, have jobs in different cities (or countries), one or both have military service, one or both are in prison, or one or both have moved away to care for an elderly parent. To make matters worse, these agreements can be relatively short or last for years.
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Still, there are two notable indications that more couples may be living apart these days. First, in a government survey, the number of married Americans age 18 and older who reported living separately from their spousesincreased from around 2.7 million in 2000 to around 3.9 million in 2017, but frustratingly, none of those millions were asked in the survey why they don't live together. And second, according to the Pew Research Center, the proportion of "recently dated Internet users" who said they used the web or e-mail to stay in touch with a long-distance partner.increased from 19 to 24 percentfrom 2005 to 2013. That's a decent increase, but a Pew researcher cautioned that it can't be said with certainty how long or why these couples were separated. Some respondents may have thought of the time they emailed their partner while on a business trip.
Exact numbers aside, the truth is that long-distance relationships, the term I'll use next for couples living separately by choice, are different today than they were 500 or 50 years ago—in fact, they were 15 years ago. As economic and technological developments push couples geographically apart, some of these developments make these couples' love lives more like couples living in the same place. The distance still exists, but it seems increasingly short.
Bbefore video chat, before long distance calls there were letters. Through written correspondence, lovers have historically exchanged significant information over great distances. The Exchange of Victorian Poets Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browningare classics of the genre, which elegantly reveal the contents of the mind and heart of their authors. "It penetrated me in the same way and became part of me, this great living poetry of yours, which was not a flower, but took root and grew", wrote Robert in 1845 in the first letter of their correspondence. The fantastically graphic letters that James Joyce wrote to his mistress in the 1900s wereclassic with a difference- his signature on one of them was: "Goodnight, my farting Daughter-in-law, you dirty son of a bitch!"
As these nicknames attest, written expressions of worship can be colorful and evocative. You can also leave a lot to the imagination as a medium. With letters, "you can have really powerful emotions and intimacy," says Jeff Hancock, a professor of communication at Stanford University. "All they have are each other's words so they can really picture the other person as best they can."
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The telephone may have been invented in the mid-19th century, but it wasn't until the 1940s and 1950s, Hancock said, that the technology was seen as suited for pleasure, not just business. But in those early days, long phone calls to distant loved ones were still too expensive for many people. Robert Gordon, an economist at Northwestern University, recalls that when he was a student in the late 1950s and early 1960s, a minute of an international call cost about $3, which was more than the average hourly wage in this moment. (In today's dollars, that's about $26 a minute adjusted for inflation.)
A year after graduating from college, Gordon was studying at Oxford and his then-fiancée was finishing her senior year in Boston, where they met. During this transatlantic phase of their relationship, they only wrote letters and never spoke on the phone. "Long distance calling just didn't come up for discussion until 1970, 1971," he says. he . (The specific reference year for a given person would likely have to do with that person's disposable income.)
The next big development in romantic communication was, of course, the Internet. In the past, ubiquitous email, instant messaging and video chat made it possible and affordable for couples to share even the most mundane details of their lives in real time, as many times as they wanted. It was almost the opposite ofWriting a letter, say, early to mid-nineteenth century., whose purpose was often to record the most important things that had happened since the last letter. "The day-to-day information we can share with each other is critical to [long-distance] relationships, and that's often lost in letters from the past," says Jason Farman, a media expert at the University of Maryland who wrote the history of the study of communication technologies.
Those mundane broadcasts helped Jess Lam, a 29-year-old dentist from Los Angeles, navigate four years of long distance with her boyfriend. She told me that after a typical day at dental school, she comes home, cooks dinner, and starts an hour-long session of what she calls "Skype in the background" - video calling her boyfriend while she is a couple They communicate. about their afternoons and from time to time they interacted. "We weren't looking out for each other all the time, but we could see each other on screen and say hello, so we were always connected that way," he told me.
"Skype in the background" is something many long distance calls do today. In Farman's eyes, the practice "brings the mundane to the fore" and brings "a level of intimacy that I don't think people in the old days had at that level".
However, more analog interactions are still attractive. Stanley Davidge, the network administrator who watches TV with his long-distance girlfriend, says sending old-fashioned emails also helps them feel close. "I'll fold some origami stuff for her every few months and send her a letter out of the blue," he told me. "She really likes it."
And the existence of technology does not guarantee a constant connection. Alex Bettencourt and Frantz Salomon have been together for three years, married for a year and away the whole time. Bettencourt lives in Boston, Salomon in Jacmel, a coastal town in Haiti. They see each other about twice a year, text each other every day, and try to video chat once a week. But that doesn't always work. "If we want to talk on the phone when the cell signal isn't good there, or there's a power outage or something like that, that changes things," Bettencourt told me. The longest time the couple was out of touch was about a week; the inconsistency was a challenge, Bettencourt said, but it now seems pretty normal.
Communication barriers are also common for many military couples. Montoya Warner, a 23-year-old Washington state resident, says that when his wife left for boot camp it was "seven months of minimal communication." (The camp would normally only last two or three months, but Warner's wife suffered a hip injury that prolonged the time.) At first, a few "bad apples" on his wife's train sometimes cost everyone else their telephone privileges. , as calls between them were reduced to every two or limited to three weeks.
Surprisingly, about a dozen people I interviewed about their relationships for this story said they'd rather make long distance calls now than 20 or 50 years ago. "I can text, talk and play with my partner who lives across the Atlantic and it almost feels real," said one. "If this was 150 years ago I would have had to wait about three months for a Pony Express letter and by the time I got it I could have died of cholera or something," said another.
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It seems obvious that being able to communicate at Internet speed would be better than waiting in the Pony Express for a message from your sweetheart. But it's worth noting that the communication speeds of yesteryear probably look awful to us today.than they really were for people back then. Farman says the less immediate exchanges "were not necessarily perceived as unusual or less aggressive." In hindsight, these means of communication seem excruciatingly slow.
In fact, Farman says, "My first impulse is that if you asked people at almost any other time in history whether they preferred to be in a long-distance relationship now or in the past, they would all have answered the exact same thing. You understand. that their communication networks for keeping in touch are far superior to those that existed before.” Now is always the best time, when it's now.
Cchicken someWith long distances in mind, immersive, real-time communication technologies can make distance seem more manageable. But a variety of larger forces, involving job markets, geography and gender norms, also put certain couples in a position where they have to make that choice in the first place. The apparent boom in long distance relationships appears to be unevenly distributed across demographics.
A society-wide trend suggests that couples overall are less likely to experience long-distance issues than they used to be: the percentage of Americans who moved between states in a given yeardecreased by more than half between the 1970s and 2010s. Nowadays,four-fifths of American adultslive a few hours or less by car from their parents.
But something interesting is happening to the remaining fifth: education and income are whattwo strongest predictorsmoving home. This pattern combined with the sharp increase in the number of women pursuing careersin the last half century, suggesting that geography may be the most pressinga special kind of couple— Double income, well educated, employed. In the past, couples tended to juggle work with one partner, usually the man. Laura Stafford, a researcher at Bowling Green, says that "we've almost certainly seen an increase" in long-distance relationships between people pursuing careers in different places.
Read: The five years that changed dating.
Danielle Lindemann, a sociologist at Lehigh University, notes that Census Bureau data on couples living separately does not indicate whether jobs are the reason for the couples' different locations. "The unsatisfying answer is that no one can say for sure that [long-distance marriage] is more common than it has been in the past," he says, "but everyone who studies it agrees that it probably is." In fact, he published a book on the subject,Commuting Spouses: New Families in a Changing World, earlier this year.)
The pressure of living apart at work can be particularly acute for younger couples still in the workforce, and the academic job market, where full-time jobs are relatively scarce and spread across the country, is an instructive case study. . Shelly Lundberg, an economist at UC Santa Barbara, says the recent Ph.D. Couples find it difficult to balance their relationships and work. “Juggling location is really difficult for these young people, and many of them end up separated for years, sometimes on different continents, before they find something that works,” she says.
This represents a shift, notes Lundberg: “In my group,” she earned her Ph.D. in 1981, “women have basically given up. They would find the best job for their husband or partner and take a teaching job or something." Today, she says, "Women are more ambitious, so the decision is to get a job elsewhere, at least temporarily. assuming has become much more common.”
Lundberg says what's happening in academia may be a microcosm of what's happening with highly educated professionals in general, many of whom "undergo very intense professional pressures in their early [job] years." She believes that long-distance relationships are a predictable consequence of "inner tensions created by balancing ambitions" between men and women. And the Internet just facilitates career-oriented geographic disconnects: the same communication technologies that make romantic intimacy possible also facilitate remote work while visiting a partner.
Economist Marta Murray-Close analyzed data from the 2000 census and found that married people with college degrees were married.more likely to live away from their spousethan those who only had a bachelor's degree. Among 25- to 29-year-olds, 3 to 4 percent of those with only a bachelor's degree lived separately from their spouse; the rate for those with master's or doctoral degrees was 5 or 6 percent. "As you move up the educational chain," Murray-Close told me, "the likelihood of having jobs focused on specific geographic areas will also increase." And what's more, a good education often means the cost - like lost wages - is much greater if you don't look for the best job options.
Murray-Close also found that these patterns exhibit gender dynamics: when the men in heterosexual couples have advanced degrees beyond a bachelor's degree, the couple is more likely to move in together. However, for women with higher education, it is more likely that the couple lives separately. “I contend that the choice of family location is analogous to the choice of marriage name,” wrote Murray-Close.a work from 2016. "Husbands rarely house their wives, whatever the circumstances, but wives will house their husbands unless the cost of housing is abnormally high."
Another broad demographic pattern that can encourage long-distance professional relationships is a bachelor's degree.correlated with marry later in life, leaving a period of life after college, maybe a few years, maybe even a decade, that can be closed off for career development before starting a family.
When I spoke to Madison VanSavage-Maben, a 27-year-old from Wake Forest, North Carolina, she was in the last week of her long-distance relationship with her husband, Alex. They lived in different places for four years, in part because she chose to specialize in orthotics and prosthetics, which limited her graduate options. "We're really excited," he told me. "It finally feels like we can start our life together. You're definitely developing two separate lives at a distance that you hope will eventually come together.
A week before she started moving in with her husband, VanSavage-Maben got emotional thinking about all the things the two had put off since they were little ("even the stupid things like we don't buy permanent furniture have"). . ) to large (“Who knows if we would have children”). "For us, everything happened at the right time," she concluded her. "We've managed to put our careers first and get to a place where we can now have the future we've always wanted."
It might even be that there's a rare kind of relief in being apart when 20-year-olds who were married on long-distance travel are investing in their education and career. Lauren, a 24-year-old social work student from Boston, has been dating her boyfriend, who is a graduate in North Carolina, for over a year. (She asked not to publish her last name due to the delicate nature of her work.)
"Few were incredibly difficult for us because we're both in school so we're both really busy," he said. "I tend to think that if he lived here, we would have a more difficult relationship at times." Harder, he says, in the sense that if they were in the same place, they might spend less time together than they'd like, but there's no reason as good as living apart; the distance somewhat excuses the priority they give to school work.
Lauren doesn't like it that way, but their relationship still works just fine, as do many other couples who make life decisions based on the ambitions of two different people, ambitions that, when realized, may require their bodies to be in two different bodies. . positions. people are places.
GRAMSLong distanceIt's a convenient option for a certain type of modern couple, but romantically speaking, how well does living in different places really work? Communication researchers have long dabbled in "non-close" relationships to examine whether being physically in the same place is even a necessary part of intimacy. In general, several decades of research point to this.It is not.
"Long-distance relationships can actually have these very powerful emotional and intimate dynamics that we don't expect," said Stanford professor Jeff Hancock. When I asked her if long-distance relationships were harder to maintain, she pointed out that many "co-location" relationships are ending - just look at the divorce rate. "It's not like physical relationships are golden in that sense," he said. "Being in the same place doesn't guarantee success, just as being far away doesn't guarantee you'll die."
While long distance relationships differ in so many different ways that grouping them together is a shortcut, two paradoxical ideasoften appear in their investigations: People who live in different places than their partner tend to have more stable and committed relationships, and yet when they eventually start living in the same place, they are more likely to break up than couples who have lived together all along. or tempo.
A possible key to resolving this paradox has to do with how couples feel when they are apart. Laura Stafford, the Bowling Green researcher, studied long-distance relationships involving one or more college students in the 2000s. (College students are perhaps the best-represented group in distance writing because they are easy to find for academic researchers and it is common for them to date someone who is not enrolled in their school). Stafford noted that long-distance couples were more likely to idealize each other: they're given less information about their partner, so their imagination fills in the rest, often in a positive way.
Consequently, they also tended to fight less. This was in part because there was less discussion; argumentsin dirty dishesare unlikely if each partner's sink is in a different city. Partly because they couldn't find a good time to fight: Couples rarely wanted to resolve conflicts remotely, over the phone, text message or email, but they also felt that their precious time was wasted. do this. Don't let difficult conversations "waste" you. These couples were more likely to avoid conflict and hold honest opinions. "It's like [they] are stuck in this honeymoon phase," says Stafford.
This dynamic benefits couples when they are separated, as they value their partner a lot and fight less with him. In fact, Stafford found that long-distance couples report being more in love than those in the same place.
But the same things that help keep a long-distance relationship going make it harder to sustain once the geographic gap is closed. Ina 2007 study, Stafford, and Andy Merolla of UC Santa Barbara found that about a third of the couples in their sample who had been dating long-distance for two years broke up within three months of moving to the same place. After the meeting, Stafford says, "They learned ten times more negative information about their partners than positive information:He didn't remember how careless he was.,He didn't remember how ruthless he was.,I don't remember how much time he spends on the phone.“
Essentially, each member of the relationship has to relearn what it's like to live alongside each other. And what it's like to live with someone, too: "The biggest issue or problem that long-distance couples said they faced when they got back together was the loss of autonomy," says Stafford.
But thanks to the ubiquity of mobile devices, expansive data plans and consistently fast internet services, the technological advances of the past decade may have fundamentally changed these unfortunate patterns for the better. Many long-distance couples today can stay in constant touch wherever they are, and the communication technologies available allow them to exchange even the most mundane details, things for which there was less room for long-distance letters or phone calls and before. incarnations of the Internet. These mundane details can create closeness while showing people a fuller, less idealized version of their partner.
Crucially, this technological shift also gives couples more opportunities to talk about the important things.A 2011 studyBy looking at how young, tech-savvy, and long-distance lovers used video chat, they found that, contrary to previous studies, these couples were more likely not to shy away from potentially charged topics and, as a result, saw more who they were. . it was really his partner. . "We believe this reduced idealization is largely due to the way our participants appropriated the video connection to simulate conviviality and encourage more face-to-face behavior," the researchers wrote. (This chimes with the experiences of couples I spoke with, many of whom said they don't shy away from difficult conversations, often reserving them for video chats.)
But there are some things that communication technologies cannot overcome. Physical contact cannot be replicated via a screen, although the 14 people in long-distance relationships interviewed for the 2011 study certainly tried. They said they exchange kisses, open their arms as if they are hugging their partner, or give a fake hug on the device they are using while video chatting. "One participant even said his partner stroked his head and shoulder by wrapping his hand around the video image and moving it up and down," the researchers noted.
Alex Bettencourt says that some of the hardest moments of a months-long separation are when "you've had a rough day at work and you want to come home and get a hug." Indeed, the "lack of physical intimacy" was.the most mentioned challengein a survey of remote partners commissioned by a company that makes sex toys that can move in response to remote data input.
Perhaps this kind of innovation is welcome: only two participants in the 2011 study were regularly engaged in "full cybersex activities." For some, it became a powerful way to build intimacy, but for others, it was a symbol of separation: "they realized more clearly that they couldn't really touch each other, and that made them miss each other even more." I tried it but found it "weird". The rest explained that shyness and privacy were factors or that having sex through a screen didn't seem important to maintaining the relationship.
There are other limitations imposed by geography that technology can't do much about. Stafford points out that an important part of getting to know a partner is seeing how that person treats other people, and no one-on-one video chat would help in that regard. She predicts this will continue to be an issue "until we all have body cameras."
Consequently, communication technologies do not make people feel good about their partner's environment. "One of the things that happens when we're in the same physical space is we're in sync on all sorts of things," said Jeff Hancock. "We're in sync with the weather, we know when to take out the trash, I can see when you're happy or stressed or whatever. If you're not in the same physical space, all of that takes work." Many of the people I spoke with said that long-distance relationships made them better communicators, so this challenge seems like a place where an outdated technology - language - can step in to bridge the gap.
Many important determinants of happiness in a long-distance relationship are often things couples have little control over. Research has shown that couples tend to feel less stressed and happier when they knowwhen the not close part of your relationship ends, and if the distance is longa year or less. And being connected yet separate can fundamentally change the way people experience their daily lives, forcing them to negotiate an in-between state where they are neither completely alone nor completely together.
Deciding how to spend time can be difficult when you're alone. "After an hour with nobody with me [at a party], it's likeWhy am I here?said Stanley Davidge. “I would rather be home and watch Netflix with her.” He described a social life oddly split between what people do when single and what they do with a partner. “If she were here,” he told me, “she would go out more. Or if I was single, she would date more people."
The consequences of geographic separation can be felt even when a couple is temporarily in the same place. Timothy Nagle-McNaughton, a 22-year-old graduate student from New Mexico, articulated something I heard from many people in long-distance relationships: There is a sense that the time we spend together is especially meaningful and should be made the most of. in. "There's definitely that pressure to make the visit worthwhile, to organize a fun social event," he told me. But it's fine, she found, in moderation: "Sometimes you just want to sit in the bedroom and be together, watch movies and cook together."
It may be that navigating the long distance gives some couples tools to help them deal with future conflicts, big and small. Nagle-McNaughton and his girlfriend Diana Magaña-Contreras started living together about six months ago. He seemed excited even to do little things like go shopping with her, and she thinks their getting together bodes well for their future. “If we can last four years of long-range combat, fighting over whose turn it is to take out the trash is basically nothing,” he said.
Being in a long-distance relationship often means operating within a set of restrictions that are beyond one's control. But there are things that people can do individually to counteract the disadvantages. I interviewed several researchers who have studied the subject, and their suggestions can be summarized in the following list: Communicate on a variety of platforms to compensate for the limitations of each platform (and writing letters that present yourself as a beautiful physique can serve as a reminder to relationship). Make a plan for how and when to have difficult conversations. Share small mundane details and, if possible, everyday experiences, such as B. streaming a movie together. Set aside time for routine exams and impromptu conversations. And remember that living together can be a transition.
This advice is adapted to current communication technologies and it is not clear how long it will be applicable. A few decades from now, fully immersive virtual reality simulations and haptic suits may finally make geography irrelevant in love. But today's interaction tools — video calls, text and picture messaging, co-streaming sites — are honestly pretty impressive, even if the grandchildren of today's long-distance couples can't figure out how they make it work.