Today, about 3 million married Americans and as many as half of US college students are in a long-distance relationship — but don’t feel too bad for them.
Scientific studies show that couples in long-distance relationships can be equally, if not more, satisfied as geographically-close couples. Not only that, long-distance couples are more likely to share meaningful thoughts and feelings, and therefore, experience a deeper sense of emotional intimacy, according to one study of 63 college students.
But not everyone can thrive in this kind of romantic commitment.
Emma Dargie, a PhD student in clinical psychology at Queen’s University who has studied hundreds of long-distance daters, says that the single best advice for maintaining a healthy, long-distance relationship is communication.
“Establish the needs of each partner early on, practice working towards meeting those needs, and give feedback about which needs are still being unmet,” Dargie told Business Insider in an email.
These needs can include agreeing on anything from on how often the couple communicates to how frequently they take time to see each other in person. In fact, it’s important to set dates for meet ups, Dargie said. Going long distance with no end in sight can be trickier.
“Those who are certain of when they will be in the same city as their partner … seem to cope better with the distance,” she said.
The hardest part
Dargie, along with a team of researchers at Queen’s University, published a paper last year that compared relationship quality between long-distance couples and geographically-close couples.
In their study, the researchers gave 474 females and 243 males in long-distance relationships a series of questions on topics including intimacy, commitment, communication, and sexual satisfaction (or lack thereof). The researchers asked the same questions of 314 females and 111 males who lived near their partner.
In the end, Dargie and her colleagues found no difference in the quality of the relationship for either type of couple. Oddly enough, they found that for long-distance couples, the farther apart each partner was from the other geographically, the higher their level of satisfaction, intimacy, and communication was.
This suggests that the hardest part about long-distance relationships is not the distance itself, Dargie said.
“According to our research, it’s not necessarily how far apart you are or how little you see your partners,” she explained. “It’s more about the discrepancy between your expectations for relationships and the reality of your current situation.”
In addition to her research, Dargie is an expert on long-distance romance from personal experience. In fact, part of the reason she began researching this type of relationship is because she was in a long-distance relationship at the time.
“There was not, and still is not, a great deal of research on the topic, so my partner and we were just stumbling through as best we could. Ultimately, that relationship ended,” Dargie said. “Although it would be tempting to blame the long distance for that dissolution, I now see that the relationship had just run its course.”
Technology to the rescue
While long-distance relationships are nothing new and faraway lovers have historically stayed in touch via letters and phone calls, recent technology — especially the internet — means it’s possible to regularly see and communicate with your partner even if you can’t be with them physically.
The study of 63 couples, published in the Journal of Communication in 2013, found that digital media, like video chatting and texting, may help couples achieve healthy long-distance relationships — at least among younger daters. (The average age of research participants was 21, and the authors cautioned in the paper that “the sample of tech-savvy college students may limit the generalizability of the conclusions.”)
The study analysed 876 diary entries detailing the couples’ day-to-day interactions. Roughly half of the couples were in long-distance relationships. Although the people in a long-distance did not interact as frequently throughout the day, their interactions were longer and more intimate.
“If being geographically apart is inevitable, people should not despair,” Crystal Jiang, an assistant professor at City University of Hong Kong and coauthor of the paper, told the Huffington Post. “They are capable of communicating intimacy.”
Some more advice
In any relationship, but especially in long-distance relationships, it’s important to understand that your partner has a life outside of the relationship. While making time for talking and being together is crucial, it’s also important to spend time with friends and family.
“There is likely little that people will be able to do in order to change their long distance status, but if they devote their time to filling their lives with good people and fun activities, that absence may feel less pronounced,” Dargie told Business Insider. “Plus, that gives much more to talk about during phone and/or Skype dates!”
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