Could It Be That Long-Distance Relationships Are Actually Healthy?

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Long-distance relationships, it turns out, may not only be a last resort for the hopelessly lonesome and socially weird. A Queen’s University study recently found relationship-­satisfaction levels for long-distance and “geographically close” couples to be virtually indistinguishable on nearly all measures, including sexual satisfaction. Oddly enough, digital communication may actually be more romantic than face-to-face interaction: A study from Cornell University found that confessions made via one-on-one web chat were consistently considered more intimate than identical confessions made in person. Call it the Manti Te’o phenomenon, the tendency some people have to ignore a campus full of suitable partners in favor of the one conjured digitally.

“In real dating, nobody waits,” my friend Holly observed, which means long-distance dating is “like all those sexy-time suburban-mom books about delaying sex for made-up reasons like vampire death so there can be sexual buildup.” Forbidden love is harder to come by than it once was; in the absence of blood feuds and imprisoned princesses, the doomed romances of our time are those conducted with lovers whose affections we imagine in the silence between text messages. The only stars that cross to keep modern lovers apart are those they willingly subject themselves to—like geography.

“It’s the adult version of the kid in high school who always has a ‘girlfriend from camp who lives in a different town,’ ” Holly continued. But whereas the teenage version was calibrated to hide a misfit’s loneliness, adults who chronically date long-distance may be hiding the fact that they simply enjoy being alone. “He wants to party with his bros and live in a filthy bachelor pad,” I replied, describing the heterosexual man-child of the distance-dating species, “but still have regular enough sex that he doesn’t explode or have to risk approaching someone new.” He doesn’t want a girlfriend; he wants a Tamagotchi he can feed by text message a couple of times a day and have sex with once a month. But maybe I was being ungenerous. Long-­distance daters could be the bachelor version of a “beard,” hiding a desire to remain unattached, but they could also be pioneers of a new form of partnership that works best at arm’s length. A form that enables you to both mythologize and compartmentalize the romance, to feel the full flush of intense coupling while living a life untrammeled by it. It’s everything you want from a relationship and none of the things that drive you nuts about being in one. Love, as painted by Claude Monet: better from a distance.

“I think it forces you to make immediate decisions, which are a bit stabilizing, at least at first,” my friend Anne reasoned. (Some names in this article have been changed.) “You decide you’re going to try this and make an investment early on. You’re not going to spend all that money traveling to see each other just for a booty call. It also takes some of ‘the game’ off the table; it’s clear you both want it and are trying. And, finally, it’s hugely romantic. You have exciting moments of anticipation, the honeymoon of seeing each other, the sadness of departure. It’s like dating on steroids.”

But did Anne really think her long-distance boyfriends were the best men out there and that no comparable partner existed in New York? “Well, yes, but maybe also that there was some star-crossed element to our separation that made it even more romantic to conquer,” she replied. “Then again, I do really like my solo life.”

“At any given moment, I’m probably text-flirting with at least one person who lives out of state,” my friend Lisa reflected. “I don’t know why. I guess I get bored on the bus to work?” Another possibility: Flirtations with “geographically close” men tend to progress more quickly, reaching impossible-­to-ignore conclusions after a certain number of face-to-face dates, hookups, or social entanglements. But long-­distance can be an escape. I once knew a wealthy man who bought bottle service at every club in Manhattan. Women flocked to him, but he dated only those our mutual friends cringingly referred to as “imports.” Did he like the challenge? The drama of flying cross-country for dates? The implied status symbol of being able to afford such impractical romances? When he eventually moved to a new city and defaulted back to dating people who lived in his time zone, we had an answer: The relationships were just an excuse. What he really wanted was a reason to get out of New York.

“For me it was a nice escape from having to figure out how to function in a real relationship. You only do it for two to ten days at a time,” my friend Helen reflected of a boyfriend who lived two time zones away. “My therapist always says, ‘Love is not longing,’ but longing can certainly trick you into thinking you really, really, really love someone and can’t live without them.” And, as is the case with the distance-dating man-child, the geographic escape may also provide cover for a retreat from responsibility and accountability. Karen Blair, a researcher who worked on the Queen’s University study, told me there is research that shows that “there are some people that enjoy the long-distance part of it, which could essentially be what keeps their relationships going. Perhaps they’re people with avoidant relationship styles; they want relationships, but they don’t want them taking over their lives.” “It’s a relief from the pressure of having to meet people and date people and the bad feelings that come with failing at that,” said my friend Tommy, a repeat distance dater who describes himself as “really immature.” “But I did feel guilty,” he says of his last relationship, “like I was holding her hostage.” Did he ever feel similarly trapped? “No, but I am a borderline sociopath.”

Then again, perhaps the demand to commit, communicate, and look past a partner’s flaws is what the hookup generation needs to settle down. My friend Alex, who is notorious for sleeping around, recently fell hard for a Swedish woman he’s spent perhaps 24 hours with in person but talks to online and by phone every day. “You know the basics are there, otherwise you wouldn’t be buying a plane ticket and using vacation days. And sometimes I think maybe the basics are all you really need. Once basics are there, it’s just a matter of effort and commitment, isn’t it? When something goes wrong with an in-person date, it’s easy to just ditch it, but long-­distance, you’ve both already decided to make the effort.”

Now approaching 30, Alex had a long-distance girlfriend in his early 20s, too; they broke up after two years, when she was preparing to relocate to his city. At the time, a cross-country move for love seemed like too much commitment. “In retrospect, I think I made the wrong call,” Alex confessed over tequila. “Yes, we broke up for a reason, but could we have gotten past it if we tried harder? Did I throw in the towel too soon? Maybe the secret to lasting relationships is just that: At some point, you decide it should last.” The more he drank, the more sentimental he became: “When you’re long-distance, every moment together is precious. But shouldn’t every moment with any girlfriend be precious?” In subsequent days, I would tease him ruthlessly for those saccharine musings, but it was also the most unguardedly romantic I’d ever seen him. At one point, Alex showed me the lovelorn texts he traded with the Swede: “Those lips.” “Your lips and mine.” “[Emoji face with hearts for eyes.]” Looking between the phone and Alex’s sheepish grin, all I could do was laugh. Maybe if he’d been on the other side of an ocean, it would have made more sense. Sometimes, you have to not be there.       

*This article appeared in the May 5, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.

Photo: Alex Prager, Crowd #7 (Bob Hope Airport), 2013.