Dr Charlotte Russell, Clinical Psychologist and Founder
Long-distance relationships are very common. It is helpful for each of us that we have our own aspirations and ambitions, both for our well-being and sense of self. When we are in a relationship, this means that it is possible, or even likely, that these ambitions will take us in different directions geographically. For many this is just for a short period of time, perhaps when one person in a couple takes a university course or embarks on some training for a new role.
If these opportunities are right for us, then the potential of being in a long-distance relationship shouldn’t mean a choice between an opportunity or our relationship. Likewise if we meet someone we fall in love with, and they live on the other side of the world, we should know that it is possible to make it work. In this guide I’m going to talk you through the evidence around long-distance relationships and provide tips on navigating this situation together.
Do long-distance relationships last?
Long distance relationships certainly can be successful and last. However being physically apart from one another can add stress and challenges to the relationship. This means the bond has to be strong enough to withstand this.
It is important to remember that long distance relationships aren’t easy but if both partners are committed it is possible to make it work. The key to success is to be prepared for the challenges and for both partners to work together as a team to overcome these.
What does the research say?
There has been some interesting research in this area that can shed light on what can help long distance relationships to thrive.
One study looked at long distance relationships over a one-year period and found some factors that predicted relationships breaking down (Camerson and Ross, 2007). These were one or both of the partners having low self-esteem, a tendency towards depression, and/or being pessimistic in their outlook. The effect was particularly pronounced when the male partner (in heterosexual relationships) experienced these. This tells us that long distance relationships can be more challenging if we are also dealing with mental health challenges.
As well as factors that predicted relationships ending, there were some factors that predicted relationships lasting (Cameron and Ross, 2007). These were indicators of the relationship being strong and stable. They included participants having faith in their partner, expecting that their partner will support them and being optimistic about the future of the relationship (Cameron and Ross, 2007). This tells us that working on these things are important for our relationships!
The Cameron and Ross (2007) study focused on straight monogamous relationships so it is not certain whether these factors can be generalised to gay couples or other relationship types. However a different study found that the things that result in relationship satisfaction in gay and straight couples were the same (Mackey et al., 2004). This provides some confidence that things that help and hinder long distance relationships are similar for both gay and straight couples.
In terms of communication types, one study found that the number of text messages sent in long distance relationships is associated with increased relationship satisfaction (Holtzman et al., 2021). This suggests that text messaging can be important to navigate the physical distance in long distance relationships. However, this was a single study over a short period of time, so it doesn’t tell us much about whether these relationships lasted. I would also suggest that there is a ‘goldilocks’ zone of text messaging. If we are sending lots of text messages each day this can feel too much and can be overwhelming. It may also be a sign of lack of trust and/or co-dependence. So it is important to find the right balance for you in terms of communication.
What are the red flags in a long-distance relationship?
The red flags in long distance relationships are similar to those in any type of relationship. They include:
- Unwillingness to accept the reality of the situation, and to make the most of it. This might include your partner blaming or holding the situation against you.
- Your partner being dismissive or invalidating of your feelings
- Aggressive or controlling behaviour
- Lack of commitment or investment in the relationship
- Inconsistent behaviour that is confusing
- Unwillingness to acknowledge or discuss any difficulties within the relationship
- Not feeling like your partner is ‘on your team’
Tips for making a long-distance relationship work
Build trust and work together as a team
Remember those factors that predicted successful relationships; faith in your partner, expecting that your partner will support you and being optimistic about the future of the relationship. These things require both parties working together to build trust. This means consistently showing up for each other and aiming to see each other’s point of view. We do this in big and small ways every day in our relationship, and these add up.
An example would be texting a message of support when you know your partner has a big meeting at work. It means showing interest in their day even when you are tired and just want to zone out. It means going out of your way to show up for them, even from a distance. These gestures matter particularly during the tough moments.
Understand each others’ perspectives
Nobody chooses to be in a long-distance relationship without good reason. Maybe you met online and you live in different countries. Maybe one of you has been offered an amazing opportunity somewhere far away. Maybe both of you have.
The most important thing is that you see each other’s perspective. If you are the person jetting off to a new opportunity, recognise how hard that might feel for your partner. They might be feeling ‘left behind’ even though they love you and they know this is the right opportunity for you. Try to acknowledge that this is difficult for them.
By the same token, if you are the partner who is remaining in your hometown, think about how challenging it might feel to be leaving. As well as not having you with them, they are going to have to get to know a new country and job or course. We know moving abroad is very challenging psychologically and doubly so when you are moving away from your partner.
Communicating openly and honestly is one of the most important skills in any relationship. When we are struggling or something isn’t quite right in the relationship, we need to be able to talk about this and work on it. This is absolutely essential for any relationship that is going to last.
This great guide by Very Well Mind provides helpful advice on Healthy Communication
Each couple will vary in how much communication is right for them. For example, for some a text message each day and a phone call every few days will be sufficient. For other couples, they will prefer more than this. It is important to communicate how you are both feeling about the level of communication especially if it is too much or not enough.
Look out for unhelpful thinking
When we think negatively about our situation, it can lead to feelings of frustration and disappointment. This often leads us to communicate in ways that are not ideal. This is definitely not helpful for the relationship. Examples of unhelpful thinking might be:
“They’re having the time of their life and I’m stuck here”
“Our relationship won’t last”
“They are not putting me first”
If you are noticing these kinds of thoughts , this is a helpful guide to Reframing unhelpful thoughts.
Be realistic about the challenges and come up with a plan
Make sure both understand what is going to be most challenging for each of you. Come up with a plan together about how you will manage this. Some questions to get you started with this are:
How will you find time to hang out?
How will you manage lack of physical touch?
How will you support each other when you’re having a tough time?
How often will you aim to see each other in person? How will you manage the cost and time involved in this in a way that feels fair for both of you?
Consider accessing a therapist
The research tells us that if one partner is struggling with their mental health, this is likely to be detrimental to long distance relationships. This is particularly true for men in heterosexual couples (Cameron and Ross, 2007). If you struggle with your mental health, it may be beneficial for you to access therapy. This can help you to manage the challenges of being in a long-distance relationship.
Look for a therapist in your area with expertise in relationships, who is registered with a professional body. Psychology today is a good place to start.
Long distance relationships can be challenging but can be successful when both partners can work together to manage the challenges involved. It is important to work together as a team to manage and tensions, and for you both to focus on building healthy communication and high levels of trust within the relationship.
Cameron, J. J., & Ross, M. (2007). In times of uncertainty: Predicting the survival of long-distance relationships. The Journal of Social Psychology, 147(6), 581-606.
Holtzman, S., Kushlev, K., Wozny, A., & Godard, R. (2021). Long-distance texting: Text messaging is linked with higher relationship satisfaction in long-distance relationships. Journal of social and personal relationships, 38(12), 3543-3565.
Mackey, R. A., Diemer, M. A., & O’Brien, B. A. (2004). Relational factors in understanding satisfaction in the lasting relationships of same-sex and heterosexual couples. Journal of Homosexuality, 47(1), 111-136.
If you found this article helpful check out Travelling together as a couple: advice from a psychologist