Some blame an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality for why many long-distance relationships seem to fail, but recent studies have found that the separation can be a great advantage for couple satisfaction. One thing is clear though— it’s never easy to keep a long-distance relationship afloat, and it can often take extra finesse to keep the spark alive.
To hear some tips on how to weather the pitfalls of a long-distance romance, we asked Dr. Paulette Sherman—a licensed psychologist with a specialty in romantic relationships, and author of the guided meditation companion Book of Sacred Baths—for her advice. Her suggestions on several ways to work together when you’re miles apart, below.
Figure out your ideal communication style
Talking every single day might be overkill in a normal relationship, but when you’re long-distance, lack of communication can prey on insecurities. The first thing to recognize, says Sherman, is that every person is different. “When two people are together, some people don’t like to get texts when they’re at work. Or some people want to communicate multiple times a day. Hopefully you’ve known this person before and you’re not just starting out with the distance, so you have a greater sense of them, but you should figure out the best way to reach out to each other so you feel connected and have regular times to check in.”
Say what you need
With communicating, Sherman says, the most crucial thing to do at the outset of a long-distance relationship is to know what you need from your partner and to have the vulnerability to say so.Research shows that people who are able to meet each other’s needs (or bids for attention) are the ones who stay together the longest.
Establish trust boundaries
Which brings us to the importance of establishing trust boundaries when you’re not directly involved in the dailies of your partner’s life. Dr. Sherman suggests that if you have prior baggage, e.g. you’ve been cheated on in the past, you should communicate how you can maintain a trusting relationship with the other person. With one caveat: “You need to make sure that you’re not being super controlling and that the other person’s okay with it. But if you know you have a need, you can address it in the beginning before it gets ugly or out of control. Whatever agreement you both make will build trust and establish integrity.”
Integrating the other person in your life is another way to make your partner feel more at ease about the distance. Says Sherman, “Couples have different boundaries but if you’re fine with surprising each other and/or meeting each other’s friends when they do visit, they won’t feel like this outlier in your life or that you have a secret relationship.”
Deal with fights effectively
Going to bed angry is a bad enough feeling in itself, but couple that with hundreds or thousands of miles between you and disputes are instantly amplified. Sherman recommends mitigating fights by talking through concerns while they’re fresh instead of letting them build, and if it can be done, tabling State of the Union discussions to in-person visits. She also recommends getting out of the habit of texting during fights—en lieu of calling—to clear the air. There’s more room for miscommunication and misunderstandings via text, so being able to provide context and explain yourself either via video or a phone call is always preferable.
Keep it fresh
Renew that puppy love feeling often—keep flirting with each other and doing the little things you did when your relationship was new. When you can’t see your significant other, it’s all the more important to remind them how much they mean to you. Sherman recommends finding creative ways to show affection, whether that be “just because” gifts and care packages, old-school love letters, poems, flowers, or tapes. Research shows that couples who do novel things together are happier, so surprises are a positive. In-person, she says to try things that you wouldn’t normally do.
Learn how to cope with your emotions when you’re lonely
Dealing with feelings of loneliness and separation can be one of the toughest aspects of being away from your partner. To cope, Sherman says, “It’s important to find ways when you’re alone or lonely to shift into a state of love and reconnect with yourself and shift your mood. To get your thoughts more positive, you need rituals or ways to work with your thoughts, feelings, and emotions (some people might do yoga or journal, for example) because your partner isn’t there.”
Plan visits ahead
An ocean between two people has a tendency to add an intensity and urgency to the relationship that might not exist without the distance. It’s important to talk about future visits so that you both have a tangible goal to meet and to continue the conversation about your plans to eventually live in the same zip code. But don’t push for a commitment before you’re both ready. Says Sherman, “Talking about the future gives you a vision board or a shared vision that you’re working toward and you’re co-creating a life together that will eventually end up together, if that’s the case.”
Keep the Romance Alive
A no-brainer for any long-distance relationship is re-establishing that you care about the other person throughout the course of the separation. “Tell them why you love them and why you chose them,” says Sherman. “It’s also really good to support each other’s successes. Studies have found that being there when things are going right is more important than when things are going badly. So I think it’s extra important when they get a raise at work or little wins to acknowledge that and do your best to celebrate that.”
Maintaining a sexual connection is also important because Sherman notes that it’s the one thing separating a friendship from a serious relationship. Whether your preference is virtual Skype sex, talking dirty over the phone, or sexting each other, etc., the goal is to limit frustration over not seeing the other person. “And then when you do see each other, obviously make time for intimacy. It’s so few and far-between that you want those in-person moments to be special.”
Live your own life
Becoming too dependent on your partner can be the kiss of death to any relationship, but Sherman especially recommends building a life for yourself outside of the other person in a long-distance one. The aim is to avoid putting too much pressure on one person to fulfill all of your needs. “The happiest couples,” she says, “are able to maintain hobbies and friends outside of a relationship, and when you’re long-distance, it’s even more important because that person can’t be your whole life if they’re not physically there.”
In a long-distance relationship, one of the most fundamental difficulties to reckon with is checking your expectations of how things will be versus the reality of schedules and communication barriers. “Again, we’re all different,” says Sherman, “and especially if we’re not reading body language cues and seeing each other on a regular basis, it’s important to discuss what you need and what the other person needs so that your time can be well-spent together.”