Emma McClure | Dating for marriage long distance

(Not So) Hot Takes | A traditionalist’s defense of the long-distance relationship

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By Emma McClure

Right now, I am one of approximately 14 million couples in the United States in a long-distance relationship. A 2003 survey showed that roughly one-third of college students are in long-distance relationships, and the American Counseling Association finds that around 75% of college students have been engaged in a long-distance relationship at some point. There is no question that long-distance relationships are now commonplace, likely increasingly so as technology makes it easier to communicate across distances. Yet, despite their obvious commonality, many people are still hesitant to trust a long-distance relationship. 

Speaking as someone who has maintained a happy and healthy relationship long distance for nearly two years and has navigated significant life changes in that time, long-distance relationships are not easy. In fact, they are exceptionally difficult and require work. However, the same can be said of any relationship, long-distance or not. 

Long-distance relationships are treated as something abnormal and unstable, despite becoming increasingly common. However, the bottom line is that long-distance relationships are still legitimate relationships, and they are accompanied by all the difficulties characteristic of one. People cite the time commitment of a long-distance relationship as a reason they are not sustainable, as though a typical relationship requires any less time and emotional energy. People simultaneously criticize their friends in relationships for spending too much time with their partner and claim that long-distance relationships are different simply because they require time. While the time spent in a long-distance relationship differs significantly, thanks to an emphasis on phone calls and other electronic correspondence, to criticize a relationship simply for requiring time and effort goes against the fundamental nature of any interpersonal relationship.  

Similarly, for those who cite lack of trust or the potential for infidelity as a reason that long-distance relationships are less than or different from traditional relationships, I pose the same argument: every relationship, regardless of physical distance, requires emotional connectivity and trust. If your partner is going to cheat, they will likely do so regardless of distance, causing that relationship to fail in both circumstances. Long distance is not an excuse for infidelity, and the only people who would claim it to be so are not meant for a committed relationship, long distance or otherwise. The “opportunity” to cheat does not change the reality that any temptation towards infidelity will sour a relationship. The possibility that a partner will cheat also should not be frightening to anyone in a healthy and loving relationship built on trust and mutual respect. Long-distance functions neither as an excuse to cheat nor as an excuse to suspect your partner of doing so. 

This is all to say that, despite the claims of their critics, long-distance relationships are real relationships and require the same work and emotional investment that all other successful relationships do, even though this work might look a little different. In fact, long-distance relationships have their own set of perks—especially for those who are looking for a relationship that lasts a lifetime. The following are three of the best aspects of long-distance relationships: 

1. Long Distance Relationships Weed Out Non-Commitment

Long-distance relationships tend to be frowned upon because of the uncertainty that surrounds them. It is undoubtedly difficult to maintain a relationship often not knowing when you might see your partner next. For many in long-distance relationships, including myself, there is a clock ascribed to the separation—many of us know that the distance is not permanent and will come to an end after some inevitable change, such as graduation. However, fantasizing about a future with your long-distance partner then poses an entirely new challenge: a future together may only be possible several years down the road. I have weathered nearly two years of long-distance myself, but I will have over six under my belt before living in the same state as my partner becomes feasible again. 

I would argue, however, that long-distance relationships are good (although not easy) for exactly this reason. Most people who get into long-distance relationships do so already knowing that the joys of a traditional relationship and the prospect of marriage are a set number of years away. As a result, many people very quickly self-select out of long distance, leaving only the most committed couples to take it on. Only 40% of long-distance relationships end in breakups, mostly within the first four and a half months, while over 70% of all relationships end within a year. This highlights the strength of long-distance relationships; because a timeline is ingrained in long-distance relationships, people who are not wholly committed to their partner tend to select out of it very early in the relationship. 

Plans for the future are an especially important topic in long-distance relationships—not only for marriage but also planning for the next visit, which may be months away. Planning provides hope and a goal to work towards, which is why it is such a common recommendation for long-distance couples. However, this experience in planning is also a valuable expression of continual commitment to your partner. Every plan made for a future visit is an affirmation that you will still be together and strong no matter how many months away that next visit is. Long distance relationships force an emphasis on commitment and recommitment that is invaluable in creating a relationship that will blossom into more than merely dating.

2. Communication is Always in the Spotlight

Communication is key to any relationship, but it especially shines in long-distance. While there are still plenty of awesome date ideas for long-distance couples, there are obvious restrictions. With limits to your ability to go out and do various activities and to enjoy one another’s physical presence, long-distance dates and day-to-day interactions tend to center around communication. Individuals in long-distance relationships send an average of 343 messages to their partner each week, which is not a small number when factoring in how much of their time is likely spent calling one another as well. Having date nights can be especially important to keeping the romance alive in a long-distance relationship. Day-to-day activities are mostly talking; dates too, however, hinge on communication, and even our best date night activities (like virtual escape rooms and bracket nights) rely almost entirely on talking to one another. 

Communicating through distance poses unique challenges to long-distance couples that strengthen their overall relationships. Miscommunication is very easy via text because you cannot see or hear one another and use the full range of tools you would typically rely on to communicate your emotions and understand those of others. Even over video calls, it is difficult to recognize emotions and small subtleties in a person’s behavior and tone of voice through a screen. This sounds like a bad thing, but it strengthens overall communication skills.

The sentiment my partner expressed on the topic is: 

“We have such little to go off of when we’re apart, I mean we’re both forced to become 

masters at reading between the lines on texts and pros at deciphering even the briefest microexpressions. But because of that, when we’re together I feel like a mind reader because I just know what my girl is feeling all the time.” 

Learning to overcome the difficulties of recognizing these cues via text and video calls entails learning to recognize all your partner’s cues that indicate when they are upset and learning to pay special attention to them. The difficulty of recognizing these cues when far apart makes it so much easier to recognize them when you are together. When the distance is gone, you will be grateful for the struggles you had early in your relationship because you will be an expert in understanding your partner. This is not a sentiment unique to my relationship: Around 65% of couples in long-distance relationships say that long distance has strengthened their communication skills. 

3. Limits to Physical Intimacy are a Good Thing

Perhaps the hardest part of a long-distance relationship is the lack of opportunity for any physical affection. This is especially challenging for those of us whose love language is physical touch. It brings bittersweet feelings to see couples holding hands as they stroll down the street, and it is painful to avoid formals, knowing that you cannot share a dance with your partner the way so many other couples can. While these features of long distance do sting, a relationship without physical affection is not all bad. 

Some argue that a long-distance relationship is not a “real” relationship or is worse than one because it rules out the likelihood of premarital relations. I would argue that the exact opposite is true. Ignoring any religious argument against premarital intimacy, frequent engagement in physical relations is damaging to long-term relationships. The Institute for Family Studies (IFS) finds that premarital intimacy is correlated with higher divorce rates, while an investigation into the same trend published in the Journal of Marriage and Family confirms that engagement in premarital relations leads to higher rates of marriage disruption and determines that this trend is not the result of self-selection. A 2023 article from the Journal of Family Issues echoes these findings. 

Pennsylvania licensed psychologist Georgia Schaffer explains that this trend is related to the release of oxytocin, commonly referred to as the cuddle hormone, during intimacy and its effects on emotional attachment. While this attachment may seem like a good thing, an artificial emotional attachment to someone early in a relationship and without fully knowing them can cause emotional issues down the road that can weaken the longevity of the relationship. 

Although the absence of small day-to-day affection is straining and difficult for long-distance couples, limits to the opportunities for premarital relations allow these couples to foster a strong emotional intimacy absent the influence of an oxytocin rush, allowing them to create more stability and lowering their likelihood of splitting-up down the road.

Emma McClure is a freshman in the College studying Criminology from Columbus, GA. Emma is also The Social Ivy editor at The Pennsylvania Post. Her email is efmcc@sas.upenn.edu

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