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Stanford Medicine

Behavioral Science, Research

Communication trumps distance: Long-distance couples can feel closer than face-to-face couples

penwaggenerIf you’re in a long-distance relationship – like me – you’ve probably heard more than you care to about the countless challenges of living miles apart from your loved one. Now, a study published in the Journal of Communication suggests that couples in long-distance relationships can feel closer, and may communicate better, than couples in face-to-face relationships.

In their study, Li Crystal Jiang, PhD, of City University of Hong Kong, and Jeffrey T. Hancock, PhD, of Cornell University asked 30 long-distance couples and 33 couples living in close proximity to one another to journal about their interactions with their partners for one week. Every morning they wrote about the face-to-face interactions, phone calls, video chats, texts, instant messages, and e-mails exchanged with their partner the day before. They ranked each interaction with their partner on a scale from one to seven according to how much personal information they shared with their partner, how much their partner disclosed in return, and how close they felt to their partner after the exchange.

Jiang and Hancock found that long-distance couples reported greater feelings of closeness and disclosed more information to their partners than couples living in close proximity to one another. They didn’t find any significant differences in levels of satisfaction, or levels of uncertainty that long-distance and close-proximity couples felt about their relationships. According to a journal press release:

Long-distance romance is much more common nowadays. Couples get separated for a variety of reasons, due to modern mobility, and they choose to maintain the relationships through all kinds of communication technologies. Recent statistics show that 3 million married couples in the US live apart; 25- 50% college students are currently in long-distance relationships and up to 75% of them have engaged in one at some point. On the other hand, people think long-distance relationships are challenging.

“Indeed, our culture, emphasizes being together physically and frequent face-to-face contact for close relationships, but long-distance relationships clearly stand against all these values. People don’t have to be so pessimistic about long-distance romance,” said Jiang. “The long-distance couples try harder than geographically close couples in communicating affection and intimacy, and their efforts do pay back.”

These findings are important because they support earlier studies (such as those by Laura Stafford) that suggest long-distance couples may reinforce the positive aspects of their relationships, and experience greater intimacy than couples that communicate face-to-face often.

Jiang and Hancock point out that their study was only one week long, and that it doesn’t address how long-distance relationships fare in the long-term. But these findings are, at least somewhat, encouraging. The distance between long-distance partners may not matter if they make positive communication a priority in their relationship.

Holly MacCormick is a writing intern in the medical school’s Office of Communication & Public Affairs. She is a graduate student in ecology and evolutionary biology at University of California-Santa Cruz.

Previously: Study advises prioritizing personal relationships over work success to boost happiness and Chitchat, not fate, may predict relationship success
Photo by Pen Waggener

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