Would it Work Out If It Weren’t For the Distance?

First dates, butterflies, ghosting, the honeymoon phase, complicated relationships, non-monogamy, cheating, divorce predictors… 

Over the past year, the relationship science team has unpacked the science behind these and many other kinds of dating phenomena across all stages of romantic relationships. Today, I will continue this tradition by digging deeper into a phenomenon that is experienced by 75% of college students in the U.S today, according to research in the Journal of Communication in 2013: Long-distance relationships. 

I'll focus on relationships where the couple begins the relationship in close geographical proximity, and continues once the parties are physically separated. Let’s imagine the following scenario:

Sam and Keisha have been dating for the last three years in college. Upon graduation, they moved to different cities. They tried to maintain the relationship for a while, but the distance seemed to create more problems and emotional disconnect. In the end, they decided that it was best to end the relationship.

Could Sam and Keisha have worked it out if they’d stayed in the same city? Or were they just incompatible? Of course, it is  difficult to know the exact answer to this question without more context. But I was more curious to explore whether there were factors specific to long-distance relationships that would make otherwise compatible individuals incompatible. 

Research shows that incompatibility in a long-distance relationship is not different from incompatibility in any relationship, at least at first glance: The Gottman Institute studies the success and failure of marriages, finding that for any relationship to be stable and happy, there has to be five positive emotions for any one negative emotion experienced (5:1 ratio).

Following this line of thinking, the question then becomes: Are couples more likely to experience negative emotions in long-distance relationships? Maybe. 

Researchers from the University of Waterloo state that being geographically distant from a partner enhances interpersonal risk and stress. Certain relationship processes, such as maintaining intimacy or ensuring relational security & trust, can be more challenging in long-distance relationships. The researchers found that this additional stress factor is especially harmful to the relationship when the parties are more prone to experiencing negative emotions due to the following personality traits: low self-esteem, high depression, and high pessimism.

Attachment avoidance, which is characterized by avoiding emotional closeness in adults,  also contributes significantly to the stress of long-distance relationships, according to the results of this 2011 study in the Journal of College Counseling. While both attachment anxiety and avoidance predicted lower relationship satisfaction when couples were in close proximity, only avoidance predicted low relationship satisfaction (and did so significantly!) for long-distance relationships. So attachment anxiety, which is characterized by high levels of anxiety around interpersonal relationships,did not really play a role in the failure of long-distance relationships, according to this specific study.

So it is possible that perhaps Sam and Keisha were more prone to experiencing negative emotions due to their personalities, or had avoidant attachment styles that did not equip them with the coping strategies necessary to deal with the challenges of a long-distance relationship. 

Unfortunately, this still does not eliminate the possibility that they were just incompatible and would have never worked out even if they were in the same city. 

Yet, there is no harm in knowing about the specific challenges around long-distance relationships, right? Here at Marriage Pact, we love thought experiments, and we love thinking about real-life situations and seeing what the research has to say about the phenomena we experience in our day-to-day lives.