Long-distance relationships (LDRs) are becoming increasingly common. With the rise of technology, we can now connect with people miles away, making it easier to develop romantic connections.
Regardless of why people are geographically apart, e.g., in terms of a job, family matters, education, etc., they can still be present in each other’s lives.
Despite the benefits, there are undoubtedly several challenges associated with long-distance relationships. Misunderstandings, arguments, and hurt feelings can occur, or if the damage is too unsolvable, then a complete end of the relationship can manifest.
In this article, we will explore some of the most common long-distance relationship killers, such as lack of trust, erosion of emotional connection, and overlooking small gestures. Through expert insights and hypothetical case studies, we will better understand what to avoid to make an LDR last.
For tips and tricks on how to make long-distance relationships work, you can consider things like keeping intimacy alive and setting shared goals.
Breakdown of emotional connection
In long-distance relationships, emotional connections can weaken because of the challenges of being physically apart. When you can not see each other often, it is much harder to pick up on non-verbal signals that convey emotions, like facial expressions or body language.
Consequently, without these non-verbal cues, it can make it much easier to misinterpret situations which can lead to conflict that could have been avoided and even the death of the relationship.
Dr. Sue Johnson, a pioneer in Emotionally Focused Therapy, emphasizes the role of secure attachment in effective communication. Digital communication, while a lifeline for LDRs, often falls prey to misunderstandings rooted in unmet attachment needs.
Specifically, digital communication can make it easy to have frequent check-ins. However, just because it may seem that you are exchanging messages quite a bit, the quality of those messages and conversations can have an impact.
It is easy to fall into more “surface level” discussions such as “What are you doing today?” “Any plans later?” and “I’m doing x” vs. more “deeper level” conversations that can further foster your connection. For example, topics around someone’s childhood, experiences, aspirations, memories, etc.
Additionally, doing the same things daily and sending the same “surface-level” messages can make your relationship feel more boring and routine-like, which might lead to feeling less emotionally connected.
Dr. John Gottman, a renowned relationship researcher, discusses how the “emotional bank account” in relationships must be consistently replenished through positive interactions. In the realm of LDRs, physical separation can unknowingly disrupt the emotional bonds that sustain love.
Why and How:
The lack of physical presence in long-distance relationships can lead to a gradual decline in emotional connection. The separation requires deliberate efforts to maintain positive interactions and expressions of love as if you are making consistent deposits into an emotional bank account.
The ‘why’ lies in the necessity of countering emotional erosion, while the ‘how’ involves intentional acts of love and positive communication.
Case Study – Sarah and Alex:
For Sarah and Alex, their relationship began to grow emotionally distant, which is a common struggle in LDRs. Their interactions became routine, and the conversations centered around updates on their respective lives rather than expressions of emotional intimacy. This can breed feelings of loneliness and isolation, potentially causing one or both partners to seek emotional fulfillment elsewhere, which is why this must be recognized as a serious relationship killer. By implementing Dr. Gottman's advice, they began a journey of intentional positive interactions, such as weaving expressions of love into their daily conversations. This conscious effort not only bridged the emotional gap but fortified their connection against the challenges of distance.
Feelings of insecurity
A lack of trust can become a significant issue in long-distance relationships because physical separation can amplify insecurities. The absence of constant physical presence can lead to doubts and uncertainties about a partner’s actions, feelings, and consistency in communication.
Trust serves as the foundation of a resilient connection; misunderstandings and unnecessary conflicts may arise without it. In some cases, partners may also become overly demanding, wanting to know every detail of each other’s lives, leading to strain.
Some common problems that can arise with trust building in LDRs are:
Being overly demanding and wanting to know every move
When one partner becomes excessively demanding, constantly asking for information about the other’s every move and interaction, it can create a suffocating atmosphere. This lack of personal space can decrease one’s sense of autonomy and independence, which are essential elements in any healthy relationship.
The demanding partner’s behavior may stem from insecurity or fear, but if not controlled, it can lead to feelings of resentment and frustration, which can ultimately kill the relationship.
Anxiety about potential betrayal
The physical separation in long-distance relationships can amplify anxieties about potential betrayal. Without the ability to observe each other’s daily activities and interactions, partners may drown in unfounded fears and thoughts of infidelity.
This increased anxiety can lead to frequent questioning, suspicion, and an overall atmosphere of mistrust. If not addressed, the fear of betrayal can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the constant scrutiny and doubt may push the accused partner away, ultimately leading to a breakup.
Lack of agreement on boundaries
Establishing mutually agreed-upon boundaries is crucial in any relationship, and in an LDR scenario, these boundaries take on added significance. A lack of agreement on what is acceptable behavior and what crosses the line can lead to misunderstandings and conflicts.
For example, if one partner feels neglected due to the other’s frequent social interactions, it can lead to feelings of isolation and a breakdown in trust. Without clear communication and alignment on boundaries, the relationship may become unsustainable.
Dr. Esther Perel, a psychotherapist renowned for her work on relationships, underscores the fragility of trust and the need for deliberate efforts to rebuild it.
In the absence of physical presence, trust can be especially vulnerable to eroding, giving rise to insecurities. Dr. Perel’s insights highlight the necessity of conscious actions to rebuild and fortify trust in LDRs.
Why and How:
Physical separation can amplify insecurities, which can crumple the foundation of trust. Trust has a very delicate nature and needs conscious efforts to rebuild it. The ‘why’ lies in preventing trust erosion, and the ‘how’ involves open communication, reassurance, and mutual understanding.
Case Study – Ryan and Ben:
For Ryan and Ben trust began to dwindle in their relationship. Ryan was increasingly suspicious of Ben's whereabouts and activities, fearing he might be cheating due to unanswered calls and delayed replies to messages. This suspicion had created tension and emotional distance between them. Turning to Dr. Perel's wisdom, they openly discussed their insecurities, fears, and the impact that the lack of trust was having on their relationship. Instead of tiptoeing around the issue, they directly confronted the suspicions and doubts, allowing each partner to share their perspective and provide reassurance. By addressing these concerns head-on, they were able to clarify misunderstandings and establish mutually agreed-upon boundaries regarding communication and transparency.
Neglecting shared experiences
Neglecting shared experiences in long-distance relationships can contribute to emotional distance between partners. When couples are physically apart, the routine of daily communication may focus on exchanging information rather than creating meaningful moments together.
Shared experiences are essential for building emotional bonds and maintaining a sense of closeness. If partners neglect to engage in activities, even remotely, that bring joy, laughter, and connection, the relationship can feel monotonous and less fulfilling and ultimately lead to an end.
This can be especially impactful when major life events are missed. Milestones such as birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, etc., are not just dates on a calendar but symbols of shared joy and celebration.
When partners cannot be physically present for these significant moments, the emotional impact can be profound.
The disappointment of not having your partner by your side during these important life events can also begin to grow resentment or misunderstandings later on. A “tit for tat” mentality can begin to brew, e.g., “You did not come for my graduation, so I will not come for your birthday”, can be extremely hurtful and a true relationship killer.
Dr. Terri Orbuch, a research professor known as the “Love Doctor,” highlights the role of shared rituals in maintaining relationship satisfaction. Routine and the neglect of shared experiences can lead to emotional detachment.
Why and How:
Neglecting shared rituals and experiences can result in emotional detachment. Dr. Orbuch underscores the role of shared rituals in maintaining relationship satisfaction.
The ‘why’ is rooted in preventing emotional detachment, and the ‘how’ involves cultivating meaningful routines and planning memorable experiences.
Case Study – Maria and Carlos:
After realizing the significance of shared rituals, Maria and Carlos crafted meaningful routines and planned memorable reunions. For example, they designate a specific time each week for a virtual movie night. Despite the physical distance, they synchronized their schedules to watch the same movie simultaneously while on a video call. This intentional effort injected vibrancy into their relationship, countering the emotional detachment that routine had wrought.
Overlooking small gestures
Overlooking small gestures in long-distance relationships can lead to emotional distancing between partners. Small gestures, which can include thoughtful messages, surprise gifts, or expressions of love, are crucial in maintaining a sense of connection and intimacy.
Neglecting the power of small gestures can result in partners feeling less appreciated or valued, contributing to a gradual emotional drift, which can become the death of the relationship.
Dr. Gary Chapman, renowned for his work on love languages, underscores the impact of small gestures aligned with each partner’s preferred mode of receiving love. Underestimating the impact of small gestures can lead to emotional distancing.
Why and How:
Disregarding the power of small gestures can contribute to emotional distancing in long-distance relationships. Dr. Chapman emphasizes the impact of love languages in tailoring expressions of love.
The ‘why’ is rooted in preventing emotional distancing, and the ‘how’ involves incorporating daily gestures aligned with each partner’s love language.
Case Study – Jo and Alex:
For Jo and Alex, the monotony of routine conversations and a lack of meaningful interactions led to a sense of emotional detachment. Interested in Dr. Chapman's love languages, they incorporated daily gestures and personalized tokens of affection. Alex valued Acts of Service, so Jo initiated small acts of kindness like planning surprise virtual dates. On the other hand, Jo valued Words of Affirmation, so Alex began sending sending heartfelt messages expressing appreciation and love. These small but impactful acts rekindled the emotional connection that had started to wane.
Resistantce to adaptation
Resistance to adaptation in long-distance relationships can strain the connection between partners. When faced with changes, challenges, or unexpected situations, being unwilling or hesitant to adapt can create tension, hinder growth, and ultimately kill the relationship.
In long-distance relationships, unforeseen circumstances, such as changes in schedules or unexpected events, may require partners to adapt their communication styles or routines. Resistance to these adaptations can result in misunderstandings, frustration, and a lack of flexibility that may negatively impact the relationship.
Dr. Dan Wile, a seasoned couples therapist, advocates for flexibility and adaptability in relationships. Resistance to change can strain LDRs.
Why and How:
Resistance to adaptation can strain long-distance relationships. Dr. Wile advocates for flexibility and adaptability as crucial elements.
The ‘why’ is rooted in navigating challenges successfully, and the ‘how’ involves embracing change and proactively addressing challenges.
Case Study – Yasmin and Daniel:
Yasmin and Daniel found themselves clinging to established routines and approaches, even when faced with new challenges and opportunities, as Yasmin had to now work longer hours. This created a sense of frustration and stagnation. Recognizing how critical it was for them to fix this, they shifted their focus to embracing change and proactively navigating challenges. Daniel started sending Yasmin funny memes and uplifting voice messages for her to see when she took a break. This kept their communication positive even when their main routine was disrupted. This adaptability became the cornerstone not just for surviving but also for thriving in the ever-evolving terrain of their long-distance relationship.
Personal growth stagnation
Stagnation in personal growth in long-distance relationships can contribute to a sense of emotional disconnection between partners. When individuals in a relationship neglect their individual development and well-being, it can impact the overall vibrancy of the connection.
Partners may become so focused on maintaining the relationship that they overlook opportunities for individual fulfillment and self-improvement. This stagnation can lead to feelings of boredom or dissatisfaction, as both partners may feel stuck in their personal lives.
Dr. Karen Blair, a psychologist specializing in relationships, emphasizes the symbiotic relationship between individual growth and relationship vitality. Long-distance separation can inadvertently stunt personal development, impacting the relationship.
Why and How:
The physical separation in long-distance relationships can unintentionally hinder individual growth. Dr. Blair emphasizes the symbiotic relationship between individual development and relationship vitality.
The ‘why’ is rooted in the importance of personal growth, and the ‘how’ involves encouraging individual development and setting shared goals.
Case Study – Emma and Ling:
Recognizing the intertwining of personal growth with relationship health, Emma and Ling actively encouraged individual development. They each chose a personal goal to pursue while supporting the other - Emma wanted to train for a 10K to push her fitness, while Ling set the goal of earning a long-delayed promotion. When they video call at the end of the day, they discuss obstacles they had to overcome while meeting their goals and their progress. While previously they were just settling into familiar patterns without actively seeking personal or relational growth, they viewed challenges as opportunities for mutual growth, overcoming stagnation, and revitalizing their connection.
Pressure to make the limited time together perfect
Couples reported feeling like they need to cram a lot of fun activities into a short visit which can feel forced. There is often an expectation or standard that the time together needs to be positive.
Here is a summary from a qualitative study:
- Because couples are apart for longer periods, they feel a need to make the most of their limited time face-to-face. As one participant put it, “we have to make the most of the time that we do have together.”
- Couples try to cram in as many fun activities and special moments as possible to compensate for all the time apart when they can’t do things together. One woman said, “Since we’re apart more than we’re together…I feel kinda pressured to make it [a] perfect couple of days.”
- Planning so much into a short visit and trying to force quality time can backfire and feel inorganic. One couple said, “Yeah, sometimes there’s pressure to make that time together special.”…”It can also turn negative if we try to force it.”
- Couples feel like they can’t “waste” any of the precious time together on more mundane things that typical local couples might do. As one participant said, they feel guilt about “just sitting around and watching a movie” when they could be “out experiencing something new.”
- This pressure stems from feeling deprived of shared activities during separation and leads to high expectations that the reunion has to be fun-filled. Partners worry that having conflicts or negative experiences is not acceptable when their face-to-face time is so scarce.
So, in essence, the forced acceleration of fun and constant pressure to have an amazing visit at every reunion takes a toll. Couples overstuff weekends to counterbalance long stretches with no quality or shared time, yet trying to control and perfect this short period together often backfires. It becomes an unrealistic standard.
The pressure to make the limited face-to-face time in long-distance relationships memorable can introduce challenges that impact the overall dynamic of the relationship. Couples can often struggle with the expectation that their reunions should be extraordinary, driven by the knowledge that their time together is limited.
This pressure can lead to the belief that every moment must be meticulously planned, filled with exciting activities, and without any mundane or “boring” elements.
This creation of unrealistic expectations can impact authentic connection and increase stress levels, which ultimately negatively impact the relationship, making it a true connection killer (Kelmer, Rhoades, Stanley & Markman, 2013).
Why and How Snippet:
The pressure to create an exceptional experience during limited reunions comes from the fear of ‘wasting’ precious time on routine activities.
Partners often believe that “boring” moments are not good enough, leading to seriously unrealistic standards. This pressure can backfire, creating forced interactions and very curated interactions void of any spontaneity.
The ‘why’ is rooted in the desire to make the most of limited time, and the ‘how’ involves finding a balance between planned activities and spontaneous, genuine connections.
Case Study – Emily and Jake:
Emily and Jake found themselves caught in the trap of trying to make every moment of their reunions extraordinary. Long periods of separation heightened their desire for perfect visits, often filled with elaborate plans and special activities. However, this approach began to take a toll as the pressure to curate an idealized experience overshadowed the joy of simply being together. Their attempts to force high-quality moments led to stress and expectations that became challenging to meet. The next time Jake visits Emily after months apart, she suggests they designate their first day back together as a "Pyjama Day." Instead of rushing off to a fancy brunch, they order in comfort food and queue up favorite reruns on TV. Curling up together with no agenda other than enjoying each other's company, conversation flows easily about small silly things they’ve missed sharing.
As we have seen, long-distance relationships are a unique journey that demands resilience, understanding, and a commitment to growth. Reflecting on all the points raised, it becomes clear that success in long-distance love is not just an outcome but a journey of continuous effort.
By embracing the power of small gestures, fostering personal growth, and weaving shared goals, couples can transform the challenges of physical separation into opportunities for deeper emotional intimacy.
When navigating the ever-evolving landscape of modern relationships, these insights can serve as guidance, working towards more meaningful romantic connections.
Long-distance love, when approached with intentionality and a growth mindset, not only survives but thrives, leaving couples with a love story that transcends the miles, making every reunion a cherished chapter.
Blair, K. L. (2015). Relationships: The long and the short of it. Macmillan International Higher Education.
Chapman, G. (2015). The 5 love languages: The secret to love that lasts. Northfield Publishing.
Gottman, J. M. (2011). The science of trust: Emotional attunement for couples. W. W. Norton & Company.
Johnson, S. M. (2008). Hold me tight: Seven conversations for a lifetime of love. Little, Brown Spark.
Kelmer, G., Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S., & Markman, H. J. (2013). Relationship quality, commitment, and stability in long‐distance relationships. Family process, 52(2), 257-270.
Orbuch, T. L. (2003). 5 simple steps to take your marriage from good to great. Delacorte Press.
Perel, E. (2017). The state of affairs: Rethinking infidelity. Harper.
Wile, D. B. (1993). After the fight: Using your disagreements to build a stronger relationship. Guilford Press.