Long-distance relationships used to be viewed as endeavors reserved for a select few, like those who met their significant others on vacation or got together in college then moved for work. But they’re becoming increasingly popular, both as technology connects many people across distances, and as COVID normalizes connections involving limited in-person interaction.
Between 2000 and 2017, the number of Americans living apart from their spouses rose by over 140 percent. And according to data collected by the Kinsey Institute last April and May, 16 percent of dating app users had changed their filters, search distance, and/or desired traits in a partner in order to match with more people since March, and 12 percent of online daters began going on more video dates.
Emma, a 25-year-old in Florida, met her boyfriend (who lives two states away) online before the pandemic and planned to visit him monthly, but held off to protect his father, who he lives with. Deb Butler, a 24-year-old in Connecticut, met her partner (who lives in Texas) via a Twitch network during the pandemic. “COVID really pushed me to see outside my environment,” she says. “I realized I didn’t want to be in the same place forever so the idea of finding friends and hobbies outside my state was way more appealing to me.”
Whether you’re newly long-distance for reasons related to the pandemic, you’re trying out an LDR for an entirely different reason, or you’ve been at it for a while, here are some tips from experts and people in LDRs themselves on how to make these relationships work.
Schedule Regular Calls
Jess, a 28-year-old in Kenya who has been in a long-distance relationship for the past five years, cautions against relying on texting to keep in touch, since this can lead to miscommunications and make conflicts escalate. “It’s not very easy being in this situation, so you have to absolutely communicate,” she says. “When you have misunderstandings, don’t argue over text.” Emma suggests finding time to talk every day to hear each other’s voices and promote better communication. “Finding online activities to do together is a must,” she adds, sharing that she and her partner watch shows and play video games remotely together.
Establish what you expect from each other sooner rather than later.
Whatever the exact frequency of calls, having some kind of routine is important, says clinical psychologist Jaime Zuckerman, PsyD. Zuckerman recommends scheduling a set time that you’ll talk every day or week. “It removes the guesswork and allows you to prioritize your relationship within your busy schedules,” she explains. To make the most of your time talking, she suggests thinking of topics you’d like to talk about and stories you can tell your partner to fill them in on your life beforehand.
Discuss Your Expectations Early On
If one of you is expecting a certain form or frequency of communication from the other, it’s important to establish that before resentment can build up. Ciara, a 34-year-old registered nurse whose husband used to live in Denmark while she was in New York City, knows this firsthand.
“Early on, I would get upset because I would see he read my WhatsApp messages and didn’t respond,” she remembers. “But he had looked at them quickly in the middle of a busy travel day and was waiting for a good time to respond thoughtfully. To me, it felt like I was being ignored. So, I told him, ‘Hey, just shoot a message that you’re busy and will respond later.’”
The moral of the story? Establish what you expect from each other sooner rather than later. Zuckerman recommends discussing what frequency and means of communication, frequency of visits, and level of exclusivity you expect as soon as possible.
Nip Conflicts in the Bud
When you’re not seeing each other often, it can be easy to let conflicts go undiscussed. You may feel like something’s not worth addressing if you’re not in the same place, or like you want to spend your limited interactions discussing something positive. However, those little things that bother you will build up over time if you don’t talk about them.
“If you are upset, maybe feeling disconnected from the daily ongoings of your partner’s life, don’t hold back,” says Zuckerman. “It’s still just as important to communicate your feelings in a long-distance relationship.”
One thing Deb recommends for preventing conflict is to learn each other’s communication styles and ask for clarification if you’re unsure what your partner means by something. “This way, you prevent as many ‘I thought you meant this, not that’ type of arguments along the way,” she says.
Find Ways to Be Romantic
You may not be able to go out to candle-lit dinners together (in person, at least), but that doesn’t mean you should forget about any and all romantic gestures. “It’s always a good idea to keep things interesting,” says Caleb, a 24-year-old lawyer in Nigeria who has been in an LDR for four years. “Go on dates together even if it’s online. Buying romantic gifts for each other is definitely another way to keep the spark going.”
When you meet up, don’t put pressure on yourselves to have sex right away.
A few other ways to create a sense of romance in an LDR are to have Zoom dates like dinner, watching Netflix, or even just doing laundry together, sending your partner flowers or other gifts, or sending surprise notes, letters, or postcards, says Zuckerman.
Plan Regular Visits Well in Advance (If Possible)
“We never left each other’s apartment without booking the next flight, four to eight weeks later, so we always had another trip waiting,” remembers Whitney, a 36-year-old blogger and elementary school teacher who was long-distance with her husband for three years. “It made it easier to part, and it also made it more important to settle disagreements quickly, before the next visit.”
The rule of thumb Ciara went by was never going six weeks without seeing each other. “That’s when ‘six week syndrome’ sets in, and you start doubting your future and life choices,” she says.
While this may not always be possible, it’s good to have some end in sight. Ciara recommends discussing what options you have for eventually living in the same place. If you can’t see each other for a while, Zuckerman suggests leaving things that remind you of each other at each other’s places, like favorite perfumes or pillows.
Keep Your Sex Life Alive
“Intimacy does not need to die in a long-distance relationship,” says Zuckerman. A few ways to maintain a sex life when you’re not in the same place are to exchange sexts and/or photos over a secure app like Signal or Telegram, to have phone or video sex, and using sex toys that can be controlled remotely by a partner. It’s a good idea to have a discussion about which of these activities each of you enjoys and feels comfortable with, Zuckerman adds.
When you’re about to see each other, you can build anticipation by talking about what you want to do together sexually. And when you meet up, don’t put pressure on yourselves to have sex right away, especially if you’re tired and jet-lagged. “Obligatory sex isn’t enjoyable,” says Ciara. “Just wait until it feels more natural for you both.”
Have Your Needs Met
Learn helpful tips to establish healthier communication in the on-demand workshop Couples Communication, led by Jor-El Caraballo, LMHC.