Absence makes the heart grow fonder?: long distance dating relationships among college students

David Knox

Four hundred thirty-eight never married undergraduates at a large southeastern university completed a 25 item questionnaire designed to assess their experience with long distance dating relationships in regard to their belief in the adage “out of sight, out of mind.” Over 40 percent of those experienced in long distance dating relationships believed this to be true. The respondents also reported that the separation either ended (21.5%) their relationship or made it worse (20%). Implications for university students, faculty, and counselors are suggested.


Kenny Rogers (country western singer) was asked in an interview, “Does absence make the heart grow fonder?” He replied, “No.” He attributed his two divorces to being separated from his wives while on tour. Prior to marrying his third wife, Rogers stated, “We have agreed that she would always travel with me.”

Being separated from one’s love partner is not unique to country western singers. Due to the demands of one’s career, education, and elderly parents, it is the unusual couple that is never separated. This study examined this increasingly common phenomenon among a sample of undergraduate college students. Research on long distance dating relationships (hereafter referred to as LDDR) grew out of spouses separated due to career commitments (Gerstel and Gross, 1984; Taylor and Lounsbury, 1988).

Sample and Methods

The sample consisted of 438 undergraduates at a large southeastern university. The ages of the students ranged from 17 to 48 with a median age of 19. Respondents completed an anonymous survey about attitudes toward and previous experience with long distance dating relationships. The operational definition of such a relationship was being separated from a love partner by at least 200 miles for a period of not less than three months. The median number of miles these LDDR respondents had been separated was the category reflecting 300-399 miles (about a six hour drive) and the median length of time the respondents had been separated was 5 months. Of the total sample, almost 20 percent (19.9%) were currently involved in a LDDR (long distance dating relationship) and almost 37 percent (36.5%) reported having ever been in a LDDR relationship that ended.

Actually arranging to see each other during the period of separation was limited. Only 11 percent (actually 10.8%) reported seeing each other weekly with almost 16 percent (15.7%) reporting that they never saw each other. However, in spite of the separation, the lovers continued to stay in touch with each other on a regular basis. Over half talked on the phone (56.5%) and/or e-mailed (53%) the partner several times each week. Almost a fourth (22%) talked on the phone at least once a day and one in ten (8.8%) talked with each other several times a day.

The separation was damaging to most relationships. One in five (21.5%) broke up and another one in five (20.0%) said that the separation made their relationship worse. Only 18 percent reported that the separation improved their relationship (other responses included 33% “mixed effect”, 9% “no effect”).

Findings & Discussion

Analysis of the data revealed several findings:

1. No significant sex, race, or age differences. There were no significant differences between women and men or between whites and non-whites in terms of the likelihood of having experience in a LDDR. While older students were slightly more likely to have had such an experience, the difference was not significant.

2. Out of sight, out of mind. Persons who reported ever having been involved in a LDDR were 8.1% more likely to believe “out of sight, out of mind” than those who had not experienced a long distance dating relationship (42.1% versus 34%). Hence, the reality of having been separated from one’s partner in a LDDR is associated with greater acceptance of the belief “out of sight, out of mind.” Perhaps many of the relationships of those who reported ever having been in a LDDR ended by breaking up which supports their belief “out of sight, out of mind.”

Previous researchers have identified the factors associated with maintaining a LDDR. Lyndon et al. (1997) studied university students in such relationships and found that moral commitment was associated with relationship maintenance at a distance. Schwebel et al. (1992) identified satisfaction with the relationship as the primary variable associated with LDDR maintenance- the higher the satisfaction, the more likely the relationship would continue in spite of the separation. Such satisfaction in LDDR is not easy to maintain. Wendel (1975) studied such relationships and noted that students reported the “haunting feeling of separateness and distance” but that this was sometimes offset by “a new sense of trust in the strength of the relationship” (p. 45).

3. Never again. Previous experience in a LDDR that ended influenced one’s willingness to become involved in a subsequent LDDR. LDDR persons who had terminated the relationship with their partners reported that they would not have become involved in the relationship if they were to make the decision to be in a LDDR again. In contrast, those in LDDR who were still with their partner felt that they would be willing to be involved in such a relationship if they were to make the decision again. This finding was statistically significant (p<.000). Hence, whether or not a person would become involved in a subsequent LDDR was related to whether or not the partners broke up. Indeed, those who broke up were not interested in a subsequent LDDR.


The findings of this study have several implications for university students, faculty, and counselors. Students might be aware that involvement in a LDDR is not easy (one in five of the relationships ended and another 20% reported that their relationship became worse) and that their worst fears may be true- “out of sight, out of mind.”

Faculty who teach relationship courses might engage their students in a lively debate on LDDR and assess their belief in the “out of sight, out of mind”/”absence makes the heart grow fonder” dichotomy. Of particular interest would be if students in the class who have lived together have different beliefs from those not experienced in LDDR.

University counselors might alert their clients who report or expect such involvement in a LDDR to focus on the positive side of such separation, namely, to view the separation as an opportunity to explore their commitment to each other to garner new strength of the relationship from the separation.


Gerstel, N. and H. Gross (1984) Commuter Marriage: A Study of Work and Family. New York: The Guilford Press

Lyndon, J., T. Pierce, and S. O’Regan. (1997) Coping with moral commitment to long-distance relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 73:104-113

Schwebel, A. I., R. L. Dunn, B. F. Moss, and M. A. Renner. (1992) Factors associated with relationship stability in geographically separated couples. Journal of College Student Development 33:222-230

Tavlor, A. S. and John W. Lounsbury. (1988) Dual-career couples and geographic transfer: Executives’ reactions to commuter marriage and attitude toward the move. Human Relations 47:407-424

Wendel, W. C. (1975) High school sweethearts: A study in separation and commitment. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology Spring, 45-48


East Carolina University


Indiana University Northwest


East Carolina University


East Carolina University

COPYRIGHT 2002 Project Innovation (Alabama)

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group

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