Would you do it again? Relationship skills gained in a long-distance relationship
This study examined if experienced long-distance relationship (LDR) participants would be willing to be involved in a LDR again. In addition, although positive and negative outcomes have been reported in LDRs research, very little research investigated relationship skills gained during a LDR. Students in a Midwestern university completed questionnaires assessing individual experiences and relationship skills gained in LDRs. Major relationship skills reported were trust, patience, and better communication. Experienced LDR individuals who considered to be in a LDR again reported to gain skills of time management, independence, and non-physical intimacy. These results may have implications for college students considering becoming involved in a LDR and college counselors who wish to develop a stronger working knowledge of the student experiences.
Most romantic relationships inevitably face periods of geographical separation, ranging from a few days to several years. These separations may affect both the relationship and the people involved. Research on long distance relationships (LDR) has focused on factors related to relationship quality and stability (Dellmann-Jenkins, Bernard-Paolucci, & Rushing, 1994; Schwebel, Dunn, Moss, & Renner, 1992). Satisfaction in a distance relationship may be difficult to maintain due to the proximity of partners. With the lack of physical contact, individuals involved in geographically separated relationships encounter unique stressors and challenges unfamiliar to geographically close couples. Without face-to-face interactions, individuals in a LDR miss daily conversations, shared free time, and physical intimacy (Schwebel et al.). Additionally, participants in long-distance relationships reported seeing their partner less often, writing to their partner more, being less satisfied with the amount of face-to-face contact with their partner, and talking more about a wider variety of topics on the telephone than geographically close couples (Dellmann-Jenkins, et al.).
While negative outcomes were found to be associated with long distance relationships, potential positive outcomes were reported as well. Although separation can produce psychological stresses, depending on the nature of the separation and on the individual’s capacity to adapt, it can also allow for the development of autonomy and individuation (Guldner, 1996). People in a long distance relationship tend to “not take their partner for granted” and “develop a stronger connection through non-physical communication” (Arditti & Kauffman, 2003). Likewise, research has found that long distance relationships are not necessarily associated with problems (Holt & Stone, 1988). Individuals in LDRs demonstrate levels of relationship satisfaction, intimacy, trust, and commitment almost identical to the levels demonstrated by individuals involved in geographically close relationships, regardless of the amount of time spent together (Guldner & Swensen, 1995). Dellmann Jenkins et al. (1994) also reported that while individuals involved in long-distance relationships might talk on the phone less than those in geographically close relationships, they were more likely to talk about their relationship and their future. They also wrote to their partners more frequently than individuals in geographically close relationships. In addition, long distance relationships may provide a context whereby people are free to view themselves, their partners, and their relationships via different perspectives (Arditti & Kauffman).
Although the positive and negative outcomes have been studied extensively, very little research investigated relationship skills gained during a LDR. Overarching relationships skills have not been closely examined to determine if there were any skills learned specifically from a LDR or if there were any relationship skills which were learned from a LDR that would help in future relationships. In addition, given the fact that both positive and negative outcomes were reported from previous research in LDRs, we were curious to see if experienced LDR participants would be willing to be involved in a LDR again. Moreover, were there differences in the relationship skills gained between people who would be willing to participate in a LDR again and people who would not? This knowledge would be useful for counselors who help LDR couples in either dating relationships or commuter marriages. By exploring both strengths and benefits of LDRs, counselors will be able to educate couples on positive skills attained from the LDR experience. Thus, the current study, focused on long-distance dating relationships, was to examine: 1) positive and negative outcomes perceived by the participants in a LDR; 2) relationship skills attained in a LDR; and 3) if there were differences between the relationship skills gained by people who were willing to participate in a LDR again and those of people who were not.
One hundred-twenty questionnaires were distributed to a convenience sample of students in two Family Science classes at a Midwestern state university. Each participant was given an anonymous 10-item questionnaire regarding the individual’s experiences of current and past long-distance relationships. Participants were asked to answer whether they were currently involved or had ever been involved in a LDR. For those who answered ‘yes’, they were asked to define the LDR. Almost all participants defined their LDR as living more than 50 miles away from their partner. An exception was that one participant defined her long distance relationship as being separated from her partner during the week due to job related travel. Items on the questionnaire also addressed positive and negative outcomes of the relationship and if they would ever be in a LDR again.
The response rate was 43% (52 out of 120). Out of the 52 participants, 76% were currently or had been involved in a long-distance relationship. Most participants were single; three were married; and one was engaged. None of the participants were married when they were in the LDR. A majority of the participants were Caucasian females, aged between 19-29 years, with the average age being 21.8. Most participants were either juniors in college (20%) or in their senior year of college (62%). Participants who experienced a LDR had relationships which ranged from 3 months to 6 years. Only the participants with total relationship length greater than 6 months (n=37) were included for the data analyses and reported in this paper.
Results and Discussion
Positive and Negative Outcomes
Many studies have explored positive and negative outcomes associated with a LDR (Dellmann-Jenkins et al., 1994; Holt & Stone, 1988; Schwebel et al.). Both positive and negative outcomes were found in the current study. Positive outcomes reported were gained appreciation for their partner, increased independence, personal growth, more free time, a stronger relationship bond, and increased communication. Major negative outcomes reported were lack of physical intimacy, expenses, and physical proximity. In addition, a unique aspect of the current study was that participants reported a variety of relationship skills gained from a LDR. Depending if they would be willing to be involved in a LDR again, participants were categorized into three groups: people who would be willing to participate in a LDR again; people who might be willing to participate in a LDR again; and people who would not be willing to participate in a LDR again. Relationship skills from each group were analyzed. Some skills were specific to each group, whereas other skills were overarching and emerged throughout all three groups.
Results from participants’ answers to the question “What relationships skills (if any) did you gain due to your long-distance relationship?”, showed various overarching relationship skills which characterized different areas of relationship development. Three major skills were reported from most participants. They were trust, patience, and better communication skills.
Trust. Trust was listed as one of the main skills gained with the LDR. Many participants felt learning to trust their partner was essential for the relationship development. Some participants stated that this skill taught them more about themselves. By learning to trust, participants indicated that they felt more secure in their LDR and also more confident in themselves.
“Learning to trust-it made me make
sure I knew who I was.”
“(I learned) to trust when you can’t
see what is going on …”
Patience. Becoming more patient and developing patience were attained skills indicated by participants. One explanation for this might be the longer the amount of time participants experienced a LDR, the more they realized it takes time to communicate effectively. Communicating and engaging in the relationship might not be accomplished quickly due to distance. Therefore, participants realized they needed to be more patient with relationship issues and accomplish matters slowly which is often uncharacteristic of a geographically close couple.
Communication. One additional overarching skill was the development of better communication skills. Most participants responded their level of communication increased as did their communication skills. This skill was indicated to be a fundamental key to the LDR, and also played a role in the continuation of the relationship.
“We developed better communication
skills, both written and verbal.”
Communication! That is definitely
“Communication–now it is easier
to tell him how I feel and what I
Communication skills are compelling indicators of a satisfying relationship (Canary & Cupach, 1988). These skills contribute to more rewarding interaction, greater likelihood of conflict resolution, and higher levels of intimacy and satisfaction with one’s partner and overall relationship. An individual’s ability to understand their partner’s experience and perspective is critical for relationship contentment and stability (Le & Agnew, 2001; Schwebel et al., 1992).
Relationship Skills Gained from Different Groups
When we examined whether the participants would be involved in a LDR again, three groups emerged. Eleven participants answered ‘yes’ to the question ‘would you ever be involved in a long-distance relationship again?’, five participants answered ‘no’, and twenty-one participants answered ‘maybe’ (yes, but with conditions).
Independence. A shared theme between participants in the ‘yes’ and ‘maybe’ groups was becoming more independent along with the ability of self-growth. They reported being able to maintain a relationship and ‘space for themselves’. Independence was a perceived skill gained by the participants. Persons involved in long-distance relationships often enjoy the simplicity of their days apart (Rhodes, 2002). These individuals have much more time and energy to pursue personal goal, ambitions and desires. Being apart can allow couples to form new and positive attitudes and allow for time and individual space to re-evaluate their relationship. New pursuits can be undertaken and the time apart can allow each member to learn more about themselves and their relationship. Some reported that love was able to grow as well as pursuing individual interests and personal lives.
“Since we weren’t always together;
I could be my own person and contribute
to what I had to offer in the
“I learned how to have a life and a
boyfriend at the same time.”
“We made our own friends and
developed individual lives.”
Individuals were able to make their own friends and enjoy themselves on a new level. These participants were able to keep other close relationships strong without engaging in dyadic withdrawal, which is common in most intimate relationships.
Non-physical Intimacy. Previous research, as well as this study, has found lack of intimacy as a negative outcome. Participants in a LDR are not only unable to see each other, but they cannot touch each other, which is one supportive element individuals miss most (Schwebel et al., 1992). However, one interesting result from the current study showed that individuals in the ‘maybe’ group indicated that the LDR gave them the opportunity to get to know their partner through non-physical aspects. They have learned a skill of relating to their partner via non-physical communication. This finding was similar to results found previously by Arditti & Kaufmann (2003) in a way that they suggested people in a long distance relationship tended to develop non-physical communication. A unique result from the current study was that participants in LDRs considered this non-physical communication as a relationship skill which helped an individual to develop non-physical intimacy during the creation of a strong relationship bond.
“I learned how to maintain a
‘healthy’ relationship without physical
“Appreciation of a mind and not just
“Focus on communication-off the
physical side of the relationship.”
Additionally, these relationship skills were not reported by individuals in the ‘no’ group. It seems logical that individuals in the ‘no’ group did not report such a skill. People who were not willing to participate in future LDRs might not have overcome this challenge of non-physical intimacy. However, it is puzzling as to why this skill was only reported by individuals from the ‘maybe’ group but not the ‘yes’ group.
Time management. Another theme shared between the ‘yes’ and ‘maybe’ groups, but not the ‘no’ group was time management. Time management was referred to as spending time more efficiently in different areas.
“to make sure time spent together is
well worth it.”
“Balance time and school and
“Treasure the time you have; time
is spent wisely.”
We found that none of the participants in the ‘no’ group mentioned time management skills. This result suggests that individuals who were willing to be in a LDR again may have learned a better way to use their time both together and apart.
Outcomes vs. Skills
Although we were not specifically examining the causal association between the positive outcomes and the relationship skills gained from a LDR, it seems that some of the positive outcomes were closely related to the relationships skills. For example, individuals in all three groups reported that they had more free time as one of the positive outcomes in their LDR, they also tended to mention the independence they have gained as a relationship skill from the LDR.
“I also learned how independent I
can be inside of a close relationship.”
“We both learned to live our own
lives-but still be involved in each
“… being able to have freedom and
do what you want. Not having to
choose between friends and
Another example was that participants indicated a shared bond as a positive outcome within the relationship due to gained communication skills. This skill also helped participants in the LDR learn more about themselves and their partners. In addition, a stronger bond might lead to a more satisfying relationship. Relationship satisfaction may be associated with higher level of commitment, which in turn was reported as one of the relationship skills gained from a LDR.
Both the ‘no’ and the ‘maybe’ groups reported difficulty adjusting to the relationship disruption. Perceived jealousy, increased stress, dishonesty, and misperceptions were just some of the indications of adjustment difficulty. It seemed that individuals who were uncertain how to cope and adjust to the change in their relationship were less likely to want to be involved in a LDR again.
“Trust became an issue and caused
“… lying was easier to get away
“I became spiteful of others’ relationships.”
Previous research suggested that people who adopted coping mechanisms and strategies adjusted better to separations (Holt & Stone, 1988). This may explain why participants in the ‘yes’ group didn’t report these difficulties. It seems people in the ‘yes’ group may have adopted coping mechanisms and strategies or they have inherent personality traits which allowed them to adjust to the separation easier. For example, these individuals may be more optimistic about their future, more flexible, or have different interests outside the relationship. Future studies of LDR may include inquiries about individuals coping mechanisms and personality traits.
To effectively identify problems associated with couples in long-distance relationships, counselors need to understand the emotional needs and stressors placed on the relationship. Spending time with one’s partner is an essential factor in the process of relationship maintenance and continuation (Guldner & Swensen, 1995); therefore, couples engaged in LDRs step into uncertain territory. By helping couples become aware of positive and negative aspects as well as possible gained relationship skills, counselors may help to ease the uncertainty of the situation.
Additionally, the issue of trust within the LDR needs to be addressed by counselors. The separation of partners places unique stress on each individual which may accompany feelings of suspicion and mistrust. This lack of trust may include jealousy, dishonesty, and misperceptions. Counselors should be aware of the emotions which may arise in the LDR. By helping couples to identify commitment levels and focusing on relationship bonds, counselors can help participants effectively deal with trust issues before they escalate into problem areas for the relationship.
As couples in the LDR spend time apart, components of growing independence begin to emerge. These new attitudes compel those in long-distance relationships to find common ground with their partner in different ways. When apart, they can focus on work or school, and when they are together they can focus on their relationship. This division of roles or gained independence skills can have rewards for the couple. The lack of an intimate partner can make participants feel lonely and depressed (Guldner, 1996). However, by developing a stronger sense of independence, individuals may be able to overcome these feelings by engaging in additional roles outside their relationship. Via increasing contacts and interactions with friends and family, these people can begin to feel more involved and satisfied with their long-distance commitment.
Counselors can also help the couple to explore and develop communication about their needs and desires (Rhodes, 2002). Even ‘basic’ communication (i.e. “small talk”) with a partner increases satisfaction within the relationship. The concept of sharing this daily trivia is an essential emotional aspect of the relationship and provides a foundation for relationship maintenance (Gilbertson, Dindia, & Allen, 1998; Meeks, Hendrick, & Hendrick, 1998).
Time management skills for both partners in the relationship also need to be explored. This skill will help effectively address the individual roles that couples may need to fill as their relationship shifts from geographically close to long-distance. Some individuals decided to split the time they have on individual pursuits (school, work) and relationship pursuits. They learn to “compartmentalize” (Rhodes, 2002) which allows each member to set aside time specifically for pursuits of different natures. This “compartmentalizing” of the relationship may lead to heightened communication, lower conflict and possibly more romantic exchanges, while it simultaneously allows the pursuit of individual goals (Rhodes).
Limitations and Future Directions
The fact that this research studied a small sample of the population indicates that this paper cannot completely identify all the challenges and strengths of a long-distance relationship. Emotions and experiences could have been explored more in depth with personal interviews with both participants in the relationship. Written documentation of relationship factors does not fully describe actions and outcomes successfully. A longitudinal research study may allow other researchers to investigate the cost-benefit ratio, participatory reasons, and positive and negative attitudes and experiences encountered throughout the long-distance relationship.
Engaging in a long-distance relationship is not an easy task. Couples are pushed to limits of their commitment to one another and new challenges are met. However, many couples involved in a LDR feel that time apart can ultimately lead to personal growth. The results of this study concluded that participants in LDRs are able to attain a wide variety of skills during their time apart. Although challenges and obstacles may arise, a trusting, committed couple is able to find ways to overcome these barriers and maintain a successful relationship. Counselors with a working knowledge of the challenges and relationship skills experienced by these couples will better help their clients address their strengths and weakness in a LDR.
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SARA MIETZNER (1)
LI-WEN LIN (2)
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
(1) Department of Family and Consumer Sciences, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 135 Mabel Lee Hall. Lincoln, NE 68588-0236, 402-472-2957. email@example.com
(2) Department of Family and Consumer Sciences, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 130 Mabel Lee Hall, Lincoln, NE 68588-0236, firstname.lastname@example.org
Authors’ Note: This research is a contribution of the University of Nebraska Agricultural Division, Lincoln, NE 68583. Journal Series No. 14553. This research was conducted as part of the first author’s master’s scholarly project at the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences. University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Lincoln, NE.
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