science of us

Dating Long-Distance Means Learning a New Way to Fight

Photo: Tara Moore/Getty Images

From the beginning of our relationship, Will and I knew it would be tough. I live on Florida’s east coast, near New Smyrna Beach. Will’s house, in Orlando, is an hour and a half away — and that’s in good traffic. To people whose relationships cross state lines or time zones, that probably doesn’t sound so bad. And that’s fair; we had it better than plenty of people who have to hop on a plane to see their partner. But in many ways, long distance is long distance, regardless of the actual number of miles: spending time together required careful planning, was rarely spontaneous, and was never as often as I wanted it to be.

There isn’t much data out there on the prevalence of long-distance relationships, but one estimate puts the number at roughly 7 million couples in the U.S., or 14 million people. According to psychologist Gregory Guldner, former head of the now-defunct Center for the Study of Long Distance Relationships, these numbers are likely on the rise, fueled in part by the increased popularity of dating apps and connections made over social media.

With so many people in long-distance relationships, more scientists have started devoting their energies to figuring out how these relationships work. In a 2015 study titled “Go Long! Predictors of Positive Relationship Outcomes in Long-Distance Dating Relationships,” published in the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, researchers identified several factors linked to the success of these partnerships. Distance apart, frequency of in-person contact, and “attitudes about the prospect of one’s relationship” all made the list, but the most important factors for success were commitment and communication — same as with couples who live near each other.

The tricky thing about this is that communicating well is so much harder when you can only rarely do it face-to-face. And, as Will and I both learned the hard way, that’s never clearer than when you’re fighting: Separated by so many miles, it’s infinitely easier to just ignore the messages coming through your phone, and harder to muster up the energy to resolve things. After all, it’s not like you know you’ll see the other person at home later that night.

For Will and I, the fight that taught this particular lesson was about — ironically — communication. Our conflict styles were frustratingly different: Whenever Will and I disagreed on something, he would send me a text that changed the subject. My instinct, on the other hand, was to text and text until the screen is blue with my own words. Midway through an argument about this, he stopped responding. I called, and it went to voice-mail.

I was in uncharted territory: I’d had conflict in past relationships, of course, but my past experiences didn’t shed much light on my current predicament. Dating long-distance, I realized, means learning a whole new way to fight. Will and I are no longer together, but in hindsight, here’s what I wish I had known.

Use the space to your advantage.

If I’m being honest with myself, I know Will and I were both in the wrong. His ghosting made me feel like I didn’t deserve his attention, and my string of unanswered texts likely put too much pressure on an already volatile situation.

The healthier middle ground between our two approaches: Take some time to cool off, but be intentional about it. A statement like, “I want to talk about this later, after we’ve both calmed down” helps to avoid confrontation, which was likely Will’s goal, while also making it clear that the issue was one that needed to be resolved, which was mine. If your partner is reasonable, they will give you space to think before you speak.
Space is, after all, one of the benefits of long-distance relationships.

Embrace the idea of a longer, slower fight.

Another benefit of distance: Communicating by text or email, rather than in person, makes it a lot easier to stop yourself from saying things you don’t mean. Maybe you can’t argue and make up in a single night — but being apart from your partner means that you can take the time to be thoughtful about what’s bothering you, and deliberate about how and what you want to communicate.

For Will and I, there were several days between the beginning of the fight and its end. By then, I knew the root of my concerns: Ever since Hurricane Irma hit our area, I was seeing him less, and he didn’t want to visit as much. It wasn’t the issue that started our conflict, but after a few days of marinating, I knew it was the one that was fueling it.

When you’re ready, get in front of the camera.

At a certain point, to move forward, it’s best to get as close as possible to an in-person conversation: In the “Go Long!” study, the authors noted that past research has shown a strong correlation between face-to-face contact and trust in a relationship. When you’re ready, log on to Skype or FaceTime; your argument is much more likely to have a positive outcome when you can read and respond to your partner’s facial expressions.

Will and I didn’t get there, I’m sorry to say — the bulk of our fighting happened over text, until, toward the end, he wrote me a letter making it clear that we wanted very different things. I don’t take issue with the strategy; a letter can be a helpful way to process things, or to work up the courage to say them aloud. And in this case, the letter did what we wanted it to do: it ended our argument.

But it ended our relationship, too. If we had communicated better from the start — if we had fought more thoughtfully and effectively — maybe things would have been different.

Dating Long-Distance Means Learning a New Way to Fight