When I found myself in a long distance relationship a few years ago, I was shocked by how much came up in the absence of my partner, things that never came up for me in my previous close-proximity relationships. My long distance partner and I entered into what felt like a never-ending cycle of beautiful week-ends of togetherness followed by a week of crippling absence and fear.  The love felt worth it, but I didn’t realize how much I would have to work with inside myself to navigate this new type of relationship.

In our modern world, particularly with the recent explosion of “online relationships,” long distance relationships are becoming more and more common. Many of us find ourselves connecting with, and falling in love with, people who live in different cities, states, or even countries from where we live.

While long distance relationships are becoming more common, the shape that this distance takes inside each of our psyches can be very different. What comes up for you in the absence of your loved one? Distance, both emotional and physical, is negotiated even when we live in close proximity with our partners, but in a long distance relationship, the distance is often out of our control and can put a substantial strain on our attachment with our partner.

The importance of attachment bonds cannot be overemphasized, and long distance relationships can often provide an opportunity to really examine what our attachment style is and the effects of attachment on our psyches.

Half a century ago, psychologists began looking first at attachment bonds between parents and children. In the 1950s, John Bowlby found that in our attachment bonds, we look for: proximity maintenance, a safe haven when in distress, and a secure base to explore the world from. More recently, Sue Johnson, the founder of Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples, added to Bowlby’s research by adding that for this romantic attachment to feel secure, we need accessible, responsive, and engaged partners.

Because we are social animals, our nervous systems are wired for connection and soothing from a partner. In the absence of our partners, we may find ourselves panicky, distressed, or checked out. Because in long distance relationships we are constantly experiencing closeness followed by absence, followed by closeness and absence again, it can be tough emotionally and even physically on our bodies. Research shows that the body experiences a surge of oxytocin and vasopressin, which are bonding hormones, when we are touched by our partner (whether it be hugging, kissing, sexual contact, etc.) and that our bodies can go into withdrawal when we are separated from our partner’s touch. The withdrawal increases cortisol (stress hormones) and can actually lead to depression-like symptoms. While this may make long distance relationships more difficult than close proximity relationships, it is possible to navigate successfully through a long distance relationship by managing the feelings that come up for us.

Each of our impulses for connection is unique and influenced by the type of bond that we had with our parents. Some of us (and research states most people) feel pretty secure in their love connections. Others are preoccupied with our partners leaving us, or just generally function with a lot of anxiety about our bond. On the other end are those of us who tend to avoid leaning on our partners and do a lot of managing of the relationship by getting distance. Seeing the way we show up in relationship can help us find clues to what needs attention inside us.

Managing life away from our partner provides us an opportunity to heal something in ourselves. In my case, the time away from my partner meant that I had the opportunity to turn towards my unresolved, dormant fears of abandonment that unexpectedly came up. Life presents us each with unique circumstances to learn about ourselves and come back to our relationships (to self and other) with more self-awareness and kindness for ourselves.

If you are in a long distance relationship, here are some tips to help you create and maintain a healthy connection and manage the feelings that might come up for you:

1.   Figure out your partner’s language of love.

Dr. Gary Chapman talks about the ways that each of us best receives love. It can be through words of affirmation, acts of service, receiving gifts, quality time, or physical touch.  If you can’t be physically close, then figure out the next best thing to let your partner know that you love them or to let them know what they can do to make you feel loved.

2.   Schedule when you will see each other next.

This can relieve a lot of anxiety for couples and help to focus on the next time of togetherness.

3.   Get clear about where you want the relationship to go and express it to your partner.

This means letting your partner know what the end goal is for you. Meaning if the end goal is living in the same place, then state that clearly.

4.   Self-care.

This means taking really good care of yourself whatever you are feeling—talking to friends, going to therapy, and taking care of your body. Long distance can be difficult, but it is also an opportunity to heal and learn new things about yourself.

5.   Reassure.

With the distance comes the need to know you matter. If your partner makes a bid for connection (calls, writes, texts, etc.), then respond. Or if you can’t respond, let them know when you can.

6.   Communicate boundaries.

The distance forces you to clearly communicate. Don’t force your partner to mind read across text or email. Use your words and don’t be afraid to tell your partner what you are feeling or thinking.

7.   Give yourself space for transition.

Even if you are overjoyed to see your partner, it is normal to fight as you come into each other’s space again. Some couples even schedule fights because it is so predictable. Know that there is support out there if you need it.  

Individual therapy can be helpful in the absence of a partner, and couples therapy can be helpful in the spaces where you can be together. It is important to tease out what is a relational challenge and what is yours to heal. Therapy, specifically attachment-based therapies (e.g., Emotionally Focused Therapy and Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Therapy), can help bring more awareness and ease into our partnerships. This is an area of particular interest and importance to me, and something I welcome others to share with me.

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