Presence and the new long-distance relationship

[This long but very interesting story from The Atlantic doesn’t use the term presence but the concept and phenomenon is at its center – note some of the interesting ways people in long-distance relationships are said to use communication technologies to feel both physically together and psychologically connected over distance. See the last two sentences for a nicely put summary of some key points, and see the original version of the story for additional material not included here. –Matthew]

[Image: Credit: Alessandra De Cristofaro]

The New Long-Distance Relationship

The same technological and economic developments that are pulling couples apart are also making geographic separation less stressful and more enjoyable.

Joe Pinsker
May 14, 2019

The love life of Stanley Davidge, a 25-year-old network administrator for a national restaurant chain, is absolutely extraordinary.

Almost all day, Davidge, who lives in South Carolina, is in touch with his girlfriend, Angela Davila, who lives in Virginia and is job hunting. Despite being separated by a six-hour drive, they “shoot the bull and stuff” over FaceTime when Davidge has a break at work, they call each other in the car, and they watch TV together at the end of the day using a website that lets them share a screen. “It’s almost like being in the same room together,” he says of their tandem streaming.

The way Davidge and Davila maintain their relationship won’t impress anyone familiar with the internet and smartphones. But, considering the fullness of human history, it is astounding that two people in separate places can keep up such a rich relationship without much financial or logistical hassle—and think nothing of it.

It’s hard to say for sure whether long-distance relationships are more common than they were a generation or two ago, though some scholars suspect they are. “They’re there, and we think they’re on the increase,” says Laura Stafford, a communication scholar at Bowling Green State University who has studied long-distance relationships.

But the many forms that long-distance relationships take make them really hard to count: Couples (married or not) might live apart because they attend different colleges, they have jobs in different cities (or countries), one or both of them are in the military, one or both of them are in prison, or one or both of them have moved to take care of an aging parent. Further complicating matters, these arrangements can be relatively short in duration or last for years.

Still, there are two notable indications that more couples may be living apart these days. First, in a government survey, the number of married Americans 18 and older who reported that they live apart from their spouse rose from roughly 2.7 million in 2000 to roughly 3.9 million in 2017, though, frustratingly, the survey didn’t ask any of those millions why they weren’t living together. And second, according to the Pew Research Center, the share of “internet users with recent dating experience” who said they’d used the internet or email to keep up with a partner long distance jumped from 19 percent to 24 percent from 2005 to 2013. That’s a decent-size increase, though, a Pew researcher cautioned, it can’t be stated with any certainty how long or why those couples were apart. Some respondents could well have been thinking of the time they emailed their partner while away on a business trip.

Exact numbers aside, what’s certain is that long-distance relationships—a term I’ll use from now on to refer to couples living apart voluntarily—are different today than they were not just 500 or 50 years ago, but even 15. As economic and technological developments are prying more couples apart geographically, some of those same developments are making those couples’ love lives more closely resemble those of couples who live in the same place. The distance is still there, but it feels shorter and shorter.

Before videochat, before long-distance phone calls, there were letters. Written correspondence is how, historically, lovers have exchanged meaningful information over long distances. The exchanges of the Victorian poets Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning are classics of their genre, elegantly revealing the contents of their authors’ minds and hearts. “All-so into me has it gone, and part of me has it become, this great living poetry of yours, not a flower of which but took root and grew,” Robert wrote in the first letter of their correspondence, in 1845. The fantastically graphic letters that James Joyce wrote to his lover in the 1900s were classics in another way—his sign-off in one was, “Goodnight, my little farting Nora, my dirty little fuckbird!”

As those nicknames attest, written expressions of adoration could be colorful and evocative. They could also, as a medium, leave a lot to the imagination. With letters, “you can actually have really powerful emotions and intimacy,” says Jeff Hancock, a communication professor at Stanford University. “All you have are each other’s words, so you can really imagine the other person in the best possible light.”

While the telephone was invented in the mid-19th century, it wasn’t until the 1940s and ’50s, Hancock told me, that the technology was considered to be suitable for pleasure instead of just business. But in those early days, lengthy calls to far-flung loved ones were still too pricey for many people. Robert Gordon, an economist at Northwestern University, remembers that when he was in college in the late 1950s and early ’60s, one minute of calling cross-country cost about $3, which was more than the average hourly wage at the time. (That works out to about $26 a minute in today’s dollars after adjusting for inflation.)

In the year following his college graduation, Gordon studied at Oxford, and his then-fiancée finished up her senior year of undergrad back in Boston, where they’d met. During this transatlantic phase of their relationship, they only wrote letters and never talked on the phone. “Telephone calls for long-distance relationships were simply not part of the discussion until—and I remember exactly when this switched, because I saved all my letters, and I know when the letters stopped—and that’s 1970, ’71,” he says. (The particular cutoff year for any given person would probably have had to do with that person’s disposable income.)

The next major development in romantic communication, of course, was the internet. Email, instant messaging, and videochatting, once widely adopted, made it feasible and affordable for couples to share even the most trivial details of their lives in real time, as often as they wanted. It was almost the opposite of writing a letter in, say, the early to mid-19th century, the goal of which was often to capture the most important things that had happened since the last letter. “The mundane information that we are able to exchange with each other is vitally important to [long-distance] relationships, and that gets lost a lot in letters of the past,” says Jason Farman, a media scholar at the University of Maryland who has studied the history of communication technologies.

Such mundane transmissions were what helped Jess Lam, a 29-year-old dentist in Los Angeles, get through four years of long distance with her boyfriend. She told me that after a typical day at dental school, she’d get home, cook dinner, and then start up an hours-long session of what she calls “background Skype”—keeping a videochat open with her boyfriend while the two of them went about their evenings, interacting occasionally. “We wouldn’t be paying attention to each other all the time, but we could see each other on the screen and say hi, so we always were connected in that way,” she told me.

“Background Skype” is something many long-distance couples do today. In Farman’s eyes, the practice helpfully “allows the banal to come to the surface,” contributing to “a level of intimacy that I don’t think people of previous eras had on the same scale.”

More analog interactions still hold appeal, though. Stanley Davidge, the network administrator who watches TV with his long-distance girlfriend, says sending old-fashioned mail also helps them feel close. “I’ll fold up some origami stuff for her every couple months and just send her a letter out of the blue,” he told me. “She really likes that.”

And the existence of technology doesn’t guarantee constant connection. Alex Bettencourt and Frantz Salomon have been together for three years, married for one, and long distance the whole time. Bettencourt lives in Boston, Salomon in Jacmel, a seaside town in Haiti. They see each other about twice a year, text every day, and try to videochat once a week. But that doesn’t always work out. “If we want to talk on the phone, if cell signal is not good down there, or the power is out or something, that changes things,” Bettencourt told me. The longest the couple has had to go without any contact at all is about a week—the inconsistency is a challenge, Bettencourt said, but it now seems normal enough.

Obstacles to communication are also common for many military couples. Montoya Warner, a 23-year-old living in the state of Washington, says that when her wife went to boot camp, it was “seven months of very minimal communication.” (The boot camp would normally have lasted only two or three months, but Warner’s wife sustained a hip injury that stretched out the time.) At the beginning, some “bad apples” in her wife’s platoon sometimes cost everyone else their phone privileges, so phone calls between them were restricted to once every two or three weeks.

Overwhelmingly, the dozen or so people I interviewed about their relationships for this story said they’d prefer to be long distance now, as opposed to 20 or 50 years ago. “I can text, talk, and play games with my partner, who lives across the Atlantic Ocean, and it almost feels real,” said one. “If this was 150 years ago, I would have to wait, like, three months to get a letter from the Pony Express and by the time I got it, she might’ve died of cholera or something,” said another.

It seems obvious that it would be better to be able to communicate at the speed of the internet, rather than waiting on the Pony Express for word from your beloved. But it’s worth noting that the communication speeds of previous eras probably seem more miserable to us today than they actually were for people at the time. Farman says that less-instantaneous exchanges weren’t “necessarily perceived as out of the ordinary, or less immersive.” It’s more from a backward-looking perspective that these media seem unbearably slow.

In fact, Farman says, “My initial impulse is that if you were to ask people in almost any other era of history if they prefer to be in long-distance relationships at that time or in the past, they would all have the exact same answer. You understand your communication networks for keeping in touch as being far superior to what came before.” Now is always the best time, whenever now is.

When a couple is considering going long distance, immersive and real-time communication technologies might make the distance seem more manageable. But a variety of larger forces—involving labor markets, geography, and gender norms—are also putting certain couples in the position of having to make that choice in the first place. The apparent boom in long-distance relationships seems spread unevenly among demographics.

One society-wide trend suggests that on the whole, couples are less likely to experience long-distance dilemmas than they used to: The percentage of Americans who moved between states in a given year decreased by more than half from the 1970s to 2010. Nowadays, four-fifths of American adults live a couple of hours or less by car from their parents.

But something interesting is going on with the remaining fifth: Education and income are the two strongest predictors of moving far from home. This pattern, in combination with the large increase in the number of women pursuing careers over the past half century, suggests that geography might exert the most pressure on a particular type of couple—dual-income, well educated, professionally minded. In the past, couples were more likely to accommodate only one partner’s job—usually the man’s. Laura Stafford, the Bowling Green researcher, says that “almost certainly we’ve seen a rise” in long-distance relationships between people pursuing careers in separate places.

Danielle Lindemann, a sociologist at Lehigh University, notes that the Census Bureau’s data on married couples who live apart don’t indicate whether jobs are the reason for partners’ different locations. “The unsatisfying answer is that nobody can really say with certainty that [long-distance marriage] is more prevalent than it has been in the past,” she says, “but everybody who studies this agrees that it probably is.” (Indeed, she published a book on the subject, Commuter Spouses: New Families in a Changing World, earlier this year.)

The pressure to live apart for work can be especially acute for younger couples who are still establishing careers, and the job market in academia—in which full-time jobs are both relatively rare and scattered about the country—is a telling case study. Shelly Lundberg, an economist at UC Santa Barbara, says that today’s newly minted Ph.D. couples have a hard time balancing their relationships and their work. “Juggling location choices is really fraught for these young people, and many of them end up separated, sometimes on different continents, for years before they manage to find something that works,” she says.

This represents a shift, Lundberg notes: “In my cohort”—she earned her doctorate in 1981—“the women basically gave up. They would find the best job for their husband or their male partner, and they would take a lecturer job or something else.” Today, she says, “the women are more ambitious, and so the decision to take jobs in different places, at least temporarily, has become much more common.”

Lundberg says that what’s going on in academia might be a microcosm of what’s going on with highly educated professionals more broadly, many of whom experience “very intense up-or-out career pressure in the early years of [working].” She thinks that more long-distance relationships would be a predictable consequence of “the intra-household tension caused by equalizing ambitions” between men and women. And the internet only eases career-driven geographic splits: The same communication technologies that enable romantic intimacy also make it easier to work remotely while visiting one’s partner.


It can even be the case that as coupled long-distance 20-somethings pour themselves into their education and career, there’s a strange sort of relief in being apart. Lauren, a 24-year-old social-work graduate student in Boston, has been dating her boyfriend, who’s getting a degree of his own in North Carolina, for more than a year. (She asked not to have her last name published, because of the sensitive nature of her work.)

“Not a lot has been incredibly hard for us, because we’re both in school, so we’re both really busy,” she said. “I tend to think that sometimes if he just lived here, we would have a more difficult relationship.” More difficult, she means, in the sense that if they were in the same place, they might spend less time together than they’d like, but wouldn’t have as good of a reason for it as they do when living apart—the distance, in a way, excuses the priority they give to their schoolwork.

Lauren doesn’t prefer it this way, but their relationship still works well enough, just as it does for many of the other couples making life decisions based on the ambitions of two different people—ambitions that, if fulfilled, can require their bodies to be in two different places.

Going long distance is a convenient option for a certain kind of modern couple, but how well does it really work, romantically speaking, to live in different places? Communication researchers have long been interested in “non-proximal” relationships as a way of exploring whether being physically in the same place is even a necessary ingredient of intimacy. Generally speaking, a few decades of research indicates it isn’t.

“Long-distance relationships can actually have these very powerful emotional and intimacy dynamics that we sort of don’t expect,” said Jeff Hancock, the Stanford professor. When I asked him whether long-distance relationships are harder to maintain, he pointed out that tons of “co-located” relationships come to an end—just look at the divorce rate. “It’s not like there’s something golden about physically co-located relationships in that sense,” he said. “Just being co-located doesn’t guarantee success, just like being at a distance isn’t a guarantee that it dies.”

Though long-distance relationships differ in so many different ways that it’s reductive to lump them together, two paradoxical findings commonly emerge in the research on them: People living in different places than their partner tend to have more stable and committed relationships—and yet, when they do finally start living in the same place, they’re more likely to break up than couples who’d been co-located all along.

A possible key to resolving this paradox has to do with how couples think about each other when they’re apart. Laura Stafford, the Bowling Green researcher, studied long-distance relationships involving one or more college students in the 2000s. (College students are perhaps the best represented constituency in the distance literature, because they are easy for academic researchers to find, and it’s common for them to be dating someone not enrolled at their school.) Stafford found that long-distance partners were more likely to idealize each other: They receive less information about their significant other, and so their imagination fills in the rest, often in a positive way.

Relatedly, they also tended to fight less. This was in part because there was less to fight about; arguments about dirty dishes are unlikely to arise when each partner’s sink is in a different city. But it was also in part because they couldn’t find a good time to fight: Couples rarely wanted to work through conflict remotely, via phone calls, texts, or email, but then also felt that their precious time spent together in person shouldn’t be “wasted” on difficult conversations. These couples were more likely to avoid conflict and withhold their honest opinions. “It’s like [they] were stuck in this honeymoon phase,” Stafford says.

This dynamic serves couples well when they’re apart, in that they think highly of their partner and argue with them less. Indeed, Stafford has found that long-distance couples report being more in love than those in the same place.

But the same things that help hold a long-distance relationship together make it harder to maintain once the geographic gap closes. In a 2007 study, Stafford and UC Santa Barbara’s Andy Merolla found that about one-third of couples in their sample, who had been dating long-distance for two years, broke up within three months of moving to be in the same place. Upon their reunion, Stafford says, “They learned 10 times as much negative information about their partners as they did positive: I didn’t remember how sloppy he was, I didn’t remember how inconsiderate he was, I didn’t remember how much time he spends on the phone.”

Essentially, each member of the relationship has to relearn what it’s like to live alongside the other. And also, what it’s like to live alongside anyone: “The number-one problem or issue that long-distance couples said they faced when coming back together was a loss of autonomy,” Stafford says.

But thanks to the omnipresence of mobile devices, capacious data plans, and reliably speedy internet service, it’s possible that technological advancements in the past decade have fundamentally altered these unfortunate patterns for the better. Many long-distance couples today are able to stay in constant touch wherever they are, and the communication technologies available to them allow them to share even the most mundane details—the sorts of things there was less room for in letters, long-distance phone calls, and previous incarnations of the internet. Those mundane details can create closeness, while also letting people see a fuller, less idealized version of their partner.

Crucially, this technological shift also gives couples more opportunities to talk about big stuff as well. A 2011 study that looked at the way young, technologically-fluent long-distance lovers used videochat found that, unlike in previous studies, those couples mostly weren’t shying away from potentially charged subjects, and as a result saw more of who their partner truly was. “We hypothesize that this reduced idealization is largely due to the manner in which our participants appropriated the video link to simulate shared living and to promote behaviors more similar to face-to-face relationships,” the researchers wrote. (This fits with the experience of the couples I talked with, many of whom said they don’t avoid difficult conversations, and frequently reserve them for videochat.)

But there are some things that communication technologies are unable to overcome. Physical touch can’t be replicated through a screen, though the 14 people in long-distance relationships who were interviewed for the 2011 study certainly tried to. They said that while videochatting, they’d blow kisses to each other, spread out their arms as if hugging their partner, or faux-hug the device they were using. “One participant even said his partner would stroke his head and shoulder by cupping her hand around his video image and moving it up and down,” the researchers observed.

Alex Bettencourt says that some of the hardest moments of being apart for months are when “you’re having a hard day at work and you want to come home and have a hug.” Indeed, “lack of physical intimacy” was the most commonly cited challenge in a survey of long-distance partners commissioned by a company that makes sex toys that can move in response to remote data inputs.

Perhaps that sort of innovation is welcome: Just two participants in the 2011 study engaged in “full cybersex activities” with any regularity. For one, it became a powerful way to build intimacy, but for the other, it was a symbol of separation—“they realized more fully that they couldn’t actually touch each other and this caused them to miss each other more.” A couple others gave it a shot but found it “awkward.” The rest explained that shyness and privacy concerns were factors, or that having sex through a screen didn’t feel vital to maintaining their relationship.

There are other constraints imposed by geography that technology can’t do much about. Stafford notes that an important part of getting to know a partner is seeing how that person treats other people, and no amount of one-on-one videochatting would help in this regard. She foresees this remaining a problem “until we all have bodycams.”

Relatedly, communication technologies don’t give people a good sense of their partners’ surroundings. “When we’re in the same physical space, one of the things that happens is we’re synced up on all kinds of things,” Jeff Hancock said. “We’re synced up on the weather, we know when the garbage has got to get taken out, I can see when you’re happy or stressed or whatever. When you’re not in the same physical space, all of that requires work.” Many of the people I talked with said that being long distance had turned them into better communicators, so this challenge seems to be a place where an old-fashioned technology—language—can step in to fill the gap.

Many important determinants of long-distance-relationship satisfaction are often things that couples have little power over. Research has suggested that couples tend to be less stressed and more content if they know when the non-proximal portion of their relationship will end, and if the long-distance period is a year or less. And being coupled but apart can fundamentally change how people experience their daily lives, forcing them to negotiate an in-between state of being not quite alone and not quite together.

Deciding how to spend time can be difficult when on one’s own. “After an hour without somebody else with me [at a party], it’s like, Why am I here?” said Stanley Davidge. “I’d rather be at home watching Netflix with her.” He described having a social life caught strangely between what people do when they’re single and what people do with a partner. “If she was here,” he told me, “I would be going out more. Or if I was single, I would be going out more.”

The consequences of geographic separation can be felt even when a couple is temporarily in the same place. Timothy Nagle-McNaughton, a 22-year-old doctoral candidate in New Mexico, articulated something I heard from a few others in long-distance relationships—that there’s a feeling that time spent together is extra meaningful and needs to be made the most of. “There’s definitely that pressure to make the visit count, to have some fun social event lined up,” he told me. But there is pleasure, he found, in the low-key: “Sometimes you just want to shack up in the dorm room and just be with each other and watch movies and cook together.”

It could be that navigating a long period of distance gives some couples tools that will help them deal with future conflicts, large and small. Nagle-McNaughton and his girlfriend, Diana Magaña-Contreras, started living together about six months ago. He sounded thrilled to be doing even little things like shopping for groceries with her, and thinks the fact that they stayed together bodes well for their future. “If we can live through four years of long distance, fighting over whose turn it is to take out the garbage is basically nothing,” he said.

Being in a long-distance relationship often means operating within a set of limitations beyond one’s control. But there are things that individual people can do to counteract the downsides. I polled several researchers who have studied the subject, and their suggestions can be condensed to the following list: Communicate over a variety of platforms to make up for the constraints of each (and write letters, which can serve as nice physical reminders of the relationship). Come up with a plan for how and when to have hard conversations. Share small, mundane details and, when possible, everyday experiences, such as streaming a movie together. Make time for both routine check-ins and spontaneous conversations. And remember that living together might be an adjustment.

This set of advice is tailored to the communication technologies of the present day, and it’s not clear how long it’ll be applicable. It’s possible that, decades from now, fully immersive virtual-reality simulations and haptic suits might finally render geography irrelevant in love. But the tools for interacting today—the videochatting, the text and picture messaging, the co-streaming sites—are honestly pretty great, even if the grandchildren of today’s long-distance couples might not be able to fathom how they made it work.


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