Relationships are considered long-distance when opportunities for communication are restricted due to geographic constraints. Long-distance relationships (LDRs) are of interest given the implicit assumption in much interpersonal scholarship that relationships without frequent face-to-face contact are not as “close” as those with such contact (Stafford & Merolla 2007). LDRs exist in opposition to norms for shared residences and/ or proximity among romantic partners, family members, and close friends. LDR participants hold expectations for continued close involvements and usually anticipate residing in geographic proximity at some future time (Stafford 2005).
LDRs occur due to educational or career pursuits, employment demands, military deployment, incarceration, divorce, or nonmarital parent–child arrangements. The number of LDRs is unknown. Outside of the military, long-distance families are not officially recognized. Estimates indicate that approximately 50 percent of college students may be involved in long-distance dating relationships (LDDRs). When considering friendships, sibships, and adult-child–parent relationships as forms of LDRs, most people in the US are likely involved in at least one LDR (Stafford 2005).
The idea that LDRs are relationships with restricted contact has been used to expand the conception to include “cross-residential” relationships (Stafford 2005). These occur when families span households (e.g., bi-nuclear or some multigenerational families) although distance between households might be minimal. Proximity or shared residences are not goals for these and many other LDR forms such as friendships, and some romantic couples prefer a continued LDR status (Levin & Trost 1999).
In western research, study of LDR family interactions began with deployed military personnel (Hill 1949). Hill reported roller-coaster-like cycles of separation and reunion, and identified family coping patterns. Though couples have long been apart due to traditionally male-dominated occupations, the 1970s saw the rise of “dual-residence dualcareer” marriages, prompting research into “commuter” couples. Such couples choose to live apart, maintaining two residences, so both can pursue career opportunities that would be limited otherwise (Gerstel & Gross 1984). Although long-distance friendships and kinships have received some attention, most research in the fields of communication and relational studies has focused on heterosexual LDDRs, beginning with Stephen (1986).
The main focus of western research on LDRs is maintenance during separation. Among family and romantic relationships, attention has been given to adjustment and coping during separation, the effects of parental absence (with recent emphasis on maternal absence), the use of new communication technologies during separation, and issues encountered with reunions. Among extended family and friendships, research has addressed the strength of ties or the ability of the relationship to meet needs. Stress and coping difficulties have been presumed to be inherent in romantic LDRs, though this has been questioned in regard to civilian dual-residence and LDDRs. These couples have reported benefits of LDRs alongside difficulties. Despite an emphasis on maintenance during separation, recent research indicates that LDDRs are at risk for dissolution upon reunion. Findings indicate that LDDRs are as satisfying and stable as geographically close relationships; LDR friendships are as strong as proximal ones; and extended family networks meet numerous emotional support needs. Geographic distance has generally been considered the defining feature of LDRs. However, there is difficulty in operationalizing LDRs. Long-distance status has been considered a given for some populations (deployed military personnel). For other romantic relationships, longdistance status has been based on participants’ reports of the distance between them, of their residence in different cities, of the number of nights a week they spend apart, their inability to see each other every day, or simply their own self-classification as longdistance. Parameters for defining other types of LDRs are more ambiguous.
Most research has been atheoretical (however, see Sahlstein 2006). Focus has been on the frequency and mode of interaction, including computer-mediated communication. Little work has examined the content, nature, and substance of communication. Consideration of the means of connection aside from communication (e.g., rituals and cognitions), additional influences in the lives of the LDR participants (e.g., proximal networks; Stafford 2004), and markers of success aside from relationship stability is warranted. Study of the maintenance of relationships and issues faced by individuals separated by incarceration, national borders, and foster care arrangements, and populations beyond military personal or middle-class commuter couples and college students is also needed.
- Gerstel, N., & Gross, H. (1984). Commuter marriage: A study of work and family. New York: Guilford.
- Hill, R. (1949). Families under stress: Adjustment to the crises of war separation and reunion. New York: Harper and Brothers.
- Levin, I., & Trost, J. (1999). Living together apart. Community, Work, and Family, 2, 279–292.
- Merolla, A. J. (2007). Relational dynamics across time and space: Modeling the relational continuity of interpersonal relationships. Doctoral dissertation, Ohio State University. At www.ohiolink.edu/etd/view.cgi?acc_num=osu1176761101, accessed June 20, 2007.
- Sahlstein, E. (2006). The trouble with distance. In D. C. Kirkpatrick, S. D. Duck, & M. K. Foley (eds.), Relating difficulty: The process of constructing and managing difficult relationships. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 119–140.
- Stafford, L. (2004). Romantic and parent– child relationships at a distance. In P. Kalbfleisch (ed.), Communication yearbook 28, Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 37–86.
- Stafford, L. (2005). Maintaining long-distance and cross-residential relationships. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Stafford, L., & Merolla, A. J. (2007). Idealization, reunions and stability in long-distance dating relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 24(1), 37–54.
- Stephen, T. (1986). Communication and interdependence in geographically separated relationships. Human Communication Research, 13, 191–210.
- Vormbrock, J. K. (1993). Attachment theory as applied to wartime and job-related marital separation. Psychological Bulletin, 114, 122–144.