Long distance dating relationships and long distance marriages are increasingly common. However, physical distance poses certain risks to these relationships. In my more than thirty years of experience as a psychotherapist, I've concluded that these risks vary in quality and meaning depending on the stage of the relationship.
Among dating couples, the greatest risk posed by physical distance is the honeymoon quality that characterizes their periods of togetherness. These relationships are frequently passionate and intense due to the constant cycle of separation and reunion. The limited exposure to one another often results in the partners having an idealized experience of on another, i.e. they see each other when they're at their best.
In my experience, the greatest risk associated with long distance dating is that a couple will decide to marry during the honeymoon phase. When this happens, neither has sufficient knowledge of the other, because they haven't experienced one another across a spectrum of life experiences.
When long distance daters get engaged, one partner usually relocates to the same city as the other. This often sets off a period of adjustment because they have greater exposure to on another. The honeymoon phase usually gives way to a more realistic phase. If the partners decide to move in together, their involvement with each other is amplified. Certain issues need to be addressed including: division of household responsibilities, detailed discussions and decisions about finances, the development of a shared social life, and perhaps greater involvement with or separation from one or both partner's family of origin.
A couple's ability to problem-solve together usually becomes more apparent during this more realistic stage of the relationship. If they experience difficulties, one of three responses tends to prevail: they seek premarital counseling, they continue with plans to marry despite the problems, or the relationship dissolves. In my experience, many premarital couples move forward with plans to marry despite the fact that they are experiencing significant problems. The greatest risk among couples who move from long distance dating to getting engaged is that the excitement about their marriage plans take precedence over learning how to successfully negotiate the problems they encounter in this realistic stage of the relationship.
Long distance marriages typically occur after a couple has lived together for some period of time. The separation is usually due to one partner's career. Physical distance places several unique stresses on a marriage. First of all, the bulk of household and child care responsibilities fall to one partner. This partner may grow resentful or envy the freedom and seeming glamour of the commuting partner's life. They may also feel insecure if their partner is going to be working closely with members of the opposite sex.
Spouses in long distance marriages often feel lonely, especially because they've grown accustomed to living together. While the lure of sexual novelty is no different for married couples living apart than it is for those living together, physical distance may make these marriages more susceptible to infidelity. The distance makes it easier to hide an affair. There may also be a greater likelihood of one partner falling in love since it's virtually impossible to sustain emotional intimacy in a relationship during extended periods of absence.
In order for long distance romantic relationships of any kind to work, a couple needs to communicate with one another frequently and make plans to see each other regularly. The more frequent the visits and the longer the time they spend with each other - the better. Also, prior to marriage, a couple should plan to live in the same city if at all possible. Most importantly, they need to move from the honeymoon phase into the realistic phase of relationship and be sure they are able to successfully navigate the real life problems that emerge during this stage.
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