Does your marriage involve one spouse working away from home? Or travelling a lot? Maybe you are a military family or you commute to another city for work or do camp work. Let’s talk about some of the challenges and also some ideas to make the most of this situation!
It can be tough being separated from your spouse for long periods of time. And when this happens regularly, due to work or some other circumstance, your marriage is bound to be affected in some way. But that change doesn’t necessarily have to be bad, and with the help of our list of do’s and don’ts you can make sure you stay connected to your spouse no matter the physical distance between you.
What is a Long Distance Marriage?
Who knew, but long distance couples account for over 1 million couples in the USA[i] and this number is continuing to grow. There are a few flavours of this:
Couples where one spouse goes away for weeks or months at a time for work. Military couples would be an example of this. In Canada we see a lot of this related to the oil industry where camps are set up in northern areas, and husbands go North to work like 3 weeks in one week out kind of thing
There are also dual-commuter couples where both spouses travel away for work or education
And there are couples who live in different geographical locations on a semi-permanent basis due to work or other factors
If you don’t fit into any of those groups, another definition of a long distance relationship (LDR) is simply that the couple are “unable to see each other as often as they like, due to time or distance constraints[ii]“.
So how does being in a LDR affect your marriage? There are mixed results from the research on this one, but most find that there are no concrete differences in terms of satisfaction or commitment between long-distance and close-distance relationships[iii]. This means that spending long periods of time apart doesn’t automatically spell doom for your marriage, and making the relationship work is largely up to the individual couple.
So let’s get into the do’s and don’ts of long distance relationships.
Do’s and Don’ts
Do Not Have Unrealistic Expectations
If you are in this situation you are probably already aware of some of the common challenges faced in long distance relationships. These include:
Increased financial strain from travelling
Difficulty forming new relationships and friendships in your separate locations and balancing these with your marriage
Difficulty assessing each other’s emotional state or the state of the relationship
Try to be aware of these challenges and other issues like loneliness: it then becomes a conversation about something you both experience. Can you discuss this without feeling guilty? Have you chosen to see this as something that gets between you, or can you share the burden together?
Those are expectations that come into play when you are apart. What about when you are together? Avoid putting too high expectations on the time you do spend together: couples often expect their limited time together to be perfect: intimate and romantic and all these wonderful things and can be distressed when this doesn’t turn out to be the case.
Do Not Be Negative
Those expectations can easily lead to negativity in thought or emotion.
A study from 2007[iv] found that negative affectivity (displays of negative emotions) were linked to relationship instability. This effect was stronger for men than women, and also stronger for long distance couples than for geographically close couples.
Being far apart makes those negative comments much more of an issue, because it could be days or weeks before you get to speak to each other again, so you’ll have all that time to stew over every word. Obviously arguments and disagreements will happen in an LDR, like in any marriage, but just be careful that they don’t sour your entire experience of time together. If you fight, make sure you make up quickly to stop it having a lingering effect.
Commitment is of course essential in a long distance marriage, but a stressful or dysfunctional LDR can create a negative sense of commitment or “moral burden”. This is where couples stay together out of obligation but gain no satisfaction or joy from the marriage[v].
So working on sources of stress and conflict is especially important in LDRs to avoid this state of seeing the marriage as a burden.
You can see that perspective and perception become very important in a LDR right?
Do Not Idealize the Relationship
Would you say that a long-distance relationship is more, or less, likely to break up than one where the couple see each other every day? Interestingly, some research shows that LDRs are actually more stable than geographically close relationships (GCRs)[vi].
Part of this is because distant couples tend to idealize each other and their relationship: they see each other/the relationship in unrealistically positive terms. This includes characteristics like reminiscing on past positives and having an over-inflated view of how much you agree and share values.
One one hand, this can be a good thing, as it promotes stability while you’re away from each other. The geographically distant spouse may idealize his or her spouse because it protects from feeling uncertain about the marriage. Holding the marriage in very high regard, perhaps even unrealistically so, motivates you to stay in it and guards against infidelity.
However, this over-inflated view of your spouse can make things harder when you reunite as you suddenly realize that the relationship isn’t as good as you thought. Because of this effect of having your bubble burst when you reunite, LDRs often become less stable when they come back into close proximity[vii]. Suddenly you’re reminded of all the little flaws in your spouse that you didn’t come into contact with while you were away, and it’s easy to start wondering whether your marriage is really as good as you were imagining.
Some level of focusing on the positives and reminiscing about good times may be healthy and ensure a stable, faithful relationship. But too much can lead to disillusionment when you are reunited. So balance is important.
Before we start talking about what you should do in a LDR, we want to tell you about a guide that we have to go with this episode, specifically dealing with LDR challenges.
Maintenance Checklist for Long Distance Marriages
This guide takes you through several aspects of your marriage relationship in detail and gives you ideas and things to discuss with your spouse so that you can really make the most out of a difficult situation. If you are in a LDR you need to get this guide. This is already available to all of our supporters on who help keep this show going from week to week. If you would like to get this and access to the 50 or more other resources we have created to help marriages, all you need to do is become a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People.
I love reducing uncertainty in relationships. It solves so many things.
Physical distance is just one thing that can create uncertainty about the future or stability of your marriage. Now, if you both have chosen to do this long distance thing then you cannot change that at the moment.
Here’s what you need to know: uncertainty leads to higher levels of jealousy and lower levels of trust.
Other factors influencing uncertainty include emotional distance (how willing you are to open up), levels of conflict, perception of rival partners, and frequency/quality of sex. So when physical distance is high you can reduce uncertainty with the relationship by compensating in the other areas[viii].
I mean by discussing these things together and by engaging in maintenance behaviors (which are positive actions to strengthen the relationship) in order to reduce uncertainty. Those behaviors are critical to the success of your marriage in this situation and that is why we carefully go through them in the bonus guide that we have made available to our Patreon supporters.
Focus on Positive Aspects
For example, planning your next visit home to give yourselves something to look forward to, or even using the increased sense of autonomy for personal growth[ix]. You may have more spare time: how can you see that as an opportunity to leverage so that you bring an even better version of yourself to the marriage?
Plan time Together Effectively
Make your time together count. Plan your weekends or visits together so that you get maximum enjoyment out of them, and allow space for showing affection and reaffirming your bond[x].
Talk About the Little Things
We looked at creating purpose and meaning in marriage in a recent episode, where couples find their joint sense of identity and meaning in life through the way they relate to each other and their shared history. Couples often find their sense of joint meaning through regular interaction about the day to day details of life[xi]. So long distance couples should talk to each other about the mundane stuff as well as the big important matters. This helps you stay connected at the ground level: you’re still apart of each other’s lives from the little details all the way up to the big decisions.
Keeping in touch about day to day things also helps maintain a more grounded view of the relationship and prevents over-idealization. It also lets your spouse really see into your daily life and brings them into your world. This helps them feel safer and more secure in the relationship too. Who knew that talking about your daily life was such a powerful force in your marriage?
Face to Face Communication
I thought this was really cool. A study in 2001[xii] examined 311 individuals in close and long-distance relationships. They found that long-distance couples who were in regular face to face contact (eg though Skye or by periodically returning home) were significantly less uncertain about the future of their relationship, significantly more trusting and were better at using positive maintenance behaviors like reassuring each other and sharing out tasks.
Face to face contact while separate also predicts stability once the couple is reunited[xiii]. So this really is something you need to be making time for.
Continue to Find Meaning
A fascinating study from 1997[xiv] identified two types of commitment found in LDRs: enthusiastic commitment (levels of satisfaction and happiness with the relationship) and moral commitment (investing in the meaning of the relationship and believing it ought to continue). One is the day to day level of happiness the relationship brings you; the other is about a much deeper sense of purpose.
Only moral commitment was linked to the stability of the relationship. So finding meaning in your relationship before and during long-distance periods increases moral commitment, increasing long term stability.
That is no surprise: we had a really good discussion about the centrality of commitment in episode 82.
We have looked at do’s and don’ts but I think there is a third really important piece to the long-distance puzzle and that is reuniting. How does it work when you come back home? if you have children often your wife and children are functioning without the husband: he is not part of the daily system. When he comes home, that system has to adjust and accommodate, knowing that he is going to leave again. Getting back into the routine of life together can be a challenge.
Reuniting after long periods of absence creates a state of relational turbulence. This is the concept we examined in our previous episode about empty nest syndrome, where uncertainty and stress make spouses much more reactive to both positive and negative interactions[xv].
So if it has been positive when apart it is more likely to be positive together, and if things were hard apart it will be harder to make your time together positive. During the days and weeks after you reunite you’ll both be very reactive to both the good and the bad. This means that the little loving acts and behaviors you show to each other will be extra beneficial during this time, but also means that any unhelpful or unpleasant things you do or say will have extra impact.
Also when you come back together you have to remember that the stay at home spouse has had sole responsibility for household management. So re-negotiating roles and establishing normal routines together has the potential to create tension. And what if one spouse has changed significantly, even in habit? Say you guys always ate at 5:30 and then had your evening. You arrive home to find out that your spouse has full evenings and then eats at 8:30 pm? Are they allowed to change that? If you are not home, why should s/he do it the way you prefer? What if you didn’t know this change had happened?
Returning home can, therefore, be a difficult time for both spouses, but can also be a source of many positives. Remember that both of you will be more reactive to both positive and negative behaviors. You can leverage this to the advantage of your marriage. Small acts of kindness or love will have a bigger impact during this period so these can be used to help ease the transition[xvi]. So when you’ve reunited after a long time apart, this is the perfect time to create new, positive routines that will strengthen your marriage and your love for each other.
[i] Canary and Dainton, Maintaining Relationships Through Communication.
[ii] Maguire and Kinney, “When Distance Is Problematic.”
[iii] Canary and Dainton, Maintaining Relationships Through Communication.
[iv] Cameron and Ross, “In Times of Uncertainty.”
[v] Lydon, Pierce, and O’Regan, Coping with Moral Commitment to Long-Distance Dating Relationships.
[vi] Stafford and Merolla, “Idealization, Reunions, and Stability in Long-Distance Dating Relationships.”
[viii] Dainton and Aylor, “A Relational Uncertainty Analysis of Jealousy, Trust, and Maintenance in Long‐distance versus Geographically Close Relationships.”
[ix] Canary and Dainton, Maintaining Relationships Through Communication.
[xi] Stafford and Merolla, “Idealization, Reunions, and Stability in Long-Distance Dating Relationships.”
[xii] Dainton and Aylor, “A Relational Uncertainty Analysis of Jealousy, Trust, and Maintenance in Long‐distance versus Geographically Close Relationships.”
[xiii] Stafford and Merolla, “Idealization, Reunions, and Stability in Long-Distance Dating Relationships.”
[xiv] Lydon, Pierce, and O’Regan, Coping with Moral Commitment to Long-Distance Dating Relationships.
[xv] Knobloch and Theiss, “Experiences of U.S. Military Couples during the Post-Deployment Transition.”