Say you're flying across the country and settle into first class (go with it). Maybe you doze off and awake some time later to the clinking of beverage service when you notice the kind smile and warm eyes of the person beside you. You spend the next five hours engrossed in a conversation as comfortable as you've ever had. On landing, he confesses this was the best upgrade of his life and asks for your number. You dispense it the old-fashioned way – on a cocktail napkin, first name only.
But, wait, this isn't a movie, you say to yourself. This is the real world, the one where you're in L.A., and he's in New York. Why waste your time – and your heart – on something so impractical? Everyone knows long-distance relationships don't work ... Or do they?
A recent study published in the Journal of Communication found that long-distance lovers felt as much or more trust and satisfaction in their unions as "geographically close" partners. Researchers at City University of Hong Kong and Cornell University drew that conclusion based on a set of American college students in local and long-distance relationships, who reported their communication patterns. Those in long-distance relationships disclosed more personal details to their partner and also idealized each other more, researchers found.
But isn't that the trouble with long-distance love – that, as people so often say, it's untested against the day-to-day demands of "real-life?" In other words, does such idealization put couples at risk of falling in love with a fantasy?
"You would never get through a marriage if you didn't idealize a little," says Suzanne Phillips, a Long Island-based psychologist and co-author of "Healing Together: A Couple's Guide to Coping with Trauma and Post-Traumatic Stress." "Couples that really work – they hold a kind of special idealization of their partner, through thick and thin." We're not talking about denial or dismissing bad behavior, she says. But if a man thinks his wife is a goddess among women, and she considers him a genius? That's the magic you want to believe in – it's what Phillips tries to conjure up when she asks couples in distress to remember how they first saw each other.
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While physical separation challenges a couple – particularly one starting a relationship from afar – it can also strengthen and enhance their connection, says Phillips, who works with a lot of military couples enduring deployment.
"It brings forth an attempt to show intimacy, care or problem-solving that just might not be reached for had the couple not had the experience," she says. Phillips and her husband lived apart for two years while he earned his master's degree, during which time she discovered his gift of letter writing.
And these days, as the study above shows, the range of communication devices available – from texting and video chat to, of course, the telephone – can help couples connect.
The key, though, is to do so regularly. You want each other to know the mundane, even inane details, about your lives, says Robert Navarra, a California-based certified Gottman therapist for The Gottman Institute, a research, training and counseling center to promote better relationships.
The dry cleaning, your boss, what you had for lunch – who cares? Well, you should. Part of intimacy involves knowing the details of the other person's daily life, big and small, because you're that important to each other, Navarra explains. But it's not so much about the daily accounting of groceries or child care or even the mechanics of each other's jobs, as gauging each other's emotional standing, he says.
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"Talking about nothing is what sort of cements the relationship in terms of intimacy, so that they can talk about more intimate issues as they need to," Navarra says. Furthermore, "it's how you treat each other when you're not in conflict that predicts how you're going to manage conflict." In short, the more a couple knows and appreciates each other, the stronger and healthier they are.