Relationships at a Distance Study

Being in a romantic relationship when you and your partner don’t live in the same city is challenging! Despite the challenges, long-distance relationships aren’t that much different from geographically close relationships in many important ways. For example, couples who are longdistance are as happy and stable as couples who live in the same location. This is a bit surprising, given the negative stereotypes and the very real challenges that long-distance couples experience. We asked how do couples who are long-distance keep their relationships happy and secure? We speculated that one way that long-distance couples keep their relationships vital and interesting is through sharing exciting, novel, and self-expanding experiences with each other. In other words, partners who expand their sense of self by learning new skills, having new and exciting experiences, or developing new roles in their community may benefit their relationship by sharing these experiences in a meaningful way with each other. 

Who participated in the study?

Participants were 201 mixed sex (84.1%) and same sex (4.5%) couples in long-distance relationships who were recruited through SFU travel programs, print and online news media, social media, websites, and campus and community bulletin boards. Couples’ relationships averaged 2.52 years (SD = 2.36) and ranged from 3.05 months to 24.56 years. Most couples were dating (88.6%), 9.5% were engaged, 1.0% were married, and 1.0% chose “other” to describe their relationship status. The majority (94.9%) were in exclusive relationships, 3.5% were open to some extent (e.g., partners were free to pursue sexual or romantic relationships with other people; partners could kiss other people only while the couple was geographically separated), 0.5% were polyamorous, and 1.0% of couples disagreed about their relationship structure. Of the 402 participants, the average age was 24.10 (SD = 5.66) years and 52.8% were Caucasian.

What have we learned so far?

We have only just begun to explore the rich unique information that we collected as part of this study; stay tuned for more results to be posted here in the future.

So far, we have learned that self-expanding alone does not seem to benefit relationships. In other words, if people increase their sense of who they are, learn new skills, develop new friendships, join new groups—it might be beneficial to them as individuals, but it doesn’t necessarily benefit their relationship. But the story is a bit more complex. If people do enrich their sense of self and they don’t share these new experiences, thoughts, and feelings with their partner, it might actually be detrimental for relationships. This suggests that if people are developing and growing as individuals, it is important that they share these experiences with their romantic partners who live at a distance to prevent geographical distance from becoming emotional distance.