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Are Long-Distance Relationships Doomed?

Dear Mona,

More Culture

My girlfriend and I have decided to stay together going into our freshman year of college. I was wondering if there are numbers about how often this whole long-distance thing works out, why/why not, etc.

Thanks,

Alex, 18, New Jersey


Dear Alex,

I’m sorry I’m so slow, Alex. You wrote me this question way back in October, and by the time I’d done enough research to reply, you told me that you and your girlfriend had split. Luckily, you sound pretty cool about the whole thing: “My ex and I only lasted a semester, but for what it’s worth it was for the best.” Still, you’re curious whether other long-distance relationships are similarly short-lived, and so am I.

MONAAt first glance, the mostcited statistics on this don’t look great. Forty percent of all long-distance relationships end in breakups, and on average those relationships last just four and a half months. But those numbers come from a site with no author and no sources (they’re simply credited to Gregory Guldner, and I haven’t been able to reach him to ask how he found them). So I’ve done some extra research of my own, and despite the abundant pessimism you might read online, it seems your relationship wasn’t necessarily doomed to fail.

In the first three months, long-distance relationships are no more likely to break up than those where the couple live close to each other, according to a 2005 study of 162 college students at Central Michigan University. That’s a kind of important finding given that as many as 75 percent of American students report having a long-distance relationship (LDR) at some point during college.

But three months isn’t very long, and 162 college students isn’t very many, right? To get a bigger study, I needed to look a lot further afield — to a dissertation written in Germany in 2010. After putting out a nationwide news release, Fanny V. Jimenez, then a fellow at Humboldt University of Berlin, found 971 participants in long-distance relationships and 278 participants in proximate relationships (PRs). Jimenez found that for LDRs, the average relationship length was 2.9 years (the standard deviation — one way to measure how much variance there is in the data — was 3.2 years). For PRs, the average relationship was more than twice as long, 7.3 years (the standard deviation was larger, too, though, at 7.5 years).

Which doesn’t sound like good news for couples who are long-distance and want to stay together. Except that those averages are pretty basic. They don’t factor in things like age or marital status, which could have a big effect on the average length of a relationship.

Long-distance relationships are different from proximate relationships, though — and there’s lots of research about how and why that is.

In 2014, the Census Bureau recorded 3.5 million Americans age 15 and over who said they were married but their spouse was absent (that’s 3 percent of all married Americans). Of course, married couples who live apart are just one type of LDR — but couples who are same-sex or unmarried like you and your (ex-)girlfriend, Alex, often don’t get counted in national statistics like these.

All kinds of couples are in LDRs — migratory partners, commuters, military members and college couples, to name just a few. They’re likely to be different from one another in ways that could affect length of relationship, but one thing they do appear to have in common is commitment.

Several studies have found that LDRs exhibit greater stability than proximate relationships. Andrew Merolla, an associate professor of communication theory at Baldwin Wallace University, has attempted to unpack that apparent paradox. According to Merolla, one theory is that if you’re going to decide to stay together while living apart, you’re already likely to be in a stronger relationship — in that sense, you’re sort of comparing apples to oranges when you compare LDRs and PRs.

Another explanation is idealization. Like a lot of theories in psychology, idealization is kind of what it sounds like — it’s when someone attributes unrealistically positive traits to an individual.

Most couples do it. As Merolla puts it, “the complexity of anyone is overwhelming,” and when you simplify someone, you’re more likely to do it in a positive way if you love them. But people in LDRs exhibit more idealization than those in PRs, according to a 2007 study by Merolla and Laura Stafford. In a way, that’s kind of easy to explain — fewer things can disrupt the idealization since you don’t have to deal with daily irritations like sharing chores or hanging out with your partner’s friends.

Here’s the snag, though: A 2006 study by Merolla, Stafford and Janessa Castle found that some long-distance relationships might be better off staying long-distance. The researchers looked at 335 undergraduates who were in LDRs, 180 of whom ended up becoming geographically close to their partners. They found that among reunited relationships, a third ended within three months. The reasons exes gave included a loss of autonomy, heightened conflict and jealousy as well as new negative information about their partners (i.e., a disruption to all that romantic idealization).

I don’t know whether you and your girlfriend broke up after a reunion. But I do know that with three-quarters of college students being in an LDR at some point, and with lots to idealize, I’m sure you’re not alone in breaking up.

Hope the numbers help,

Mona

Have a question you would like answered here? Send it to @MonaChalabi or dearmona@fivethirtyeight.com.

Mona Chalabi is data editor at the Guardian US, and a columnist at New York Magazine. She was previously a lead news writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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