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The Upside of Longing

There's at least one benefit to long-distance relationships.
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(Photo: Daniel Stolle)

(Photo: Daniel Stolle)

One month into our relationship, Joel told me his family’s creation myth. We were on the phone, as was our routine: me in bed, fighting off late-night yawns, him pacing the steep streets of his neighborhood three time zones away, seeking cell service.

Joel told me that his grandparents had met in 1939, in a London boarding house. Their families, both Jewish, had recently fled Germany and Austria in varying states of devastation. Instantly infatuated, the teenagers shared a whirlwind four months before Joel’s grandfather emigrated to the U.S., enlisted in the military, and returned to Europe to clear minefields. They went on to write each other letters—clever, flirtatious, angry, loving, longing letters—every day for five years, until the war ended and they were reunited in New York.

This was a serious love story to relay so early in a relationship, but Joel and I were in the habit of serious conversations. Only weeks after meeting at a mutual friend’s New Year’s party in San Francisco, where Joel lives and where I was visiting from Washington, D.C., we were keeping Post-it Note lists of topics to cover. An early note of mine reads, “High school/childhood; middle name?; Bruce; LOTR.” I remember being delighted to learn that Joel was a Springsteen fan, and disappointed that he’d never finished The Lord of the Rings.

A 2007 study by the communications theorists Laura Stafford and Andy J. Merolla found that the long-distance couples who idealized each other the most were the least stable upon reunion.

By the time he came to visit in February, I felt as if I’d known him for years.

Much about this relationship has been fantastical, but that feeling was not. In June, researchers at Cornell and the City University of Hong Kong published a paper showing that long-distance couples feel greater intimacy than those who live in the same place. They found that members of these couples reveal more about themselves, and perceive their partners to be more revealing as well.

This is a form of “idealization,” or the tendency to view your partner and your relationship in an unrealistically positive light. It is a hallmark of long-distance relationships, a reason why many geographically remote partners feel more connected to each other than those who wake up in the same bed do. This effect is likely familiar to the three million married Americans and up to one-half of American college students who are currently geographically separated from their partners. Given these numbers, it’s also worth noting the flip side of idealization, which is that it contributes to making long-distance couples more likely, whenever they do manage to align their geographic trajectories, to break up.

I’m acutely aware of this risk, which Joel and I talk about constantly. We worry about the way that our nightly conversations encourage us to curate our lives for each other. We trot out the funniest parts of our days and the most fascinating things we’ve read, neglecting the errands and the irritation and the drudgery. Psychologists call this dynamic “selective self-presentation.” On uninspired days, it can feel like performance.

Recently, contemplating a move to San Francisco, I’ve become more conscious of our dearth of “everyday talk,” or the little routine interactions that, according to Karen Tracy, a communications professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder, are “the basic ingredients for building and maintaining relationships.” While I wouldn’t want to give up our rambling conversations, they are of little use when one of us is assembling Ikea furniture or going to a dinner party alone.

A 2007 study by the communications theorists Laura Stafford and Andy J. Merolla found that the long-distance couples who idealized each other the most were the least stable upon reunion. But since a certain amount of bullishness is helpful for any relationship, especially a long-distance one, the researchers settled on a Goldilocks principle of idealization: not too little, not too much.

I met Joel’s grandparents this summer, in Ithaca, where they now live. At 92 and 93 they are still visibly in love. I imagined each of them gritting through five years of war and grief alone, writing letters every day. They must have idealized each other then, and I suspect they still do.

While pragmatism has its merits, I can’t help but want that for Joel and me—to find each other extraordinary enough to defy geography.

This post originally appeared in the March/April 2014 issue of Pacific Standard as “The Upside of Longing.” For more, subscribe to our print magazine.