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Surviving the LDR (Long-Distance Relationship)

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Most of us have been through one -- a long-distance relationship. The question is: Can it ever really work?

man and woman on phones

Dr. Wendy Walsh: Far from being a new convention, the LDR has exploded in numbers thanks to Internet dating and our capitalistic pressure to chase money and jobs around the country, and indeed the globe. But can it ever really work? Can long-distance love eventually become a cozy same-city nest? Can a stay-at-home relationship survive a stint abroad? And how does parental separation affect kids?

The answer is a bit complicated. In general, the very dynamics that create and sustain a long-distance relationship are different from those of a consistent stay-at-home relationship. LDRs are marked by plenty of autonomous alone time and peppered with a series of "honeymoons" in various hook-up cities. Stay-at-home love is more often about the daily work of love and life. And the players tend to be different. If you've read some of my past articles about the psychological theory called "Attachment Theory," you've probably guessed already that emotionally avoidant individuals might really dig an LDR, while more anxious or preoccupied folks like to have a shorter tether.

So, the big question I get asked a lot is: What do you do if one morphs into the other? And how can you make an LDR come home to roost? My advice: Be prepared for plenty of conflict. All change is painful. Emotional change has its own particular brand of sting. But emotional change, when it brings self-awareness and/or a new level of compassion, is ultimately good.

First, consider this: We all make silent contracts in every relationship. For instance, all my girlfriends know without me having to say it that they'll be rescheduled on my calendar if a work obligation comes up. And, most of them also have signed on with their blessings that a great guy comes first. Girlfriends are a supportive bunch and, above all, we want happiness for each other. We've never discussed this, but I know it's true. It has played out in the past.

And what might be in the silent contract of romantic love? Usually it's about the amount of contact, the kind of contact (e-mail, voice, face-to-face), and the content of the contact. Some partners can handle, and even crave, a lot of honest, authentic talk about feelings, and many, many others would prefer to have a root canal.

In the long-distance love contract, the clauses about contact are very easy to adhere to. If one partner prefers less contact, he or she becomes literally unavailable, on a different time zone, with phones turned off. Period. You can't argue with that kind of communication boundary. In stay-at-home love, it's a little harder to duck and cover. There he is, walking in the door, ready for love and the F-word (feelings). If a long-distance relationship is filled with strict communication boundaries, the shift to a day-to-day relationship may be extremely challenging.

And what about a stay-at-home relationship that is about to undergo a transition that involves distance? Let's start with the effect on children. I happen to have been raised in a Navy family, and my beloved daddy was gone for nearly six months every year. I won't begin to tell you about all the money I have spent in therapy and the adult tears I have shed over this childhood loss. Kids don't care what reason takes parents away, be it a job, divorce, or even death. The emotional impact is the same.

On the romantic front, separation changes environmental stimuli. And environment affects our perception of ourselves and our partner. For instance, let's say you live in a small town, and your guy is one of the best looking, smartest dudes on Main Street. Then your job takes you to New York. While you may have firm plans for your boyfriend or husband to follow you out within a year, something happens that you were unprepared for. Suddenly your guy looks like chump change beside the crowds of hunky capitalists on Wall Street. Or, he takes a semester in London and finds that a Kate Moss clone with a comely accent is more attractive than his high school sweetheart. Take a deep breath, people. I'm not saying that all relationships are so superficial. But many are.

And that's my point. How do you avoid becoming superficial? By getting below the surface. Yes, I'm back on Dr. Walsh's soapbox. The real glue of every relationship, both LDRs and the stay-at-home kind, is the degree of emotional attachment. When we have compassion for our partners, when we trust that they have our back no matter what, when we really feel seen and loved, and when we can love our partners even with their vulnerabilities, we have the glue of real love. Real attachment. That will be the thing that weathers the storms of temptation, distance, and challenging communication. Trust. To trust and be trustworthy. Work on yourself and the world will line up in accordance with your ethics.

next: Invisible Me
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