I Asked a Therapist Why I Prefer Long-Distance Relationships
Am I just an independent spirit, or do I have some deep, subconscious anxiety around intimacy?
When I first started dating my boyfriend, we were long distance out of necessity. He lived in Germany, and I had an apartment in New York and no German residence permit, which means I couldn't be there for more than six months out of a year. Nine months into our relationship, I became location-independent and got a permit allowing me to stay permanently. I expected to move in with him, but after we spent a few months together in Germany, I realized I needed more time apart. I wanted to experience different parts of the world, and I loved having my own bed. Two and a half years into our relationship, I spend a few months of the year with him, and the rest of the time we’re long-distance by choice.
Even though I enjoy my time with my partner, I sometimes wonder if my reluctance to live near or with him means that I don’t really want to be in the relationship. Am I just an independent spirit, or do I have some deep, subconscious anxiety around intimacy?
Some therapists believe that preferring long-distance relationships could reflect a fear of commitment, a reluctance to share, or an ambivalence about one’s partner. “For those who are chronically in long-distance relationships, that lets me know as a therapist that you have some work to do around sharing your life with someone,” says Marissa Nelson, a marriage and family therapist based in Washington, DC, and the Bahamas. “If there are always excuses as to why you won’t take things to the next level, the larger problem could be that you may enjoy the structure of a long-distance relationship because you get to be intense for a short period of time, then you get to go back to being you.”
A preference for long-distance relationships could also mean someone is afraid they’ll lose themselves if they get close to their partners, literally and figuratively, says Amy McManus, a marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles.
That’s one reason Ashley Uzer, a 25-year-old writer and digital consultant in Washington, DC, liked being in an LDR. “I’m the type to get distracted by boys,” she tells me. “I also need to learn how to balance my life when I have a relationship better on my own, and let go of the idea that having a partner means you need to do everything together.”
Or, preferring an LDR may mean someone’s unwilling to work through problems in the relationship. “Sure, it’s easy to overlook that nasty habit of leaving the toothpaste globs in the sink if you only have to share a sink once a month,” McManus says. “I’m talking more about the kinds of big issues that would really need to be addressed in a relationship where you live together, or even in the same town—the scary amount of liquor they drink, the way they treat you in front of their friends, the way you put work before relationships, or the way you don’t agree on some important issues, for example.”
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Running away from these problems, though, can result in a person having to put up with demeaning behavior or could make them avoid working through their own shortcomings as partners, McManus says. Uzer noticed this very problem in her former relationship. “Him being far away let me push off some of the negative feelings I had about our relationship,” she says.
If someone doesn’t want to spent a significant amount of time with a romantic partner, McManus might also ask whether they fear vulnerability. “Where along the line did they get the message that relationships can’t be supportive and loving and rewarding?” she says. Many people have learned—from their parents or anyone else who was a big part of their formative years—that relationships are more negative than positive, more trouble than they’re worth. Still, deep down, even these people usually want deep connections with others, she tells me. It just doesn’t usually feel safe, she says.
But some experts see no issue with preferring long-distance relationships. “For some people, a long-distance relationship works better because it allows both people to remain autonomous and independent,” says Kryss Shane, a New York-based social worker who often works on issues regarding sex, gender, and relationships with her clients. “In addition, some prefer to plan time with their partner that can be put on a calendar, prepared for, and cherished.”
That’s one reason why, even after her last LDR ended, Uzer has "just happened" to keep dating people living three hours or more away from her. “That way I can do my own thing and nurture my own friendships but can go visit them and be all romantic when I want,” she says.
“I loved being able to basically have a vacation with my girlfriend—and then go back to my regular life,” says Michael Stusser, a journalist in Seattle. “I have always enjoyed time alone—and with loved ones—for short periods of time. I realized the long-distance scenario worked for me.”
“Long-distance relationships can benefit those who are introverted, particular about their space, or whose location is not something they are willing or able to change,” Shane says. While it’s possible for someone to take advantage of an LDR by becoming emotionally distant, with good communication and dedication to staying connected, this doesn’t have to happen.
“The number of couples who are happy but live separately is higher than one might assume given our society's dominant message that only one type of relationship works,” says Patrick Tully, a marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles, who has seen this with his clients. "Non-traditional relationships are extremely common, and it is my hope that society as a whole becomes more welcoming to different types of relationship dynamics. People can still love and care when living separately, and in fact, it's quite healthy to have space and time away from the partner in many relationships.”
The most important thing is that the arrangement is mutually agreed upon. For example, both people should agree on whether the relationship will be permanently long-distance or the partners will one day move near (or in with) each other. “The goal itself doesn't matter, as long as both partners in the LDR are clear in what the goal is and the goal is shared,” Shane says. “This ensures that both partners are working toward the same future and that there are no miscommunications or misunderstandings.”
How do you know, then, whether you’re avoiding intimacy or if your preferences simply fall outside society’s narrow prescription for relationships? A good question to ask yourself is whether you genuinely look forward to seeing your partner, McManus says. The biggest question, though, is why you prefer being in a long-distance relationship. Maybe it’s best for your careers, or maybe you both have full lives and strong communities in different places.
“If you are happy in both your life at home and in your relationship, and so is your partner, then it’s probably nobody else’s business that you have made the choice to live in different cities,” McManus says. “On the other hand, if visiting your partner seems like a chore, or if you have a long history of long-distance relationships, then those could be red flags."
If this resonates with you, then therapy might be a good way to look at your own personal patterns and what is keeping you from having a fulfilling relationship with someone who lives nearby. "I’ve had clients who come in to do just that," she says, "and they begin to understand things about themselves that help them grow and change and build relationships that are healthy and loving—and are in the same city.”
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