Long distance relationships have negative psychological effects

By Kayla Overbey

Friday, April 27, 2012

University of Kansas sophomore Ryan Xiao recalls sitting back in his apartment after a long day of research. He relaxed by talking to his girlfriend about her day, listening as she told stories about her work as a server in a retirement community. After an hour or so they said goodnight. Xiao logged out of Skype and shut down his computer, crawling into bed 1,028 miles away from his significant other.

During the summer of 2011, Xiao lived in Washington, D.C., doing research for the National Institutes of Health Summer Research Program while his girlfriend stayed with her family in Lincoln, Neb., working a summer job and taking classes through the local university. For approximately three months, his relationship was labeled “long distance.”

“It was really rough. It was frustrating, being that far away from her,” Xiao said. “I’m just glad we’re together now and that time is done.”

According to www.statisticbrain.com, Xiao was only one of 14 million couples who claim they are in a long distance relationship. What Xiao and other couples in long distance relationships may not know is that the strain of being so far from a loved one can produce negative psychological effects, such as depression, heightened anxiety, and loneliness.

Common Problems

Oregon State University licensed marriage and family therapist Kathleen Schiltz said that the negative perception of long distance relationships has probably developed from harmful emotions.

“I think it probably brings up fears in people because of the difficulty and the emotions that can come up around being separated from your partner and your support,” Schiltz said. “You can experience stress, loss of focus, sadness, loneliness. Those are all things that can lead to bigger issues over the long run, like depression or anxiety.”

Schiltz said that feelings of stress can be higher for students, who have the added responsibilities of classes. Although Xiao said he doesn’t feel any lasting negative emotions from his time in a long distance relationship, he does remember the pessimistic attitude he sometimes felt.

“It was hard for me to be so far away and see her so infrequently. I didn’t know what she was doing,” Xiao said.

Xiao said that although he attempted to Skype his girlfriend every day, it wasn’t enough. They saw each other only twice—once over the fourth of July weekend when he flew to Lincoln and once when his girlfriend flew to Washington. Xiao said that the expenses initially bothered him, but were worth it.

“Plane tickets were around $400 per round trip,” Xiao said.

Coincidentally, Schiltz said that expenses, such as the cost of plane tickets, gas and phone bills, are one of the most common complaints in long distance relationships. Conflict, jealousy and loneliness are also common problems.

“I think it’s important to have a real solid sense of yourself and your self-worth, so you can stand through some of that,” Schiltz said.

Most couples expect their long distance relationships to be short term, lasting an average maximum of 14 months according to www.statisticbrain.com. However, some couples find themselves distanced from each other for much longer, just as Zach Rose of Metamora, Ill., and Kristen Adams of Bloomington, Ill., have for the entire two year and eight month span of their relationship.

For almost three years, Rose and Adams have lived roughly an hour apart, traveling to see each other only on the weekends. Their separation began during high school.

“When we started dating, we were from different high schools and different counties,” Adams explained. Their time together was not frequent.  “I had dance practice as much as he had football. The time schedule of only seeing each other for maybe four hours a week was the hardest.”

Making it count

Now Adams attends Heartland Community College in Normal, Ill., and Rose attends Illinois Central College in East Peoria, Ill. With extracurricular activities and busy college schedules, they can go weeks without seeing each other.

“It’s that downtime in between seeing each other that can be the hardest, but we make it work,” Rose said. They spend that “downtime” by taking advantage of technology—Skyping, talking on the phone, texting and using the iPhone app FaceTime.

“Name it, we have done it,” Rose joked. Both Rose and Adams said they work extremely hard to maintain their relationship, especially when it comes to quality time. They dedicate time to one another by avoiding their phones when they’re together to keep their relationship lively.

However, Rose and Adams have their fair share of long distance relationship problems as well. Rose and Adams both resent the constant planning for time together and absence of daily interaction.

Schiltz said that “proximity influences similarity,” and a lack of daily interaction with someone can increase unfamiliarity, which distances couples over time.

“Even something as simple as a haircut can be a reminder of what you’re missing out on,” Schiltz explained.

But Adams and Rose both agree that despite multiple setbacks and missing out on day-to-day intimacy, their long distance relationship is worth it.

“It sure would be nice to go see her in the spur of the moment,” Rose said. “But whenever I see her after a while, it’s almost like the first time seeing her. It is amazing.”

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