Why long-distance relationships suck

Aw man, I can feel a rant coming on.  Here’s one comment/letter from a reader:

Speaking of long distance! We met on FB after many years apart, and live in different states. What about if there is loving romantic communication, and you respond in kind, in addition to calls… However, when it comes to positive communication, we do not talk often enough (for me) so the postive gaps get filled in some times w/email and text and (dare I say) messages on FB (but not on the wall). We also have had a lot of fun s/exting…as our physical relationship is also long distance, and there can be an emotional component to turning each other on via text also. Bottom line, I wish it was more intimate, more calls, more often…I just told him this, and he has been more attentive since the conversation. — Deb from a Distance

And here’s another comment from my college blog Enter to Grow in Wisdom on a post about long distance relationships being a bad idea:

First of all, not everybody who’s in a long-distance relationship through college breaks up. Just because you haven’t personally seen anybody make it doesn’t mean nobody does. That’s a pretty irrational attitude to take: “I haven’t seen this happen; therefore it CANNOT happen.” I’ve met and heard of plenty of people who’ve gotten married after long-distance relationships… — Miriam from Chicago

Sometimes I feel like the climate scientist who’s trying to tell the world about the ravages of global warming and someone gets up and says, “But it was cold in Milwaukee today, so there can’t possibly be global warming.”

So let me put this as clearly as possible, once and for all:

A long-distance relationship is no relationship at all.

I can hear the howls of protest already.  How can you say that, you’re over-generalizing, you don’t know our relationship, you don’t know what you’re talking about, etc etc.

Yeah, yeah.  Heard it all.  So let’s break it down from the top.

1. Human evolution didn’t really accommodate long-distance relationships.

One way to look at who you are today is as a product of 3 million years of evolution.  All of your design features and behaviors are molded by evolution, in the same way that the Grand Canyon’s molded by wind, water and sand.  The goal of all of this is to perpetuate the species — or, in an even more reductionistic take a la Richard Dawkins, to perpetuate your genes.

Back in the days of the savannah, there was no email.  There was also no texting, sexting, Skype or phones.  Come to think of it, there was no mail service to deliver letters.  Or pens.  Or even written language.

In other words, the mere possibility of any kind of long-distance relationship has only existed for about 10,000 years at best.  And maybe for the past 100 years we’ve had reliable means of long-distance communication.  For the remaining 2.99 million years of human evolution, relationship was based on communication in proximity: the smell, sound, look, feel and touch and taste of your mate.  And even though we live in modern times, those ancient systems still rule the courtship process.

Sure, it’s nice to have a pen pal or a confidante even far away.  Or a harbor in some faraway port that would welcome your visit.  However, a real human relationship occurs at distances where your mirror neurons engage and you can establish a psychophysiological circuit with another human being.  Otherwise, you’ve just got a menu, not the food.

2. You never get to really know your partner in a long-distance relationship.

The real substance of intimacy is regular, day-to-day interaction.  That’s when you find out that he squeezes the toothpaste tube from the middle, she leaves the bathroom a mess, he lets the rubbish bin overfill — and you love each other in spite of it all.  If you’re in a long-distance relationship, every time you see each other is like Christmas.  You don’t have a chance to get bored by each other or find out about your incompatible movie preferences because you’re too busy making googly eyes at each other and having hot sex.

So you never really get to know each other.  And when you do end up living in the same town (or apartment), you start finding out some interesting new facts about one another — e.g. he’s married, she’s an escort, etc.  See the excerpt below from The Tao of Dating for Women.

But of course, there’s more: you’ll spend a lot of Friday nights being lonely and frustrated and secretly blame your partner for it; you’ll be turning down a lot of offers from great guys and gals interested in you because you’re ‘taken’; and other stuff that I’ve covered mostly in the excerpt below:

Long-distance relationships: a brief, biased rant

Let’s say you meet a fantastic guy on a vacation trip.  You spend several days together, and generally have a wonderful time.  In fact, you get along so well that you decide to continue seeing each other after the trip.  There’s only one issue: he lives in Austin; you live in Los Angeles.  Should you continue seeing him or not?

Here’s my stance on long-distance relationships: more often than not, they are a setup for disappointment and heartbreak.  A long-distance relationship could work out – ‘working out’ meaning that it brings both partners tons of fulfillment over the long-term and maybe ends up in something like marriage.  However, it’s not likely that it will work out.  Now my job is to help you find long-term fulfillment – not quick fixes, not the entertainment of your whim, or any kind of longshot that’s over 90% likely to bring you more pain than joy.  And the rare long-distance relationship that does work out is the exception that proves the rule.

Here’s why.  Let’s go back to the idea of fulfillment-centered dating.  Fulfillment is a feeling, not a person. And there are many, many persons who could provide that feeling of fulfillment – just as there are several different kinds of food that could fill you without all of them having to be Cherry Garcia ice cream.

Fulfillment is having someone to catch a movie with on a Friday night, someone to dress up with to the opera and snuggle with afterwards, someone to share brunch with on a Sunday morning.  For the most part, someone who lives more than 200 miles away from you cannot provide you with those fulfillment feelings, simply due to geographical constraints.

Before we go any further, let me define what I mean by a long-distance relationship.  You are in a long-distance relationship if the physical distance or scheduling challenges between you and your partner preclude spontaneity and you can see each other less than once a week.  90 miles of distance between you will do that, as well as exceptionally busy schedules.  In fact, you may already be in a long-distance relationship with someone in your own city and not know it.

Now let’s explore what would happen if, say, you started to date seriously (whatever that means to you) a man who lives more than 200 miles away.  First, chances are you would see each other relatively infrequently – two or three times a month.  This means that every time you do see each other, it’s just like Christmas!  You are thrilled to see one another, and it’s a highlight reel of fun times.

As great as this sounds, it does not allow for the natural, everyday dynamic between you to develop – the way you would interact if, say, you were married and saw each other on a daily basis.  So even though you’re having a lot of fun, you effectively know nothing about one another in a domestic arrangement where you see each other regularly.

Second, no man is an island – they all come with their buddies and cronies, as do you.  To assess accurately whether you and a given man get along, you need to see him in his natural habitat (and vice versa).  In the perpetual first date that is most long-distance relationships, you’ll never find out that his friends annoy you to no end and frankly smell funny.  Or that his mother hates you.  These are useful things to know before getting deeply involved with anyone.

Third, an unconscious undercurrent of resentment will develop regardless of how well you get along because of the sheer effort involved in seeing each other.  Why couldn’t he be closer?  If he loves me so much, why can’t he just move here?  If you don’t ask that question yourself, your friends will, and they will also resent the fact that he’s the cause of your being away for long stretches of time.  Moreover, he will probably be having similar thoughts.

That said, there are circumstances under which a long-distance relationship could work out.  In my observation, two criteria need to be fulfilled.  First, there needs to be a definite deadline by which you have both agreed to live in the same town.  Second, you both know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you will be together for the long term when you do make the move.  In other words, you’re already engaged or close to it.

If you’re in doubt and still wondering what course of action to take, err on the side of caution.  A man who loves you enough will offer to move to your city.  And when he does, if you truly love him, you will ask him to get his own apartment, since that gives the relationship the best chance of success.

Let’s examine two case studies, one in which a long-distance relationship worked and another in which it did not.  Perhaps you can spot elements in each story that contributed to the success or demise of the relationship.

Case 1: Hillary and Tom.

Hillary and Tom met through Howard, a mutual friend.  Tom was Howard’s best friend in college, and Hillary had worked with Howard for several months.  Howard knew both of them well and thought they would make a good match, both being highly educated, intelligent, level-headed individuals on successful career tracks.  Although both Tom and Hillary had many interests and were lots of fun to be around, neither was the partying type.  Both came from stable family backgrounds where the parents were married for over 30 years.  Tom was 27 and Hillary was 25 when they met.

On their first dates, Tom and Hillary hit it off.  At the time, they both lived in Boston.  After a year of dating, they were engaged to marry.  However, Tom was to leave for the Bay Area in a few months.  They decided to stay together even though Tom was moving to the opposite coast, 2600 miles away.  Hillary knew she would be done with graduate school in a year and a half, at which point she would get a job in the Bay Area.

Tom and Hillary actually got married before Tom’s departure.  And I’m thrilled to say that ten years hence, they are still happily married and just had their first child.

Case 2: Kristina and Jeff.

Kristina was a beautiful 37-year old Hungarian émigré who had lived in Los Angeles for 4 years.  She moved to Los Angeles after her divorce and decided to start over.  Being independent, driven and adventurous, she decided to start her dream business, and after two years of challenges, the business was starting to grow.

At this time, encouraged by a friend, she decided to attend an expensive 5-day motivational seminar in San Francisco to get her life on track and accelerate her success.  At the seminar, she met Jeff, a dashing, independently wealthy American who lived in San Francisco.  The seminar was emotionally and physically intense, and they spent almost all their time there together.

After the seminar, they continued seeing each other, sometimes Jeff coming down to LA, other times Kristina flying up to San Francisco.  Every time, Jeff would suggest that Kristina leave LA behind and move to San Francisco to live with him.  Kristina was wary of abandoning her business, but he told her not to worry – he had plenty of money and was happy to provide for both of them until she found her footing.  It seemed like an ideal arrangement.  After a few months, Kristina, with some reservations but feeling adventurous and optimistic, gave in to Jeff’s blandishments and moved to San Francisco.

It took about two weeks of living together to make both Kristina and Jeff realize that this arrangement was not going to work.  They had never lived together in close quarters, and under the pressure of constant daily contact, the magic in their relationship faded.  Towards the end, Kristina felt as if she did not know Jeff very well at all.  Additionally, independent Kristina did not enjoy being unemployed, dependent and effectively at the mercy of someone else financially.  She moved back to Los Angeles, emotionally exhausted and a little disappointed in herself, but glad that she had extricated herself from a bad situation.  She only wished that she had not gotten in that situation in the first place.

These are two real examples of what can happen in a long-distance relationship, and perhaps two extremes of the spectrum.  All the same, you can recognize the indicators of potential success and failure of a given long-distance relationship from the way the players and stage are set.  Generally speaking, a high-risk scenario is fun in the short term and painful in the long term.  A low-risk scenario may be less fun in the short term but a better setup for long-term fulfillment.

22 Comments on “Why long-distance relationships suck”

  1. Luca

    Dear Alex,
    thanks for your post.

    For similar reasons you stated at the end of the article, do you reckon a low-risk scenario would be when a couple has been together, and close, for months (or years) before a logistical split, planning to get close again as soon as possible?


    1. Ali Binazir MD MPhil Post author

      Yes, that would be a lower-risk scenario. As long as there is a definite return date and you already have something established (i.e. no surprises), then I’ve observed that chances of success are higher.

  2. Dezso

    My first long distance relationship didn’t work out, because I got frustrated, and broke up. After a while it gets too uncertain, and it is too hard to trust anybody who you do not see on a daily basis. Even if you think you know somebody, only in extreme conditions do they show their true selves.

    1. Jem

      I only value long distance relationships as an imaginary relationship. If a person thinks a long distance relationship is getting close to someone I would say that person is non committal and self centered. I’ll pass on that every time.

  3. Laura Bush

    Thank goodness somebody (YOU) finally said all this! Now I really get why I haven’t ever wanted to do this long distance dating thing myself and why getting into a long distance phone relationship (even though we had known each other in person for a time) ended up very badly. Just because technology can connect men and women at a distance doesn’t mean we should. This is one long treacherous road I don’t plan to travel down ever again. Grateful for the WARNING sign that now just seems like a no-brainer for someone who considered herself to be smart (the ironies never end. . . )

  4. Irena

    It’s so true what you say about long distance relationships. And the evolutionary explanation makes all the sense. I personally hate emailing, texting and talking on the phone. For me technology is just for tranfering data nothing else. It’s difficult even to maintain a long distance friendship let alone a romantic relationship.

  5. NN

    I know 2 long distance relationships in my surroundings – both worked.

    First was my sister, whose long time, live in boyfriend from highschool went to London to work for 4 years after university. My sister followed him after a year, and she came back half a year before he did, to arrange their marriage.
    They are married, and have 2 children.

    Other case was my friend who went to Great Britain to meet those people whom she had played World of Warcraft. While there she met this man who also played WOW. He had a girlfriend with whom it evidently hadn’t worked. He broke off from that relationship, he flew to Finland 2000 km every month, and after 8 months, he moved here (and to her place) after the recession started and he lost his job in GB. No, he doesn’t know any finnish – which means it is hard for him to get work here, but she has a job. They have been together and now got married last summer after being together 4 years.
    They just like one and other, and problems they have they seem to be able to solve and they respect one and other..

    For what I have seen, distance is just an excuse. If Both people are not willing to change their life, nor respect each others choices – _then_ it will be a problem.

    When there is a will, there is a way.
    Most people are just not up to it – therefore you have it right. Long distance doesn’t work, when you think it doesn’t.

  6. NN

    ps. And yes, the recession in his work started earlier, so it was no suprise to him that the world followed afterwards. I can remember he talked about the signs at that time when that business where he worked went bust.

  7. Annabella

    I like his post a lot. I wonder what your thoughts are on a couple that has been dating in the same city, living separately- moving to another city and living together.
    What has been your experience with the success of this scenario?
    Thanks and as always…You rock!

    1. Ali Binazir MD MPhil Post author

      Just ’cause it’s not in Chinese doesn’t mean it ain’t got Tao, Lori. The Tao is all about noticing when you’re forcing things, then letting go and let a more natural, struggle-free course of events take over. It’s about allowing, as opposed to finagling, cajoling and shoehorning. Most long-distance relationships involve a lot of shoehorning and wishful thinking, which is un-Tao. Real companionship happens at close range, and you don’t need Lao Tzu to tell you that.

  8. J

    I appreciate your thought out ideas on this and have read them in your book. I simply wish you would focus more on principles to operate within should a person choose to attempt a long-distance relationship. For instance, in your book you discuss one person moving after a predetermined point in time.

    Despite the millions of people on earth, some women simply choose to remain open to local and non-local people. I think you can serve them best by sharing tips on increasing a long-distance relationship’s chances of success vs focusing on steadfast, inflexible, opinions on why they don’t work. You will always find women who are supporters of both sides, so why not stay consistent with trying to offer helpful tips in the event that Mr. Long Distance happens to be Mr. Right? You can still even offer your disclaimer that you don’t personally condone LD relationships :)

    Personally, I’m in a long-distance situation (it’s been almost 7 months). I admit that it is unique in that we speak by phone multiple times each day and try to visit each other every 1 to 2.5 mos for at least 3-5 days at a time when possible. But I realize that this is uncommon. I would submit that a long-distance couple must commit to visiting for extended periods of time on a regular basis and, at an appropriate time, openly discuss what time limit they each have in mind for transitioning from a long-distance relationship to one where both live in the same place. I would also suggest being liberal about demands being placed on strict monogamy (except intimacy if preferred). This is something in my relationship that we tread lightly. I have met other men & dated at least one other person locally and I’m sure he has met women his respective city, but we have grown to prioritize the consistent communication and accountability to each other by choice and this has naturally evolved. We have maintained a ‘let things flow’ attitude that works for us and I feel is most practical. Sure, at times we each may feel a bit jealous if there is a suspect disruption in our communication pattern, but this can happen in a local arrangement as well. Currently, we are working to build what we have and aspire to transition to being in the same place within 1 year from now. But we are keenly clear that there is always a chance that things won’t work out because life happens.

    Ultimately, I feel that although long-distance relationships are not ideal, they can work, but certain elements such as daily or otherwise very frequent phone communication (text only won’t suffice), regular visitation for extended periods, time limits on when someone will move, and most importantly a realistic attitude are necessary to have the best chance at success. Anything less than this, each person should consider the other a placeholder and remain open to local romantic interests until a decision is made to take things more seriously.


  9. Katie

    I would submit that long-distance relationships only work when the couple has been in a relationship before the long-distance move. If not, then you have no way to tell who a person is! You can’t get to know their friends, family, and you can’t see them in stressful situations. They could be anyone! They could have other relationships or deal drugs and you would never have any way to know. It’s irresponsible and dangerous, honestly.

    1. Julie

      My soon to be ex husband met a woman while they were both working out of state (from opposite coasts) in the same city. He told her he had kids from a previous relationship and lived alone. All while telling me he missed me and couldn’t wait to get home, I love you, goodnight baby, all those usual things. She was in a long distance relationship with him for months before I found out who she was and told her the truth. They had met up a few times for happy fun touristy long weekends and skyped a lot and this was their “relationship”. Then he lied to her astoundingly about how our marriage had been over for a long time, he wasn’t happy, it was a sexless marriage. It was a very sexually active and enthusiastic physical relationship in our marriage, and we were not fighting or distant. He was a messed up human being inside who was a very good actor. My therapist (I got one, after all this) told me “It doesn’t take a broken marriage to have an affair. It just takes one broken person.” So true. He had been binge drinking on work trips too and I never knew. He hadn’t been paying bills from his accounts he told me were being paid. He was a mess across the board. But the kicker is, she believed his lies long distance and got back together with him. All while he was still lying to her about various things. But that’s just it… she so badly wanted to believe in the fantasy of who he was that she refused to see that long distance meant she could never really know him and see what was going on in real life. Meanwhile, I saw the truth come out and kept seeing it because our relationship wasn’t escapism over long weekends, where it’s easy to put your best foot forward all week and then for an hour of skype here and there. They eventually broke up but she still thinks she had some great love with him and even said nobody knows him like she does. After seeing what long distance looked like that way, how easily it all was hidden whereas I discovered his behavior within two weeks of it starting, I would never advise it to anybody. He had a breakdown in life and the affair was only part of it. He messed up his friends, family, work, and finances at the same time too. So it wasn’t personal just an issue or him and me, and he had kept his life well before all this. Of course long distance can be done. People have made it. But it’s too much fantasy and vacation for so much longer than normally dating somebody would be. Or than seeing a sudden change in a married partner or dating partner locally would likely be.

  10. Matt

    long distance is not a bad idea, and they do not suck. My two best friends got married last year and they were long distance for 3 years. I myself got introduced to online dating thanks to them and i met my fiancee online and we’ve been dating for 4 years, its rare and its hard but it works.

  11. OnOurWay

    Two years I into a LD(R) at least 4 more to go. Who knows if it will work but I will say this, so far it feels pretty straightforward. The plan is to be together forever eventually but at the moment we have complicated lives (6 children between us,some of which are still at school, 4 nationalities , 2 languages). He has to fully recover from the demise of his long marriage, I have to learn a language. I think the fact that we are older helps (40s, and 50s), life is just a little less fraught and with fewer expectations/deadlines. We are steady characters (these days!), and we (or at less I, the female) don’t have so many options. Anyway it is very lovely and I am grateful for the friendship even if it is not a proper relationship …. yet! :-)

  12. Polly Owens

    Whoa, stop right there. I must point out your faulty logic in using human evolution as a reason. Sure–being together physically in a relationship is ideal and feels great. However, as evolved and reasoning beings in a highly technological age where we relate to each other in unprecedented ways (cough, cough, marriage), we’re perfectly capable of further developing and maintaining relationships apart.

    If you’re going to use evolution as an argument, why not speak out against monogamy and marriage, too? Those run counter to the male biological drive, don’t they? Why aren’t we murdering one another for extra food, running amok, naked?

    You’re right though–those that choose to go the distance typically must start on a solid foundation together before moving apart instead of beginning that way.

  13. Helena

    Dr. Ali,

    I’m a girl in transition — I’m relocating to my college town because my company opened an office there, but I’m also applying to grad school in the same state but in other cities more than 90 miles away. How does a girl like me find real love if a long-distance relationship and hooking up is not an option?

  14. B.

    I have done an LDR once for 8 months and would never do it again. It’s very true that, unless you previously dated the person before becoming long distance, you don’t know who they really are at all. I only saw my partner one or twice a month for 2 to 3 days at a time. What kind of relationship is that? The relationships was sustained via texts and phone calls (let’s face it, words don’t mean much). The only reason it lasted 8 months is because he kept promising to move to be with me (a plan he backed out of just before he was to move, thankfully). By the end of that relationship I realized I had no clue who this guy really was and that I had merely projected my own idea of him onto him. I would not recommend anyone waste their time on long distance unless there truly is the possibility you’ll be living in the same city within a few months of meeting so that you can really start to get to know one another.

  15. Bree

    Truth be told, LDRs suck most times. So I met this guy and we clicked immediately. We lived in the same city, same block…unfortunately for us something happened and I had to move away. He also left that city because of his job to a farther city. So we were like 450km apart. We tried to make it work- calls, text, monthly visits, etc. However, this really just got boring fast…he started calling and texting less. Well, on my birthday he came around got me cake and a gift and we haven’t spoken since then.it was a disaster waiting to happen. We really did love each other at a certain point.

  16. Marcy

    My 16 year long marriage was born online, states apart. We saw each other every couple of months for days until I moved to be with him and talked obsessively, both sacrificing countless relationships with people who were available locally. Was it worth it? In a way, yes! We have two children and built a relatively stable, often happy, in person life together that has lasted longer than many traditional marriages. But I would likely never do it again.

    Here’s the thing, we DID know each other via phone and text(we didn’t even have video calling then). And we WERE geniunely compatiable in the ways we experienced. BUT, even after confirming what appeared to be our compatiblity(in person), in the truth our long distance relationship was still 90% fantasy. Long distance relationships allow you to over idealize positive traits for an extended period of time while grossly undervaluing negative traits. The intensity of the sex once you finally see each other, coupled with the future planning, almost guarantees it.

    Our outcome: Sex was intensely magical at a distance, but soon became detached and uncompromising once we saw each other regulary. Sunk cost began playing their part: I’d invested so much in such a high risk relationship(moving states, transferring schools, convincing everyone who knew it was wrong that it was right) that I would not let go. We married and began moving towards a sexless marriage in my late 20s. Now in my mid 30s, we have neither kissed nor had sex for years.

    The excellent “communication” I believed that we were building up to in our long distance relationship was also overblown. You have no idea what someone is doing while it appears that they are deeply engaged in a chat with you. While imagined him laying on his bed oogling his laptop screen in anticipation of my messages, my husband was undoubtedly playing videogames the vast majority of the time we were chatting. This became apparent when we moved in together and I realized that he struggled to look at me during conversations or have any serious face-to-face interactions with me at all. In fact, this was one of the greatest downfalls in our marriage. My husband is a gamer and much prefer spending large portions of his free time engaging online friends(hello!). This did not change when I moved and is an enormous incompatibility that I downplayed. Playing video games alone is more fun than talking in person(which he hates), or playing with our children(which he dislikes), or even having sex. He also prefers exceptional amounts of emotional distance(hello!), evident in seeking a long distance relationship.

    I have come to believe that people who use placeholder/long distance relationships are signaling that they are emotionally unavailable and likely to be relationally incompetent in very significant ways. For all the reasons and excuses we made for our online”relationship”, the truth is, we were using each other to prevent the development of potentially loving dynamics with compatible partners close to home. We were not prepared to commit to doing what was necessary to create a truly healthy dynamic and that’s why we were chatting online, closing close doors in the first place.

    **I suspect online lovers rate high in insecure/fearful-avoidant attachment as there’s a perception of exceptional intimacy(anxious) coupled with distance as a barrier to actual intimacy(avoidance).

    1. Ali Binazir MD MPhil Post author

      Excellent firsthand account of the pitfalls of long-distance relationships. Thanks for your contribution!