When people ask how my husband and I get through months spent on different continents, the conversation always turns to technology.
Just a generation ago, long-distance calls were rare and expensive. Today, a video call costs nothing, and it takes only seconds to connect. We can pop in on each other throughout the day, and supplement those calls with ongoing messaging conversations to share everything from little jokes to big feelings at a moment's notice.
It's almost as if we're in the same room much of the time.
Only we're not. And that's the challenge: Digital communication brings us a lot of connection, and it's probably the reason so many couples are attempting long-distance relationships these days. But the illusion of intimacy and physical presence isn't the same as actually being together. A shared virtual existence comes with speed bumps that couples may not always see coming.
Challenge: Lack of Cues
To communicate well, we need to see how others react to what we're saying, says George Loewenstein, a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University. "This kind of synchronicity of communication," he says, is very important and something romantic partners expect.
When communication with your partner happens over typed messaging, phone conversations and grainy video calls, and that vital information is lost, a partner can easily seem inattentive or out of sync.
And even on a particularly clear video call, which seems to offer us a chance to look directly into the room where someone is, there's a crucial piece missing: If you look at the other person's face while you're speaking, they see you looking slightly away from them. If you look into the camera to give them the sense that you're looking directly at them, then you're not really seeing their facial expression and picking up on small, nonverbal clues.
WHAT TO DO: Understand that you're missing this information, and discuss it.
Challenge: Invisible Changes
It's our instinct to assume that other people are a whole lot like us and to find ways that we're similar, says Cait Lamberton, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Pittsburgh, who studies online behavior and decision-making. "In relationships, it would actually be awkward to seek out ways you're different," she says. "When you talk, you seek out ways you're the same."
But when we share daily life with a partner in person, a fuller picture emerges: We notice differences because they pop up in front of us. And in long-term relationships, we notice our partner growing and being impacted by new experiences.
"In the online world, you have a much more impoverished set of clues," Lamberton says. "You're going to assume this person is going to remain the same as they've always been."
WHAT TO DO: Keep asking questions about daily experiences, Lamberton says, and check in about changes. And if you'll be making occasional visits to see each other in person, don't just stay in weekend vacation mode, says Galena Rhoades, associate professor of psychology at the University of Denver. Make sure you see your partner in various settings, like at work and with new friends, to know more about their daily life.
Challenge: Process Intrudes on Fun
Long-term couples, especially those raising a family and running a household together, have many different kinds of conversations on a given day. In the real world, we usually keep them reasonably separate: We don't talk about which groceries we need from the store while we're on a romantic Friday night date.
Even in close-proximity relationships, there are times when "those different kinds of talk get kind of mixed up together," Rhoades says. But the problem is more common when you're communications are limited by miles and time zones.
WHAT TO DO: Be sensitive. Make room for all the different kinds of conversation, and notice when it's clear which kind your partner is looking to have. And if your partner makes a misstep, be patient.
Challenge: Too Much Access or Too Little
"Technology is only as good as the internet connection, which is often not so great," Loewenstein says. "It's so difficult not to, on some unconscious level, blame the other people. To direct the frustration to the person you're communicating with."
Long-distance phone calls, especially over WiFi, can also include a slight delay. So it's easy to talk over each other without realizing your partner has more to say.
If a lot of calls are marked by this frustration, couples can start associating partner interaction with annoyance and stress.
On days when the tech connection is perfect, couples may have the opposite problem: Instant and free access across the miles can make us feel obligated to be in constant touch. We may feel pressure to share all details instantly, which can be exhausting. And that also leaves no time for processing thoughts.
WHAT TO DO: Be patient, and remind yourself that this amazing technology remains highly imperfect. The beauty of writing letters, says Rhoades, was that people took time to synthesize and summarize their experiences, and found carefully chosen words. Long-distance couples who grant themselves that same time may find that they say more, with more meaning, than they do in a constant stream of dashed-off commentary.