Love in Real Time: Looking at Long-Distance Relationships and the Tech that Makes Them Work

This article was originally published on Smashd.co on November 26, 2015.

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Long distance relationships (or LDRs) can often be something we don’t really intend to get into, but sometimes you catch feelings and there you are – miles away from the one that you love.

In the early 1940’s, thousands of World War II deployed soldiers kept in contact with girlfriends and wives via post – all hoping to never receive a dreaded “Dear John” breakup letter – and those in our parent’s generation attempted to accommodate different time zones with pagers and scheduled landline calls. Since the first cell phone (Motorola DynatTAC 8000X) only yielded a mere 30 minutes of talk time for the sky-high, astronomical price of $4,000, unless you were a white-collar professional or a high-rolling, drug dealer; owning a personal cell phone didn’t become a reality until the late ‘90’s.

Even then, mobile technology and service packages didn’t offer all the features we’ve now grown accustomed to. Remember waiting until after 9pm or the weekend to use your “unlimited minutes?” Or what about when text messages took forever to type because you had to tap a button multiple times to get the correct corresponding letter? Better yet, remember actual “cell phones?” We have smart phones now.

Considering the sweeping selection of instantaneous communication apps (Skype, What’s App and FaceTime) available to today’s millennial generation, maintaining contact in “real time” has never been easier – or more manageable. Add that to the mountains of social networking programs such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, which offer continuous floods of updates, photos and videos, and what results is a barrage of data masking the absence of physical closeness.

Even when separated by thousands of miles, oceans and continents, millennials are discovering that LDRs can actually produce more intimate interactions, shared meaningful thoughts and shared feelings than those in close proximity. In a study published in the June 2013 Journal of Communication, Cornell University researchers asked 63 couples (with an average age of 21) in both geographically close and distant relationships to record how often and via which media tools they used to communicate. In their findings, the long-distance couples reported more phone calls, texts, video chats and instant message interactions than their closer-distance counterparts, as well an idealization of their partner’s behaviors – suggesting that distance can be a fertile breeding ground for forging stronger romantic bonds.

So in relation to our predecessors, just how much of an influence does technology really have on millennials when it comes to having a greater propensity, attraction and/or willingness to engage in LDRs?

Elle Congelliere, 30, a special events planner and marketing consultant who sustained a three-year, California to Texas LDR while in college, vividly recollects her relationship’s timeline through technological advancements.

Mobile text messaging didn’t arrive until a year after Congelliere and her then boyfriend/now husband had already met, and at the time sending a simple picture presented complications because “back then, you had to upload a picture by getting it off your camera, and there were so many steps involved that I didn’t even have any.”

“I met my husband on Xanga – which existed before everyone had blogs and online journals to figure out their teenage angst,” said Congelliere. “It was 2004, and I was 19, and I didn’t think it was dangerous to talk to people online. We were in a forum where people would vent and discuss their opinions on politics, religion and world happenings, and eventually we exchanged AOL instant message (AIM) handles, then Yahoo emails, and finally phone numbers. Six months later we decided to meet in real life, so he drove 1600 miles from Long Beach, Calif. to southeast Texas, and everyone freaked out because eHarmony had just come out, and it was only for older crowds. Back then it was very taboo to date people online; and no one was doing it. Still, we dated for three years that way; with me flying to Long Beach and him making the drive to Texas.”

And though newer technologies continued to emerge, Congelliere wholeheartedly believes that establishing a clear line of communication was more vital to the success of her relationship than the actual modes and methods they used to keep in contact.

“The only thing you really have in a LDR is communication,” said Congelliere. “Calling it out when it’s not going anywhere or speaking up whenever you feel insecure is important. There’s an extra set of effort that comes with long-distance, and there’s no such thing as being too honest.”

As someone who was recently called out on her emotional shut-downs by the New Yorker I’m currently long-distance dating, I too can attest on the importance of efficient communication regardless of the means. You would think that as a writer, I’d be better at clearly communicating my thoughts, but strangely enough, engaging with someone you’re wrapped up with mentally, physically and emotionally often takes a bit more courage and patience than expressing yourself to strangers.

This particular phenomena is a testament not only to nurturing the needs of a LDR, but an ode to the general millennial culture: a time when most people actively communicate, meet and make friends with strangers through daily social shares, yet relapse in basic “in-person” interactions.

On the upside, given the ever-evolving nature of our global sharing economy, growing desires to pursue entrepreneurship, rise of digital nomad lifestyles and collective embrasure of values completely different from past generations, millennials are now choosing lives which reflect greater a work-life balance and personal freedoms.

In their book, “Cause for Change: The Why and How of Nonprofit Millennial Engagement,” authors Kari Dunn Saratovsky and Derrick Feldmann state that most millennials reject the idea of being required to be “physically present and onsite in order to accomplish the organization’s mission.”

Coincidently, closely tied to this ideal are most millennial’s pressing need to travel and experience the world firsthand – as evidenced by The Boston Consulting Group’s survey which concluded that millennials are twice as likely as non-millennials to travel as a hobby.

With this in mind, it seems only natural that as we millennials carve out our niches within globally-connected societies that we also redefine our roles within romantic relationships, and what intimacy and commitment mean to us.

For instance, Jenn Malka, 25, is an L.A. freelance event producer and coordinator who first met her Australian lover, Jack, while studying abroad at the Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne. For the most part, she uses care packages, Skype, What’s App and couple’s apps such as Avocado to remain connected with her beau, but admits that dealing with the common fear of another person disrupting her LDR requires a certain mind-frame.

“I trust him (Jack) that he wouldn’t cheat on me, but also I need to be confident that I’m great, and that I’m a good person,” said Malka. “A relationship isn’t just how good another person feels about you, it’s also about how you feel about yourself. If I know that I’m a great person, and that I’m a great catch, then he needs to know that as well. It would be really stupid for him to cheat and let me go.”

Like Congelliere, Malka also agrees that communication should always be priority within a LDR, but echoes sentiments similar to the Cornell University study.

“If you don’t have clear communication, the person can become an idea, and it turns into more of a lust as opposed to an actual love,” said Malka.

Lia Allen, 27, a personal chef and yoga instructor who dated a man in the Philippines while studying at a university in Switzerland, thinks that while technology makes LDRs more feasible, it also produces expectations of constant communication.

“How often you get disappointed depends on your differing expectations,” said Allen. “My advice is to set guidelines from the beginning; how often you talk and through what methods. There’s always a greater chance that you will lose your partner in a LDR, and meeting someone else is a reality. You can’t fight it. Just be completely honest about how you’re feeling and what you want, and have patience.”

Perhaps not so ironically, the last word in Allen’s statement is what continues to echo in my mind while I carefully consider my own long-distance future. Last week I asked my New Yorker a question neither of us had the answer to, and though I was initially upset, I’ve now come to understand it as a consequence of my own millennial nature.

As one Adweek writer wrote, one of the biggest setbacks of the millennial generation is that we “[lack patience due to being totally bombarded by stimuli. We’re easily distracted and we’re easily bored.”

We want to consume love in the same way that we mash out 140-character Twitter updates, rapidly skim through Instagram feeds and nonchalantly post snaps we know will disappear in 24 hours. We want love to be instantaneous yet everlasting, and we want technology to help us communicate more humanely with other humans. In short, what we want is a paradox; and to use technology to bridge misunderstandings and close the gaps between our hearts.

When used as a vehicle and not a crutch to intimacy, I think technology has the power to help millennials in LDRs thrive better than ever before, but in the end, we would all do best to remember that communication must flow first out of people before entering our machines.

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