In some ways, it’s stranger for Brynne Gilmore and David Cichon to be in the same airspace than apart. Even while living in Dublin, Ireland, where they met six years ago as graduate students, their research trips frequently took them out of the country.
The Canadian-German couple still view Dublin as their home base, although since leaving they’ve lived in several other countries. Cichon, a labour researcher focusing on living wages for garment workers, is now in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, though he’s preparing to move back to Berlin. Gilmore, a research fellow in global health, splits her time between Nairobi and Marsabit in Kenya. Both are in their early 30s.
They see themselves as building a foundation for the future, which makes the sacrifices worthwhile for now. “Why we’re apart so much, and why we’re OK being apart so much, is really trying to build our careers and establish what we can, while we can,” says Gilmore. It helps that they both love their work and find each other’s careers meaningful. And being in the same position of having jobs that require lots of time spent abroad means that there’s little chance for resentment to creep in.
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At the same time, they prioritise the relationship and are prepared to make changes in the future if the distance threatens that. This was important even as students, when they’d budget for flight tickets to see each other at least every three months. Though a major expense, “it was always the key item we’d save for”, Cichon remembers.
This doesn’t mean that it’s all roses and romcoms, of course. Some time zone differences are particularly challenging, and navigating the distance is tiring. Gilmore also has to field assumptions that her partner is the one making the major sacrifice and unduly affected by long-distance monogamy.
But some of the benefits are clear. Not only are they investing in their careers, but they say the distance concentrates their quality time when they’re together. “When we are together, we’re super together,” Gilmore says.
High education, long distance
It’s hard to know if relationships like this one are on the rise. But seven percent of Canadian couples aged 20 and up, including 31% of 20–24-year-olds, are in a ‘living apart together’ relationship. Census data also show that nearly 4 million Americans and 785,000 people in England and Wales are living apart from their spouses. But it’s unclear how much of this is for work-related reasons, rather than factors like relationship trouble or health.
“In terms of well-educated professionals specifically living apart due to their careers, that’s actually impossible to measure with any demographic instruments that currently exist,” explains Danielle Lindemann, a sociologist at Lehigh University in the US. “Nobody can really say with certainty that this lifestyle is more prevalent than it has been in the past, but everybody who studies this topic agrees that it probably is.” There is some evidence to suggest long distance marriages are on the rise, in the US at least.
Others have suggested that long-distance dating is on the rise partly because of the popularity of dating apps and social media. But there’s a particular shortage of data on same-sex couples, who have a smaller dating pool and thus may have to make even more location compromises for relationships.
Lindemann points to a kind of “extreme expressive individualism” that in some cultures means that people’s sense of self is highly entwined with their work
Research on PhD students in the US suggests that these kinds of dual-career couples are likely to choose to live apart, rather than to break up or to take a job that isn’t their first choice. In fact, being highly educated can actually constrain choices.
The central paradox of Lindemann’s recent book, Commuter Spouses: New Families in a Changing World, is that investing a lot of time and effort on education and skills means that the things you can do with all that training are awfully limited. An example Lindemann likes to give is: “If you’re a professor who studies 18th Century Russian tea cups, you go live where the one Russian teacup job is.” The increasing specialisation of the job market means that highly educated people have to travel further for niche work. At the same time, Lindemann points to a kind of “extreme expressive individualism” that in some cultures means that people’s sense of self is highly entwined with their work.
What makes it work
Of course, choosing to live apart because of niche work is linked to privilege. Those who make the same decision based on financial necessity experience greater stress than those who leave based on career goals, points out Chei Billedo, a communications researcher at Erasmus University Rotterdam and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. This could negatively affect relationship maintenance, such as not being able to afford visits home or plan for eventual reunification.
For couples unaffected by labour exploitation or acute financial stress, relationship dissolution rates are about the same for long-distance romantic relationships and geographically close ones – Chei Billedo
Certain circumstances are more extreme. Domestic workers from the Philippines, where Billedo is from, are in some places allowed neither their own phones nor the time to make phone calls. But Billedo says that for couples unaffected by labour exploitation or acute financial stress, relationship dissolution rates are about the same for long-distance romantic relationships and geographically close ones.
Those in long-distance relationships actually “perceive their relationship to be more stable”, explains Billedo. And certain aspects that might be demonised in geographically proximate relationships can particularly contribute to maintaining long-distance ones. Take jealousy, which Billedo has found can be constructive in long-distance relationships - as long as it’s reactive jealousy, which responds to an actual relationship threat, rather than suspicious jealousy, which is unfounded.
Similarly, while intrusive surveillance is obviously a problem for any relationship, certain kinds of light social-media stalking are especially useful across a distance. Billedo’s research on Facebook, together with Peter Kerkhof and Catrin Finkenauer, suggests that “feedback from our social network does matter when it comes to relationship satisfaction”. So forging a social-media community over long distance can help others see the relationship as valid, in the absence of a face-to-face friend group performing the same function. This social validation affects the couple’s own perceptions.
Forging a social media community over long distance can help others see the relationship as valid
Certain personality characteristics also help. Cichon and Gilmore describe each other as adaptable, able to make friends in new places and OK with alone time. These are exactly the kinds of traits that Lindemman’s work shows are common among commuter couples together with self-reliance, financial security and (a biggie) not having children.
In fact, parenthood was the single biggest factor affecting how her heterosexual respondents viewed their relationships. Though women in these distance relationships often mentioned feeling freer from gendered expectations about their household contributions, parenthood made the relationships substantially less equal in terms of who shouldered the majority of shared responsibilities. Lindemann, who previously lived apart from her husband, wouldn’t do it again now that they have a child.
Takeaways for long-distance relationships
These experiences suggest a few commonalities of successful long-distance relationships. Communication is an oft-repeated one. Methods of compensating for the distance, whether that’s strategic Facebooking or frequent check-ins over WhatsApp, are important as well. Reducing gendered disparities – likely to be smaller in same-sex relationships – is clearly helpful.
It’s also useful to calibrate expectations, rather than comparing the relationship to some geographically close ideal and feeling frustrated that it falls short. This aligns with research suggesting that while distance or absence doesn’t automatically harm relationships, it’s the nature of the relationship and the individuals in it that predict relationship quality.
Lindemann also suggests that the adaptability common in commuter relationships might need to extend to the way we think about work. Her hope is that “the culture of education might change, that we might be able to professionalise people to see how the skills that we’re imparting to them… are applicable beyond these narrow job categories”.
Given the uncertainty around what work will look like in the future, this is useful advice in general, not just for those likely to partner up across vast distances.
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