For many of us, the phrase “long-distance relationship” conjures up images of lonely nights, half-empty beds, miscommunication, and painful longing to be avoided at all costs. Yet for some people, being in a different town, city or country to their partner – whether because they met online, or were separated by circumstances – is their preference and something they seek out.
When dating app Bumble asked 14,000 of its users this year about their romantic desires, a third of people said they’d be open to dating someone outside of their city. The app terms this “wanderlove”, referring to the idea of long-distance dating.
Rae Johnson, a 33-year-old beautician in London, has “always had a thing for guys who live abroad”. She has had four long-distance relationships with men in America and Canada, who she has met online and then visited a few months later. “I enjoyed the change in culture, it was exciting and new. To me, it makes sense to prefer to date someone that’s not local, it’s more interesting.” For Johnson, it’s also about wanting to preserve a near-complete independence.
“I get my space,” she says, “but I still get the love and affection I enjoy when we talk. The time zone usually means I get the day to myself and spend the evenings communicating with them. It’s perfect for me.” That’s not to say it’s easy. “It’s hard if you’re not determined to make it work,” she says, “because you can’t give them the physical affection that you may both be longing for, whether it’s sex or just being held after a long, hard day.
“Your care, respect and the love you build has to be able to withstand urges, because it’s very easy to slip up if you’re lonely, and that can damage trust that was already so hard to build given the distance.” A 2010 German study found that the average length of a long-distance relationship was 2.9 years, less than half the length of a proximal relationship, 7.3 years.
Yet, there is something about the extra work it takes to date long distance that Johnson enjoys. “The bonds I create are strong because you have to talk all the time and really express how you feel, both parties are aware of how much effort is being put in to maintain the relationship, and that makes you feel more loved and respected. You could have anyone next to you but you chose me and I’m across the world. You’re choosing to make time for me even in a crazy time zone when we’re both tired.”
Pete Franklin, 26, from New York, met his girlfriend on Tinder during the pandemic and only met her face-to-face in April this year for the first time, two years after they first started talking online. “I feel that since we took two years to truly get to know each other, without the distractions and pressure to be physically intimate, we’ve been able to cultivate the healthiest relationship I’ve ever been in,” he says.
“Being a polyamorous man isn’t easy, I often get looked down on in the dating world because people assume I just want multiple women for the sake of it, when really, for me, it’s about giving myself and my partners the freedom to do as they please without creating any extra pressure, something that I feel distance naturally helps with. I’ve usually never been interested in anyone in close proximity to me, even as a teenager I would have long-distance girlfriends.”
“To me it has always been more exciting to be with someone who isn’t in my everyday life, someone who I have to put in extra effort for, it made the relationship seem more romantic to me. They say, ‘distance makes the heart grow fonder’, and I’ve always believed that. Whenever I had a partner that was physically close, I became easily bored whereas having someone at a distance would give me a reason to find entertaining topics to talk about and planning to see each other every few weeks or months, or in my current case what took two years, creates an air of excitement and wonder within the relationship.”
What is the psychology behind a preference for long distance? Josh Smith, a counsellor from relationships charity Relate, says that some people see it as a way to have autonomy and intimacy at the same time. In his clinical experience with couples who live together, what comes up a lot in therapy is how they mediate closeness and distance, what is an appropriate level of intimacy, and whether they can agree on that. “Some people want to be able to spend all their time with their partner and know everything about them,” he says. “Then there are people who are keen to maintain a distinct identity, maybe they want to have secrets, maybe they want to spend time with their partner but also time alone, and with their family and friends.
“For some people who feel this particularly strongly, long-distance relationships might suit them because instead of having to negotiate closeness and time, all of that is imposed and dictated by the circumstances of being far apart.”
Some therapists also believe that preferring long-distance relationships can signal a fear of commitment or a fear of letting someone into your daily life, or a concern about being vulnerable. “There is always a tension in relationships about how to balance domesticity with maintaining mystery,” says Smith. “Long distance takes some of the domesticity out of the equation. Yet what might be a challenge is thinking about how to transition to a different stage of the relationship if two people are used to working, living and socialising very separately.”
In his experience, Smith says “very few intimate long-distance relationships stay long distance”, so there will be things to negotiate if you end up living in the same place. “In some ways a long-distance relationship has a slowing effect on how relationships progress, which can have benefits but also drawbacks,” he explains.
In the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, a 2007 study found that people in long-distance relationships reported more idealism, positive reminisces, perceived agreement, communication quality, and even romantic love than people in geographically close relationships. Yet, it’s reuniting that tends to cause issues. A third of long-distance couples broke up within three months of moving in together.
In the US, Janae Daniels, a 27-year-old musician and youth worker in Atlanta, Georgia, was previously in a long-term relationship, which ended several months after they both moved to be together. “I felt the best part of our love was when we were at a distance.” Currently, she is dating someone in Washington DC, a 10-hour drive away. “When we spend time together, it’s very intentional and when we communicate it is intentional as well as very open. The best part about long distance for me is having space.
“The space to focus on yourself so you don’t lose yourself in your relationship. The space to miss your partner. The space to actually communicate and get to know each other on an intellectual, emotional, and mental level and less physical. To make a good long distance relationship, you have to be upfront and honest.”
Franklin can see why some people want to be in the same place as their partner, but he plans to keep dating at a distance, a true devotee to “wanderlove”. “There’s no way I would ever subject myself to the fraction of that pool that lives within my town or city. There’s a huge world out there.”