Going the distance for love

Like narrowly missing the bus, or losing your luggage at the airport, being in a long distance relationship, for whatever reason, often elicits sympathy for the couple separated geographically.

Erika Cole, a third-year commerce student at Dalhousie University, is bracing herself for this kind of sympathetic comforting from family and friends.

Cole has been in a relationship with her boyfriend, Bander Al-barakati, for about a year and a half, and in June it will become a long-distance one.

Al-barakati is from Saudi Arabia, where he will be returning after he completes his graduate degree in engineering from Dal. With his student visa soon to expire, Al-barakati does not know when he will be allowed back into Canada.

“It’s scary,” says Cole. “It’s a totally different culture over there, so keeping a relationship going via text and Skype might take a toll.”

The distance between them will be vast — 9,343 kilometres to be exact — with a seven-hour time difference. But something else puts limits on the relationship, in terms of visiting each other.

“He is from the holy city of Mecca, you can’t enter the city unless you’re Muslim. I’m not Muslim so for now, visiting for now, is completely out of the question,” said Cole.

Even though the future seems dim, Cole and Al-barakati are trying to enjoy the next few months together.

“You just don’t know what is going to happen,” said Cole. “I mean, who would have guessed that a girl from Chester, Nova Scotia, would fall in love with a Saudi Arabian grad student?”

Emma Dargie, a PhD candidate in clinical psychology at Queen’s University, said long-distance relationships can work.

Dargie co-authored a 2013 study, which investigated the quality of long-distance relationships and close-distance romances.

The study, Go Long! Predictors of Positive Outcomes in Long-Distance Relationships, featured 717 women and men in long-distance relationships and 425 women and men in geographically close relationships throughout North America.

“Folks in long-distance relationships were pretty much reporting similar levels of relationship quality as those in geographically close relationships,” said Dargie.

The individuals surveyed had to have been in a relationship for at least three months and both same-sex and heterosexual relationships were surveyed. All participants were unmarried and lived apart.

Both sets of men and women filled out multiple questionnaires inquiring about intimacy, sexual satisfaction, communication, commitment and psychological distress.

Dargie said that once the research displayed minimal differences between long-distance relationships and geographically close relationships, they began looking more closely at what made a long distance relationship high or low quality.

One of the most critical variables tested was psychological distress.

“The more distressed somebody was in general, the lower their relationship quality was,” said Dargie. “The more stressed out you are the more you’re going to take it out on the relationship.”

“We looked at how far apart they were and how often they saw each other,” said Dargie. “Neither of those variables reliably predicted the relationship quality like the psychological distress did.”

Dargie said the certainty of the relationship, future plans and meetings, was a big predictor of how high in quality a long-distance relationship was.

“It was less about the amount of distance and how often you were seeing your partner,” said Dargie. “It’s more about ‘do I know when I’m going to see my partner’ and ‘how happy am I about that?’”

Dargie had some other theories about what may be beneficial about long-distance relationships.

She said the absence of a partner might cause one to forget about irritating habits and focus purely on the positive aspects of the relationship. This is called idealization.

“Because they’re not with their partner day in and day out, you don’t have those stressors like finding the toilet seat up all the time or finding shavings in the sink,” said Dargie.

For some, long-distance relationships are ideal because they value their independence and don’t need to think about their partner’s whereabouts at all times.

Dargie also said entering a long-distance relationship is a good way to see if the relationship will last.

“It can be really useful to find out how a person copes in those times of stress.”