Menus Subscribe Search

Life in the Data

longing

(Photo: Daniel Stolle)

The Upside of Longing

• March 26, 2014 • 6:00 AM

(Photo: Daniel Stolle)

There’s at least one benefit to long-distance relationships.

One month into our relationship, Joel told me his family’s creation myth. We were on the phone, as was our routine: me in bed, fighting off late-night yawns, him pacing the steep streets of his neighborhood three time zones away, seeking cell service.

Joel told me that his grandparents had met in 1939, in a London boarding house. Their families, both Jewish, had recently fled Germany and Austria in varying states of devastation. Instantly infatuated, the teenagers shared a whirlwind four months before Joel’s grandfather emigrated to the U.S., enlisted in the military, and returned to Europe to clear minefields. They went on to write each other letters—clever, flirtatious, angry, loving, longing letters—every day for five years, until the war ended and they were reunited in New York.

This was a serious love story to relay so early in a relationship, but Joel and I were in the habit of serious conversations. Only weeks after meeting at a mutual friend’s New Year’s party in San Francisco, where Joel lives and where I was visiting from Washington, D.C., we were keeping Post-it Note lists of topics to cover. An early note of mine reads, “High school/childhood; middle name?; Bruce; LOTR.” I remember being delighted to learn that Joel was a Springsteen fan, and disappointed that he’d never finished The Lord of the Rings.

A 2007 study by the communications theorists Laura Stafford and Andy J. Merolla found that the long-distance couples who idealized each other the most were the least stable upon reunion.

By the time he came to visit in February, I felt as if I’d known him for years.

Much about this relationship has been fantastical, but that feeling was not. In June, researchers at Cornell and the City University of Hong Kong published a paper showing that long-distance couples feel greater intimacy than those who live in the same place. They found that members of these couples reveal more about themselves, and perceive their partners to be more revealing as well.

This is a form of “idealization,” or the tendency to view your partner and your relationship in an unrealistically positive light. It is a hallmark of long-distance relationships, a reason why many geographically remote partners feel more connected to each other than those who wake up in the same bed do. This effect is likely familiar to the three million married Americans and up to one-half of American college students who are currently geographically separated from their partners. Given these numbers, it’s also worth noting the flip side of idealization, which is that it contributes to making long-distance couples more likely, whenever they do manage to align their geographic trajectories, to break up.

I’m acutely aware of this risk, which Joel and I talk about constantly. We worry about the way that our nightly conversations encourage us to curate our lives for each other. We trot out the funniest parts of our days and the most fascinating things we’ve read, neglecting the errands and the irritation and the drudgery. Psychologists call this dynamic “selective self-presentation.” On uninspired days, it can feel like performance.

Recently, contemplating a move to San Francisco, I’ve become more conscious of our dearth of “everyday talk,” or the little routine interactions that, according to Karen Tracy, a communications professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder, are “the basic ingredients for building and maintaining relationships.” While I wouldn’t want to give up our rambling conversations, they are of little use when one of us is assembling Ikea furniture or going to a dinner party alone.

A 2007 study by the communications theorists Laura Stafford and Andy J. Merolla found that the long-distance couples who idealized each other the most were the least stable upon reunion. But since a certain amount of bullishness is helpful for any relationship, especially a long-distance one, the researchers settled on a Goldilocks principle of idealization: not too little, not too much.

I met Joel’s grandparents this summer, in Ithaca, where they now live. At 92 and 93 they are still visibly in love. I imagined each of them gritting through five years of war and grief alone, writing letters every day. They must have idealized each other then, and I suspect they still do.

While pragmatism has its merits, I can’t help but want that for Joel and me—to find each other extraordinary enough to defy geography.


This post originally appeared in the March/April 2014 issue of Pacific Standard as “The Upside of Longing.” For more, subscribe to our print magazine.

Nicole Allan
Nicole Allan is a senior editor at The Atlantic.

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 1 • 1:00 PM

Television and Overeating: What We Watch Matters

New research finds fast-moving programming leads to mindless overeating.



September 1 • 6:00 AM

Why Someone Named Monty Iceman Sold Doogie Howser’s Estate

How unusual names, under certain circumstances, can lead to success.



August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.


August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


August 28 • 12:00 PM

The Ice Bucket Challenge’s Meme Money

The ALS Association has raised nearly $100 million over the past month, 50 times what it raised in the same period last year. How will that money be spent, and how can non-profit executives make a windfall last?


August 28 • 11:56 AM

Outlawing Water Conflict: California Legislators Confront Risky Groundwater Loophole

California, where ambitious agriculture sucks up 80 percent of the state’s developed water, is no stranger to water wrangles. Now one of the worst droughts in state history is pushing legislators to reckon with its unwieldy water laws, especially one major oversight: California has been the only Western state without groundwater regulation—but now that looks set to change.


August 28 • 11:38 AM

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.


August 28 • 10:00 AM

The Five Words You Never Want to Hear From Your Doctor

“Sometimes people just get pains.”


August 28 • 8:00 AM

Why I’m Not Sharing My Coke

Andy Warhol, algorithms, and a bunch of popular names printed on soda cans.


August 28 • 6:00 AM

Can Outdoor Art Revitalize Outdoor Advertising?

That art you’ve been seeing at bus stations and billboards—it’s serving a purpose beyond just promoting local museums.


August 28 • 4:00 AM

Linguistic Analysis Reveals Research Fraud

An examination of papers by the discredited Diederik Stapel finds linguistic differences between his legitimate and fraudulent studies.


August 28 • 2:00 AM

Poverty and Geography: The Myth of Racial Segregation

Migration, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality (not to mention class), can be a poverty-buster.


August 27 • 4:00 PM

The ‘Non-Lethal’ Flash-Bang Grenades Used in Ferguson Can Actually Be Quite Lethal

A journalist says he was singed by a flash-bang fired by St. Louis County police trying to disperse a crowd, raising questions about how to use these military-style devices safely and appropriately.


August 27 • 2:00 PM

Do Better Looking People Have Better Personalities Too?

An experiment on users of the dating site OKCupid found that members judge both looks and personality by looks alone.


August 27 • 12:00 PM

Love Can Make You Stronger

A new study links oxytocin, the hormone most commonly associated with social bonding, and the one that your body produces during an orgasm, with muscle regeneration.


August 27 • 11:05 AM

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.