The New Long-Distance Relationship

The love life of Stanley Davidge, a 25-year-old network administrator for a national restaurant chain, is absolutely extraordinary.

Almost all day, Davidge, who lives in South Carolina, is in touch with his girlfriend, Angela Davila, who lives in Virginia and is job hunting. Despite being separated by a six-hour drive, they “shoot the bull and stuff” over FaceTime when Davidge has a break at work, they call each other in the car, and they watch TV together at the end of the day using a website that lets them share a screen. “It’s almost like being in the same room together,” he says of their tandem streaming.

The way Davidge and Davila maintain their relationship won’t impress anyone familiar with the internet and smartphones. But, considering the fullness of human history, it is astounding that two people in separate places can keep up such a rich relationship without much financial or logistical hassle—and think nothing of it.

It’s hard to say for sure whether long-distance relationships are more common than they were a generation or two ago, though some scholars suspect they are. “They’re there, and we think they’re on the increase,” says Laura Stafford, a communication scholar at Bowling Green State University who has studied long-distance relationships.

But the many forms that long-distance relationships take make them really hard to count: Couples (married or not) might live apart because they attend different colleges, they have jobs in different cities (or countries), one or both of them are in the military, one or both of them are in prison, or one or both of them have moved to take care of an aging parent. Further complicating matters, these arrangements can be relatively short in duration or last for years.

Still, there are two notable indications that more couples may be living apart these days. First, in a government survey, the number of married Americans 18 and older who reported that they live apart from their spouse rose from roughly 2.7 million in 2000 to roughly 3.9 million in 2017, though, frustratingly, the survey didn’t ask any of those millions why they weren’t living together. And second, according to the Pew Research Center, the share of “internet users with recent dating experience” who said they’d used the internet or email to keep up with a partner long distance jumped from 19 percent to 24 percent from 2005 to 2013. That’s a decent-size increase, though, a Pew researcher cautioned, it can’t be stated with any certainty how long or why those couples were apart. Some respondents could well have been thinking of the time they emailed their partner while away on a business trip.

Exact numbers aside, what’s certain is that long-distance relationships—a term I’ll use from now on to refer to couples living apart voluntarily—are different today than they were not just 500 or 50 years ago, but even 15. As economic and technological developments are prying more couples apart geographically, some of those same developments are making those couples’ love lives more closely resemble those of couples who live in the same place. The distance is still there, but it feels shorter and shorter.

Before videochat, before long-distance phone calls, there were letters. Written correspondence is how, historically, lovers have exchanged meaningful information over long distances. The exchanges of the Victorian poets Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning are classics of their genre, elegantly revealing the contents of their authors’ minds and hearts. “All-so into me has it gone, and part of me has it become, this great living poetry of yours, not a flower of which but took root and grew,” Robert wrote in the first letter of their correspondence, in 1845. The fantastically graphic letters that James Joyce wrote to his lover in the 1900s were classics in another way—his sign-off in one was, “Goodnight, my little farting Nora, my dirty little fuckbird!”

As those nicknames attest, written expressions of adoration could be colorful and evocative. They could also, as a medium, leave a lot to the imagination. With letters, “you can actually have really powerful emotions and intimacy,” says Jeff Hancock, a communication professor at Stanford University. “All you have are each other’s words, so you can really imagine the other person in the best possible light.”

While the telephone was invented in the mid-19th century, it wasn’t until the 1940s and ’50s, Hancock told me, that the technology was considered to be suitable for pleasure instead of just business. But in those early days, lengthy calls to far-flung loved ones were still too pricey for many people. Robert Gordon, an economist at Northwestern University, remembers that when he was in college in the late 1950s and early ’60s, one minute of calling cross-country cost about $3, which was more than the average hourly wage at the time. (That works out to about $26 a minute in today’s dollars after adjusting for inflation.)

In the year following his college graduation, Gordon studied at Oxford, and his then-fiancée finished up her senior year of undergrad back in Boston, where they’d met. During this transatlantic phase of their relationship, they only wrote letters and never talked on the phone. “Telephone calls for long-distance relationships were simply not part of the discussion until—and I remember exactly when this switched, because I saved all my letters, and I know when the letters stopped—and that’s 1970, ’71,” he says. (The particular cutoff year for any given person would probably have had to do with that person’s disposable income.)

The next major development in romantic communication, of course, was the internet. Email, instant messaging, and videochatting, once widely adopted, made it feasible and affordable for couples to share even the most trivial details of their lives in real time, as often as they wanted. It was almost the opposite of writing a letter in, say, the early to mid-19th century, the goal of which was often to capture the most important things that had happened since the last letter. “The mundane information that we are able to exchange with each other is vitally important to [long-distance] relationships, and that gets lost a lot in letters of the past,” says Jason Farman, a media scholar at the University of Maryland who has studied the history of communication technologies.