dating

Exactly how to make a long distance relationship work, according to an expert.

Psychotherapist and couples counselor Melissa Ferrari knows what long-distance relationships feel like. Not just through the stories of her clients, but because she’s been in one.

She and her now-husband of three years met eight years ago via online dating.

“When we met, we had five years of distance in our relationship,” she told Mamamia. “He lived three hours away, and so that meant that we could only see each other on the weekends. And that meant a lot of good things. But it also had some downsides as well.”

Those ‘good things’ can be especially so for a new relationship, she said: “There’s something about having that distance that means you’ve got be able to be really good conversationalists… And so it tends to take that real physical element out of it, and it gives you the opportunity to really get to know each other. Also, because you’re talking a lot, you have the excitement of seeing each other on the weekends, and excitement in any relationship – particularly in the beginning – is good, because it helps with that bonding process.”

But for some couples who find themselves suddenly separated due to work, or family, or studies – whatever it may be – it can be far less… exciting.

Here, Melissa offers her advice for overcoming the key challenges of long-distance relationships.

Starting a long-distance relationship.

Deciding to enter a long-distance relationship requires “mutual collaboration”, Melissa said. That might mean agreeing that it’s something you have to do for the benefit of your finances, for example.

“[It’s about] communication; making sure that what’s good for me is good for you as well,” she said. “If one of you isn’t going to be happy about it, it’s going to create that win-lose scenario, which is never good for any relationship. Because if one loses, you both lose.

“The kind of conversation that’s got to be had is really talking about the risk of where the relationship could go if you decide to make this choice.”

Feeling abandoned or lonely.

Crucial in maintaining a long-distance relationship, Melissa said, is recognising your partner’s attachment style; essentially, the way they relate to you. Are they secure? Anxious? Avoidant?

“Some of us come from families where we go into relationship that makes this a little bit more anxious,” she said. “You have to be aware in a couple that possibly one of your attachment systems are going to be activated. For example, if one person goes, then the one who is more anxious, their anxiety starts to increase. And when someone’s anxiety increases, they need their partner there to help them regulate and reassure.” For the other person, it’s important to be conscious of this, and be communicative.

For the anxious person, it’s about looking after mental health. “It’s important to make sure you’re doing things that still feel positive, like exercise, because that will send the good hormones to the brain. Also, things like communicating with your friends who help to make you feel good. Go where the love is, and be around people that are able to help soothe your anxiety.”

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Questioning the relationship and feeling jealous.

Physical distance from a partner can leave room for doubt and suspicion to creep in. This can partly be explained by neuroscience, Melissa said. Like a baby feels settled when it looks at its mother’s face, the same can happen to the mature brain.

“Provided it’s a relationship where you’re both feel safe and secure, [looking at each other] will create that amplified experience of love. It gets the neurochemicals in the brain going again, which creates that positive experience,” she said.

“If we don’t lay eyes on each other enough, we’re what I call ‘left too long to our own mind’. And when we’re left too long to our own mind, particularly in romantic relationships, we can start to make up negative stories, because unfortunately that is what the brain does. And so we might start to wonder, ‘Oh, does he really love me?’ ‘Does she really care.’ ‘Gee, he hasn’t checked in or she hasn’t checked in with me.’ And you can start to create a bit of a spiral around how your partner feels about you.”

Thankfully, we’ve never lived in a better time to overcome that problem, thanks to technology. Melissa advises regular video chats, sending video or voice memos, text messages and pictures.

Lack of physical intimacy.

“It’s the skin-to-skin experience of sex which is so bonding,” Melissa said, “but if you are both really feeling that lack of connection, you can do things (eg. sexting or phone sex) and still make that an incredibly bonding and positive experience, provided you both are in the space to do it.”

Melissa notes there are even remotely operated sex toys, which your partner controls via an app.

Knowing when to call it off.

“Be patient, particularly if you really love this person and they’re a good person for you,” Melissa said. “But I’d be always watching out for any red flags that kind of say ‘this arrangement long-term isn’t going to change’.

“There may come a point that you may have to examine, in yourself, whether [the relationship] suitable to you. Some people can’t do this. So never be afraid to go back to it. Just because you made a decision, it doesn’t mean you can’t change your mind,” she said.

“So many of us say, ‘that’s the agreement that we made.’ But if you are really unhappy or it’s actually triggering some mental health issues for you that your partner is not willing to help you resolve by being that person that checks in with you often, reassures you, if you’re in an environment where you are consistently are feeling abandoned, I think that’s something that you’re allowed to say ‘no’ to.”

For relationship support, call Relationships Australia on 1300 364 277.

For crisis support, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

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