Technology has made romance from afar more convenient than ever before. But could a long-distance relationship be bad for your health?

By Jackie Middleton

Are long-distance relationships healthy?

Once upon a time, boy met girl at a club, the office, or through close friends. Today, many homegrown love stories are becoming nostalgic relics of the past. As it becomes more difficult to fit socializing time into our busy lives, singles are looking further afield for romance and relationships. Facebook flings, email liaisons, and flirtations sparked during vacations or business trips—it's common to know someone in the throes of the agony and ecstasy that only a long-distance affair can bring. But are these exhilarating romances bad for our health?

At first glance, a long-distance relationship appears full of excitement, but the stress of dealing with the unknown, and putting one’s life on hold until you’re together again can cause all sorts of health upsets, both emotionally and physically. Toronto marriage counsellor Beth Mares says that there are pros and cons to such a union. "For some people, a long-distance relationship is easier," says Mares. "Some individuals need a lot of space, and don’t have the self-assurance to establish [that need] when they’re living with someone." She also notes that people who value their careers above relationships find geographically challenged dalliances ideal, as they don’t compete with their job for attention.

However, "most people aren’t satisfied with that," says Mares. "Most are pretty anxious to get together." While the more independent-minded or career-driven might like this arrangement, many people find the negatives strongly outweigh any advantages. The ultimate goal is for both parties to leave behind the long distance love story, and unite in the same city.

Avoiding "the dating effect"

When time and money cooperate, the best tonic to keep love alive across the miles is being together. While couples relish the thrill of ecstatic reunions, Mares warns against getting carried away with "the dating effect," where partners wine and dine each other during their short spell together, but fail to deal with the real issues of real life. "A long-distance relationship can often mask a situation that won’t work," she says.

Couples should enjoy the romance of their situation, but also discuss the issues that all must face: where to live, opinions on finances and religion, and most importantly, whether they both want kids. For many, that biological clock is ticking—loudly. "In some cases they’re waiting to have children," says Mares. "They need to find out [how their partner feels about kids], otherwise they have to find someone else."

Distance can sour these relationships when even one missed phone call sets off all sorts of suspicion and worry. As a result, trust and commitment issues grow unchecked, and unhealthy obsessive behavior—such as leaving repetitive phone messages—can be unleashed. "If you notice these things happening, there’s a problem," says Mares. "It tends to escalate. If one person gets needy, the other might distance themselves. One might have doubts whether [this relationship] is right for them."

How to make a long-distance relationship work

The key to avoiding destructive actions or thoughts is to keep the relationship on track. It takes plenty of effort, but the results speak for themselves. Maintaining the lines of healthy communication between in-person visits is a breeze with today’s social media. Twitter, Facebook, instant messaging (IM) and Skype make connecting with one another easy and affordable. Mares recommends that couples, "find out how they spent their day," and not treat each conversation as a happy-go-lucky extension of a date. Like all successful, healthy relationships, a solid foundation based on the day-to-day sharing of each other’s triumphs and failures is key.

Consequently, it’s no surprise that if couples don’t communicate fully, their health will begin to suffer. The stress that results from worries over fidelity, trust and where the union is heading can manifest into sleeplessness, weight loss, anxiety and even depression. While these ailments are concerning, Mares states that there’s no data to suggest that they are dangerous, or life-threatening, but they could facilitate a permanent break-up.

From long-distance to long-term relationship

Ultimately, Mares says, it’s imperative for the health of the couple and their relationship to eventually live together in the same locale to see if their bond can survive normal daily pressures. "It’s not like a weekend where you’re devoted to each other and then longing for each other the rest of the week," she says. "Things might be different when you live together. You need to find out if it’s going to work."

It’s encouraging that marriages following distant courtships have the same success rate as unions established in the same area code—provided they don’t rush down the aisle as soon as they cohabitate. "If they move in together first and it works well," says Mares. "[The future marriage] would work as well as any other marriage."

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Web exclusive, September 2010

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