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Does distance really make the heart grow fonder?

By Ian Kerner, CNN Contributor
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Tue September 17, 2013
The 1993 film "Sleepless in Seattle" brought together Annie Reed, a Baltimore journalist played by Meg Ryan, and Sam Baldwin, a single dad from Seattle played by Tom Hanks. Their relationships played out through radio, letters, airport sightings and a date secretly set up by young Jonah Baldwin, played by Ross Malinger. The 1993 film "Sleepless in Seattle" brought together Annie Reed, a Baltimore journalist played by Meg Ryan, and Sam Baldwin, a single dad from Seattle played by Tom Hanks. Their relationships played out through radio, letters, airport sightings and a date secretly set up by young Jonah Baldwin, played by Ross Malinger.
Hollywood's long-distance relationships
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Before Sunrise
The Notebook
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Going the Distance
  • Long-distance couples contact each other more often, a new study finds
  • Couples felt they shared more intimacy, rather than information
  • Researcher: "You miss your partner...but that ache is exactly what fuels the desire"

Editor's note: Ian Kerner, a sexuality counselor and New York Times best-selling author, writes about sex and relationships for CNN Health. Read more from him on his website, Good In Bed.

(CNN) -- The end of summer doesn't just mean it's time to buckle down at work or head back to school. For many college students, autumn also signals a disruption in summertime loving, in other words, a return to the dreaded long-distance relationship.

But are these types of relationships really so hard? Or, as a recent study suggests, does absence truly make the heart grow fonder?

According to some estimates, up to 75% of college students have engaged in a long-distance relationship at some point, and roughly 25% to 50% of them are currently in one. But long-distance relationships aren't just for college kids; surveys show that about 3 million American adult couples live apart, too.

Previous research has done little to make people believe these situations can work. In fact, one 2010 study suggested successful romances require regular face-to-face contact to succeed.

That's why this latest study, published in the June 2013 issue of the Journal of Communication, is so heartening. Researchers at Cornell University asked 63 couples in long distance and in geographically close relationships to keep track of how often they interacted with their partners and which type of media (phone calls, texting, video chat, etc.) they used. The couples also kept diaries of what information they shared with their partners and how close they felt after interacting with them through these high-tech tools.

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After a week, the researchers interviewed the participants and asked them about their satisfaction with the relationship.

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Perhaps not surprisingly, the long-distance couples contacted each other most often, about three to four times a day. But the researchers also found that this frequent contact may have forged stronger bonds between the partners.

Long-distance couples felt more intimate with each other than did couples who saw each other all the time, possibly because people in long-distance relationships willingly shared their feelings without being coaxed. They also felt more accepting of their partners' behaviors and felt like they were getting closer instead of just sharing information.

As a result, long-distance couples said they felt more committed to each other, even though 30% of them only got to see each other in person one to three times a month.

It makes sense: Just as online relationships and Facebook flirtations allow us to idealize strangers because we don't have to live with all of their quirks, long-distance relationships may help keep the romantic bloom on the rose a little longer.

"In some ways, long-distance relationships are a bit easier, at least for desire, perceived satisfaction, and not having to deal with day-to-day life," explains Kristen P. Mark, director of the Sexual Health Promotion Lab at the University of Kentucky. "Sure, you miss your partner and ache to see them again, but that ache is exactly what fuels the desire and passion in the relationship. Missing out on the mundane allows for your relationship to flourish on the ups of life without having to worry about paying the bills, what to cook for dinner or getting the kids up and out the door in the morning."

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On the other hand, technology can make it easy to present your partner with only a surface fa├žade and mask your true feelings. People in long-distance relationships would do well to be as honest as possible with their partners, and themselves, to ensure that their romance has the depth to last when they become geographically closer.

Concerns aside, I believe that long-distance relationships may actually offer a valuable lesson for the rest of us.

"Putting some 'distance' in your relationship can be helpful, even if you aren't in a long-distance relationship," Mark says. "Using space apart to fuel sexual desire or reignite spark is a useful strategy when daily routine becomes monotonous. It allows for you to miss one another and realize why you've got each other in your life in the first place."

So whether your boyfriend is enrolled in college halfway across the country or your wife is simply leaving for a week-long work trip, don't fret: The time apart may make your relationship stronger than ever.

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