The Real Reason Long-distance Relationships Don’t Pan Out

Being in a relationship with someone far away from you can be a strain, but the real problem may be the shift between what you think you want at a distance versus how you feel about those traits up close. ssuaphoto/iStockphoto

There's an old saying that absence makes the heart grow fonder. Whether or not you believe that adage, it turns out that for many of the 3.5 million couples separated by career, education or whatever life circumstances get in the way, it may be true.

Just two years ago, research published in the Journal of Communication found that couples living in long-distance relationships were likely to report high levels of satisfaction, intimacy and overall communication. In fact, the greater the physical distance, the greater the contentedness — likely due to the greater the work and effort that goes in to maintaining a long-distance relationship.

So then why does it seem as though long-distance relationships are usually considered doomed to fail? What if we thought about distance in a different way: not the distance between two people as measured in the miles between Points A and B, but, rather, in the psychological distance between the two people?

A new study led by the University at Buffalo, New York, published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin suggests that distance may influence romantic/sexual attraction in an interesting way. When we get what we think we desire most in a significant other, it turns out that we actually might not find the quality attractive at all — and we may feel threatened by qualities we used to admire. Psychological distance, whether someone is "construed as being near or far in relation to the self," say the authors, "plays a key role in determining attraction."

To illustrate, the research team looked at levels of intelligence in a potential couple; and their result showed that men who reported intelligence as an attractive quality in a long-distance partner (hypothetical) were less likely to admire that quality in women within close proximity (real). In one sample group of 55 male undergraduates, 86 percent of participants reported they would feel comfortable dating partners smarter than themselves, but that didn't actually hold true when the men had face-to-face interaction with women who were able to outsmart them. In fact, men were more likely to describe women who outperformed them as less attractive than those who underperformed, and were more likely to keep a greater physical distance from the smartest women.

“There is a disconnect between what people appear to like in the abstract when someone is unknown and when that same person is with them in some immediate social context,” explains Dr. Lora Park, associate professor of psychology and principal of the University at Buffalo-led research team, in a statement released by the university.

The team describes the distinction between the abstract (our belief) and the immediate (our actual preference). The short of it is, there can be a conflict between what we think we're attracted to and our actual preferences. Although considered attractive at a distance (the unknown), this theory proposes that when faced with realistic romantic possibilities with a smart woman, men were more likely to report feeling threatened, and are more likely to report feelings of inadequacy.

Although this study focused narrowly on men's attraction to women, Park suggests the potential to cast a wider net, perhaps applying the observations from this group across other interpersonal situations.

Critical of the research, however, Dr. Kimberly McGann, professor of sociology at Nazareth College, though, doesn't see “applications beyond the young, straight, white men enrolled in psychology college classes and who need/are willing to get extra credit, [who] don't want to sit as close to attractive women they think are smarter than them.” McGann elaborates, “A test score in a lab with a higher number on it as a way to indicate someone is 'smarter' than you is way different than meeting someone out socially, having a conversation, and noticing that they are very sharp/smart/clever etc.”