New media allows requited love to know no distance

Jeff Hancock
Crystal Jiang

Much as Abigail Adams found solace in writing letters to her husband more than two centuries ago, today’s distant hearts find comfort and become closer in phone calls, video chat, texting and instant messages.

Seemingly destined to fail, long-distance relationships can lead to more intimate communication than lovers geographically close, says a new study, “Absence Makes the Communication Grow Fonder: Geographic Separation, Interpersonal Media, and Intimacy in Dating Relationships,” published in the June 2013 Journal of Communication.

Crystal Jiang, Ph.D. ’11, assistant professor at City University of Hong Kong, and Jeffrey Hancock, Cornell associate professor of communication, asked long-distance lovers and couples in close proximity to report their daily communications using various media.

Long-distance relationships went unexplored for years. Previous studies examined jealousy and stress, but current studies reflect that adoration from afar need not be knotty. Long-distance couples sometimes have a better relationship than couples nearby.

“The physical connection is very important, but today’s technology allows couples to adapt to distance,” said Hancock. “When a relationship is distant, research shows that we are more focused on the relationship – and we pay more attention to the relationship.”

In this study, the participants submitted 876 diaries reporting a total of 3,024 interactions, including 1,038 face-to-face interactions, 557 phone calls, 101 video chats, 1,090 texts, 202 instant messages and 36 emails. They reported an average of 3.45 interactions per day.

On average, long-distance participants reported significantly fewer interactions per day than geographically close participants, but they reported using more mediated channels, and had more phone calls, video chats, texting interactions and instant message interactions than local participants.

Both groups reported little communication via email.

Hancock explained that through today’s media, like texting and instant messaging, and phone calls, couples feel a “hyperpersonal” effect. “It intensifies online, and couples idealize one another’s behavior – in other words, when distant and when communicating via media, an individual idealizes the relationship to compensate for the distance. And generally, you overwhelmingly perceive the good parts.”

Long distance couples in the study felt more intimate with each other, as they disclosed more and they idealized their partner’s behaviors and conquered the miles when they used text-based, asynchronous and mobile media.

“Our culture emphasizes being together physically and frequent face-to-face contact for close relationships, but long-distance relationships clearly stand against all these values. People don’t have to be so pessimistic about long-distance romance,” said Jiang. “The long-distance couples try harder than geographically close couples in communicating affection and intimacy, and their efforts do pay back.”

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