Loving and living at a distance – investigating long distance relationships from a sociological perspective

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Published by Springer (2020)

For her dissertation project, Marie-Kristin Döbler has examined non-presence in romantic relationships.

With the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, countries closed their borders and mobility as well as social contacts in general were restricted.  People who were particularly affected by this came into focus: Couples who do not live together. For some couples, the pandemic led to a relationship crisis that divided them, others held on to their relationship and continue to do so. Those who were able to gain experience in dealing with non-presence before the pandemic and to develop skills conducive to bridging distance seem to have an advantage.

Physical closeness is generally considered a prerequisite for a couple, but for many years now, long-distance relationships have been increasing significantly due to the flexibility required on the job market. So, what does it take for a couple to feel like a couple and to stay together, even when there is temporary physical distance? Marie-Kristin Döbler from the Institute of Sociology has examined these and other questions in her dissertation project and published the results as a book titled ‚Nicht-Präsenz in Paarbeziehungen. Lieben und Leben auf Distanz‘ (approximately: non-presence in romantic relationships. Living and loving at a distance). In the context of the pandemic and its social impacts, her results have gained new relevance. We are becoming more conscious of social contacts and distance as well as closeness and the question of what makes a fulfilling relationship.

Marie-Kristin Döbler: “The topic has, due to the pandemic, gained unexpected or involuntary relevance, and many of the results and findings now apply to and are relatable to an even larger population.”

For her study, she interviewed twelve couples and six individuals and conducted a discourse analysis of articles in newspapers and magazines. All respondents are in functioning long-distance relationships and feel like they are a couple. All of them contemplate the cultural ideas of “normal” relationships as well as media representations of long-distance relationships.

“It may sound banal,” says Marie-Kristin Döbler, “but the feeling of being a couple mainly arises because people in long-distance relationships act like a couple even in the absence of the partner. Outward characteristics such as marriage, children, a shared household or shared possessions however are not as important for their perception of ‘couplehood’.” Shared experiences and memories are crucial for “couple-consciousness” and help to maintain it. Even if the physical distance is not welcome by all, it becomes a part of the day-to-day, and this habituation effect is also described by all respondents.

Advantages and disadvantages of long-distance relationships

The people interviewed also indicated that presence or absence of the partner lead them to reflect more on the relationship. Insecurities over the relationship deviating from one’s own ideals or those of society may lead couples to empathize interactions as a couple and to assign more importance to them. “An insight that was expressed by all couples: You have to be able to be alone and get by by yourself. These are prerequisites for being able to live a relationship with non-presence in the long term.”, Döbler explains. Even though it is usually the men who need to be mobile for their career, reminiscent of old role expectations, the concept of the long-distance relationship simultaneously dissolves these very same expectations. Women have to, and do, take care of all tasks that may arise themselves. Marie-Kristin Döbler could also observe another contradiction caused by non-presence; It is true that a long-distance relationship contradicts the ‘classic’ image of a happy relationship in which the parties involved wish to live together. However, long-distance love also helps to reconcile different desires and needs and allows for love and careers, vibrant social networks next to a solid relationship.

Marie-Kristin Döbler, Institute of Sociology (photo: private)

So what is the recipe for a successful long-distance relationship? Media, social contacts and knowledge resources of the couple are essential support structures and shape how couples brave the difficulties of a long-distance relationship. Technological possibilities and means of communication are crucial here, but these only help temporarily and cannot permanently replace time spent together in presence. This ‘co-presence’ of the participants does not have to be permanent or uninterrupted, but it does have to be regular. What is essential is to let the other person participate in one’s life continuously, in physical proximity as well as at a geographical distance, and in this respect the respondents see themselves as superior to cohabiting couples. They think they are aware of the need to enable participation, to work on the relationship and to actively establish presence.

And what about love?

“All respondents named prerequisites for happy relationships that apply to all kinds of relationships, but that are particularly important in a long-distance relationship, namely investment in and commitment to the relationship, trust and reliability, communication and exchange as well as organisation and planning.” And what about love?

“In fact, none of the couples interviewed named love as a prerequisite for mastering spatial distance. However, if one examines the many facets of love and does not unnecessarily narrow it down to the romantic idea of it, it is clear that the respondents name many things that can be interpreted as love and that not only support the beginning of a relationship, but also factor in over its course. In this sense, love is obviously also one of the prerequisites for the development and continuation of romantic relationships as well – and this is irrespective of whether it is long-distance or not.”

Marie-Kristin Döbler is still working on the topic and is conducting small empirical surveys on relationships during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Find the book “Nicht-Präsenz in Paarbeziehungen“, published by Springer, here.