The long-distance relationship goes mainstream: 3 tips for survival

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Does this courtship sound familiar to you?

“We used Instant messenger a lot. But sometimes you just want to get away from your computer, so then we’d text. But fighting while you text is so tedious you may as well just get back on IM.”

This description is from Sandra Proulx, who maintained a long-distance relationship with her boyfriend for two years, before they moved in together in New Hampshire.

Their relationship reflects one of the big changes that millennials have brought to dating: The long-distance relationship. It’s becoming more and more mainstream as young people increasingly rejigger what it means to step out into adult life.

The trend starts before college, when young people are tied to technology, communicating with people all over the world, and making friends with people they’ve never met in person.

Then college comes, and the experience includes much more travel than it used to. Junior year abroad used to be the time to travel. Now there’s also a summer internship for most students, and many students travel to another state every summer for a coveted internship of one sort or another. Among college students 78% say they have been in a long-distance relationship.

After that, traveling for a job seems normal. Thirty years ago, people would generally look for a job out of college in a city they wanted to build a life in. Today, the first job is just a first step.

And millenniels are experimenters. They see their twenties as a time to try out a bunch of different jobs, and they also see it as a time to try out a bunch of different cities. It used to be that you could tell where someone was living by the area code on their phone. Now that area code on their cell phone only tells you where they started.

Additionally, millenniels are acutely aware of the problems generation X encountered from putting off having children. Baby-boomers mothers told gen-X daughters: “Don’t worry about getting married, you have time. Focus on your career. You can have kids later.”

Now we have a whole industry of women penning their ordeal of trying to get pregnant. And it’s pretty clear that IVF is not something that makes putting off having kids til age 40 something to plan for.

So the typical gen-Y graduate plans on being married around age thirty. Which means that while he or she is gallivanting from job to job and city to city, there is also, a parallel hunt for a stable partner.

Enter the long-distance romance.

To be sure, not everyone likes doing the long-distance routine, and New Kid on the Hallway lays out a lot of reasons why. But anecdotal evidence suggests that long-distance relationships have become mainstream for people not only in college, but after college. And, in fact, when it comes to making two careers and one relationship work across state lines, there are some best practices. Here are three:

1. Have a plan for being together eventually, and be flexible.
Ben Morris, founder of Boston Pedicab, spent a semester of school in San Diego where he met his girlfriend, Carolyn Soohoo. Two months after meeting her, he went back to Northeastern to finish college, they agreed to maintain a long-distance relationship while Morris finished school and then, he’d move to San Diego.

Knowing that they had a plan to be together made them committed to daily, hour-long phone calls. “It’s not like you can kill an hour together watching TV,” says Soohoo, “in order to be together we had to be talking.”

But before he got to San Diego, he founded Boston Pedicab, and Soohoo ended up coming to Boston instead. It was a big move for Soohoo. But she points out that learning to live together was not that hard because she and Morriss knew each other very well, “Because of the distance, we were forced to talk about things that would come up a lot later in other relationships.”

2. Get comfortable with deep conversation that flows electronically.
The ubiquitous Blackberrry is evidence that technology has allowed people to blur the lines of work life and personal life. And the better you can use technology the more you can blur the lines. For example, Twittertechnology to update people about what you’re doing all the time — makes IM look like low-maintenance communication. And if you’re good with a wiki then collaboration with people you can’t see doesn’t seem that hard.

Much of the technology that makes the workplace telecommuter-friendly to young people makes a telecommuter relationship possible as well. And, perhaps the most surprising thing is that these relationships seem to work out.

Proulx says that a lot of their communication took place within the 160-character limit of a text message. “When you only see the person once a month, you figure out how to write a whole novel’s worth of information in 160 characters.”

3. Be honest with yourself when it’s going nowhere.
Elina Furman is the author of the new book Kiss and Run: The Single, Picky, and Indecisive Girl’s Guide to Overcoming Her Fear of Commitment. Not surprisingly, she has experience with long-distance relationships.

But hers lasted five years, but it didn’t really go anywhere. “I thought it was the best thing in the world. But I was much less committed than I realized. The long-distance allowed me to gloss over issues and keep a safe distance without ever having to commit.”

Not that all dead-end relationships are bad. Furman is the first to say that having a boyfriend who was generally out of the picture probably helped her career: “I had the security of the relationship without the responsibilities of a relationship, and that freed me up to concentrate on my career.”

But as she got closer to age thirty, she got more interested in the idea of settling down. And in hindsight she recommends that you ask yourself: “Are you making a plan for living in the same zip code, or are you just coasting?”

Either is fine, but the key to success – in both the long-distance relationship as well as the careers it accommodates – is to know what you are aiming for so that you can ask yourself if you’re getting it.

47 replies
  1. Recruiting Animal
    Recruiting Animal says:

    Remember that article you wrote recently about workplace affairs? A boyfriend who is “generally out of the picture” sounds like a recipe for disaster. Because I don’t think Gen Y is going to be the one that makes polyamory mainstream.

  2. Erik
    Erik says:

    Penelope –

    I think one additional point to consider that you just touched on tangentially with Furman’s comment that long-distance probably helped out her career is that people in their twenties will almost always have different priorities for what they need to get done career-wise before they decide to have kids at 30. With the ease of long-distance communications these days (esp. free nights and weekends) it makes it a lot easier to accomodate priorities that require living in different cities.

  3. Rahul
    Rahul says:

    I’d just like to say this post is entirely accurate and extremely in touch with the described group of people. I’m one of the “millennials” portrayed in this post and have been through the described 2 year long distance relationship. Currently we’re moving in together in the city where I work, which is in Europe. She’s from the US.

    Several points that make this article for me:
    – "It's not like you can kill an hour together watching TV," says Soohoo, "in order to be together we had to be talking." — the only way to communicate in a long distance relationship is through talking, so you can’t waste away on a couch together. This forces you into an extremely communicative relationship where everything is very clear and you spend a lot of time getting to know each other in, possibly, ways that you might not have if you had been together physically in the first place. It’s a new concept of communication in relationships and I think there will be a lot of sociology/pscyhology studies in the effects it has in the coming years.
    – “I had the security of the relationship without the responsibilities of a relationship” — this summarises almost perfectly what the key danger is of a long-distance relationship. You need to constantly be aware that the other person has a whole life of every day realities that you aren’t a part of yet, but once you are, along with that experience comes a lot of (emotional) responsibility that you just don’t get from the long-distance relationship.
    – I also feel that Twitter is definitely one of the next-gen chat/IM/sms hybrid technologies that will certainly see a very wide exposure this year.

    All in all, a brilliant post. Thanks!

  4. John
    John says:

    Interesting article. I agree that it can keep those relationships going. The draw back is when they take it to that next step, the living together. Or even just seeing each other on a regular basis. Sometimes they get used to the freedom of not having to see that person, only on a weekend hear or there, and having them around all the time is a big change. Also, I have noticed that there is more temptation for people to cheat, as they don’t have to see the person and lie about it to their face, rather just talking with them over text.

  5. Jacqui
    Jacqui says:

    Kudos, Penelope. I, too, am one of the millenials who has endured the long-distance relationship, and you’re dead-on in your post.
    As I read, I reflected on my own experience – a year of living in Ohio while my boyfriend was in Alaska (we’re both now in OH).
    We survived through all of the above; the texting, IM, and hours-long phone calls. But now, two years after being in close proximity, I feel like we’re meeting some new challenges that will be more common as these relationships become mainstream.
    For example, when talking is all you can do to spend time together, you do a lot of it, and become very good at communicating. Now, two years after his move, we CAN sit down and watch TV for an hour. We have to plan dinner out together so we have to sit and talk to each other for an hour without being distracted by other things.
    I was worried that we are less connected now than before, until I realized how natural this transition was and that it was just a new challenge we’d have to overcome.
    I don’t think these are the same challenges our parents faced, so overcoming them will take a new gameplan, without much of a frame of reference to rely on.

  6. Susan
    Susan says:

    All points are extremely true. Most of my friends are in long-distance relationships (some even overseas, so the two hour flight to see my boyfriend pales in comparison to a ten hour flight to London), so I would say that this phenomenon already IS mainstream. My mother didn’t understand it at first (“why can’t you meet a nice med student or MBA in your own city?”), but with email, frequent flyer miles and text messaging, my boyfriend says he sometimes forgets that we don’t live in the same city because our gadgets are so synched up. And best of all, I don’t have to sacrifice precious time with my female friends.

  7. Wendy
    Wendy says:

    I think everything here is spot on. The one thing I’d add is that I think Gen X was doing this 10-15 years ago when they were in their 20s. I’m Gen X and was involved in a distance relationship (now we’re married with a child so it worked out) and knew dozens of people who were or had been. There was no IM until near the end, but there was e-mail, and great LD telephone deals.

    * * * * * *

    I think there is another difference, besides technology. Most of generation x graduated from college into an absolutely terrible job market. So the idea of relocating away from a significant other was less prominent because there were no jobs worth relocating for.


  8. Jaerid
    Jaerid says:

    Being a Gen Y who went through 4 years of a long distance relationship, I would say you are spot on here Penelope. As far as a previous commenter’s thoughts that Gen Y is not “going to be the one that makes polyamory mainstream” is unrealistic. I personally believe that Gen Y will be more dedicated to their relationships. Personally, I know I feel this was because my parents divorced and remarried – so did my wife’s. Also, becasue Gen Y tend to be more in tune with their desires, I think we will be more selective of our long term partner to avoid that issue.

    As a side note, that 4 year long term realtionship has turned into a now 4 year marriage with one kid… it is possible.

  9. Jacqui
    Jacqui says:

    I agree with Jaerid. It’s pretty widely accepted in most GenY profiles that our generation is returning to “traditional” family values, they take longer to get married, and have more unfavorable views of divorce. If any generation has a chance at making committed relationships mainstream, it’s this one.

  10. Christine
    Christine says:

    New reader…

    Love this post. I just made the move to bring our 4 year long distance relationship to a peaceful resolution by moving to upstate NY out of Manhattan. My constant struggle over slowing my career pace in order to make my relationship work is finally over. My now fiance finally believes that I don’t love my job more than him. Major adjustments living together…We both LOVE our independence and are very used to it. We love being together, too. So we have agreed to let each other have our alone time too.

    The time apart was painful and expensive (We made the mistake of adding it up one afternoon – whopping $30K. yikes! Can I expense that?). We have independent strength now that makes us even better together.

  11. Hilde
    Hilde says:

    This is my first reaction on a blog-site, so if I write in a ‘weird’ way, it’s just because I’m not used to it (yet). After my first relationship with a man from my own country (relationship which lasted for 19 years) I found myself in a LDR head over heels. It didn’t last – after almost 2 years we split up. For me it was ideal, for him the loneliness was getting at him and he started seeing someone else. Now I’m having another LDR which is working fine. Long Distance in our case is 1.500 km. We see each other 2, 3 times a month – depends on our time schedules at work. I think a LDR is fantastic, but the distance shouldn’t be too long. It’s great to have your own space, own house, own children maybe, own worries, own daily stuff. And it’s wonderful to have a second house where you can go to, where you’re always welcome, where somebody is waiting for you. After my marriage I must say I am somewhat afraid of the idea of living together again. On the other hand I think that in the long run 1.500 km really are too much. Perfect distance would be around 50 – 100 km.
    I must say that I am a very happy woman and I am lucky and happy to have a LDR. I live in two countries (Belgium and Italy) and that gives me the feeling I am leading two lives at the same moment. Obviously, there are evenings that I really miss my partner. But generally, I consider my life complete because I have a lot of warm friendships with other women who for some reason spend lots of time alone, too. The child I had from my marriage can grow up harmoniously because there is no immediate threat from my partner and his children whom we would have to share all our spare time with.

  12. Long Distance Relationship Expert
    Long Distance Relationship Expert says:

    Penelope, thank you for the Very interesting article.

    In my work with LDR-couples I very often discover that knowing when a relationship is a dead-end is very rare. It almost never happens beforehand. Unfortunately many notice after years of frustration, suffering and deprivations. Dead ducks don’t quack. After that it’s often very painful.

    But let us be honest here: very few of us have the strength to let go a promising long distance relationship, just because the circumstances are not right. That why I think your “3.” is the most important part of your article.


  13. ashna
    ashna says:

    Thank you the interesting article. Currently I am surviving a 5 year long distance relationship. It is very hard but we have plans to move in together after he finishes his ph.d and hopefully we will before I begin mine.

  14. Long Distance Relationships
    Long Distance Relationships says:

    Long Distance relationships are tough, very, very tough. That is the challenge that people face. If you stay in regular contact and try and see each other when you can I think it can work. it depends a lot on the individuals and how the relationship was like before the distance.

  15. Long Distance Relationships
    Long Distance Relationships says:

    Ive been in a relationship on line for over a year now. We took all the precautionary steps (talked for 6 months first via phone and web cam) before flying to see eachother. We fly every 6-8 weeks now. We have the fundements of an incredible marriage. Great conversation, communication, and respect for eachother which helps considerably. Unfortunatly we are on opposite sides of the country me in school him with a business, and are unable to relocate for about 1-2 years. Our only issue is trust. Even when we think we handle situations accordly there always seems to be room for capability to have made better decisions. It seems to consistanly “not good enough”. I know distance and frustration feeds this but its aggrivating. I think once we are together things will be more solid…..but any tips on making it that far?

  16. barb
    barb says:

    The two posts above should be removed as objectionable. They were obviously made to embarrass someone.

    * * * * * *

    I took a look. The comments look fine to me.
    And then, I was going to delete this comment, as irrelevant, but I couldn’t bring myself to be so intrusive. So I’m responding instead….


  17. barb
    barb says:

    Penelope Sorry you feel that way, I was just trying to protect a friend from embarrasment as a result of somone posing as her on the web. Hope you will reconsider. Thanks.

  18. kari
    kari says:

    I was directed by an acquaintance to check out this posting since I have recently become the victim of a jealous ex — a man who has not only been posing as me on the web but also emailing articles, links, etc to me and others using fake email addresses. Judging from the content and timing, this appears to be more of the same from him. I would appreciate it if you would remove the comments from your site and not post any more from anyone who claims to be “Kari Dean.”

  19. Anna
    Anna says:

    I think that in general to maintain a long distance is not difficult. As long as both partners are happy with the situation. But when they eventually decide to settle down together very often they break up too soon. They suddenly realize that they don't know the person near them, after long years on a distance maybe she/he changed or even never been a person they consider him/her to be.

  20. lisa
    lisa says:

    Technology is changing the world of long distance relationships. I was in an LDR for 2.5 years, about 2 years ago (we are still together! Though now in the same city…). Even in that short time there has been a huge change in video sharing, blackberry use, and text etiquette. Tech is coming to the rescue!

  21. mabru 1982
    mabru 1982 says:

    Some advice- I found this website posted on another article about long distance relationships. I’ve been with my fiance for 8 years, 4 of them were spent with him in NY and me in PA. We’re using this website to help communicate ideas on planning the wedding! I’ve also been able to keep in touch with my best friend from high school and “meet” her new boyfriend on relationship memory. Maybe it’ll work for some of you trying to keep the spice in your relationships or just keep in touch.

  22. says:

    Communication, trust, honesty and passion will strengthen your relationship whilst you're apart but you really have to believe in each other and your relationship for it to succeed – . although long distance relationships can be difficult, they can work and do work for many couples if both parties put in the effort.

  23. Jennifer
    Jennifer says:

    Hello, my name is Jennifer and i’m 19 years old. I have been in a long distance with my boyfriend for almost a year and i must say it is hard on both of us. He had to move to Florida for family reasons September 2008 and it was the hardest thing that we had to go through. We didn’t know what was going to happen to us and we were both 18 at the time, in love, and we both thought we would be together forever. It was like when he left, he took a part of me with him and i was so hurt that he had to leave. But during the first year of our long distance relationship, i have flown over to florida twice to see him for two weeks and he came over once to see me for a week and we were so happy to see each other again. We celebrated our 1 year anniversary in Febuary of 2009 and we have made plans that if we stay together even after we graduate from college, i would have saved money to move down there, stay with him and his family and look for a good job, keep it, and we both save enough money until we can live together in Florida. I really want that day to come and we are both working very hard on this relationship to keep it alive because we both have love and trust that no one we know has more than we have. I want some more advice on what we can do to keep our relationship alive and healthy since i plan to move down there in less than 3 years and finally settle down with him if our relationship survives until then.

  24. Invictus Manila
    Invictus Manila says:

    Tnx for the info above which i think i can use as my guide. I’m one of those who experienced long distance relationship but after eight months, efter we met once i decided to stop our relationship. Because i am afraid of so many things like im not sure how long are we distant from one another. I’m sure as the months add on to our relationship, im getting deeper, my love is really growing for him. But i can’t see and hear any assurance from him that provoke me to a brak up with him. I tried to avoid the communication but then now we are still continous with our conversation thru cellphones and phone calls. I still have true and deep feelings for him, we are not officially in a relationship but then i kno and i can feel that we are still committed to one another. I really like and love him but then i am too afraid that if i will freely let my feelings go deeper and grower at the end there’s really a strong relationship waiting for us….Hai…..

  25. lisa
    lisa says:

    Great advice. I was in two long distance relationships. The first one did not end so well – and probably should have ended a year (or more!) earlier (Rule number 3!). The second one ended when we moved to the same city (yay!). We didn’t really have a plan of when our the distance would end though… so we didn’t follow rule number 1 either. Rule number 2 is soooo true though! A great blog for advice about LDRs can be found at

  26. River
    River says:

    Kudos on another great post.

    I disagree on half of your later comment “… Most of generation x graduated from college into an absolutely terrible job market. So the idea of relocating away from a significant other was less prominent because there were no jobs worth relocating for.”

    I disagree with this part: “the idea of relocating away from a significant other was less prominent”. I think long-distance moves are *more* likely to happen in a BAD job market. But they are not chosen by people who have a decent job already, and are typically moves to locations that were not one’s first choice or second, and they are hoping the move is temporary, just a year or two (hah!).

    I’m thinking of several friends and relatives and myself too, who were faced with the choice of unemployment versus a long-distance move to an area that was not so attractive to them. Yes, those who had been married or in a serious relationship for several years were the least likely to make the long-distance moves. But they were typically the same people who had had more years of career experience and perhaps a larger network.

    Beyond the immediate financial survival concerns, the other big worry was the question: How many months or years can a person be unemployed, before it does permanent damage to one’s perception by potential employers? How many months or years can someone be extremely underemployed, way below one’s abilities (e.g. Ph.D. at the order counter of a fast-food restaurant or driving a taxicab), before it does permanent damage to how one is perceived by potential employers? I don’t know the answer to these questions of how long. Perhaps an idea for a future blog post?

    BTW, a general tidbit of feedback (from someone who likes the vast majority of your blog): The statements I find most annoying from you are when you make generalizations about Gen X or Gen Y or Boomers, and what their differences in values and desires may be. For each generation, their proclamations, choices, and actions, all undergo changes when faced with unforeseen major changes to the economy, or calamities (e.g. civil war, invasion).

    I’m going to make an annoying generalization: Every generation who grows up during stable years of prosperity in a stable country, tends to make confident, smug statements during their young adulthood about how they are going to balance work life and personal life (although the buzz words for expressing that concept are different for each gen), and they will live by higher ideals than the previous gens, and say they are unconcerned with earning money, say they don’t care about job security, will never work at a boring job, would not stay at a dreadful job just because it is a source of health insurance, etc. [Doesn’t that merely describe the way any gen would want to live?] Eventually they are hit by a recession, and their attitude of smug superiority over the previous gen(s) is modified. And parenthood just makes the stakes higher. Two good things that may happen during a recession are: the realization that who we are is not so different, at a personal level, than previous generations, and a better attitude towards those who live in poorer countries.

  27. trent
    trent says:

    hey jus responding to the post above…stay with the relationship..ive been in a ldr for 3 of 4 years being together…you said that u plan on moving to florida to be with him evenually…thats good that u have a plan…my advice would be to comit to moving there and really give the move a chance. speaking from experiance..

    My girlfriend and i started dating in the last half of our senior year of highschool. We decided to make it work because we simply werent ready to end it. A great but tough decision. Not so much because i didnt love her but because being in a ldr scares me in a way. Anyway, we made it work for the first 2 years and we had both planned on her moving to my college town and going to a jc. She moved up and it was great but apperently it wasnt good enough for her to stay…towards the end of that year she told me that she was going back home to wait for me to graduate there. We decided to stay together and our relationship is going pretty good as we just hit 4 years a couple weeks ago.

    My only problem is that i still have angry feelings about her moving here for a year and then leaving…its as if she didn’t like being with me enough to way out the things she missed from home…i know that i surrended a fantasy college life, with the women and the frat deal, but i gave that all up because i thought i would only have to be “that guy in a ldr” for 2 years!! i dont know i get mad at her for it still and i think part of me will always be upset with her decision to go back to our home state, cali. I graduate in two months and i plan to move home and start in my mind, a real relationship.

    After 4 years of college i can hapily say that i have never slept with another woman but i cant say i havnt thought about it. Theres been nights where ive gone out to the bars and have gotten to the point where a girl wants to take me home and ill always bail. I have made out with multaple girls (while drinking) but in my moments of weakness i never went a way i feel like pushing that envelope keeps me confident in knowing that even though im in a long distance realtionship and have been off the market for a while,,,that i can still attract other women. Its not like i go out and look for this its jus sometimes it happens and i never know what to think…

    I dont kno wat i think about it all, sometime i guess i wish i had done things differently but then again i wouldnt have her,,sorry to ramble i dont do these ever and i randomly found myself googleing stuff about my relationship…first time in 4 years ive ever done that!! well thanks for reading, please let me kno that im not a dick boyfriend and that ill be allright…obviously ive got issues but i dont know why ive all of a sudden confronted the way i feel about everything…prob because i move to the same city REAL soon…anyways thanks

  28. Sheila
    Sheila says:

    This is one interesting write-up. I have been in a long distance relationship for 2 years. What we did when we were away is that we constantly call each other and chat on the internet just to overcome the distance.

  29. Probiotics
    Probiotics says:

    Being in a long distance relationship is really hard. There are a lot of things that you have to consider. However the main issue is how to constantly have good communication? For starters it is really hard, aside from the fact that you are apart from each other you have to make your partner happy despite the distance so you have to call each other every now and then and remind him/her how much you miss them. Always make an effort to contact them, that’s what I have learned through my experience. And this article also help broaden/widen up my horizon in this matter. Thanks!

  30. Rabbit Hutch
    Rabbit Hutch says:

    Long distance relationship is really a tough call. There are a lot of sacrifices that needs to be done. There are a lot of things as well that you have to consider. One of the problems in long distance relationship is temptation since you or your partner can/may be easily tempted by people surrounding you. Another things that is very challenging is the communication. You have to have constant communication with your partner to settle things and also to talk about your relationship and also your daily life apart from each other.

  31. Andriy
    Andriy says:

    Long distance relationship is really hard. There are a lot of things that you have to consider even before you and your partner engage in this kind of set up. Most couples en up breaking up since they can’t handle the pressure and distance between them.

  32. Karr
    Karr says:

    What terrible job market are you talking about? I am a Gen Xers and college for most of us would have been done 1990-1996. They were prime time for jobs and unemployment was extrememly low. I can recall employers hiring people and being willing to train even for college graduate level jobs it was THAT good. Maybe you aren’t really in sync with the time that gen Xers would have come out of school. It certainly was NOT a depressed market. My ex and I built a huge nestegg, bought not one but two homes, and had very stable employment. We lost that towards the end of the last decade, not the 90’s. The 90’s were a time for building. Our mistakes as Xers was thinking times would stay at least moderately similar like they were for our parents–we never anticipated a SEVERE recession. That said, my ex husband was a long distance relationship at first and I’ve been in one now for a few years since my divorce. The technology makes it easier, but the one I had with my ex was carried on in ’94.

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    joy says:

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  1. says:

    Am I a Millennial

    Millenials are also known as Generation Y. Depending on who you ask, Millenials started being born in 1977 or 1982. I was born in 1977 and have always thought I was the last year of Generation X. After reading this post on Brazen Carrerist I have started

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