“Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” the old saying goes. The idea is that physical distance from a loved one makes his or her attributes appear greater than they really are, and thus more desirable. A temporary separation can indeed make the heart grow fonder, but long-term long-distance relationships face unique challenges. Helping these relationships flourish requires a specific skill set, one which turns “distance” on its head.
Distance relationships are a reality for many in the modern world. In my counselling practice I see many couples where one partner works at a mine in the north, on a ship, or in the oil patch, and is gone for a few weeks then home for one or two. Other families live locally or in Vancouver while one partner works at a family business in Asia or Europe. The common thread is a set of challenges which include frustrating at expectations which do not translate with each other, trust issues, and the side-effects of irregular face-to-face communication. Texting, cell phones, and skype can be helpful, or they can exacerbate surface fighting—where deeper issues are skimmed over as negative attempts to connect are perpetuated. To work through these challenges, in-person coaching is helpful. Once the roadblocks have been identified and the way through cleared, many couples thrive in long-distance relationships.
Like water, the surface of our emotional selves can be easily stirred, for we are intensely sensitive to any perceived criticism from our partner. A butterfly flapping its wings off the coast of Brazil can, it is said, set air in motion to create a class 5 hurricane off Florida. Similarly, one sharp comment or look can lead to a storm of emotions in an intimate relationship. Getting beneath the surface is essential for having a healthy distance relationship, for it is here that things begin to settle and calm returns as the real issues are explored. I help couples do this by putting the brakes on reactive responding (see my blog post on “Taking a Break”–self-soothing to avoid emotional flooding). It is then easier to see the message hidden beneath the secondary emotions of anger, frustration, withdrawal, and scorn.
The problem with underlying emotions is they are easily misinterpreted. Communication ends when anger, confusion, or conflict is experienced. One reason secondary emotional reaction goes from 0 to 60 so quickly is because of how you interpret the signals (like anger or withdrawal). Physical distance can confirm your worst fears—that the distance is also internal; meaning a fear your partner does not really care for you, understand you, or even like you anymore. The way through this is twofold: 1. not responding negatively, and 2. accessing the primary emotion in order to translate the language of the heart into your communication with your partner. This two-step process prevents unrealistic expectations from pushing your relationship around because you do not need to rely on overly positive or negative images because you can connect at a core level. You know you have connected to the deeper emotions when the reactive urge disappears and understanding sinks in.
Avoiding responding negatively and connecting to underlying emotions work in concert with each other. These skills take practice to develop; below are a few tips on how to do this:
- Watch transitions: They are a critical time when feelings can intensify. Avoid thinking you just need to get home and there will be no problems, as this creates an expectation that things should be smooth sailing. Oppositely, avoid thinking work is so much better when home is full of problems. Problems are part of living and do not disappear whether you are together or apart.
- Confirm the relationship: The more disconnect you feel, the louder (or more withdrawn) you or your partner may get. Counter this by connecting. Discuss your future plans and ideals, shared values, and strengths. Have a date night, even if the first few do not go smoothly (yes, you will need babysitters & planning). (See my blog on Relationship repair)
- Connect with everything that is said. Most communication (over 80%) is non-verbal and you can get stuck on the words. It’s just how we’re built; communication happens on many levels and understanding develops as we are in open and empathetic dialogue with each other. Learn to listen with all senses and check-in when you are getting upset over what your aprtner says and vice-versa. And remember to take self-soothing breaks to avoid interacting based on the fight, flight, or freeze instinct.
- Avoid Emotional Tennis—don’t return negative comments with equal or greater force. Beneath anger about an unpaid bill or mud on the floor may be loneliness, sadness, fear of the physical distance. You have to absorb the lob to see what’s really going on. See your partner’s tone or comments as exclamation points (emphasizing what he or she is feeling) rather than as a personal attack.
- Practice addition rather than subtraction: A simple formula is to ensure you make more genuine positive comments and interactions each day than negative, even if you feel they’re not returned. Put the instinct to make critical comments on ice. All relationships need high doses of self-soothing and maturity to keep from responding to what you see as criticism. You have to turn the instinct to ignore the positive and focus on the negative upside down. Remember the 5:1 ratio; it takes 5 positive interactions to balance out 1 negative one (John Gottman).
- Counselling works: As a chiropractor for relationships, I help couples get the kinks out of their relating patterns so that they can be close, relaxed, and connected together.
Rudeness, disconnect, disrespect, pettiness, anger, and resentment make the heart grow distant; fondness occurs in inverse proportion to their presence. Relationships work when you connect at a deep heart-level and negative patterns are kept at a distance. A little “distance” truly does make the heart grow fonder.