How Does Physical Separation Influence Adult Relationships?

In a recent article, to be published in the February 2019 edition of Current Opinion in Psychology, Lisa Diamond of the University of Utah summarizes the research on how physical separation and electronic communication influence adult relationship satisfaction.1

Background

Relationships are essential to the health and well-of children and adults. Both find separation stressful. Early in life, relationships are also central to our survival. Compared to other species, human babies are born especially premature and helpless. An infant separated from her parent or primary caregiver experiences tremendous separation distress, and thus responds by showing various distress-related behaviors, such as crying.

According to John Bowlby’s pioneering research on child development and attachment, separation distress is one of four characteristics of attachment bonds. A second characteristic is proximity maintenance. The child naturally desires to stay close to her caregiver or to other attachment figures (i.e. people that provide support and protection. For children, parents are usually the attachment figures; for adults, a caring and supporting romantic partner might fill a similar role.

Thirdly, attachment bonds are also characterized by providing a secure base, from which the infant can begin to explore the world; fourthly, they serve as a safe haven, to which the anxious child can return for comfort and protection.

Like children, adults resist long separation from their attachment figures (e.g., long-term romantic partner). Those who do endure separation for a long time, often experience worse health and well-being.

The current review

Diamond, reviewing the implications of separation for adult relationships and their well-being, begins by noting that separation leads to physiological dysregulation.

People in relationships co-regulate each other’s biological and psychological systems (e.g., sleep cycles, hormones, appetite, and even body temperature). Sbarra and Hazan had previously suggested that while in some cases separation results in a full blown stress response, at the very least it results in dysregulation.2 And, given the link between various physiological systems (e.g., sleep) and health, separation can be physiologically detrimental to one’s health.

However, Diamond proposes that reduced co-regulation is not always harmful to health; it may even be beneficial. For example, the coordination of stress responses in couples often intensifies negative emotions during stressful times. Therefore, the author suggests that separation is associated with both positive and negative consequences.1 

In fact, previous research has shown that many long-distance couples experience high levels of relationship satisfaction. Nevertheless, Diamond is careful in interpreting these findings, noting that these data likely came from higher-functioning and more connected couples; from couples who must have felt secure enough in their relationship in the first place, to have entertained the possibility of making a long-distance relationship work.

In general, research shows that long-distance relationships that are characterized by more contact and connection (e.g., longer-lasting phone calls and more regular face-to-face contact) are associated with higher relationship satisfaction. These findings agree with attachment theory’s emphasis on the role of intimacy and proximity in relationship satisfaction.

Nevertheless, given the potential for computer-mediated communication or CMC (i.e. internet-mediated communication in text or graphic form) to increase relationship satisfaction in separated couples, can a distance relationship that involves no direct contact actually work?

Previous findings support the view that the physical presence of other people is important for forming attachment bonds; but once these bonds are established, other types of representations (e.g., CMC) might suffice for keeping these connections alive.

For instance, in one investigation, after the participants experienced a stressor, those who merely thought about their attachment figures (as opposed to non-attachment figures) had a reduced stress response.3

With that said, it is important to remember that CMC is not the same as an actual physical relationship. Despite maintaining basic sense of satisfaction, CMC could fail to prevent the separated couple from slowly transferring their “primary attachment functions” to physically available others (e.g., friends, coworkers). This risk can be reduced if CMC is synchronous (i.e. real-time chat instead of reading the partner’s messages at one’s convenience) and rich (i.e. audiovisual communication instead of simply texting).1

In concluding her review, Diamond states:

A fascinating direction for future research, especially as online and long-distance relationships become more common, concerns the specific types and degrees of physical and psychological proximity that are necessary to maintain different aspects of attachment, and their health-related sequelae, at different stages of health and development and in different environmental contexts.1

Perhaps future technology will provide couples with such rich forms of electronic communication that actual physical proximity will not be necessary. Well, almost.

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