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Partners in various relational types transition between being together and apart, but these transitions are far from seamless in long-distance relationships (LDRs). In this study, a relational dialectics framework was used to examine long-distance romantic relationships (LDRRs) and explore the contradiction(s) experienced by LDRR partners as they negotiate between togetherness and separation. Twenty heterosexual couples participated in audio-taped ‘couple interviews’ in which they answered a series of questions about the mutual influence of togetherness and separation in their relationships. Results showed that across all 20 couples the interaction states of being together and being apart mutually enable and constrain one another in many ways. Implications for the study of long-distance relating using a relational dialectics approach are presented.
Journal of Social and Personal
DOI: 10.1177/0265407504046115
2004; 21; 689 Journal of Social and Personal Relationships
Erin M. Sahlstein
long-distance relationships
Relating at a distance: Negotiating being together and being apart in
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Relating at a distance:
Negotiating being together and
being apart in long-distance
Erin M. Sahlstein
University of Richmond
Partners in various relational types transition between being
together and apart, but these transitions are far from
seamless in long-distance relationships (LDRs). In this study,
a relational dialectics framework was used to examine long-
distance romantic relationships (LDRRs) and explore the
contradiction(s) experienced by LDRR partners as they nego-
tiate between togetherness and separation. Twenty hetero-
sexual couples participated in audio-taped ‘couple interviews’
in which they answered a series of questions about the
mutual influence of togetherness and separation in their
relationships. Results showed that across all 20 couples the
interaction states of being together and being apart mutually
enable and constrain one another in many ways. Implications
for the study of long-distance relating using a relational
dialectics approach are presented.
KEY WORDS: absence • co-presence • long-distance relationships
• relational dialectics
Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Out of sight, out of mind. Implied in
these cultural commentaries are two possible views of long-distance
relationships, one in which affections increase because of physical
separation and the other in which physical absence creates com-
fortable autonomy. Both are likely to be at play in the experience of being
Journal of Social and Personal Relationships Copyright © 2004 SAGE Publications
(, Vol. 21(5): 689–710. DOI: 10.1177/0265407504046115
This paper was presented to the Interpersonal Communication Division for the annual
meeting of the National Communication Association, November 2001, in Atlanta. The author
based this article on her dissertation at the University of Iowa, which she completed in May
2000 under the supervision of Steve Duck (advisor), Leslie Baxter, Kristine Fitch, Randy
Hirokawa, Joy Hayes, and John Harvey. All correspondence concerning this article should be
addressed to Erin M. Sahlstein, Department of Rhetoric and Communication Studies,
University of Richmond, 212 Booker Hall, Richmond, VA 23173, USA [e-mail:]. Sandra Metts was the Action Editor on this article.
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in a long-distance relationship. On the one hand, living apart can be stress-
ful and lonely for relational partners and most couples probably prefer
living in the same place. However, living in the same place is not always
possible and relating at a distance can be quite beneficial for individuals
and their relationships, for example, by allowing partners freedoms that
they would not have if they lived in close proximity. On the other hand,
being in the same place (either permanently or temporarily), although facil-
itative of relationship development and immediate companionship, may
increase feelings of ‘stepping on each other’s toes,’ ‘being in each other’s
space,’ or ‘limiting individual potential.
Through the current study, I highlight how the two salient yet contra-
dictory characterizations of relating partially reflect how distance and prox-
imity between partners may mutually influence a relationship in both
positive and negative ways. Specifically, I explore the extent to which the
tensions between being together and being apart experienced in long-
distance romantic relationships (LDRRs) construct a contradiction (Baxter
& Montgomery, 1996) within these relationships. A tension is a contradic-
tion if the two forces (e.g., being together and being apart) work both with
and against one another by both enabling and constraining one another.
Relating at a distance
Although long-distance relationships are not the norm for relating in
today’s society, they are increasing in frequency. More than 10 years ago,
Stafford and Reske (1990) suggested that as many as one-third of all college
dating relationships may be LDRRs. More recently, Dellmann-Jenkins,
Bernard-Paolucci, and Rushing (1994) reported that 43.2% of their college
dating couple sample was in a long-distance relationship. Even though
scholars have reported a significant number of LDRRs in undergraduate
populations, long-distance relationships continue to be an ‘understudied’
phenomenon (Rohlfing, 1995) and only a small group of predominantly
atheoretical studies reporting varied results have been published in the
LDRR area.
Within the personal relationships literature, LDRRs are often compared
with proximal romantic relationships (PRRs), typically in terms of
frequency, quality, and amount of contact, maintenance strategies, media
usage, social networks, and relational satisfaction (see Sahlstein, 2000, for
a thorough review of the literature). One of the most relevant findings for
the present study is that individuals in both LDRRs and PRRs report
average to high relational satisfaction despite the obvious differences in
contact frequencies and quantity (Guldner & Swensen, 1995). Several
explanations have been posited for the similar levels of relational satis-
One possible reason for the similar satisfaction levels is that LDRR
partners may idealize their partners and their relationships, which would
bring LDRR satisfaction levels up to the same levels as PRRs. Idealization
is the concept of perceiving one’s relationship through a positive frame and
mainly occurs when the relational partners are not in physical presence
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with each other. Stafford and Reske (1990) reported that partners in
LDRRs idealize their relationships more than PRRs and are more opti-
mistic about their futures as couples. Because of their assumption that
LDRRs had limited, restricted communication, Stafford and Reske
concluded that LDRRs were more likely to overlook the negative aspects
of their relationships, to accentuate the positive characteristics and to make
the most of their interactions.
Another possible explanation for the similarly high satisfaction levels
reported by individuals in LDRRs and PRRs is that LDRRs may have
positive qualities that are constructed as negative when experienced in
PRRs (and vice versa). For example, being in a LDRR may allow indi-
vidual partners more time to commit to their careers. However, PRR
partners may view more time devoted to career aspirations as taking away
from the relationship. Thus, PRR partners could view the same issue in a
negative light with decreases in relational satisfaction as a possible
outcome. Holt and Stone (1988) argue that relating at a distance (and in
proximity) and the resulting relational satisfaction levels are more compli-
cated than merely an interaction of miles apart and frequency of contact.
Possibly, similar levels of global relational satisfaction (i.e., How satisfied
are you with this relationship overall?) are not so puzzling if LDRRs are
viewed as having positive qualities and if PRRs are not conceptualized as
the standard for comparison.
In this study, I do not compare LDRRs and PRRs but extend Holt and
Stone (1988) by advocating for a rich understanding of LDRRs and
assume, based on empirical findings, that LDRRs may be perceived as
equally (dis)satisfying as PRRs at a global level. This perspective demands
a more detailed emphasis on the experience of being together and being
apart and how the two work together in relationships. Sigman’s (1991)
framework of discontinuities in relationships and Baxter and Mont-
gomery’s (1996) relational dialectics perspective provide a foundation for
discussing the potential complexities of moving between being together
and being apart in personal relationships.
Discontinuities in social relationships
Sigman (1991) argues that all relationships are maintained in a number of
ways and in a variety of circumstances, most notably in the absence of
physical co-presence. Relationships are not only constructed in the face-to-
face interactions between partners, but are also ‘stretched’ (p. 106) across
time and space between face-to-face interactions. According to Sigman, the
seemingly continuous nature of relationships is often conducted in the
discontinuous moments of non-copresent relating.
Sigman (1991) contends that the majority of research done on personal
relationships and communication ‘confuse[s] interaction and relational
boundaries’ (p. 108) by treating relationships as if they were only
constructed in the co-presences of the relational partners. The ‘talk’
between partners is emphasized as the constitutive act of relating (Gold-
smith & Baxter, 1996); thus, the dominant assumption is that personal
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relationships get done in the co-presence of partners. Sigman sees a danger
in researching personal relationships this way and does not want to equate
relationships with interaction; rather, he calls for the study of relationships
as ‘larger’ than their physical co-presences. Relationships are not only
(re)produced through interactions between the two partners, but they also
continue ‘outside and apart from any particular interactional event’ (p.
Long-distance relationships appear to be ideal for studying how relation-
ships are maintained in the absence of physical co-presence. Long-distance
relationships are primarily maintained in the absence of the other partner;
therefore, the non-copresent interactions and experiences outside of the
immediate relationship help define relationship continuity. In order for
LDRRs to persist, partners must move in and out of one another’s co-
presence more explicitly and consciously than partners in PRRs. Partners
in LDRRs, as well as in PRRs, must enact certain behaviors that help
construct and maintain their relationships across space and time. Sigman
(1991) focuses on the behaviors that partners enact in order to maintain a
sense of being in a relationship given the discontinuity between physical co-
present interactions. Although Sigman recognizes how relationships are
maintained in both co-present and non-copresent moments, he does not
discuss the interaction between being apart and being together and the
dynamic process these two states evoke. He also does not address the possi-
bility of tensions that this ‘in and out’ process might construct for and
between the partners and the members of their social network, or that the
tension-constructing process might be in need of negotiation.
The goal of this investigation was to examine what partners experience
when they are moving in and out of one another’s co-presence (i.e., being
‘together’) and non-copresence (i.e., being ‘apart’) in their long-distance
relationships as well as how they negotiate these two interaction states. The
interaction between being together and being apart may not only be the
basis for tensions in LDRRs, but may, in fact, be experienced as contra-
dictions in which togetherness and separation mutually enable and
constrain the experience of the other. The relational dialectics perspective
(Baxter & Montgomery, 1996) is useful in making sense of these processes.
Relational dialectics
The relational dialectics perspective assumes that ‘social life is a dynamic
knot of contradictions, a ceaseless interplay between contrary or opposing
tendencies’ (Baxter & Montgomery, 1996, p. 3). More specifically, a contra-
diction, according to Baxter and Montgomery (1996), is the ‘dynamic inter-
play between unified oppositions’ (p. 8). Various contradictions have been
identified in the literature, including three particularly salient ones:
autonomy and connection, openness and closedness, novelty (uncertainty)
and predictability (certainty). One of the most widely examined dialectical
contradictions in personal relationships is that between autonomy and
connection (Baxter & Montgomery, 1996). For example, a personal
relationship can be defined as two individuals who come together and form
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a connection with one another. Thus, personal relationships are at their
very heart about individuals being connected and interdependent.
However, at the same time, the relationship depends on the individuals
having some level of autonomy. People want to be a part of relationships,
but they also desire being their own person; however, being your own
person is accomplished by being defined in relation to others. Autonomy
and connection are in opposition, but we cannot understand one except in
conjunction with the other. Thus autonomy and connection are not only in
opposition, but they are unified opposites; ‘. . . they negate one another at
the same time they are interdependent . . . with one another’ (Baxter &
Montgomery, 1996, pp. 9–10). Moreover, relational contradictions do not
always occur in isolation; rather, several contradictions may be at play
simultaneously or overlap with one another at various points in time (e.g.,
autonomy may also be in contradiction with openness in a relationship).
In the current investigation of LDRRs, I examine how relational partners
may experience being together and being apart as enabling and constrain-
ing one another in practice (i.e., how they are unified, yet opposed). There-
fore, the following research questions guided the current study:
RQ1: How does being together work with and against being apart within
LDRR relating?
RQ2: How does being apart work with and against being together within
LDRR relating?
Although the data collected and examined for RQ1 and RQ2 should
imply a contradiction between being together and being apart within
LDRRs, I chose to explicitly ask a third research question.
RQ3: Does a contradiction exist between being together and being apart
in LDRR relating? If so, what are some of the variants or themes of this
Data reported for RQ3 will stand as the most important contribution of
this study, most notably to the relational dialectics scholarship. Scholars
studying contradictions experienced in personal relationships have used
forces in opposition as evidence of contradiction. I would like to argue that
in order to show support of a contradiction forces, themes, or elements
should be displayed as enabling and constraining one another in practice.
Solicitation of participants
Participants were solicited from three sources: undergraduate communication
courses at a large, Midwestern university, adults within the surrounding
community, and personal contacts with the researcher. Once both partners
agreed to participate in the study, the researcher set up a meeting with the
participant who lived in the area to give him/her the materials and provide
further instructions.
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Participation was limited to couples who met two characteristics: (i) the
couple was currently in a long-distance, romantic relationship but were not
married; and (ii) they would interact with their partners face-to-face within the
time frame of the study. In exchange for their full and complete participation,
couples were offered two 60-minute, prepaid long-distance calling cards.
Defining and selecting cases
Although a range of operational definitions have been employed in long-
distance relationship research, I allowed the participants to decide if they were
involved in this type of relationship using their own criteria. In previous studies,
researchers have defined what it means to be involved in a long-distance
relationship typically in terms of miles separating the partners (e.g., more than
50 miles apart), whereas some studies have allowed the participants to deter-
mine their own relational status. Given the consistency in designation between
researcher-determined criteria and participant-determined criteria (Dellmann-
Jenkins et al., 1994; Sahlstein, 1996), and the desire to avoid potentially incor-
rectly categorizing couples using research-derived mileage cut-offs, participants
were allowed to determine their own LDRR status.
The final sample of 20 long-distance, heterosexual couples lived between 70
and 5,600 miles apart (M = 774.58, SD = 1264.62). The mean length of time the
couples were in their relationships was approximately two years (M = 23.53
months, SD = 18.53), and the mean length of time the partners reported they
had been in a long-distance relationship was approximately 12 months
(M = 12.39, SD = 14.96). The individual mean income was between $16,000 and
$20,000. The majority of the participants was in their last year of college as full-
time students (75%) and worked full- to part-time (65%). Finally, 90% of the
participants were Caucasian (n = 36).
Across the sample, the reasons reported for being in a long-distance relation-
ship differed. Nine couples reported that both partners attended college, but in
different places. Eight couples reported that one of the partners attended
college, while the other partner worked or had an internship in a different city.
Three couples reported that both partners worked, but in different locations.
Across the sample, four couples reported that their relationship originated as
a long-distance relationship.
I met with at least one of the relational partners at a convenient location (e.g.,
local coffee shop) a few days before the couple planned to conduct the couple
interview. I gave participants an interview packet (i.e., two consent forms, one
interview protocol, an audiocassette tape, and two survey measures with
envelopes) and thoroughly explained the proper procedures for the task, as
well as answered any final questions about the participation process.
Participants were instructed to first conduct a ‘couple interview’ during their
next face-to-face visit. A ‘couple interview’ is one in which the relational
partners interview themselves (i.e., the researcher is not present when the
participants ask and answer the questions on audiotape). This type of protocol
was used in order to gain access to information that may be concealed in
traditional interview scenarios (e.g., discussion of sex lives) and to have couples
co-construct their answers.
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Once the participants completed reviewing and signing their consent forms,
each couple was instructed to audiotape a conversation at their convenience
and in the absence of the researcher (e.g., at home in the living room). These
conversations are guided by the first and second research questions posed by
the researcher and were presented in the form of an interview protocol. The
questions were designed to solicit responses about how being together and
being apart worked with and/or against one another in everyday, LDRR
relating. For example, couples responded to variants of the request, ‘Talk about
all the ways in which being physically [together/apart] has a [positive/negative]
influence on being physically [apart/together].’
In terms of the ordering of questions, couples were randomly assigned to one
of four sequences of questions so as to deter bias in the answers due to a
consistent ordering of the questions. Couples were told to start with the first
question and exhaust all possible examples and general characteristics they
could discuss with respect to their long-distance relationships. After couples
felt they had completely exhausted their discussion of the issues in one
question, they were told to move on to the next question and repeat the
process. Once the couple interview was complete, partners were asked to
independently complete a questionnaire. Answers to items relating to demo-
graphics and to long-distance relationship characteristics (e.g., length of long-
distance relationship) are included in this article.
Data analysis
The first step in the analysis of the ‘couple interview’ data was a qualitative
analysis of transcripts. The interviews were transcribed verbatim, resulting in
391 pages of text-based data for analysis. Initially, the researcher utilized an
open-coding method of content analysis for one half of the transcribed conver-
sations (Emerson, Fretz, & Shaw, 1995). Open coding involves looking for the
themes, dimensions, and main ideas in data such as interview or conversation
transcripts. Each transcript was read in its entirety while listening to the tape
recording and then each transcript was read twice in order to get a sense of
each interview’s content. The researcher then open-coded each response, or
‘thought unit,’ constructed by the couple in reference to each question. Utter-
ances were considered ‘thought units’ if they conveyed a characterization or
distinct example of the relationship being referenced in the interview question.
Thought units were included only if the content of the thought units was agreed
upon by both partners, which was indicated by partners having a concurring
response to their partners’ statements (e.g., ‘Yeah’). For example, in reference
to the question ‘How does being apart negatively impact your time together?’,
Laura and Sam reported the following.
Laura: Yeah, sometimes there’s pressure to make that time together special.
Sam: Kind of how we said it was a positive thing that we . . . usually have fun-filled
weekends. It can also . . . turn negative it we try to
Laura: Force it.
Sam: Yeah.
{C21, 232–237}
Laura and Sam construct agreement across their four turns at talk, which I
considered a complete thought unit displaying the theme of ‘Pressure for
Quality/Positive Time.’ The thought units varied in length ranging from one
utterance with a one-word response to several lines of transcript that contain
numerous turns at talk between the relational partners, but with one theme.
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Using the qualitative analysis program Atlas.TI for data organization and
extraction, each thought unit was then coded for its meaning using the constant
comparison method (Strauss & Corbin, 1990) in order to construct category
schemes for each of the four superordinate areas of the interview protocol (i.e.,
together enables apart, together constrains apart, apart enables together, and
apart constrains together). The researcher coded the first thought unit and then
compared its content with each subsequent thought unit coded. Each time a
new issue was reported in a thought unit, a new code was constructed, result-
ing in several codes for each superordinate area.
The remaining transcribed conversations were unitized as well for purposes
of the final complete coding of the data set by two independent coders. Four
different categorizing schemes were used, one for each set of responses: (i)
together enables apart, (ii) together constrains apart, (iii) apart enables
together, and (iv) apart constrains together.
Coding of thought units
Two trained graduate research assistants independently coded the data set of
thought units according to the category schemes constructed by the researcher.
Coders categorized each thought unit by reading each one and choosing the
appropriate category from the coding scheme. Inter-coder reliability was based
on the randomly selected 25% overlapped sample of thought units between
coders. Percentage agreement and inter-coder reliability levels for the four
categories were as follows: together enables apart (97.0% absolute agreement,
kappa = .87, p <.05), together constrains apart (90.0% absolute
agreement, kappa = .84, p < .05), apart enables together (83.0% absolute agree-
ment, kappa = .73, p <.05), and apart constrains together (81.8% absolute
agreement, kappa = .70, p <.05). The researcher resolved all coding discrep-
ancies in the overlapped set. Data collected from the survey measure were
entered into SPSS for descriptive analyses of the sample.
Within each couple’s interviews, the researcher examined the transcripts for
explicit examples of the contradiction between being together and being apart.
First, each couple’s thought units were re-read and examined for explicit
linkages across categories in terms of opposing issues (e.g., pressure for quality
time, yet memories being constructed) and issues that were unified (e.g.,
insuring quality time helps construct memories), as well as general themes
across categories (e.g., network negotiation; during their time apart network
members support the relationship but, when the couple is together, they must
manage time with their social network, which can lead to conflicts over how
and with whom time is spent). Then the researcher read each transcript one
final time to gain a better sense of how the contradiction was working across
each couple’s conversations. The researcher then produced written summaries
of these within couple contradictions.
Research Questions 1 and 2
Analyses of the 20 interview transcripts with regard to RQ1, ‘How does being
together work with and against being apart within LDRR relating?’ and RQ2,
‘How does being apart work with and against being together within LDRR
relating?’, produced four main areas of experiences in long-distance
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relationships: How (i) being ‘together’ enables being ‘apart’, (ii) being
‘together’ constrains being ‘apart’, (iii) being ‘apart’ enables being ‘together’,
and (iv) being ‘apart’ constrains being ‘together.’ Codes from the original
coding manual were collapsed when low frequencies existed and when
meanings were similar across codes. In the subsequent discussion, the most
frequently reported categories are presented in detail. Owing to space limi-
tations, I have only provided detailed examples for the most frequently noted
categories. Couples did not report information for every category (or they did
not report the most evocative examples); therefore, different couples are
represented versus following the same couple across categories (see attached
tables for descriptions of each category in the four areas).
Being ‘together’ enables being ‘apart’. Long-distance relational partners indi-
cated nine ways in which the time they spent with one another (e.g., on a
weekend visit) had a positive influence/enabled the time they spent apart from
one another (Table 1). The five most frequently reported categories were:
‘Rejuvenation’ (20.5%), ‘Reminder of the relationship/partner’ (19.2%),
Sahlstein: Relating at a distance 697
Category descriptions of how ‘Together enables Apart’
1. Rejuvenation (20.5%): Partners report getting their relational or individual ‘gas
tank refilled.’ They get a sense of being recharged by the time they spend together.
They feel ready to face the time apart refreshed.
2. Reminder of the relationship/partner (19.2%): Partners report that being together
evokes reminders of the relationship and/or the partner (i.e., how and why they are
in the relationship, what they like about the other and/or the relationship).
3. Constructs Memories (19.2%): Partners note that the time they spend together helps
construct memories and shared experiences that they can draw upon during their
time apart.
4. Segmentation (14.1%): Being together creates a feeling of having separate lives, and
so the time together is for the relationship, time apart is for their individual lives.
They see this as enabling their time apart because they can get their ‘relationship
time’ in and then go back to their autonomous lives to get that ‘work’ done in those
5. Anticipation (11.5%): Partners report that the time together creates a basis for
feeling excited when they are apart for the next time they are together. They
construct something to look forward to while they are separate through the time they
spend together.
6. Builds Trust/Faith (7.7%): By spending time together, partners re/gain faith and
trust in the relationship/partner.
7. Constructs the Known (6.4%): Time spent together helps partners gain a sense of
certainty about the other person’s life (separate from them) and/or the relationship.
Their time apart feels more ‘doable’ because they have decreased their uncertainty
regarding issues that surround their partner and/or their relationship.
8. Network Relationships (3.8%): Times together are opportunities to construct links
with the other relationships (i.e., linked to the relationship), which help bind the
partners together when they are apart in various ways.
9. Constructs Intimacy (2.6%): Time together helps increase as well as diversify the
relational intimacy between the partners. When they are apart, they feel more a part
of a relationship because they have continued to build intimacy with one another
when they were together which works to bind them when they are apart.
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‘Constructs memories’ (19.2%), ‘Segmentation’ (14.1%), and ‘Anticipation’
(11.5%). The remaining categories each accounted for less than 10% of these
thought units: ‘Builds trust/faith in the relationship’ (7.7%), ‘Constructs the
known’ (6.4%), ‘Network relationships’ (3.8%), ‘Constructs intimacy’ (2.6%),
and ‘Other’ (6.4%).
The most frequently reported response was ‘Rejuvenation,’ which is a
positive outcome of face-to-face interactions on the relational partners’ state
of being when they are apart. Participants indicated that spending time with
their partner builds up their relational ‘reserves’ and inspires them to make it
through the next period of being apart. Partners view their time together as a
mechanism for ‘making it through’ the time apart by leaving the partners
feeling ‘full’ of one another. In each of the following excerpts, the partners
reported how being together gives them a renewed sense of being that aids
their time apart.
Henry: Ok. Uh well I think . . . after being together, like it’s a Monday, I feel so
refreshed and ya know the time that we’ve been physically together really gives me
energy and strength . . . to like go through the time the next period of being apart.
{C10, 65–68}
Tom: I have a new sense of energy and shit. You help me out. You help me through
the times that I need it and then I can go on. I can move on to something that I
need to be doing. {C5, 70–74}
Steve: I feel like I’ve had my batteries recharged after I’ve been with you, so I don’t
miss you right away. [I] feel like I’ve got a good dose of you and then after like two
or three days I’m ready to have it again and I wish you were here. {C12, 70–74}
Henry, Tom, and Steve all reported that spending time with their partners
enables the time they spend separate from them by ‘recharging’ their ‘batter-
ies’ and they feel ready to face the time alone with more zest.
Being ‘together’ constrains being ‘apart’. The time couples spend with one
another face-to-face is not a consistent positive influence on the time they
spend separated from one another by physical distance. Couples reported
several ways in which time together was not useful and specifically was a
negative force working against the time they spent in different locations (Table
2). Three subordinate categories emerged and accounted for over 70% of the
thought units regarding how time together constrained time apart: ‘Let down’
(40.7%), ‘Face-to-face standards’ (20.9%), and ‘Segmentation’ (10.5%). The
remaining categories of being together constraining time apart each accounted
for less than 10% of these thought units: ‘Network negotiation’ (8.1%),
‘Residue issues’ (5.8%), ‘Adjustments’ (4.7%), and ‘Other’ (9.3%).
The largest category was ‘Let down.’ Partners reported how being together
sets up the time apart as a ‘disappointment’ or ‘not as fun and exciting’ as being
together. Partners reported that their separate lives are ‘boring,’ ‘suck,’ or they
feel sad because they have just been with their partner and now they are not
Curt reported how he is extremely sad when he has just spent time with his
partner and then has to be apart from her.
Curt: And also uh I guess it’s a more . . . when we leave each other um that creates
a great deal of sadness for both of us. And it usually carries on for quite a while,
while we’re apart. {C7, 15–17}
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Curt recognized that the sadness he feels immediately after departure is
sustained during the time apart.
Partners’ reports in this category reflected how the time together creates a
‘longing’ or ‘pining’ for their partner that occurs right after they have spent
time together. Nancy reported, ‘Well I miss you like crazy sometimes’ {C5, 55}.
Jenny and Curt discussed how they miss each other and how energy is taken
from their productivity at times.
Jenny: Um first of all when we are together then since it’s such a short amount of
time that when we aren’t together we miss each other so much. And what else was
I going to say?
Curt: We spend a lot of time when we’re apart . . . thinking about each other and
missing each other and we probably should be doing something productive other-
wise. {C7, 2–8}
Hannah also discussed how she spends a lot of time missing her partner Steve
and how this takes her ‘out of the moment’ of her individual life.
Hannah: Um-hum. And I spend a lot of time wishing that I was, this is actually
something Scott and I talked about, spend a lot of time not being in the moment.
It’s hard to stay in the moment of your day and to live each day, because, especially
now for me, it’s like I so want to be in Los Angeles, it’s hard to appreciate where
I am in school and all the cool things that are happening there, and doors that are
happening and all this kind of stuff and it’s really fun but I still keep going ‘Oh I
can’t wait. Only two more weeks. Only eight more days. Only seven more days.
Sahlstein: Relating at a distance 699
Category descriptions of how ‘Together constrains Apart’
1. Let down (40.7%): Partners report that being together constructs a sense of being
‘let down’ when they are apart from one another. They have had such a good time
when they are together that when they apart they feel like they lost something by
2. Face-to-face standards (20.9%): The time together provides a standard for
interaction that cannot be achieved when the partners are apart. The interactions
they have when they are apart do not live up to the interactions they have when they
are face-to-face.
3. Segmentation (10.5%): Because they do certain things when they are together, the
time partners spend apart may feel completely separate or different from the time
together (i.e., they feel like they lead different lives).
4. Network Negotiation (8.1%): Being together with one’s partner is time away from
others (e.g., friends and relatives) or takes away from potentially establishing/
developing other relationships. Therefore, the time apart is negatively influenced
(i.e., constrained) because of the need/desire/responsibilities to the romantic
relationship/partner. Time together takes away from other relationships.
5. Residue Issues (5.8%): Issues that were addressed during the time together are
sometimes not brought to closure, so the issues are ‘held over’ and hang there/
influence the time they spend apart. Residue issues may linger during the time apart
or they may actually be addressed during the time apart making it an
unhappy/negative experience (e.g., destructive conflicts occur).
6. Adjustment (4.7%): Time together gets partners in a ‘groove’ or a pattern of being.
Then when they go back to not being physically together, the partners have to go
through an adjustment period in order to get used to being apart again (e.g., sleeping
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Ya know and it’s hard to, it’s hard to let my life pass like that and it’s also hard to
wait for you, and so, I spend a lot of time kind of in turmoil in my own head about,
ya know, feeling like I want to be with you and feeling like I should enjoy the
moment. {C12, 400–411}
Hannah feels that she is not living life to the fullest when she is apart from
Steve because the time she spends with him works to take her out of the
moments of her separate life.
Being ‘apart’ enables being ‘together’. Couples discussed how their time apart
had a positive impact/force on their time together. Partners reported several
different manifestations of how being apart enabled being together (Table 3).
The five most frequently discussed characterizations of how time apart enables
time together were: ‘Fosters quality time’ (27.3%), ‘Segmentation’ (18.2%),
‘Excitement’ (16.5%), ‘Appreciation’ (14.9%), and ‘Openness’ (10.7%). Each
of the two remaining categories was less than 10% of the thought units coded
in this scheme: ‘New things to share’ (9.1%) and ‘Other’ (1.7%).
‘Fosters quality time’ included comments about how the time apart made the
couples want to have more fun when they were together and use the time
together to its fullest potential. Rob reported that being apart from one another
fosters a desire to ‘make the most’ of the time together.
Rob: It just makes us realize that we have to make the most of the time that we do
have together, since we realize that there’s no possibility to see each other during
the middle of the week. On those weekends we really don’t leave each other’s side.
{C6, 78–83}
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Category descriptions of how Apart enables Together’
1. Fosters Quality Time (27.3%): Being apart creates a desire in the partners to want
to have quality time with one another when they come together. They plan to do
certain activities when they are together that help make it a good time.
2. Segmentation (18.2%): Partners can do things when apart (e.g., get work done) that
helps the time together. It can be focused, relational time. Being apart allows
partners to accomplish certain tasks that in turn allow for the couple to accomplish
other things (e.g., relational ‘stuff’) when they are together.
3. Excitement (16.5%): Couples report that being apart helps build up excitement in
the relationship or for the relationship and/or the time they are about to spend
together. Therefore, when they come together they do things for each other and/or
have a positive feeling/attitude of excitement.
4. Appreciation (14.9%): The time they spend apart makes the partners appreciate
their partners/the relationship more and in different ways, so when they are together
their appreciation positively influences their time together in various ways.
5. Openness (10.7%): Partners report that either during the time apart they get to talk
more (mainly about the relationship, but not necessarily only this) and thus the time
together is better because of that openness. Also, the time apart can create situations
that when they are together they talk about the relationship, how they are feeling,
and/or what is going on in their lives (i.e., disclosure of varied forms).
6. New Things to Share (9.1%): The time apart allows for new experiences that the
partners can share when they are together. In other words, things happen to the
partners or they experience things when they are apart that they can bring to the
time spent together and have it benefit that period of time/the relationship.
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Rob and his partner want to make sure that when they are together that they
have a good time, because when they are apart there are no opportunities to
do fun things with one another.
LDRRs are concerned with making sure that the time they spend together
is quality time due to the fact that they spend, on average, twice as long apart
from one another as they do with one another (Sahlstein, 1996). Partners want
to do things together that they do not get to do all the time (e.g., go on a date)
or activities that they do not typically do individually when they are apart (e.g.
go to a museum). Mike commented on how he and his partner work to make
the time together quality because being apart makes them not want to take
their time together for granted.
Mike: Because we always want to make it a big weekend and we don’t uh, I don’t
think we take our time for granted. So, we’re extra careful to really spend good
quality time with each other. {C11, 88–92}
Mike and his partner want to make the most of their time together and pay
special attention to doing so because they are apart so much.
Another way that the time apart enables the time together in terms of
‘Quality time’ is that partners do not want anything ‘negative’ to happen during
their time together because they spend such a significant time apart. ‘We don’t
waste our time fighting’ {Laura, C21, 317}. All of these examples reflect how
being apart can improve or enable time together.
Being ‘apart’ constrains being ‘together’. Being apart is also a constraint on the
time LDRR partners spend together (Table 4). Three subordinate categories
emerged as the most frequently reported: ‘Pressure for quality/positive time’
(46.0%), ‘Network negotiation’ (13.8%), and ‘Constructs unknowns’ (11.5%).
The remaining four categories were each less than 10.0% of these thought
units: ‘Segmentation’ (8.0%), ‘Communicative strain’ (6.9%), ‘Different
worlds’ (5.7%) and ‘Other’ (8.0%).
‘Pressure for quality/positive time’ was the most frequently reported code
across all four schemes. Partners reported that, because they are apart for
extended periods, there is a lot of ‘pressure’ on the couple to have a positive, fun-
filled time when they are together. Partners experience stress due to the pressure,
for example, to pack ‘a few weeks into a few days’ and have the entire weekend
be ‘quality’ time. Ally reported feeling pressure to have a good time with her
partner when they are together because being apart sets up this expectation:
Ally: Since we’re apart more than we’re together . . . I feel kinda pressured to make
it [a] perfect couple of days or whatever. We have so much stuff to do and . . . such
little time. {C11, 24–26}
Ally, like other partners, feels the need to have a good time when she is with
her partner because she does not have the opportunities to do such things when
they are apart. Laura and Sam discussed how trying to put so many fun things
into their weekend make them feel like they are ‘forcing’ quality time:
Laura: Yeah, sometimes there’s pressure to make that time together special.
Sam: Kind of how we said it was a positive thing that we . . . usually have fun-filled
weekends. It can also . . . turn negative it we try to
Laura: Force it.
Sam: Yeah.
{C21, 232–237}
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Laverne and Carmine also reported the difficulty with trying to cram the time
they were apart in the time they have available to them on the weekends.
Carmine: There is a lot of time to make up for. Seems like they have to be miracle days.
Laverne: Yeah, like forty-eight hour days.
Carmine: Yeah.
Laverne: And everything’s rushed.
{C14, 75–79}
Each of these examples displays how being apart can constrain being together
for long-distance partners by putting pressure on the relational partners to have
a good time while they are together (i.e., because when they are apart – they
make ‘big plans’ for their next visit).
Research Question 3
In reference to RQ3, ‘Do dialectical contradictions exist between being
together and being apart in long-distance relating? If so, what are some of the
variants or themes of this contradiction?’ All 20 couples were able to articulate
issues related to all four aspects of the proposed tension (i.e., being together
enables and constrains being apart, and being apart enables and constrains
being together), which taken as a totality arguably construct a contradiction
702 Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 21(5)
Category descriptions of how Apart constrains Together’
1. Pressure for Quality/Positive Time (46.0%): The time apart creates this extreme
need/pressure to have a good time when partners are together. They report feeling
like they have to do fun and often unusual things when they are together because
during their time apart they are deprived of such activities and/or they feel they have
to ‘squeeze’ activities into the short amount of time they are together.
2. Network Negotiation (13.8%): The fact that partners only have a limited amount of
time together when they are face-to-face (i.e., because they spend most of their time
apart), other relationships are neglected when they come together because partners
spend that time, or the majority of the time, with one another.
3. Constructs Unknowns (11.5%): The time apart creates uncertainty and unknowns
because partners are not sharing experiences (i.e., face-to-face). This makes the time
together strained in particular ways (e.g. jealousy, uncertainty, conflicts occur).
4. Segmentation (8.0%): Being together is viewed as the time when the relationship is
‘really happening’ and partners report the time together should be for the
relationship only, but other issues are not so easily bracketed out (e.g., work).
Therefore the time together is harder to make positive because of the need to
address such issues, the partners are thinking about these issues, and/or the ‘issues’
(e.g., work) are being forced on them (e.g., boss sends an angry email).
5. Communicative Strain (6.9%): Because they spend a lot of time apart, they spend a
significant portion of their time together catching up, discussing the future of the
relationship (e.g., ‘Where is this relationship going?’), and/or talk about plans for
future time together (e.g., ‘What are we going to do next time?’). The conversations
can take up time when they are together that could be spent doing things together
(e.g., going on a hike).
6. Different Worlds (5.7%): Time spent apart is time when partners may start taking
different paths and changing. When they come together they begin to lose their
connection and similarities making it hard to mesh their lives when together because
of the separate lives they live when apart.
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between time spent ‘together’ and time spent ‘apart.’ Across the transcripts,
related issues (e.g., rejuvenation, let down, fosters quality time, and pressure
for quality/positive time) emerged in reference to each of the four interview
questions (e.g., How does being together positively influence your time apart?).
The related issues constitute themes or variants of the contradiction between
being together and being apart.
Quality of time was one of three themes that emerged from the couples’
discussions. Couples articulated both how the time together ‘rejuvenates’ them
for the time apart, but also that time together makes them feel ‘let down’ when
they are apart. Couples reported that, because of the time apart, they feel a
need to have quality time, which was viewed as both an enabling and (but more
often in these data) a constraining factor on time together. Because of the time
apart, couples work to insure they will have good, quality time together by
doing activities that are fun, exciting, and memorable. However, couples often
feel pressure to have a good time when they are together. Couples reported
feeling the need to suppress conflicts and present their ‘best face’ to one
another when they are together. Wanting quality time often leads to a let down
during the time apart if the weekend’s activities do not live up to the couple’s
expectations, but in turn partners reported having something to look forward
to based on their time together.
Jenny and Curt reported issues across the course of their interview that,
taken in totality, indicate a contradiction between being together and apart that
surrounds the theme of quality time. Jenny reported how because of their time
apart from one another they work harder on spending time only with one
another and making it quality time. She reported that they both:
... feel like we should be doing something fun, exciting, we don’t take the time
for granted and we usually try to spend as much as we can of the time we’re
together together and not talking to other people or visiting other people which is
I guess that also can be a negative part of that. But we don’t like to fight or any of
that kind of stuff ‘cuz we aren’t together for that long. And it seems like we always
try to be happy um have fun . . . {Apart enables together, ‘Quality,’ C7, 44–55}
Curt in turn reported how being apart for such long periods places pressure on
them as a couple to have a quality, fun time together.
Curt: Uh I guess the first one that we thought of was we think that we think we
should be doing something fun and exciting uh rather than just sitting around and
watching a movie or something which is something that we’ve done many times,
and we feel like uh there’s always just kinda at least in my mind, in the back of my
mind, that that tuh we might be sort of wasting the time we have together if we’re
just doing something mundane like that when we could be out experiencing some-
thing new that would create a lasting memory. {Apart constrains together,
‘Pressure,’ C7, 28–36}
Jenny and Curt both acknowledged that although there is pressure to have a
good time when they are together, these quality times provide a basis for
excitement during their time apart and give them something to look forward
to when they are apart.
Curt: Um. I guess even when we’re apart the time that we’ve spent together leaves
us with a uh warm feeling inside for each other. Um and regardless of where we
are we know that uh we love each other, and that’s always there. And also um
there’s always uh positive feeling of anticipation that when we get when that we’re
going to get to see each other. {Together enables apart, ‘Anticipation,’ C7, 85–90}
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But, when the time together is good, Jenny and Curt reported feeling extremely
sad immediately after they depart for the week. Curt stated that this ‘usually
carries on for quite a while, while we’re apart’ {Together constrains apart, ‘Let
down’, C7, 15–17}. This particular example of how being together and being
apart are in contradiction reflects how the scheduling LDRRs must go through
places expectations on them for quality time during their visits together;
although they look forward to the potential meetings, they feel strained by the
expectations for quality interactions as well.
A second theme was segmentation. Partners reported that time together
positively impacted their time apart, for example, because when together they
could spend time with only one another and when they were apart they could
focus on their work (i.e., segmentation). Couples reported that the time they
spent together was for the relationship and therefore the time apart was
bracketed for work, school, and other responsibilities, which couples perceived
as a good way to manage their relational and separate lives. However, couples
also reported how bracketing time in this way was problematic because their
time together felt stressful, because they could not completely bracket out the
responsibilities that need attention when apart. Couples reported that their
segmentation would also put a strain on the time apart because of the stress of
coming back to, for example, a pile of work that remained untouched all
A third theme that was consistent across all four categories concerned the
interaction between the couple and its social network (i.e., network negotia-
tions). When partners are together, they reported being focused on their
relationship, which gives them the freedom to work on their separate social
network ties when they are apart. However, at times, social network members
can feel neglected (e.g., on the weekends) because of the time partners spend
together, putting pressure on LDRR partners when they are apart from one
another. Network members also enact supportive behaviors while LDRR
partners are apart from one another that help them feel more confident about
and appreciate their LDRR relationship when partners are together. In turn,
network members can help place doubt on the validity of the partners’ relation-
ship, which can take away from the experience of being together.
Being together and being apart appear to enable and constrain one another
in several different ways, at different points in time, and in different locations
for the relational partners. These examples are only a sample of how these two
interaction states are intertwined with one another in the daily practices of
long-distance relating.
Steve: But to me like that’s part of, that’s one of the . . . defining points
about a long-distance relationship is that there’s a lot of things that fall
into the bad categories and the good categories. {C12, 9–11}
Steve’s statement is a good surface assessment of long-distance relation-
ships and how they have characteristics that can be viewed simultaneously
as good and bad. However, reflections of pros and cons in relationships or
forces that are opposites (e.g., good vs. bad) within a given relationship
are not necessarily reflective of relational contradictions. Relational
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contradictions are the product of the dynamic movements between two
forces; in their flux, the two forces influence one another in both enabling
and constraining ways.
In these data, couples reported how their time together and their time
apart enabled and constrained one another in the practice of relating at a
distance, providing evidence of a contradiction between being together and
being apart for partners in LDRRs. These two interaction states are not
only opposite states of relational interaction; the actions taken within each
interaction state construct dynamic forces that influence one another in
multiple ways.
Together and apart: Mutually enabling/constraining contexts
Results indicated that these two interaction states influence one another in
several different ways. These data evidence that being together and being
apart impact one another in both enabling and constraining ways. For
example, couples reported how being together works with their time apart
by having such positive impacts as serving as a reminder of the (quality of
the) relationship and/or of their partner (i.e., ‘Reminder of the relation-
ship/individual’). The time spent together also ‘refreshes’ (i.e., ‘Rejuve-
nates’) the partners for the time apart as well as working to construct
valuable memories for partners to draw on when apart (i.e., ‘Constructs
Being together works against being apart as well, such as providing
expectations for quality interaction (i.e., ‘Face-to-face standards’) that
cannot be achieved while partners are apart. Couples also reported that
during their time together they bracket their time together from time they
are apart (i.e., ‘Segmentation’) to the extent that their time together does
not allow for time apart activities to occur (e.g., work). Therefore, partners
return to being apart ‘stressed’ and ‘overwhelmed’ with the issues in that
region of their lives.
Being apart also works with and against being together for these LDRR
partners. Couples report that the time apart makes them want to have a
good time when they are together (i.e., ‘Quality time’); therefore, partners
are more conscious of making the time together special. In turn, being apart
puts a lot of pressure on couples to have memorable times (i.e., ‘Pressure
for positive/quality time’), which can prove to be a strain on the partners,
the relationship, and the time they have with their partners. However, time
apart allows for partners to get work done (i.e., ‘Segmentation’) and experi-
ence new things (i.e., ‘New things to share’) that they can bring to the time
they spend with one another.
Contradictions of long-distance relating
These data provide evidence of a practical contradiction in that both inter-
action states serve to enable and constrain the other in practice through
issues of quality time, segmentation, and network negotiations. These three
variants of the contradiction are related to those noted in the existing
relational dialectics research. The theme of ‘Quality time’ has ties to
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contradictions of stability–change, certainty–uncertainty, and convention-
ality–uniqueness. LDRR partners may desire and plan quality time
together in order to feel like they are ‘really relating’ when they are
together and can sense some sort of progress, change, and development in
their relationships. Partners also reported that during their time apart, they
experience a range of ‘unknowns’ about the other person’s life. They report
doing activities when they are together that help reduce uncertainty and
produce shared ‘knowns’ that can be drawn upon during their time apart.
Partners use the quality time to negotiate their needs for certainty (e.g.,
knowing more about one another’s lives) and uncertainty (e.g., having fun,
exciting time together). LDRR partners also appear to use their ‘quality’
time to both ‘feel like normal couples’ (i.e., conventionality) and to also
‘not take their time for granted’ by doing ‘mundane’ activities that
everyone else does when they are together (e.g., uniqueness). LDRR
couples want to experience new things together and validate the existence
of their relationships by making sure to do fun things together. They also
want to feel like ‘normal’ couples by doing ‘normal’ activities (e.g., hanging
‘Segmentation’ as a contradictory theme potentially overlaps with other
contradictions cited in the research literature such as autonomy–connec-
tion and dyad–work. Participants in this study consistently identified the
positive and negative impacts of differentiating their relational and indi-
vidual lives (i.e., typically equated with their time together and time apart,
respectively). By making these clean divides between these two spheres,
partners reported being able to negotiate their connection with the partner
more effectively and with fewer conflicts. Partners reported that they
enjoyed the fact that when apart they could come home at night, watch TV
until all hours of the night, and end up sleeping on the couch without the
hassles of being accountable to their partners. They also liked being able
to give their full attention to their partner when they were together and
that was their relational time. Because their interactions are constrained to
particular moments, partners can neatly manage the time they spend on
themselves versus the time they spend on their relationships. This clean
divide also helps partners work on their careers and focus on their successes
when they are apart, again so they can devote dedicated time to the
relationship when they are together.
Finally, the theme of ‘Network negotiations’ corresponds to contradic-
tions between dyad and network. LDRR partners, like PRRs, are situated
in a social matrix of relations that work with and against the individual and
the dyad. LDRRs in this study reported social networks as both enabling
and constraining their relationships. LDRRs also do not conform to rela-
tional norms of proximity and thus have to work within their given culture
for validation and resources to maintain their relationships.
LDRRs appear to experience matrices of contradictions, not only the
contradiction between being together and being apart. Although these data
serve to illuminate the interplay of one specific contradiction in multiple
forms, contradictions do not theoretically exist in a vacuum and should be
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considered in concert with one another. More than one contradiction is at
play in long-distance relating, as displayed in these data, and future
researchers should examine these multiple forces.
Issues for future research
Before suggesting possibilities for future research, I must note two
methodological issues of concern. First, scholars should consider the
decision to not have a researcher present during interviews and instead
have partners conduct the interviews themselves in one another’s presence.
My procedural choice may have positioned some of (if not all of) the
partners to conceal some of their feelings, experiences, and opinions due
to the possible contradiction(s) between openness and closedness. For
example, individual partners may not have disclosed how they enjoy
periodic separations from their partner for fear they could have hurt their
partners’ feelings. One possible remedy for future research using this
procedure is to have the individual partners separately report, either on
tape or in written form, what issues, ideas, opinions, feelings, and examples
they did not feel comfortable disclosing in front of their partner.
The second methodological issue concerns the demographics of the
sample. The couples who participated in this study were primarily white,
students (either one or both of the partners were enrolled in undergradu-
ate or graduate studies), who lived and/or were from the Midwest. The
LDRR research to date represents this population. Owing to the complete
absence of LDRR research using different populations, I cannot assume
that these results broadly apply to LDRRs nor can I assume that they apply
to other LDRR demographics. LDRR scholars need to consider the limited
portion of the population currently represented in the research.
Despite these limitations, the current research serves as a heuristic for
theorizing, examining, and presenting contradictions of personal relation-
ships. In particular, relational dialectics scholars should consider how
contradictions are identified and represented in future scholarship. To date,
scholars studying relational dialectics use participants’ reports of opposi-
tions as evidence of contradictions. The unity of opposites has not received
as much attention. For purposes of this study, the contradiction was
considered present if couples were able to discuss how being together and
apart enabled (unified) and constrained (opposed) one another. Different
themes of the contradiction were identified when similar issues were
reported across these data. Relational dialectics scholars should recognize
that, in practice, contradictions are overlapping and that across the history
of a relationship, issues intertwine in complex ways – far more complex
than represented here.
A second issue for consideration are differing abilities or tendencies of
participants to report contradictions in their relationships. In terms of the
within-couple reports of this study, certain couples discussed quantitatively
more issues. Also, some couples hesitated at first to talk about how being
‘together’ could have negative impacts (constraint) on anything in their
relationship, and other couples were tentative at first when talking about
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how being ‘apart’ can be positive. These differences may be due to partici-
pants/couples’ differing abilities to articulate their relational dynamics,
different relational ideologies, or different relational histories. Scholars
studying relational contradictions should directly address this issue and
collect data examining potential differences across individuals and/or
couples given the implications for gathering and interpreting participants’
reports. Longitudinal research certainly would improve our understanding
of these issues.
Several lines of inquiry for future LDRR studies emerged out of these
data as well. First, given the abundant reports of how being apart puts
pressure on partners to have ‘quality time’ together, LDRR scholars could
examine in more depth how time-related pressures are constructed for and
within LDRR couples. These may come from outside forces, such as friends
and family members, but the range of what informs this type of concern for
LDRR partners is unclear. Future research could usefully address how
LDRRs are embedded within social networks [see Milardo (1982) and
colleagues’ work; Montgomery, 1992] and are informed by general (i.e.,
proximal) rules for relating (Baxter, Dun, & Sahlstein, 2001). Sahlstein
(1997) examined the amount of time spent with social networks and how
it relates to satisfaction, but LDRR researchers need to also examine how
social network members communicate to the LDRR couple and how they
are supportive/non-supportive of the relationship. Sahlstein and Truong
(2002a, 2002b) have studied individuals’ negotiation of both LDRRs and
PRRs simultaneously and the emergent contradictions from those inter-
secting relationships. I suggest that LDRR scholars continue these lines of
inquiry by focusing on the LDRRs that are situated within a multiplex of
A second line of LDRR research could address specifically how LDRR
couples ‘segment’ their relationship from their individual lives. Several
couples reported dividing their experience into these two distinct spheres,
and future researchers need to examine how segmentation is working in
these relationships. The commuter marriage literature could usefully
inform this line of new research in long-distance relationships. Although
marriage is quite different from dating relations in terms of expectations
and rules of relating, there are similarities in terms of how partners in both
relational types segment their individual and relational lives (see Gerstel
& Gross, 1984).
A third issue for future research concerns the construction and use of
‘memories’ for relational maintenance. Memories are important links
between the present and the past, and they also help partners makes sense
of the future. The partners in this study repeatedly referenced the
memories they constructed when they were together and how during times
of separation memories are resources for maintaining a sense of a relation-
ship and a positive attitude toward their partners. Future LDRR research
could focus on the memories partners construct individually and as a couple
and how partners draw upon these memorable moments when they are
both together and apart.
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Finally, these data point to questionable assumptions about the value of
physical proximity and dissatisfaction with relational distance. Previous
LDRR researchers have characterized and worked under the assumptions
that LDRRs are ‘specific stressor[s]’ (Helgeson, 1994, p. 256), ‘a tough life-
style’ involving painful tradeoffs and recognizable ‘emotional work’ (Gross,
1980, p. 80), and a less-satisfying relational type than PRRs (Stafford &
Reske, 1990). These data ‘challenge the assumption that LDRRs are
necessarily associated with “problems” ’ (Holt & Stone, 1988, p. 141) by
reflecting both positive and negative influences that both being together
and being apart have on the other. There are several different ways in
which being together has a positive force on being apart as well as a
negative force. While LDRR researchers have consistently assumed that
time apart is negative for relationships, these couples reported that being
apart had many positive influences on their time together. This project
provides a basis for scholars to examine in particular how being apart has
‘cons’ (as well as ‘pros’) and how together is not always a desired relational
Baxter, L. A., Dun, T., & Sahlstein, E. (2001). Rules for relating: Communication among
social network members. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 18, 173–199.
Baxter, L. A., & Montgomery, B. M. (1996). Relating: Dialogues and dialectics. New York:
Guilford Press.
Dellmann-Jenkins, M., Bernard-Paolucci, T. S., & Rushing, B. (1994). Does distance make the
heart grow fonder? A comparison of college students in long distance and geographically
close dating relationships. College Student Journal, 28, 212–219.
Emerson, R. M., Fretz, R. I., & Shaw, L. L. (1995). Writing ethnographic fieldnotes. Chicago:
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Gerstel, N., & Gross, H. (1984). Commuter marriage: A study of work and family. New York:
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Goldsmith, D., & Baxter, L. A. (1996). Constituting relationships in talk: A taxonomy of
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Gross, H. E. (1980). Dual-career couples who live apart: Two types. Journal of Marriage and
the Family, 42, 567–576.
Guldner, G. T., & Swensen, C. H. (1995). Time spent together and relationship quality: Long
distance relationships as a test case. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 12,
Helgeson, V. S. (1994). Long distance romantic relationships: Sex differences in adjustment
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Holt, P. A., & Stone, G. L. (1988). Needs, coping strategies, and coping outcomes associated
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Milardo, R. M. (1982). Friendship networks in developing relationships: Converging and
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Montgomery, B. M. (1992). Communication at the interface between couples and culture.
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Rohlfing, M. A. (1995). Doesn’t anyone stay in one place anymore? An exploration of the
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Network on Personal Relationships, Oxford, OH.
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relationships. (Doctoral dissertation, University of Iowa.) Dissertation Abstracts Inter-
national, 61, 2105.
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of contradictions. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the National Communication
Association, New Orleans, LA.
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... Evlilik ilişkisinin temel özelliklerinden biri olan birlikte yaşama durumunun uzak mesafe evliliklerde ihlal ediliyor oluşu, araştırmacıların uzak mesafe ilişkilere şüpheyle bakmalarına yakın mesafe evliliklerle karşılaştırıp bu evlilikleri dezavantajlı olarak değerlendirmelerine neden olmuştur. Alanyazında bu şüpheyi haklı çıkaran ve uzak mesafe ilişkilerdeki partnerlerin yakın mesafe ilişkilere göre daha çok çatışma ve stres yaşadıklarını ve daha az doyum sağladıklarını ortaya koyan araştırmalar olsa da (ör., Cameron ve Ross, 2007;Sahlstein, 2004) yakın ve uzak mesafe evliliklerde algılanan ilişki doyumunun ve bağlılığın farklılaşmadığını ortaya koyan çalışmalar da bulunmaktadır (ör., Dargie, Blair, Goldfinger ve Pukall, 2015;Du Bois ve ark., 2016). ...
... Evlilik ilişkilerinde çatışmaların kaçınılmaz olduğu düşünüldüğünde, özellikle uzak mesafe evliliklerin farklı çatışma yaşantılarına ortam sağlayabileceği açıktır. Örneğin, yukarıda ifade edildiği gibi rol ve sorumluluklardaki değişimler, uzak mesafedeki eşlerin iletişim kurmalarına olanak sağlayan teknolojik araçların kullanımındaki aksaklıklar (Carter ve Renshaw, 2015) ve bir araya gelindiğinde zamanın nasıl yönetileceği (Sahlstein, 2004) gibi konular, partnerler arasında çatışmaların yaşanmasına yol açabilmektedir. Mevcut çalışmalar, partnerlerin bir araya geldikleri zamanı etkili bir şekilde değerlendirmek için çatışmaktan özellikle kaçındıklarını ve bu zamanlarda birbirlerine en iyi şekilde davranmaya çalıştıklarını öne sürmektedir (Sahlstein, 2004). ...
... Örneğin, yukarıda ifade edildiği gibi rol ve sorumluluklardaki değişimler, uzak mesafedeki eşlerin iletişim kurmalarına olanak sağlayan teknolojik araçların kullanımındaki aksaklıklar (Carter ve Renshaw, 2015) ve bir araya gelindiğinde zamanın nasıl yönetileceği (Sahlstein, 2004) gibi konular, partnerler arasında çatışmaların yaşanmasına yol açabilmektedir. Mevcut çalışmalar, partnerlerin bir araya geldikleri zamanı etkili bir şekilde değerlendirmek için çatışmaktan özellikle kaçındıklarını ve bu zamanlarda birbirlerine en iyi şekilde davranmaya çalıştıklarını öne sürmektedir (Sahlstein, 2004). Bu çalışmada da çatışma ile baş etme temasındaki katılımcı söylemleri, eşlerin büyük çoğunluğunun çatışmalarını ya bireysel olarak ya da eşleriyle işbirliği içerisinde yapıcı stratejiler kullanarak ele aldıklarını göstermektedir. ...
Full-text available
Bu çalışma, uzak mesafe evlilik ilişki dinamiklerini ve özelliklerini derinlemesine incelemeyi amaçlamaktadır. Nitel desenle yapılandırılan bu çalışmaya, evliliklerini yaklaşık dört yıldır (x=50.60, Ss=27.36 ay)uzak mesafeli olarak sürdüren 15 evli birey (10 kadın, 5 erkek) katılmıştır. Araştırmada veriler yarı yapılandırılmış görüşme formu aracılığıyla toplanmış olup, elde edilen verilerin değerlendirilmesinde içerik analizi tekniğinden yararlanılmıştır. İçerik analizi sonrasında uzak mesafe evliliğe geçiş ve uzak mesafe evlilik süreci kategorileri ve bu kategoriler içinde geçişe hazırlık, rol ve sorumluluklar, çatışmayla baş etme stratejileri, aile rutin ve ritüelleri, uzak mesafe evliliğin avantajları, uzak mesafe evliliğin dezavantajları, uzak mesafe evliliği kolaylaştırıcı etmenler, uzak mesafe evlilikteki fedakârlık davranışları ve yakın mesafe evliliğe bakış açısıtemaları belirlenmiştir. Araştırmanın sonuçları, uzak mesafeye rağmen etkili iletişim, teknoloji kullanımı, yapıcı çatışma çözme stratejileri, olumlu kişilik özellikleri ve ilişkisel kaynaklar gibi faktörlerin, eşler arasındaki duygusal yakınlığı sürdürmeyi desteklediğini ortaya koymuştur.
... In LDRRs, relationship partners reside in different geographical areas, such that regular face-to-face contact is difficult or impossible (Sahlstein, 2004). Geographically-proximal or CRRs, on the other hand, are relationships where partners live in the same geographical region or the same residence, respectively. ...
... Interpersonal conflict is associated with increased negative mood (Bolger et al., 1989) and later dissolution of marriages (Gottman & Levenson, 2000). Yet, research examining conflict within long-distance romantic relationships found that they were more likely to capitalize on time spent with a partner, and in some cases even postpone conflict until after a visit (Sahlstein, 2004). Moreover, LDRRs appear less likely to be exposed to daily stressors that come with cohabitation, and stressor exposure is a known predictor of conflict within relationships (Randall & Bodenmann, 2009). ...
Full-text available
Long-distance romantic relationships (LDRRs) have grown increasingly common due to career-related necessity and the proliferation of digital technologies. We sought to understand how LDRRs differed from individuals in cohabitating romantic relationships (CRRs) during the COVID-19 pandemic. Using a multinational, six-wave dataset collected during the beginning of the pandemic (Nobservations = 2,954), we hypothesized an interaction whereby spending more time with one’s partner than was typical would lead to increased passion and decreased conflict for LDRRs, but decreased passion and increased conflict for CRRs. However, we found, regardless of relationship type, spending more time with one’s partner led to better outcomes. Nevertheless, LDRRs reported less conflict and more passion than those in CRRs. These associations remained consistent across case-control matched models and models adjusting for theoretically-relevant covariates. While LDRRs navigate periods of uncertainty better than CRRs, spending more time with one’s partner, irrespective of the arrangement, is ultimately beneficial.
... Th ese scripts differ depending on the stage of the relationship, such as newly dating, cohabiting, non-cohabiting, and long-distance re lationships. For example, long-distance relationship scripts are characterized by cycles of togetherness and distance ( Sahlstein, 2004 ), whereas cohabiting relationship scripts typically involve daily interactions and shared finances ( Sassler & Miller, 2011 ). ...
... Similarly, those involved in long-distance relationships re ported significant disruptions to their relationship scripts, de spite their existing scripts including periods of time spent apart. Long-distance relationships are characterized by established cy cles of separation followed by scheduled, much-anticipated re unions ( Sahlstein, 2004 ). Although these couples may have been uniquely prepared for periods of physical distance from their partner, they still reported significant distress and discomfort about the uncertainty of when they would be reunited with their partners. ...
The COVID-19 pandemic drastically affected how people interact socially. Stay-at-home orders, travel restrictions, and closures of non-essential businesses caused disruptions to the development of intimate relationships. Individuals develop expectations about how relationships should progress based on romantic scripts (i.e., relationship guidelines based on social norms), and typically report feeling more satisfied when their relationships follow these scripts. The current study was designed to assess how individuals involved in, or pursuing, intimate relationships during the COVID-19 pandemic adapted to these significant shifts to the progression of intimate relationships. Data were collected from user-generated posts on a popular online forum site. Analysis of spontaneous online communications during the first calendar year of the pandemic (2020) revealed notable impacts on the romantic scripts of individuals in all relationship stages (i.e., single, dating, new relationship, non-cohabiting, cohabiting, long distance, and relationship dissolution). Content analysis yielded themes related to the dominant discourse, as well as similarities across and differences between relationship stages. Overall, people described notable changes to their intimate relationship scripts that they attributed to the pandemic and restrictions. The results contribute to the current understanding of the pandemic’s impact on our closest, intimate relationships and provide insights for use in policy and research around social change.
... The need for these modes of engagement were nothing new to long-distance friends, partners, and family members (Dainton & Aylor, 2002;Sahlstein, 2004). But the knowledge that they no longer had the agency and freedom to travel and be together was a new and frightening sensation, as observed online and within my own family trying to get to Australia from Aotearoa and move within Australia to say goodbye to my dying aunt during 2020. ...
Full-text available
Drawing on 15 semi-structured interviews with Aotearoa youth, all of whom actively discuss disability and/or mental health online, alongside textual analysis of a variety of posts collected through approximately 100 hours of observation among 15 online community groups and tag searches across the social media platforms Facebook, Reddit and Instagram, I investigate how these New Zealanders engage in and with digital space. A core argument of this thesis is that social media forums and communities provide youth with a place to create a sense of solidarity in a society dominated by ableist assumptions. However, these spaces are also constructed and encoded with these ableist assumptions. As a member of the disabled community examining these issues and what it means to consider mental illness to be a "chronic disease"-or disability-of youth (McGorry et al., 2007:S5) were incredibly interesting. Digital technologies and social media provide spaces for the hidden histories of socially marginalised groups, such as the disabled and mentally ill, to be given their own voices. In this thesis, I investigate how some disabled and mentally ill youth in Aotearoa use the freedoms, information-sharing capacities, and community features of digital and social media (such as memes, photos, and YouTube content) in their communications of their experiences and perspectives. Language, as a social practice, plays a critical political and social role in how disabilities and mental health are understood in Aotearoa and, therefore, how disabled and mentally ill youth communicate on social media. These explorations lead to understandings of the relationship between voice and the activist, something which is non-linear and temporally situated. Activism and the activist are influenced by social norms, often being placed as the Other, leading to temporal retreats from activist activity. Social media provides a space and opportunity for disabled and mentally ill youth to reclaim their autonomy and their voice, which in traditional ableist spaces have been taken from them. Additionally, the Covid-19 pandemic has illustrated our digital technologies of care. The dual use of online groups for social support and information-seeking demonstrate how these social media platforms can perform as what Long (2020:250) calls "vital technologies of care" through which users possess the capacity to sustain relationships and wellbeing. They also demonstrate what I have termed "long social Covid"-the shared sense of social consciousness that reflects the social impacts of Covid-19. I suggest that digital communication, by enabling autonomy, voice, and validation, provides vital spaces for intra-group support that can develop into acts of broader social activism. However, social activism is temporally sensitive, an activity which people can and do move in and out of according to their capacities, needs, and ability to engage in activism; the retention of their voice is not dependent on their participation in social activism.
... In LD dating, partners transform the geographic constraint with adaptive behaviors and perceptions to pursue intimacy. An ample body of evidence further suggests that LD dating couples carefully navigate restricted communication opportunities for quality time and good memories (Bergen, 2010;Sahlstein, 2004), adopt more intimacy-oriented communication styles (Stafford, 2010), and engage in more relationship maintenance behaviors (Dainton & Aylor, 2001;Pistole et al., 2010). They are also prone to cognitive biases via processes such as savoring (Borelli et al., 2014) and romantic idealization (Stafford & Merolla, 2007). ...
Romantic partners in long-distance relationships tend to adapt their communication and their perceptions of the relationship to suit their relational goals. Guided by this premise, the aim of this study was to provide a more nuanced understanding of how communication and perceptions are adapted. For this purpose, self-reports and behavioral data pertaining to 61 heterosexual dating couples were gathered, who all kept a diary for a week, while communicating via a texting platform. By comparing the daily communication and perceptions of the relationship of couples in long-distance relationships to those of couples in geographically close relationships, the study offered solid evidence of behavioral adaption, as the former self-reported greater self-disclosure and greater self-responsiveness to their partners. These findings were supported by human coding and linguistic analysis results. Moreover, while relative to geographically close partners, long-distance partners demonstrated larger differences between partner perceptions and the partner’s self-report for both self-disclosure and responsiveness. The effect of long-distance status on perceived differences was mediated by relationship uncertainty and one’s own adaptive behaviors. The findings suggest that long-distance relationships are maintained through behavioral and perceptual adaptations, which are also meaningful for maintaining geographically close relationships.
... Another explanation could be that the increase in social communications after separation is not because of the couple's preference but because of their inability to avoid it. This hypothesis suggests that individuals may not be able to resist the demands of family and friends to communicate (Sahlstein, 2004). It is also possible that having social networks is important only in stressful times (Maguire & Kinney, 2010). ...
This study investigated relationship maintenance behaviors in a sample of 451 married individuals in Tehran and was conducted as an online survey. Confirmatory factor analysis showed that, unlike intrapersonal and dyadic behaviors, social network behaviors did not have an acceptable factor loading. The regression model showed that dyadic behaviors at all three levels including before separation, during separation, and after separation could positively predict good relationship quality. Individual behaviors during separation and after separation predicted it positively and negatively, respectively. Social network behaviors could not predict relationship quality at any level. The implications of these findings are discussed.
Touch is valued for supporting emotional bonds. How can people access its warmth and nuance remotely, when tech-mediated proxies are so different from direct touch? We assessed the viability of haptic animations as affect-embedded tactile messages, highlighting findings which demonstrate how crucial relationship and shared history is in influencing these expressions in design and interpretation. To investigate haptic messaging, we first identified a set of 10 common emotion-imbued scenarios by surveying 201 people in distance relationships. Then, using a novel prototype of a wearable spatial vibrotactile display, 10 intimate dyads designed 167 haptic encodings matching the provided scenarios plus 17 user-defined “wildcards”. A week later, 21 individuals interpreted sentiment from encodings designed by themselves, a partner or a stranger. We examined design strategies, engagement, and compared human machine interpretation accuracy. A striking finding was participants' facile use of shared context when it was available, building on 'inside stories' to communicate subtle meanings with high effectiveness despite the unfamiliar medium, and doing so with evident fun. We analyze recognition accuracy and share insights on what it might take to make interpersonal haptic messaging work.
During emerging adulthood, a central work/life challenge is the simultaneous negotiation of work and romantic involvements. The present study employed Relational Dialectics Theory 2.0 (RDT 2.0) to examine college-enrolled emerging adults’ communicative sensemaking about work/partnership boundary strategies. Interviews with 28 emerging adults were analyzed using contrapuntal analysis. Segmentation strategies – such as limiting or compartmentalizing relational obligations – were constructed both as pragmatic means to advance individualistic pursuits, and as a form of temporary sacrifice for long-term relational viability. Integration strategies were rendered meaningful through the lens of enrichment, whereby the “right” romantic partner enables individuals’ occupational development and ideal worker performance.
Purpose The shift to remote work brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic dramatically limited spontaneous workplace interpersonal interactions. For one interpersonal relationship in particular, the work spouse, the sudden physical distance may impact the energy work spouses draw from one another. Drawing on interactional ritual theory, this study aims to investigate the relationship between interaction frequency and organizational outcomes mediated by relational energy amid the pandemic. Design/methodology/approach During the COVID-19 pandemic, working adults who indicated they had a work spouse were recruited via Qualtrics to participate in a two-part online study. Findings Complete data from 120 participants across both time periods revealed that more frequent interaction between work spouses is associated with increased job satisfaction and affective commitment mediated by relational energy. Originality/value This study represents the first empirical examination of individual and organizational outcomes of a unique interpersonal workplace relationship. Additionally, this study enhances our understanding of the impact of relational energy in socially distanced situations between employees in a close, intimate (non-sexual) pair bond.
Communication occurs at the intersection of multiple dimensions of social existence, where individuals, dyads, groups, and societies meet. This chapter examines the specific link between couples and culture as they engage in an ongoing negotiation to develop their identities vis-a-vis each other. The chapter describes communication messages by which couples and cultures assert their positions, specifically in relation to autonomy and connection; patterns that have emerged over the last few decades in those messages; and potential patterns accessible to couples and cultures as they negotiate their association.
The phenomenon of idealization in college premarital long-distance relationships is explored. In this study, 71 college couples participated in a survey. Findings indicate long-distance couples have more restricted communication and are more idealized than their geographically close counterparts. Further, an associative pattern between restricted communication and positive relational images is found. Speculation is offered that long-distance couples, due to their limited contact, postpone realistic assessments. Implications of these findings are discussed.
Changes in the structure of friendship networks are thought to complement change in a couple's level of involvement in a close relationship. As a pair become close, their network of mutual friends should increase in size, and with declining involvement a concurrent reduction in the number of mutual friends should occur. A measure of network overlap was derived from daily reports of social activity provided by participants. The hypothesized variations of stage and overlap are consistently supported in both cross-sectional and logitudinal tests. Network overlap covaries with stage of relationship, and this covariation cannot be accounted for by a couple's familiarity or length of dating. Underlying variations in overlap are compositional changes in the stability of the network membership, involving either the reclassification of friends or actual changes in network membership. The findings are discussed in terms of the importance of considering the social context of developing relationships, since that context can serve both facilitative and disruptive functions.
Increasingly, over the last decade, dual-career couples have met the mobility demands of each spouse's career by deciding to maintain separate residences. This study analyzes the rewards and strains associated with the lifestyle of dual-career couples who live apart. Analysis of interviews with 43 spouses, representing 28 marriages, suggests that the heritage of traditional marriage norms affects spouses' views of their own roles in these nontraditional marriages. A distinction between two types (mainly younger "adjusting" and older "established" couples) is helpful in sorting out ways in which traditional marital norms frame evaluations of spousal roles in these relationships.
Although many studies have shown associations between the amount of time spent together and relationship satisfaction, none has established the causal direction of the association. While time spent together may cause increased satisfaction, it is equally likely that greater satisfaction causes couples to spend more time together. Recent research that experimentally increased the amount of time couples spent together found no increase in relationship satisfaction. The present study looks at relationships that spend less time together—long-distance relationships (LDRs)—and examines their relationship quality compared to geographically proximal relationships (PRs). A multivariate analysis of variance compared self-reported levels of relationship satisfaction, intimacy, dyadic trust and the degree of relationship progress, between 194 individuals in premarital LDRs and 190 premarital PRs. The analysis found no significant differences. This suggests that the amount of time a couple spends together does not itself play a central role in relationship maintenance.
In a series of four studies, a descriptive taxonomy of dyadic speech events in everyday relating was developed and employed to explore the constitutive functions of interpersonal communication. Twenty-nine speech events were identified and replicated through a variety of multi-method procedures, including unstructured and structured diary records, judgment sorting tasks, and semantic-differential rating scaks. Everyday relating appears to be dominated by six kinds of talk events: gossip, making plans, joking around, catching up, small talk, and recapping the day's events. The taxonomy of speech events appears to be organized along three dimensions: formal/goal-directed, important/deep/involving, and positive valence. Preliminary evidence suggests how different types of personal relationships are constituted in different speech events.
Research has shown that marriage is more beneficial for men than women and that men suffer more distress than women on marital dissolution. To explore the extent to which these findings generalize to nonmarital relationships, college students in long-distance dating relationships were followed over one semester to determine sex differences in adjustment to physical separation and breakup. Breakups increased men's distress but decreased women's. Women adjusted better than men to both physical separation and breakup. Frequency of contact prior to separation did not show a consistent pattern of effects on adjustment. Men, but not women, adjusted better to breakup if they had initiated it. The most distressed subjects were men whose partners initiated the breakup, most likely because they were less prepared for it. Many of the sex differences found here for dating relationships parallel those found in marriage.