Managing the distance


Love is worth a lifetime of dedication. It is the rare light at the end of the dreary tunnel on the banal journey through life.

One would not have an epic love story without the necessary physical distance between two lovers challenging their devotion and tearing their hearts into pieces every second they are apart.

However, in a contemporary context, long-distance love stories are no longer defined by romantic letters but by the prevalence of communication technology.

University is the optimal place to find long-distance relationships mitigated by technology. In order to follow one’s dreams and expectations one is often driven out of one’s hometown, sometimes even country, to pursue an education.

The long-distance relationship is practically inevitable, especially for university students, but all too often those immersed in technology in an attempt to keep in touch with their significant other become obsessed with the standstill their relationship comes to when they find themselves far apart.

By using communication technology and participating in online arenas, couples can further their connection and allow their relationship to evolve. However, technology can transform a relationship and has a tendency to foster hardships for the couple.

This seemingly artificial environment has drastically altered what it means to be in a long-distance relationship.

There is now unlimited access to cheap technology that can bring lovers in front of each other immediately, at least within the world of cyberspace.

It has also created a new realm where couples meet online first.

For example, Kiri Ipsen, a student at McMaster, met her Australian boyfriend Brad online and, to the dismay of her family, united with him overseas when she moved there for a year-long exchange.

“My mom thought that I was going to be kidnapped or murdered. My friends thought I was nuts,” she recalls.

How has technology changed our relationships?

Alexandra Boutros, a communications professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, explained her unique outlook on how technology has affected our most intimate relationships.

“It’s tempting to say that new media and new technologies are changing our relationships…. The thing that has changed is that we always have it on, we never turn it off,” said Boutros.

“Part of what new technology has changed for us isn’t exactly how we interact with each other … but it’s the time and the scope, it’s the pace of our lives that has changed,” she added.

Constant access to partners that are further away can sometimes lead to obsession, as it can be addictive to want to know information about what is going on in the lives of loved ones.

“One of the most significant reasons we do choose to always be on call is for the idea that access to information, even the smallest amount of information, signifies status and power,” said Boutros. “Having access to information all the time is a type of power and it is very addictive … it becomes very difficult to say, ‘oh I don’t need to check Facebook today.’”

Couples who do choose to not partake in the latest technology often face alienation from peers for not participating in this shared social experience.

“The problem is with people who choose not to engage in mobile communication … find themselves making this choice within a social environment. They are not passively choosing not to have a cell phone, they are making a statement,” said Boutros.

What technologies are people using?

-MSN Instant Messenger allows people to write, call or video call any contact.

-Skype uses a headset and offers both calling and video chat for free.

-Facebook is a social networking website that also includes chat and e-mail.

-MySpace is a social networking website that includes e-mail.

-Twitter allows members to update their status – usually mundane aspects of life.

-E-mail has numerous free outlets such as Hotmail and Gmail (including Gmail chat).

-Computer games and online programs offer chat spaces, including Second Life.

-BlackBerry cell phones allow owners to access the Internet anywhere and use BlackBerry Messenger (BBM).

-All cell phones have text messaging, and some offer a two-way radio.

-Xbox and PlayStation support online team gaming with headsets and Internet connections.

When Facebook rears its ugly head

It is not uncommon for couples to check their partner’s Facebook page (or even sign on as them), just to make sure everything is as they expected. But in long-distance relationships Facebook can act as a policing system, which can lead to impromptu fighting.

Laurier student Alison Price found out that a past boyfriend was secretly keeping in contact with ex-girlfriend when he left his Facebook account active on her computer.

Now, she says she and her current boyfriend talk on the phone and rarely use Facebook for communication.

Like Price, many couples avoid having Facebook relationships or find that snooping means there is mistrust in the relationship.

Jessica Botelho is an international student at Laurier and has been in a long-distance relationship for two years while her boyfriend, Jonathan Perry, goes to school in Chicago.

“I’m not worried, if you’re doing stuff like [snooping Facebook] it’s because you’re worried, you don’t trust that person,” said Botelho.

It’s important to understand why people feel the need to publicize their relationships on this social networking tool and how it affects the way people interact.

Boutros explained that “saying that you have a relationship on Facebook is a way of validating that relationship; it’s our way of saying ‘this is true.’”

“We gossiped about people before Facebook, we worried what our partners were doing at work…. But with Facebook we have to re-negotiate these issues.

We have to decide what we are going to keep private and what is at stake in making the relationship public,” she added.

Managing the stress

It’s difficult in university to cope with the intensity of school and living the student lifestyle when there is also a responsibility and a commitment to someone who is not within one’s physical environment.

Building and sustaining a healthy relationship with the added stress of long-distance takes a lot of time and investment that is often overlooked.

Laurier student Katherine Tomlinson has been dating her boyfriend Tyler Carlson for four years; three of them have been long-distance.

“I just feel like he’s like my best friend, he’s more than just my boyfriend. Whenever I’m really upset about something or I can’t really communicate with anyone else, it’s frustrating that he’s not here to console me or make me feel better,” said Tomlinson.

On the other hand, long-distance relationships can offer more time to dedicate to school than other relationships, as the person isn’t right in front of you.

“It’s easier around this time of year, I don’t have that added person I have to pay attention to,” said Laurier student Elyse Wach who works to maintain her two-year relationship with Ryan
Celusta from Washington state.

Keeping intimate

Trying to keep the spice alive and diminishing the possibility of wandering eyes can dominate the minds of long-distance couples. Those interviewed explain the intricacies of how technology can play a critical role in the upkeep of intimacy. Stay creative and read these suggestions.

Care packages

-Cosmopolitan magazines with articles highlighted and marked with things you want to do, like handcuffs, blindfolds and sexy photos.
-Familiar things such as favourite foods or gifts.
-If your loved one is sick, send soups, teas and medication so your partner doesn’t have to do all the dirty work themselves.

Phone/video sex

-Phone sex is best executed when one person tells the other what they like done to them by the other person. Include your vibrator or just manually masturbate; moaning is always helpful, but being focused is important.
-Laughing can ruin a good phone sex session.
“If you’re going to have phone sex you might as well do it over Skype so you can see something.…It’s nice to see him getting turned on. I do a strip tease, I have a vibrator and we both masturbate at the same time.”- Anonymous

Naughty photos

-Sending photos over cell phones or e-mail.
“This one time when I was younger and we started dating I took this picture in my bra and I sent it to him. Then his dad transferred files from my boyfriend’s computer to his computer. One day I’m sitting in the living room and I see this bra picture go by on the slide show.…No one saw it but I was mortified.” -Anonymous

Rules to prevent disappointment

“The first day [when we see each other again], no sex … ever. There is too much pressure, we would get in a fight the first day always, you just want everything to be perfect but its not.” -Art James

Letters: yes, they still exist

“[I sent] five or six letters a summer. It’s more personal, its more than reading something off a screen….I’ll send it with a picture of when I last saw him that I know he didn’t have. I didn’t tell him about it and he really liked that.”- Anonymous

Text Messages

-Simple phrases like “I love you” and “I miss you” can let your partner know what’s on your mind.

An artificial environment

Being in a long-distance relationship for the majority of the year is stressful, but it can also impose artificiality on the connection.

While technology quickens access to information, it can also facilitate unrealistic alterations to one’s real identity. Text messages, e-mail, phones and Facebook let users hide certain components of their personality as they have more time, versus face-to-face encounters, to consider how they want to be perceived.

Art James, an actor, on several occasions found himself in a long-distance relationship with his now wife, Mandy James. Although he tends to avoid using a lot of technology in general he believes there are times when using technology becomes advantageous – phones can hide his facial emotions if he is irritated with his partner.

“[Phones] are awesome. When I’m on the phone and I’m angry she can’t tell unless I want her to…. I can hide how annoyed I get,” said James.

Price agrees that using the phone is her main method of contact. She and her boyfriend opt to keep in contact about four times a day, often casually through text message.

She says she avoids Facebook for the most part, but when she does find something online that she doesn’t like, she said “I don’t usually bring it up [with him] because it’s just me being jealous.”

While Price avoids some forms of technology for fear it may contribute negativity to her healthy long-distance relationship, some argue that the use of the technologies Price shuns have a tendency to falsify relationships from a distance.

“I think we are careful about how we present ourselves in an online environment,” agrees Boutros. “But I’m wondering if we aren’t also careful about how we present ourselves in what we call ‘real life.’”

Boutros also comments on a lack of intimacy that is involved in long-distance relationships and that texting or e-mailing has a long time frame. It is this disconnect that can lend itself to misinterpretation, falsities or deceit by partners of a long-distance relationship.

“We can think about what we say we can be more careful than if we are always in a face-to-face relationship,” she comments.

But Boutros questions the extremity to which partners can create a false image of themselves, and the extent to which they can lie at a distance using technology.

“We may not have that much time to really think that much about how we present ourselves…. Do we really have time to construct a false image of ourselves? Probably not,” said Boutros.

Physical distance

Even though the world may feel like it’s shrinking with communication technologies, it’s important not to forget that physical distance still imposes limitations on the accessibility of one’s partner.

Travelling is a large component of maintaining relationships, which takes time out of an already substantial schedule, especially as a university student. Transportation and time are important elements in the reality of a long-distance relationship.

“In the past I have taken buses down to Chicago which were ridiculous 24-hour trips [twice each semester]…. I’ve also taken a flight to Chicago, it’s a lot faster and you end up spending more time together,” said Botelho.

Price also mentions an added stress in finding the time to visit her boyfriend.

“The first thing I do as I’m leaving is try to think of the next time I can figure out my life to get back up to [see him],” said Price, who normally takes the Greyhound bus to see her boyfriend, who lives four hours away.

Tomlinson finds that although she and her boyfriend don’t live very far from each other and have vehicles, it still becomes hard to make time.

“His work schedule is weekends … and I can’t really go home in the week. We both have jobs and working around those schedules and my school schedule, it’s really hard … especially around [November],” said Tomlinson.

Distance took on an entirely new level for Ipsen, who met her boyfriend on the social networking site RSVP before her exchange to Australia.

“We first started on MSN, which lasted maybe a bit over a week. We went from there to Skype, so we knew what each other looked like,” said Ipsen, who explained that speaking online made the transition to physical contact much easier.

“When we met it was weird, I thought I knew him so well. The first time we spoke it was for over 14 hours [on MSN] and then after that a few hours every day,” continued Ipsen.

After their year together in Australia, Brad immigrated to Canada where they both now live in Hamilton. He works full-time while Ipsen is in fourth year at McMaster

Cyberspace and beyond

Technology is changing infinitely, so much so that it becomes impossible to predict what the future has in store.

However, online phenomenon Second Life shines a light onto the possibilities. The website describes itself as, “A free 3D virtual world where users can socialize, connect and create using free voice and text chat.”

Similar to the Sims or World of Warcraft, people create avatars and the lives they have always dreamed of living. There are around 15 million registered users of Second Life with an average of 70,000 people logged on at any one time.

Boutros sheds some light on the scholarship surrounding it,

“Now I think the scholarship is more interested in mixed reality,” she said. “There are real people, with real lives and complicated lives behind these online identities and we’re interested in how people move from online to offline experiences.”

The panel: Is technology beneficial to long-distance relationships?

“If you are a sneaky and conniving girlfriend … it’s not good for the relationship. But if you trust each other, it’s useful.”

–Katherine Tomlinson

“If it wasn’t for technology, my relationship wouldn’t be the same….It’s such a difference to see him and hear him at the same time.”

–Laura Catalano

“Communicating is important. It’s easier not to bottle things up over weeks of not seeing him which come out when I do see him.”

–Ciara McVicar

“If you’re not going to be honest online you’ll be found out eventually and it’s a waste of time for everyone involved.”

–Kiri Ipsen

“If you only get to be with them for a while, you never really figure that out until you are no longer long-distance.”

–Jessica Botelho

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