Sociologists have found a reason to think couples in long-distance relationships could be more intimate than those in geographically close ones.

Most people who have no reason to break up a relationship they're in hate the thought of separation. Physical intimacy become impossible, communication becomes a lot harder, and one partner just misses the other. However, 'separated relationships', called long-distance (LD) relationships, are also becoming a more 'accessible' way to have a relationship because travel is becoming easier and more affordable, and options like texting, emailing, video-chatting, etc., exist to bridge the communication gap.

These technologies were found, researchers announced last week, to influence those in LD relationships to develop a 'fonder' interaction with their partners than those in geographically close relationships. Their results, published in Journal of Communication, attribute this tilt to LD partners wanting to compensate by being more self-disclosive and intimate where they think their chosen mode of communication is falling short.

Diary survey

The researchers, Crystal Jiang, City University of Hong Kong, and Jeffrey Hancock, Cornell University, enrolled 63 couples, fitting the criterion "We are unable to see each other, face to face, on a frequent basis due to geographical separation", with partners aged 18-34 for a week-long survey, and had them log their daily interactions with their partners in a provided digital diary. It included prompts like "My partner shared experience and thoughts during this interaction" and "My partner understood what I said", which had to be answered in terms of a rating.

Using answers, Jiang and Hancock were able to derive values for two parameters using a set of equations that were earlier used to predict the communication strength of geographically close couples. The values of both these parameters, behavioural adaptation and idealization, were found to be higher for LD couples than for their closer counterparts, implying a greater degree of 'fondness'.

They also found that as the mode of communication between LD couples became less instantaneous, less able to convey their expressions and more prone to interruption by distractions, the partners felt the need to compensate by expressing themselves more intensely and intimately - such as when texting.

These levels of intimacy, the study notes, could be prompted only by the perceived absence of some kind of comfort. During face-to-face communication, when interruptions are unlikely, cues delivered instantaneously and almost perfectly, Jiang and Hancock think the partners would feel no need to alter their behaviour. I think just this point defeats any purpose, then, behind wanting to compare the two kinds of relationships.

Optimism

It didn't end there. Partners didn't just have to be more expressive, but also had to know that their 'other half' was responding equally enthusiastically for them to feel the intimacy. And where non-LD couples met for, say, 10 times a day, their LD counterparts met more than 10 times a day. This implies that the need to compensate wasn't limited to each exchange but also avalanched into more exchanges.

Of course, none of this speaks for the overall bad or good quality of the relationship, but only that in the absence of 'face-time', partners adapted their behaviour and their partners' according to the situation. Also, this was accompanied by partners casting in a better light cues like voice inflection, verbal expressions and gestures, becoming more forthcoming and optimistic with their thoughts and feelings.

This cut the other way, too. A partner didn't just want to be more expressive but also had to knowthat the other was being just as expressive and candid with them (perhaps there was only so much trust that could be conveyed through a webcam). The researchers found that both these mechanisms at work together helped establish a two-way street between two people that, for some reason, had become more mushy the day they'd moved 1,000 km apart.

Against bias

At this stage, the study is only indicative, not representative, of the way LD couples could behave. For one, its sample size - 126 - is too small, and the tech-savviness of its subjects - 'couples attending communication and psychology classes at a large university in the northeastern United States', whose average age was later computed to be around 21 - not addressed at all. Last, there's always also the possibility that because people had been told their answers would be monitored, they'd become uncharacteristically self-aware.

Nonetheless, even by being indicative, Jiang's and Hancock's calculations address a bias among scholars that relationships that cannot afford frequent face-to-face conversations also cannot afford the same level of intimacy. This was an assumption aided in part by closer relationships being more tractable in studies, while LD relationships were distributed unevenly and open to influence by diverse factors.

In fact, a 2005 study found that 75 per cent of all college students in the US had been in an LD relationship some time, and 25-50 per cent were always in one at any given moment. These are big numbers. As they grow, LD relationships will also play a larger role in the social networks they're a part of, influencing decisions in a way sociologists are still not adept at measuring.

(This article was published as an OpEd in print in The Hindu on July 20, 2013.)