Long distance stinks.
One of the most difficult challenges a couple can go through is being forced to live apart. Whether it be because one gets a job elsewhere and the other can't relocate, or you meet someone special in a different city, trying to navigate the pitfalls of a relationship while you're living in different places can be a flat out nightmare.
Although there is no research regarding therapist attitudes toward long-distance relationships, a casual poll would likely have mixed ideas about how healthy they really are. However, a study of 474 women and 253 men in long-distance relationships and 314 women and 111 men in geographically-close relationships found that the distance isn't the problem, but instead "individual characteristics and relationship quality" (Dargie, Blair, Goldfinger & Pukall, 2015). Plus, for those therapists who adhere to attachment theory, Diamond (2019) writes that with new technology, long-distance relationships do not always disrupt "psychobiological linkage" between partners.
With the advent of instant messaging and Skype, it's simpler than ever to be in communication with a significant other when they are in another city, state, or country. That said, there are some things that Skype can't replace: physical touch.
The Importance of Sex in a Relationship
When you're in a new (or even old) relationship, the urge to touch the other person can be irresistible. That urge is no less intense when you're in a long-distance relationships (LRD). The problem, of course, is that you can't touch them because they aren't there. This can lead to feelings of frustration and detachment as you are missing an arguably key part of a romantic relationship.
This is just one of the reasons why LDRs can be so taxing on both people. Partners want to "be there" for each other, but they can't. This situation can lead to tons of sexual frustration, but it doesn't have to.
As a sex therapist, you may end up working with couples in LDRs through Skype or in person. If so, here are some strategies to help manage sexual desire while in a long-distance relationship.
Some people feel like being in a long-distance relationship can create an overwhelming build up of sexual tension and frustration. You want to touch the other person, but the option simply isn't there. This can build and build until… well, you see each other again.
And then, WOW! All of that built-up tension can finally be released! But the trick is managing that tension until a time when you can release it with each other.
This build-up often happens when you don't know when you're going to see the other person. Scheduling regular "reunions" can be a great way to reduce uncertainty. If you know when you're going to be seeing the other person, it will build a sense of anticipation rather than frustration, knowing that you're soon going to be able to "release" all of that tension. So, as a sex therapist, suggestion that couples try to schedule frequent visits that they can put in the calendar way ahead of time!
One method practiced by some long-distance couples is that of an open relationship. This is when both parties are allowed to have sexual encounters outside of the relationship.
The difficulties of managing open relationship requires its own blog (and one will be coming!) but for now, know that there are countless variations with rules that work for individual couples. Some couples only allow for casual sexual encounters with others. Others insist that the only regular and trusted partners be involved. And there are often restrictions on the types of sexual activity that can be done outside of the relationship (oral only, for example).
Whatever the arrangement, being able to have sexual relations with others outside of a long-distance relationship can go a long way to managing sexual desires. Mind you, there are many other issues that can come in open relationships, including jealousy and fears of infidelity (Yes, there CAN be cheating in open relationships. Someone just needs to break the rules agreed upon). Opening a relationship isn't something you should choose to do lightly, and talking with a sex theapist about is can be one of the healthiest ways to enter into this new state of a relationship.
Cybersex: It's not just for kids anymore!
One way to manage sexual desires in an LDR is to, well, release them with a partner virtually. Remember how I mentioned Skype earlier? Well, you can do much more than just talk using the video feature!
For some, this can feel super embarrassing at first. Some might feel self-conscious being "on camera" with your partner. If that's the case, someone can simply "talk" using the audio features. If this still feels like too much, they can try instant messaging instead. Then, once they become comfortable, they can take the next step up.
While cybersex is a healthy expression of sexuality, there are some things people need to be aware of. Make sure that the cybersex is happening on a secure internet connection to protect privacy. If at home, the WiFi should have a difficult-to-guess password and be using modern encryption methods. If one partner is on WiFi at a hotel, they should be using a VPN to encrypt your internet use (Private Internet Access or NordVPN are good options here). If there are photos or short videos being sent back and forth, using a program like Kik where photos can be set to delete automatically after they are opened might be a smart idea. These are just some basic safety precautions for practicing safe cybersex! If you'd like to learn more about cybersex and working with couples who are curious about it, I offer a course on the subject!
Long-distance relationships stink, but they don't have to! By scheduling visits, taking advantage of technology, or temporarily opening the relationship, sexual desires can be managed in a healthy way. Remember that LDRs can face many of the same relationship challenges as couples who live together. If a couple is experiencing difficulties in their long distance relationship, sex therapy might be able to help them navigate the issues and make things better than ever! To do this, you might want to look at our AASECT-approved Blended Learning Program.