Are Long Distance Relationships Going Extinct?

By: Anna Wickham |

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What happens when a generation, jaded by the lost dreams of their parents, refuses to sacrifice their aspirations on the altar of a relationship? What happens when a generation has long ago stopped choosing “either/or” and instead chooses “both/and”?

Starting with millennials, the ever-questioning, no-bullshit generation, the rules of the long distance relationship are changing. With those changes, we may very well lose the notion of the long distance relationship in any traditional sense of the word. For millennials, a relationship doesn’t mean that you’re not free to chase your dreams, even if those dreams take you far from home. But it does mean approaching the long distance relationship a little differently than most people have in the past.

Two Traditional Long Distance Options

Before we talk about the new way that millennials are approaching long distance relationships, let’s take a look at the traditional path of the long distance relationship. In the past, if you and your partner couldn’t be in the same city, you have two options: either try to make the relationship work with Skype conversations and compromises, or end the relationship.

Option 1: Making it Work

Whether you’re going off to college, traveling abroad extensively, or taking a job in a new city, you may find yourself considering a long-distance relationship. If you’re determined to be together, you’ll have no choice but to do what I call the traditional long distance tango: schedule calls with each other, possibly through various different timezones, and fight endlessly over Skype.

But there are other reasons besides distance that can put a strain on your relationship. For example, the person who is away from home sometimes meets new people who could threaten their relationship. Additionally, new experiences often lead to realizing that there is so much more to life than what you thought before. Experiences have a way of changing people, and you may not be the same person you were when you left. These are all risks of the long distance relationship.

If the relationship beats the odds and manages to withstand the challenges of being away from home, you vow never to let each other leave again. It’s too big of a risk to the relationship. To solidify your commitment to one another, you get married immediately. The person who left to pursue their dreams counts their adventure as a valuable but distant memory that was “one of the best experiences” of their life. Then you promptly assimilate into “normal,” never daring to leave again for fear of trivializing your relationship. As an experienced traveler and adventurer, I have seen this happen more times than I can count.

Option 2: Ending It

The only other option traditionally was to end your relationship, sacrificing it in favor of life experiences. Once you make this decision, you go do your thing, whether it’s helping children in Africa, learning Spanish in Spain, going scuba diving in Thailand, or going backpacking in Europe. Maybe you meet some hot traveler and have a steamy but brief romance, then you come back home. You’ve made your bed, so to speak, and now there is no one waiting for you in it when you get home. With no ties keeping you there, you might even set off again to repeat the same process.

A New Solution

But these options were insufficient for many millennials. So in our usual style of being unsatisfied with the status quo, we carved out a third option when previous generations said it couldn’t be done. That option is to say yes to our relationship, and also say yes to a life full of valuable experiences. Why should we have to choose between the two?

So how do we do that? Through various alternative arrangements.

The most common arrangement is what’s called the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. In this arrangement, both parties are free to date or see other people, as long as they keep it to themselves and don’t tell their partner. It’s difficult and heartbreaking to know that your partner is seeing someone else. That’s why many couples choose simply to pretend it isn’t happening. When and if the couple can be together again, they’ll pick up where they left off. No need to air out dirty laundry. By then, it’s all in the past.

Some couples take the opposite approach: that is, they agree that both partners can see other people, but only if they do disclose it to one another. While it’s no doubt more emotionally difficult to handle the thought of your boyfriend or girlfriend with another person, some people find it easier because they know they can trust their partner to always tell them what’s going on.

Another common alternative option is simply to terminate the relationship until both people find themselves in the same place again. Couples often do this and plan to be together if the stars align in the future to do so. This is similar to the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. If someone isn’t technically your boyfriend or girlfriend, you don’t have to tell them who you’ve been seeing. Many times, the couple is still in contact. Often couples get back together when they’re in the same place again.

The Cause For the Shift

There are a few things that have empowered millennials to adopt this attitude. First, we have every opportunity at our fingertips and the encouragement and resources to take advantage of them. It’s true what they say: compared with generations before us, we are privileged. With studies abroad, extended trips, cool volunteer opportunities, and more people earning postgraduate degrees, there is more reason than ever before to get off the grid for a few months or longer and have a new experience.

Additionally, our parents are encouraging us to accomplish our dreams no matter where we need to go to do that. Our whole lives, our parents have been telling us about their regrets: the places they didn’t see, the things they didn’t do, all because they got married and had children young. Maybe they were focused on their careers, then looked up 30 years later to wonder where all the time went. Their dreams were squandered. There’s nothing they want more for their children than for us to say “yes” to everything: travel, learning, experiences, and life.

Another reason millennials’ are less inclined to choose between life experiences and relationships is our cynicism about the fate of relationships. At the same time we were listening to our parents urge us to experience life instead of rushing into marriage and family, about half of us watched our parents’ marriages end, and the other half of us watched our friends’ parents’ marriage end. As a result, instead of growing up dreaming of “happily ever after,” we began to think it was just a bad bet. We don’t want to pass up great opportunities for a relationship that may not work out in the end.

Millennials are also getting married later and later than previous generations, and it’s a viable option for some of us to never marry at all. The thought of being alone doesn’t paralyze us with fear. This too allows us to let go of our relationships while we explore life and discover what makes us happy.

Millennials are also more comfortable with uncertainty than previous generations. We’d rather be uncertain and honest than to be certain and delusional. With the recession that laid off our parents from jobs to which they’ve been committed for a decade or more, we have learned how quickly circumstances can change. We’ve taken that lesson and applied it to our relationships. Maybe your partner will meet someone while you’re traveling in South America for the summer. Or maybe they won’t, and you’ll be together forever. You’ll just have to wait and see.

What’s the point of waiting while your partner is accomplishing his or her dreams away from home? While it hurts to know that your partner is with another person, many millennials prefer to sidestep that part altogether simply by not talking about it. Sure, that doesn’t solve the problem, but at least everyone is getting their needs met. We’ve learned not to depend on the same feelings being there in 6 months that are there today. Life changes too fast.

What Is the Future of Long Distance Relationships?

So culture is changing and people are more likely to consider alternative methods of making their relationship work. But the world is also getting smaller with technological advances. Some people think that long distance relationships will become even more common with applications like Skype and WhatsApp making you feel like you’re in the same room with someone rather than being across the globe. But those technological capabilities make us take our long distance relationships for granted rather than appreciate them more.

Only time will tell what will happen in the future with long distance relationships. Perhaps these new paths will make the idea of a long distance relationship even more appealing, and therefore a more common occurrence than before. Maybe it will even improve the success rate of long distance relationships, which are notorious for ending in breakups. Whatever happens, millennials are saying yes, both to chasing our dreams and to our relationships.