It’s no secret that long-distance relationships come with a special set of difficulties. In the absence of your partner’s presence, you may be more susceptible to loneliness, longing, and even occasional jealousy if you don’t feel secure in your bond. On the flip side, you may feel a rush of warm and fuzzy feels every time you finally get to snuggle them after a long separation. So, WTF is happening from a psychological standpoint throughout this emotional rollercoaster? What happens in your brain when you’re in a long-distance relationship is actually pretty amazing. Let’s take a little journey inside the mind, shall we?
According to licensed clinical psychologist Aimee Daramus, Psy.D., what’s going on inside your brain when you’re in an LDR depends largely on what stage of the relationship you’re in. In other words, if your SO just moved to a different state last week, your psychological experience will be significantly different from someone who’s been doing long-distance for a year. FYI, just as the honeymoon phase will eventually come to an end for geographically close couples, those couples who live far apart will experience a similar transition — although it may take longer to set in since they see less of each other, and therefore, the sense of novelty doesn't wear off quite as quickly.
“Your neurotransmitters and hormones are dancing together, and when the dance ends and the chemicals start to lower without that person there, it’s like drug withdrawal,” Daramus explains. “In the early days the chemical rush is more intense, but in long-term relationships, your brain and body have learned very specific responses to that person.”
That said, there are a few common experiences that all couples in an LDR will often share, no matter what stage they’re in. As Daramus points out, the early days of a relationship are often marked by increases in serotonin and dopamine, both of which play a role in mood regulation. In the context of your relationship, dopamine is released when something feels good — like spending quality time together or having sex. Obviously, those instances are a little fewer and farther between in an LDR. That’s not to say you can’t experience a little dopamine hit by seeing your boo's face on a Zoom date or by having steamy phone sex. However, it can definitely prove more challenging to feel the effects of these pleasure-inducing chemicals when you’re physically apart.
Carla Marie Manly, a clinical psychologist and relationship expert, agrees. She notes that when you’re not with your partner, the positive effects created by the potent blend of phenylethylamine (the love molecule), oxytocin (the cuddle hormone), and dopamine (the reward hormone) is often lacking.
“This can lead to feelings of loneliness, depression, and a craving for that next feel-good connection,” Manly explains.
Going any stretch of time in which you’re physically separated from your SO can obviously lead to some pretty intense longing. You may feel an inner ache to hold them, snuggle with them, or smooch them — and according to Manly, that’s a result of decreased levels of those same three aforementioned neurochemicals (phenylethylamine, oxytocin, and dopamine).
“When you are not with a partner who brings us a sense of loving comfort and connection, feelings of anxiety and stress tend to increase,” she tells Elite Daily. “An increase in stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) are associated with depression, anxiety, and aggression.”
There’s another potent chemical that plays a big part in how you feel when you’re apart from and together with your partner: oxytocin. Dr. Manly explains that oxytocin can create a sense of stability and intimacy in relationships — and has a slew of benefits, including an enhanced sense of calm and connection. This “bonding” hormone basically reinforces all the positive feelings you have toward your partner, reminding you of why you fell for them in the first place. Here’s the snag, however: having sex is one of the most effective ways to get a surge of oxytocin, and obviously you can’t get frisky nearly as often when you’re in an LDR.
According to Daramus, people in love have higher levels of stress hormones, and separation from their partner is likely to intensify those effects. In a 2015 study conducted at the Adler University in Chicago compared the relationship and health ratings of nearly 400 couples (some in proximal relationships, some in LDRs), those in long-distance relationships reported higher stress levels both inside and outside the relationship. Researchers suggested that this might be because physical contact can play a powerful part in decreasing the stress response. Holding hands, hugs, makeouts, massages, and sex — all of these types of touch trigger the release of oxytocin, which promotes feelings of closeness, trust, and devotion. Unfortunately, you can't always get that same rush from a text or a FaceTime sesh. However, on those occasions that you do finally reunite, you’ll get to experience these amazing effects just as intensely.
“You get a hit of all of those chemicals and you start to feel safer, warmer or more ‘yourself’ than you did when you were alone,” explains Daramus.
Manly adds that this is because all of the feel-good hormones you’ve been missing come rushing back.
“When you reconnect with your partner after a protracted absence, the brain often moves into the ‘courtship’ state of being flooded with phenylethylamine, oxytocin, and dopamine,” she explains. “This leads to a strong desire to connect, have sex, and feel bonded to one’s partner.”
Clearly, missing your partner 's presence can actually have a profound impact on your brain — in fact, occasional waves of stress, loneliness, and longing are all totally normal. The good news? During those instances that you do reconnect in person, you're primed to feel all the same remarkable benefits of spending quality time and engaging in physical touch.
Despite all of these psychological effects, research has shown that long-distance relationships aren't really at a disadvantage. A 2014 study of more than 700 long-distance partners and 400 geographically close partners found that people in LDRs were not more likely to be unhappy in their relationships than people who lived close to their SOs. Word's out on whether absence makes the heart grow fonder, but one thing's for sure: it causes some pretty intense brain activity.
Aimee Daramus, licensed clinical psychologist
Carla Marie Manly, clinical psychologist and relationship expert
Bois, S. N. D., Sher, T. G., Grotkowski, K., Aizenman, T., Slesinger, N., & Cohen, M. (2015). Going the Distance: Health in Long-Distance Versus Proximal Relationships. The Family Journal, 24(1), 5–14. doi: 10.1177/1066480715616580
Dargie, E., Blair, K. L., Goldfinger, C., & Pukall, C. F. (2014). Go Long! Predictors of Positive Relationship Outcomes in Long-Distance Dating Relationships. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 41(2), 181–202. doi: 10.1080/0092623x.2013.864367