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Dr. P. by Dr. Pranzarone

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Dear Dr. P.:  I’ve come to college and left my sweetheart back home.  We’ve promised to be true and stay together regardless of the separation and distance. Are long-distance relationships, where those involved are more than an hour away and see each other about once a month, a good idea or do they all end up in heartbreak?            

 -Faraway Gal

Unfortunately, although some believe that when you are in love and in a relationship “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” this isn’t entirely true.

That is true only for the infrequent short-term absences.  This is what happens in a drug addict deprived of his or her “fix” for a short period of time.  He or she does indeed intensely crave the absent agent.  However, if the drug is absent for too long, the addict becomes “detoxified” and the need for it is greatly diminished.  So it is for human relationships.

A brief absence may make one appreciate the return of the beloved, because by contrast, and in actual neurophysiology, the absence was really a brief period of withdrawal and was emotionally painful.  However, if the absence is prolonged, we soon overcome our emotional interdependence and learn to live without the now former “loved one.”  We may actually then resent their inopportune return and perceive the return as an interruption of, or intrusion into, our now readjusted lives.

Predictably, this happened to a large number of couples that were separated by the U.S. military intervention into Iraq or Afghanistan.  If a male trooper (or woman soldier) is away too long, the general outcome is not good, as high divorce statistics in military marriages indicate.

Propinquity or togetherness was the predominant factor that determined sustained emotional attachment between individuals.

A satisfactory relationship may require the nurturing effect of interaction, but, “If you can’t be with the one you love, [for a prolonged time, you tend to] love the one you’re with”—as the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young lyric specifies.

Technology now offers a solution for distance relationships through a mutually experienced virtual reality that allows an interaction that might provide a pairbonding experience of emotional and even physical intimacy.

With Skype or FaceTime on your smartphone, laptop or iPad you can now see and hear your partner in real time.  Only your imagination limits the interactive possibilities.

The primitive “sexting” via still images or short videos that the majority of young people have already experienced was only the beginning.  The future will promise more complete “teledildonic” interpersonal interaction at a distance.

The real question is whether interaction via digitized virtual realities will provide the equivalent quantitative and qualitative experience as actually interacting with flesh and blood.  Hugs, kisses, odors, warmth and the value of “contact comfort” cannot yet be fully realized by existing technology.  Maybe.  Someday.

Many of you who have promised your high school flames “eternal love” will find that as the college year progresses the home fires will cool, in spite of the visits home during breaks; whereas your newly established relationships at college (the propinquitous associations) became the new napalm in your lives.  A real person present tends to trump the one absent in spite of digital virtual images.

Long distance relationships, unfortunately, are a misnomer in todays’ commuting communities.  Time is the key, not distance.  What is important is the length of time you have or have not spent with your sweetie in actuality or online, how long you have been gone, and the frequency and quality of your visits and interactions together either in actual physical face-to-face or digital virtual reality.

There is hope for a long distance relationship to survive but it takes a strong commitment and work.

Skypetically yours,

Dr. P