being alone, together

On how to be intimate with your partner even if you're quarantined apart. By Jolie Mahr

It’s not a denied reality that physical distance has severed the connection between more than a few seemingly sturdy couples. Everyone knows one perfect pair who have struggled to feel united while living in separate worlds. But why is it that physical distance so often leads to emotional distance, even in the age of social media? Furthermore, how can the conflict of disconnect be conquered, especially during a mass pandemic?


According to 2019 OkCupid data, around 46% of people are open to long-distance relationships, and sex toy brand KIIRO’s 2018 study reported that 58% of Americans in long-distance relationships will remain partnered beyond their time apart. While this may be good news, a 2010 Berlin study still found that long-distance relationships last approximately 2.9 years, less than half the length of an average adult relationship, which is 7.3 years. The reason for this shortened timeframe may seem obvious at first — a lack of sex. However, only 31% of participants from the aforementioned KIIRO study reported that the hardest part of their long-distance relationship was a lack of sex. Instead, 61% of participants attributed the lack of physical intimacy altogether to challenging their relationships the most. We all know that physical intimacy goes far beyond sex, especially for those who primarily express affection through hugging, kissing, and cuddling.


So how can couples who thrive on physical intimacy find ways to connect without skin-to-skin contact? Of course, there’s the obvious — we’ve all heard Doja Cat’s “Cyber Sex.” Yet, as there’s more to any relationship than just sex, there’s more to long-distance relationships than nudes and sexting. While digital sex can be very successful in bridging the sexual gap between two separated people (even those who are merely quarantined in different houses), physical intimacy can still feel inadequate when emotional intimacy is absent.


Emotional intimacy is defined by researcher D.H. Olson as “experiencing a closeness of feelings," and psychology professor A. Celeste Gaia refers to it as “the ‘glue’ of all relationships.” Although Gaia and other professionals have noted that what it means to be emotionally intimate varies from couple to couple, she notes that elements such as “self-disclosure of an individual’s inner experience” have been shown to greatly contribute to the process of becoming emotionally intimate. “Self-disclosure” refers to the sharing of one’s inner life - their secrets, fears, passions, and emotions.


Yeah, it’s a lot. But the best way to generate feelings of emotional intimacy, especially at a distance, is by meeting each other’s expectations. Do you enjoy waking up to good morning texts from your significant other? How about scheduled weekly FaceTimes? The biggest threat to emotional intimacy within long-distance romantic relationships tends to be when one or both partner’s expectations aren’t being met, which can deteriorate trust and create rifts within the relationship. However, this can be combated with healthy communication and the setting of clear expectations. While it is important to be honest and upfront in what you’d like from your partner it is also important that your partner’s needs are considered and that your expectations for them are not unreasonable, extravagant, or the outcome of social pressure.


When a person expects certain actions from their partner due to influences other than their own desires, it is known as script following. Sociology professor Brian Soller cites the concept of ‘script following’ as an “often overlooked aspect of youth romances." This means that oftentimes our roles and expectations within romantic relationships are shaped by outside experiences, making them merely what we are taught to seek from romance. Whether such expectations are what you truly want from a partner is up to your own self-analysis, but it’s always crucial to consider the notion of outside influence.


This counts double for long-distance relationships, as one or both partners will often seek advice from those in close proximity to them. Advice from those you trust can be beneficial— however, it’s important to remember that the expectations you set within any kind of relationship come down to what you and your partner really want. Do you really need your girlfriend to always be your #1 best friend on Snapchat, or is that what social media has led you to believe is the norm? Does it bring you comfort that your boyfriend texts you first thing in the morning, or is that what your sister claims boyfriends are “supposed to do”?


No outsider can tell you what “is” and “isn’t” supposed to happen within your own private relationship. As long as both you and your partner’s needs are being considered and respected, there are no pre-written set of rules or expectations that need to be met for the ideal long-distance relationship. It’s about figuring out what works best for you and your significant other, no matter how that relates to relationship models you’ve witnessed in real life or in the media. Communicate with your partner, and don’t be afraid of experimenting with what does and doesn’t work for you in terms of maintaining intimacy. It’s a scary time for all of us, but if we have to be alone, it’s best to be alone together.

Jolie Mahr (she/her) is a seventeen-year-old writer, playwright, and actress based in Chicago, IL. She is captain of her school’s award-winning slam poetry team and a longtime member of The Miracle Center’s advanced youth theatre ensemble, as well as the lead singer of Jolie Mahr and Her Mice. Check her out on Spotify (Jolie Mahr and Her Mice) and on Instagram (@joliemahr).

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