Love in the Time of Web Cams, the Science and Technology of Long Distance Relationships

For Christina Pham, the hardest part about being in a long distance relationship was having to kiss her husband and baby goodnight — over Skype. The 34-year old medical student has grown accustomed to this evening ritual: one camera in Southern California with her one-year old daughter and parents, another in Boston with her husband who is a medical resident of surgery, and the last with her, in her San Francisco apartment.

“Keeping connected was incredibly difficult,” says Pham of the tri-city split. “And so was maintaining that feeling of connectedness.”

From Vietnam and Boston to London and Berlin, the couple has spent almost 40 percent of their 13-year relationship (this is five and a half years in total) apart from one another. Despite both being in medicine, their careers have led them down different paths at different times. The secret to their success: electronic communication.

“We’ve really run the gambit,” says Pham of their web-savvy relationship. “We’ve done Skype, AIM, text messaging, even Unix before that.”

Pham and her husband, Johnannes Kratz, are part of a new generation of long distance lovers. Despite their on and off physical distance, they have been able to keep the flame alive through a wealth of technologic and electronic advances that would put the love letter writers of yesteryear to shame. Missed Valentine’s Days are made up for with digital Facebook gifts and favorite reality shows are communally watched via cross-country Skype sessions. The distance is hardly noticeable. But amidst a plethora of communication gadgets like G-chats and cellular texts, lies the looming possibility that the very tools meant to bring us closer might, in fact, create a false sense of closeness that crumbles over time.

“It is so new that there is virtually no research in this area,” said Dr. Laura Stafford, professor of communications at the University of Kentucky and expert in the field of long distance relationships.

Stafford also points out that the way technology affects a romantic relationship might have more to do with the type of relationship a couple has. A long distance couple where one partner is off at war, for example, might not have the resources or flexibility in their schedules to benefit from this type of communication. For the relationships that can access these high tech tools however, the benefits are numerous.

Twenty years ago, talking to your long distance lover might have meant sacrificing a night out with friends to having to wait at home by your 20-pound corded telephone until the call came through. But today, making the connection has never been easier.

With a click of an iPhone, you can send and receive virtual kisses and photos, and even Twitter your way into his heart with a “thinking of you” status update. If this is not enough, there are always interactive pillows, where, through electroluminescent wires and an internet-based communication platform, one partner’s movements against pillow A are mimicked identically in pillow B. With all of these methods of communication, it seems easier than ever to maintain a long distance bond.

But with these tools, might come an over-reliance on technology and a false sense of intimacy.

“Perhaps it is easier to talk using an instant messenger service like AIM or G-chat,” said Michelle F. and Frank T., co-creators of the popular relationship Web site, “But we feel you really need to communicate voice to voice, to really make a relationship strong.”

The couple, who created the Web site while going through a long distance relationship themselves in Massachusetts and Maine, uses advice forums, Twitter updates and virtual “shout-outs to your love” to help similar couples share their experiences and grow in their “LDR” relationships.
Another potential problem is learning how to convey emotions through electrical signals.
“You know that feeling you get, where your heart beats faster and you feel a little light headed, as you sit in your girlfriends living room, waiting for her to walk down the stairs in that stunning dress,” Frank said. “Until someone invents a way for that same feeling to be felt through a phone line, long distance relationships will always be hard.”

The lack of genuine human touch aside, these new-age long distance relationships may be vastly improved, or at least more enticing, than their gadget-less, virtual-free predecessors. And since research actually shows that long distance relationships in general are just as likely to succeed as geographically close relationships, a technologically enhanced version of these connections might just be the path to an A+ union.

But for any kind of long distance relationship, be it modernized or not, Stafford recommends the following.

“Engage in small talk. Most long distance conversations are, “I love you, I love you, I love you, I miss you, I miss you, I miss you, when am I going to see you again?” But it’s the day to day stuff, the dinner table talk, that is really important.”

And Pham agrees. Keeping connected as well as maintaining a sense of security and independence through it all are the things that have made her 13-year long journey with her husband possible.

“Without the technology, we still could have done it … but it’s definitely not for everyone.”

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