Trudie on long-distance relationships

by on September 1, 2006 at 7:01 am in Education | Permalink

Prudie of Slate.com was asked the following:

I recently met a man at an out-of-state work function.  Within three days we realized we had a strong connection.  We even slept in each other's arms, although we did not have sex.  The problem is that he's in the West and I'm in the East.  We both don't want to let whatever it is we have—friendship? romance?—go.  I know there's no guarantee of ending up together, and I'm afraid of giving out too much of myself, then being resentful.  What are the rules for long-distance relationships?  Should he come here first and show commitment or should I be brave and take a trip out there?  If I go, do I just say, "I want to see you this weekend," or should I wait for him to ask if I can come see him? If he asks, does he pay?  If I ask, do I pay?  I don't expect a free trip, I just don't want to mess up.

—To Fly or No To Fly

Prudie's answer was OK but bland; Trudie offers a more exacting take...

"Your long-distance relationship faces two main enemies, you and the other person. 

The first danger is that you deliberately seek someone far away because he is inaccessible and thus less emotionally threatening.  If that is the case, you don’t really want to be closer.  Go for it.  Or don’t.  More precisely, you will do both at the same time; that is what preference intransitivity means.

If you had opted for someone geographically closer, you would be more distant in some other way, in Ramsey rule-like fashion.  Until you have conquered your fears, geographic distance is probably less emotionally abusive on you and the other person than the other kinds of distance you might opt for.  So go for it.  The "longing" will feel sad but it is also beautiful and bittersweet and will lead to lovely poems; more importantly it is better for social welfare than directly torturing some poor guy next door.

Under the cheerier scenario, you do actually think the distant person is your best bet and you are not seeking distance per se.

But then you must confront the Alchian and Allen Theorem.  The higher the fixed cost, the "higher quality" a trip you will both tend to seek.  (New readers: take any set of relative prices and add a fixed cost to each; notice that the ratio, in relative terms, shifts in favor of the bigger, more costly, or higher quality item.)  More concretely, who would fly across the country for a mere kiss on the cheek?

But moving too fast is dangerous and ill-advised.  And in the longer run you will each "expect too much" from each visit.  Remember the old question: "Are We Having Fun Now?"  The quest for continual high-quality excitement is not conducive to casual down time together, which is the glue which binds relationships together in the longer run.  The Alchian and Allen Theorem is a potent enemy of the all-important "low expectations" and that alone is one good reason to keep transportation costs low in your life.

The solution is simple conceptually but difficult to implement.  Do something else with part of your trip to the west (east) coast.  Lower expectations for the visit.  Meet another friend too, or set up some business, or give a paper at a scintillating academic conference.  Yes you will have less time with your potential beloved, but the remaining time will get you further toward where you want to be.  How much time does one need to fall in love anyway?

Affectionately Yours, Trudie"

dearieme September 1, 2006 at 8:39 am

“Meet me in St Louis”?

mickslam September 1, 2006 at 10:22 am

I got married to the girl I met 3 weeks before I moved to London for 11 months. We’re happy after 5 years and have the best 2 boys in the world.

Having one of the first dates in London and Paris went over pretty well, and the batch of Chocolate Chip cookies sent over sealed the deal. Watch out!

Josh September 1, 2006 at 10:50 am

That was one of the more insightful Trudie posts.

Dan September 1, 2006 at 11:13 am

It’s naive to think that opportunity plays no role
in cheating or any other such lapse or indulgence. Isn’t
this what precommitment is all about? If you really want
to avoid ice cream, your chances are improved by not having
any in the house. Beyond that I wonder how many commenters
would agree that Trudie should have her own blog. It would be
an Internet sensation.

Mr. Econotarian September 1, 2006 at 11:21 am

The enhancement of cheating opportunity serves as a tighter filter. I.e., you would have to be more head-over-heals in love not to cheat in a long-distance relationship.

I have had a couple of not-so-good relationships where I should have cheated (because in the end it wouldn’t have mattered much anyway), but was too goodie-goodie to do so.

Grant Gould September 1, 2006 at 12:57 pm

My wife and I dated long distance for about six years (plus a breakup in the middle) before we married. Long-term long-distance can work, but it can also be a mess — Trudie’s note about fixed costs is true, a single not-great visit, particularly when you’ve been having fun in your non-relationship activities, is a big emotional cost.

The key, as Trudie seemed to be getting to, is to focus on the low-fixed-cost activities (like communicating) even though they are inferior to high-fixed-cost activities (like visiting) because expectations are lower and because they can substantially improve the quality of what high-fixed-cost things you do later (visits are better in every way if you’ve been in a lot of communication before). This lets you take the sting out of the fixed-cost effects without actually requiring you to do anything you wouldn’t have done anyway. Besides, if you can’t get regular communication right, the trip to visit wouldn’t have been worth it anyway.

Second, emotionally it’s key to put yourself in a situation where you make sacrifices _as if_ your lover were present. If you don’t delay the evening phone call any more than you would delay going home for dinner, you force yourself to evaluate your long-distance relationship against the costs you would face if it were short-distance, which avoids the relationship-idealization that you can fall into if you aren’t accounting properly for costs.

Third — is this even the right question to be asking? More long-distance relationships fail than succeed, and they take a lot more time and energy to do so. Although we romantics are tempted to think in terms of “what does it take to make a long-distance relationship work,” perhaps a better perspective to take is, “what does it take to make a long-distance relationship doomed to failure fail more quickly.” Differences in personality, attitude, and desires that would kill a local relationship overnight can be papered over for years at distance. Economics tells us: Use fixed costs to weed out free-riders. Locating some sort of horrible relationship trauma or obstacle early on might well be a net time-saver, as it will quickly filter out relationships that could waste time to little benefit.

dan September 1, 2006 at 2:48 pm

almost 80% of people cheat, and considering how many ugly people or people with no game there are out there, the other 20% probably would if they could.

dearieme September 1, 2006 at 3:48 pm

Come on, TGGP; 82% of statistics are made up on the spot.

Anthony September 1, 2006 at 9:14 pm

Regarding cheating:

There are not two kinds of people, there are three. Those who Just Won’t Cheat, those who will cheat eventually, no matter the consequences, and those who might cheat. The third sort is not entirely bound by their personal ethics, but rather by the potential consequences. The first two groups are no greater risk in a long-distance relationship. But the third sort are those whose behavior can be predicted by economic calculation, and they are at greater risk for cheating in a long-distance relationship.

Shannon September 2, 2006 at 4:32 pm

Long distance relationships are quite possibly the hardest things to tackle. They start when you go off to college. Say you are attending FSU and your boyfriend is attending NYU. How do you deal with that? How do you know when they’re being faithful? Do you or don’t you trust them? So, you are 12 hours, give or take, away from each other-does that bond that you once had stay strong in between visits? Some long distance relationships work, but some don’t.

So my question to you, To Fly or Not To Fly, is…do you feel something with this man that you don’t feel with anyone else? Ask yourself that question.

Don’t think about it for a brief moment.

Really sit down and think about your feelings for him and if five years down the road, you could see yourself with him.

Then-I think you can make a decision.

Best of luck,

Shannon

Tom T. September 2, 2006 at 11:46 pm

The fact that they slept together without sex strengthens my view that Trudie’s first scenario is right; these people are seeking a relationship at a remove, without the risk of real intimacy.

Hannah September 6, 2006 at 12:23 am

Dear Trudie,

I say: get on a plane. Even if one is off the plane, figuratively speaking, it helps to get on a plane with the glued partner every now and then. If one is unglued, taking that first leap is crucial in a long-distance affair, whether you have aspirations for a longer-term relationship or not. Hesitation at the outset is palpable. For a nanosecond or so the nascent relationship hangs in a Schrodinger-like balance. It is both alive and dead. Writing for advice on the blogosphere when you could be on the plane says a good deal about what you might call The Leap Factor. It says, this is not a leaper. This is a sitter, a worrier, and an advice getter, not a planegeteroner.

Also, for the unglued types, I respectfully disagree with Trudie’s advice. Lowered expectations are dangerous indeed.

First, they are likely false. One has the expectations one has. If you are truly excited about having met someone and can’t wait to see the person again, diverting oneself with a power point presentation or two hardly dulls those feelings. And why should you even try? Is it really a good idea to start a relationship off on the foot of self-deception and games, and holding one’s feelings in check? (She asks audaciously in a hornet’s nest of economists). What is wrong with landing and saying “I couldn’t wait to see you. F&^% the conference†, if that’s how you feel? Now, a later more stable relationship cannot subsist on too many f&^%ed conferences, but why isn’t this a great, memorable start, whatever the later outcome may be? There will be plenty of time to choose a good sale at Barney’s over a romantic lunch quickie. Why start now? And why send this lukewarm signal at the beginning of an already difficult relationship (given the wisely catalogued difficulties inherent in long-distance matches mentioned by others here)? It is like sealing a new business venture with a dead-fish handshake.

This raises the second and more important worry. Lowering expectations can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Among many great insights, Hume captured the way in which human beings mirror the sentiments of each other. This works in our favour when there is a baseline of good feeling, but among strangers and new friends or lovers, the initial emotional, body-language is an all important bootstrap. Without it you get a date with over calculating, pre-civilized Hobbes. And who wants that?

So, to the person who wrote in for Prudie’s advice, download the Lucinda William’s song I Just Wanted To See You So Bad, check your finest gels and liquids and get on a plane! To Trudie, pack up your wife’s/husband’s favorite dress(pants) and do the same.

Good luck!

Anonymous July 13, 2008 at 1:02 pm

I believe (my opinion) people in long distance relationships should bring their relationship to an end unless you’re just going out of town for a little while and coming right back bacause I don’t care what nobody say rather you are a faithful or unfaithful person both man and woman are going to be wandering what the other person are doing while they are away from each other and me being the type of person i am I can’t just sit and talk on a phone knowing I can’t see him. Why talk on the phone when you can talk in person which is even better.I don’t want to be all lovie dovie over the phone and its too much trouble going miles and miles away to see someone and make love unless yall are married or engaged. Unless you are going to be away for no more than a month, as much as you are going to hate to hear this break up and talk to someone who is closer to to you, or move where your partner is or something. lets keep it REAL yall, long distance relationships DON’T WORK.

foxx September 21, 2008 at 9:24 pm

Hello all…I am currently in a long distance relationship and felt compelled to post.We have been talking for 4 months now and there is not a day that goes by that we don’t speak to eachother. We are approx. 600 miles apart. We met online although oddly enough we have a mutual friend outside of cyberspace, we had never seen eachother in person until I was fed up with all the mystery 2 months into it and took it upon myself to drive to meet him.Like the person before me said, there was a great deal of sexual tension but we also built great repoire while chatting online or on the phone.Once I took that next step it turned out even better in person! We are taking turns visiting eachother and are in talks for one of us to move sometime next year. I believe ldr’s can work if both parties are in constant communication and on the same page. We also did not go into this with “expectations” one way or another but took things day to day. Don’t get me wrong this can be an extremly frustrating and diffucult situation but I have dated many a men and none compare. The good far outways the bad!

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