In the bustling outskirts of Shanghai during the 1960s, my aunt grew up in an apartment one floor below my uncle and his family. When they first met, they had barely started elementary school yet formed an immediate, inseparable bond. Often, my grandparents would find them outside on the dusty pavement, dirtied from a long day of play and still exuberant with laughter. Over the years, their relationship would blossom from childish banter to a young teenage love. It was not a matter of if or how, but when they were to be married.
However, the Chinese Cultural Revolution swept across the nation in the 1970s, forcing many families and couples to separate. My aunt was suddenly relocated 300 miles away to the desolate countryside, and my uncle remained as a government worker in their city. For six long years my aunt and uncle managed to keep their relationship alive through handwritten letters and visits once a year every spring. When they were reunited back in Shanghai that final spring, they vowed to stay by each other’s sides forever.
Almost five decades later, I am astounded when I think of those six years. In our modern, technology-driven society, the prospect of maintaining any relationship through written communication seems like a far-fetched fantasy. Long distance relationships (LDRs) are still prevalent today, especially for many young-adults who embark on their journey to college. Studies show that 75% of college students have experienced a LDR at some point in their lives (Luscombe).I myself witnessed two close friends begin their LDR from opposite coasts. However, there are major differences between their modern, technologically advanced relationship and my aunt and uncles’ letter-writing relationship. The ease of communication made possible by smart-phones gives them the advantage of talking and seeing each other several times a day despite their geographic distance. The trade-off of having to incorporate FaceTiming, Snapchatting, and texting into their daily routines is considered minor.
I recognize the strength of both these relationships, but I can’t help but wonder:. How do modern long-distance relationships differ from those in the past? What are the negative effects of social media on a long distance relationship? What are the psychological effects of technology on an LDR? In this paper, I will delve into the evolution of these relationships while grappling with the impact of technology.
How did couples possibly communicate before texting? The strong rope that proved to tie my aunt and uncle and many pre-modern LDRs together was active correspondence through letter writing. A letter is a time capsule from another place and time that can be held, kept, and re-read. Letters can become sacred keepsakes for us—a kind of handmade and personalized souvenir from a significant other. From the medieval times when love letters were brought by messengers on horseback to the early 18th century when they were transferred by the revolutionary steam engine, letters have been the means of communication for most of human history (Quinn and Terry).
There are several components that are unique and special to a letter that we often overlook. The writer has the power to personalize their message, leaving traces of themselves on the paper through their handwriting, format, and signature (Stanley). Constructing a full-length letter requires more than just immediate dialogue between two individuals; we must learn to reflect on our current situations and ourselves in order to connect with someone who cannot give rapid input (Haggis). Even a letter’s journey from the sender’s hands across land or sea to the receiver adds meaning and value to it (Stanley).
Love letters are not a new concept; we applaud their significance in stories like Romeo and Juliet, and sob at their beauty in movies like Dear John. We recognize the powerful romantic effect they have. Yet, in our society running on the daily treadmill of school, work, and family, we would much rather communicate our feelings through pixels on a screen than put the time and effort into constructing a letter In a study conducted in 2006 on LDR couples, 71% of couples never wrote letters, and 62% preferred email (Stanley). These numbers may not shock us, but this study was preformed one year before the release of the IPhone in 2007, and four years before the release of FaceTime in 2010 (Poushter). By 2014, 86% of college students would own a smartphone. And percentage of long distance relationship couples who convert their romance to the cellular level is increasing.
Technology has obvious benefits for couples in LDRs. In a 2013 study conducted at the University of Texas in Austin, researchers found that communication on the Internet strengthens trust in a relationship, while oral communication (telephone) strengthens commitment and satisfaction (Dainton et al.). Technology creates perceptions of proximity, allowing the distance and void that is inherent in LDRs to feel less suffocating. Apps like FaceTime and Skype, which allow for virtual communication around the globe, grants us the instant visual satisfaction that was missing from all pre-modern LDRs. There are even numerous pillows, sex gadgets, and stuffed animals on the market today that are designed to sync and signify our partner whenever we are missing them, making even the physical touch aspect possible (North). It is understandable why any LDR couple would take advantage of technology; what I wanted to examine was how much more crucial the role granted to that technology has become.
In my interview with five students who are currently in or have been in a LDR, four of them said that they simply could not continue a LDR without technology. All five of them claimed that they have never gone more than three days without any communication. The average number of days without visual communication was only slightly higher at 3.2 days. The most popular app used for visual communication was FaceTime and Skype, although Snapchat was also mentioned as essential. Compared to my aunt and uncle’s once-a-month letters and once-a-year visits, our generation has won the LDR jackpot.
But every jackpot has a catch. One of the students said about his own LDR: “I want to say we could continue through letters, but that would just be so unrealistic. Even when we don’t FaceTime or call for one day, I start to feel the distance from her. Without technology I don’t know if I could handle it.” Not only has our generation left the older forms of communication behind, but we have also developed a seemingly inexhaustible dependence on technology.
In addition, technology has altered the ways in which we verbally talk to each other. Many of the unique factors of letter writing mentioned before have been erased. Our obsession with efficiency and ease has become the accepted priority, leading to brevity and abbreviations in our conversations. “Sincerely” and “farewell” have transformed into acronyms such as “gtg” (got to go) and “brb” (be right back). Even the greatly poignant “I love you” has been given the terse acronym of “ily.” Instant gratification and saving time has come at the expense of the depth and meaning by which our words are distinguished from a friend’s “ily” or the cheesy lines of some dude at a bar. Certain feelings and subtle emotions like sympathy, empathy, and care cannot be expressed accurately through the Internet, and these are not insignificant. They are essential to the growth and maintenance of a relationship.
A key phenomenon arises amongst long distance couples who are unable to receive constant visual, audio, or physical satisfaction: idealization. Romantic idealization is characterized as the “tendency to perceive one’s partner or relationship in unrealistically positive terms” (Stafford). It generates from “perceived superiority,” “positive illusions,” and “unrealistic distortions.” Surprisingly, because of the very delusions it gives rise to, idealization has many positive impacts on LDR couples. Studies have proven that LDRs are more stable than those of couples who are geographically close. Further research shows that idealization allows couples to hold their interactions to a higher degree pf value, increasing intimacy and trust.
This phenomenon changes drastically when we add in all the apps and technological devices that grant instant satisfaction. In other words, the psychology of how much we miss another person is greatly altered by modern forms of communication. With our constant interactions and prevalence on the Internet, there is little chance to idealize your significant other. With FaceTime and Skype, we not only visually interacting with our significant others; we are inviting their very presence into the room.
Before social media, family and friends were the only other individuals invested in a couple’s relationship. But with the increasingly incessant use of Facebook, Instagram, and other platforms, love has become something to publicize and scrutinize, including couples’ reunions, anniversaries, and departures posted for the public eye. Expanding the realm of intimacy to include the public comes at a cost.
Too many expectations and input from outside sources can strain a relationship, but social media can strain a relationship that hasn’t even begun. Hours racked up on social media sites negatively impact conversations in real life. There is a heavier reliance on the comfort of a screen to give us the confidence to “approach” others. Our generation especially is having problems with the art of cultivating a relationship (Turkle).
In addition to research about social media’s impact on our romantic lives, we have testimonials against its increasing prevalence in our lives. In her New York Times Modern Love article, Sage Cruser notes the various pressures she felt in portraying her relationship on social media, pressures that would culminate and eventually dissolve her two-year relationship. She writes, “On Facebook, I was able to exclude the negative—a dismissive comment here, a lie there—and showcase not only how I wanted others to see us but how I wanted to see us.” Was it better when relationships were more private—when, for example, a love letter was addressed and opened only by one person? Another NY Times writer Eliana Dockterman wonders about this time before social media as well: “In some ways I envy my parents who were far enough away from one another to form separate lives. They didn’t feel guilty when they missed a text or let down when a Snapchat went unopened.” Many relationships first publicized on social media mutate into published anecdotes of unraveled lovers.
Not much has changed between my aunt and uncle, who, after all these years, are now grandparents. My uncle still tells the same childish jokes that make my aunt bend over in laughter. They still embark on long evening walks in the neighborhood they grew up in. Recently during a yearly visit to Shanghai, I got a glimpse of the lingering sparks that were once ignited in the 1960s.
While I attempted to organize fresh laundry, I eavesdropped on my aunt and mother gossiping over tea in the room next door. My aunt bashfully relayed how the morning before, my uncle had whispered into her ear that he had no doubt they were married in their past lives, and that he would find her and marry her again in their next one. As my aunt and mother chuckled at his cheesy propensity for using clichés, I sat in the next room, mid-way through folding a shirt, smiling. After knowing them for my whole life and seeing them age together over the past few years, I know that there is no secret formula or way of communication for how my aunt and uncle persevered through those six years. The answer is nothing other than a deep, genuine connection and love for each other.
Love is something that fulfills us and drives us to become better people, and even though it is so difficult to navigate, we thrive from it. The fact that we can love someone, even when they are on the other side of the world, indicates both a fundamental need and capacity for love. This is a defining aspect of humankind that we must expand from, appreciate, and hold on to dearly—no matter what role technology demands in it.
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