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Sex Education: a sex therapist’s advice on having a successful long-distance relationship

In the new season of Sex Education, Otis and Maeve, our favourite “will-they-won’t-they” couple (let’s be honest, Ross and Rachel aren’t quite as fun), are taking a chance on love again. However, as ever, things aren’t so easy. This time they have to work out how to be together while apart, as Maeve embarks on a writing course in the US. Yep, they are in an LDR (long-distance relationship).

Typically, LDRs are deemed less successful compared to couples in closer proximity. But being in close proximity doesn’t always go hand-in-hand with relationship satisfaction. I’ve seen this myself as a sex and relationship therapist, where I frequently encounter clients who, despite living side-by-side, still experience feelings of loneliness and a lack of intimacy with their partners.

And, according to a survey in 2021, 58% of couples in LDRs do manage to sustain a satisfactory lasting relationship. So don’t write them off. And if you’re in one yourself, here are some useful tips on how to negotiate the potential pitfalls of an LDR.

1. Texting

As Maeve and Otis’s relationship unfolds, they quickly learn how to navigate through the dos and don’ts of long-distance dating and communication mishaps. For example, while the duo starts off in a playful texting manner, communication suddenly comes to a halt. How the couple engage next is an example of how texts can be hard to interpret and lead to misunderstandings.

Take the question mark for example – it can mean many things. Maeve asks Otis for a sexy picture, a request that goes unanswered so she sends him a “?”. While Maeve is expressing impatience or frustration, feeling like she is being ignored, Otis interprets the text as pressure. While it isn’t her intention, the text contributes to making him feel embarrassed, awkward and under pressure to respond. Same text, different feelings.

Quarter life, a series by The Conversation

This article is part of Quarter Life, a series about issues affecting those of us in our twenties and thirties. From the challenges of beginning a career and taking care of our mental health, to the excitement of starting a family, adopting a pet or just making friends as an adult. The articles in this series explore the questions and bring answers as we navigate this turbulent period of life.

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In my experience, there are perhaps better ways of communicating by text. When we don’t have the words, we rely instead on limited textual cues – emoticons, question marks, gifs and so on – which makes it easy for our texts to be misconstrued and sometimes get “lost in translation”. Text messaging in LDRs demand exceptional communication skills. So always be clear about what you need (and how to ask for it) and always communicate openly and honestly about how you feel.

Other texting tips to consider when you are in LDRs:

  • Avoid heavy (emotionally loaded) topics by text.

  • Minimise ambiguity when texting to avoid misunderstandings.

  • Always check in with your emotions and self-regulate before texting your partner.

  • Consider time zones and different schedules.

  • Communicate frequently.

  • Be present and responsive during interactions.

  • Organise regular face-to-face meetings to maintain connectedness.

2. Understand attachment styles

Distance can trigger feelings of jealousy and insecurity. Attachment theory provides a valuable framework for understanding the formation of love relationships and what influences how individuals perceive, initiate and maintain romantic connections.

For example, individuals with a secure attachment style tend to have healthier, more stable and satisfying relationships. In contrast, fearful-avoidants fear rejection and often hold negative views of both themselves and their partner.

When researchers looked at how individuals connect and keep their relationships going, they found something interesting. People who are not so sure about their relationships avoid being close. They don’t express their true feelings or don’t like to talk about themselves in the relationship or don’t give much assurance. Assurance in this context is regarding love and how much you care about someone and the relationship. These maintenance behaviours are necessary for relationship satisfaction and for building trust.

For Otis, trust is an issue as he grapples with a new handsome friend of Maeve’s. Feelings of inadequacy rise. Could his greatest fear be abandonment? And if so, might this explain his uncertainty about the status or future of the relationship?

Eventually, Otis opens up about his fears that Maeve is not fully committed and that she might never come back. This is a good example of a couple practising honesty and openly communicating their emotions, ultimately fostering a stronger connection between them.

3. Creative long-distance sex

Research has found that sex is beneficial to our wellbeing, whether it is solo or with a partner(s). Yet often the biggest challenge for monogamous couples in LDRs is the lack of physical closeness.

So, how can LDR couples bridge that gap? Otis and Maeve have a go at phone sex, which they enhance with sex toys.

Even though couples are not able to actually touch each other, technology is incredibly useful in maintaining a sense of togetherness. Many sex toy companies have developed a range of toys for long-distance couples, enabling them to connect interactively to their lover’s device.

In our increasingly interconnected world, it is fair to say, that navigating LDRs can be complex. The success of these relationships hinges on many factors, including the quality of communication, the level of commitment, attachment styles, trust, and the coping strategies adopted by those involved.

Meanwhile, despite occasional challenges and setbacks, Otis and Maeve seem to be handling their long-distance relationship quite well.

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