This topic is important for every Christian to consider whether you are single or married, whether you are currently with your spouse or living apart. This is because “to be forewarned is to be fore-armed” and some of the principles apply not only to long distance marriages but also to long distance relationships among the young people.

As a pastor, I have dealt with too many marriage crises (some of them are carrying ugly scars and others have even reached failure point), which began because a couple agreed to be apart for too long. Divorce rates may be the same for couples living together or living apart, but it is the damage caused by the long-distance relationship even for those couples that are still together that causes me to deal with this subject.

Often people ask a philosophical question: “How much time apart is too much time apart? Even those who live in the same house are often apart for a few hours and a few days. So, when is it too much?” That question cannot be answered the way in which Pharisees answered the question of distance to be walked on the Sabbath day. You cannot arrive at actual number of day. The principle is what counts. We must aim to live together as a married couple. Living apart is not what God designed for marriage.

What causes married couples to live apart?

 This is often the result of pressure experienced by couples with two careers in parallel. When one person gets a promotion and it necessitates moving to another town, the question is asked, “Why should one career be less than another when both parties are passionate about them? So, which career determines the town in which we live?” Failure to arrive at a clear answer causes the couple to live apart so as to fulfil both the careers.

There is also the tight job market that causes people to accept jobs wherever they may find one. The result is that some spouses become weekend commuters. They live in another town during the week and go back to their matrimonial home over weekends.

Another cause is often the pursuit of further education. Often scholarships do not include enough funds to bring your family along with you. You also find yourself in need of sustaining the other person’s job for various reasons and so he or she remains behind. In the USA, 3% of married couples live apart (not because of legal separation) and the trend is growing.

What are the challenges of living apart?

 “Long distance relationships are plagued by far more problems than the gut-wrenching pain of separation itself. In fact, research has shown that ‘distance’ isn’t the hardest part of a long distance relationship at all. The real challenge implicit within the long distance equation is the discrepancy between your expectations for the relationship and the reality of your current situation. It is within the ‘gap’ between these dual ends of the long distance dynamic that all the long distance relationship problems vacillate.” [1]

Often the excuse is that we have agreed

The two parties often agree that it is for their own benefit in the long run. They assure each other that they love each other and will remain faithful; after all, they are believers. Adultery is not an option.

The intentions may have been well meant but being in different places soon takes its toll. With time, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder” soon becomes “Out of sight is out of mind”.

You may have agreed that you will remain faithful to each other but did your libido agree? Remember what the apostle Paul says: “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: ‘It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.’ But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise, the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control” (1 Cor. 7:1–5). The Bible is a very realistic book. It recognises that although you may agree, it must only be for a limited time because this is one area in which self-control can be very difficult.

The challenge of communication

One of the most difficult areas to handle when you are living apart is that of communication. Partly, this is because your work schedules sometimes are so different that finding the best time to be in touch when you are both “free” can be a nightmare. This is made worse when you are in different time zones. Simply finding the right time to be in good communication becomes difficult.

The sameness of content also kills the thrill of conversation during regular communication. This is because one of you gets to know totally different people where he or she has gone. It is difficult to talk about people whom your spouse does not know. In this way, your circle of information keeps getting smaller and conversation becomes boring due to sameness.

When one party calls and keeps getting the response, “I am really busy today,” he or she begins to suspect that something must be wrong. It may be a genuine excuse to fail to answer the phone or to ask for a short conversation, but it can easily create suspicions in the mind of the spouse who is far away. Sadly, sometimes the suspicions have been found to be right. When you are in the same home it is easier to understand, especially when your friend has brought work with them.

Granted, technology has become a great help because we are not only able to call but we can also speak to each other while seeing each other on the screen. However, it is not an adequate replacement to being in the same room. Also, sometimes when texting and one is sending whole paragraphs from one end and only receiving emojis from the other, it creates suspicions, frustrations, and misunderstandings. One party begins to feel, “What is going on there that I may be missing? Is my friend busy with someone else while I am trying to text them?”

The hardest communication challenge is when you disagree about something and hurt each other in the exchange of words. It is hard enough to solve such a problem when you are in the same room and talking face-to-face. Doing so over a long distance is even harder because you cannot see the person’s face or touch them reassuringly.

Loneliness introduces strain

“Combating the feeling of loneliness is a lone battle. More so for someone who cannot fly into the arms of one’s beloved whenever one wants. Loneliness is a common problem that plagues most long distance relationships, at some point or other. The absence of your significant other and an awareness of the long-time span that has to elapse until you get to see them in person, can make the feeling a rather overwhelming one to bear.” [2]

There is a stress level you introduce into a marriage relationship when you are apart. In fact, it is an enormous strain. One spouse finally begins to cry saying, “I love you so much. I hate being so far away from you. I’m really missing you.” The question is, “How long can you sustain this stress?”

Since no two people are the same and the circumstances where they live are different, one spouse feels the stress more than the other and becomes the one to raise complaints.

As I have already written, “Intense fellowship” happens even when a couple are together. Simple misunderstandings sometimes cause this. These misunderstands are magnified over distance and are more difficult to navigate. The healing effect of physical presence is not there, making the next chat over the phone harder to manage.

The stress is worse on both of you when things happen in the life of your spouse that need you to be present to give emotional support…and you are too far away to do so. It is traumatic and stressful to both parties.

Part of this stress comes from anxiety and insecurity related to a spouse’s faithfulness when it becomes clear that they have a friend of the opposite sex and you are not there. How can you prevent your spouse having friends of the opposite sex? They work with them or go to class with them. Some of them become very helpful in solving some work-related issues. Often it is situations like this, which at home can be managed because you are there, that lead to unfaithfulness on the part of a spouse who is away from home.

Managing the stress related to being away from home and managing it alone has caused many couples to develop coping mechanisms that cause them to grow apart by the time they come back together again. This is often the case when one spouse goes and lives in a different culture and develops a different circle of friends.

Then in comes unfaithfulness

“Physical intimacy is an important element of relationships. The lack of physical interaction in long distance relationships can create problems that make monogamy a hard rule to adhere to in long distance relationships.” [3]

Part of the package of marriage includes communication through physical intimacy—touching, holding hands, hugging, kissing, and sex. This cannot be fulfilled when you are far apart, and leaves you vulnerable.

As a social creature, you soon find yourself making friends. It is difficult to mention members of the opposite sex who are becoming friends when you are away from your spouse. You hide the opposite sex part to avoid causing insecurity, but in hiding you open a door for unfaithfulness.

The missing component in intimacy ends up being filled in by other people. “Couples that see one another only once a week or once a month often can feel disconnected from their partner. This disconnection can lead to an erosion of intimacy. Think of intimacy as requiring two components: 1) the sharing of emotions, and 2) inter-relatedness of daily activities. Couples in long distance relationships (LDRs) usually do a great job of sharing the emotions that they have for one another. But the second part of the equation, “interrelatedness” requires a great deal of effort. Interrelatedness means being somehow involved in your partner’s, often mundane, day-to-day activities, adventures, struggles, and accomplishments.” [4]

 The effect on the children

Children need a dominant father figure and an effeminate mother figure in order to grow up properly. The balance of the two is what produces balanced growth. You deprive them of this God-given privilege when you live apart.

There are also situations with the children that cause a parent to wish the other spouse were there, e.g. disciplinary issues or accidents or illnesses. These can be very stressful to handle alone. You need your spouse around.

So, then what is the solution?

 Too many books on how to manage long distance relationships do not address the reality of sin in the world. They fail to be as realistic as the apostle Paul was in 1 Corinthians 7:4–5. They simply speak about “agree” but does sin agree? Does your libido also agree? They also only major on how many long-distance relationships end in divorce as compared to those who live together and conclude that the difference is negligible. They fail to see what church elders see, i.e. the loss and damage in the marriage even if it survives divorce. They also rarely talk about the effect on children. It is all about the two people and how they can cope.

The best way to find a solution to these challenges is to look again at God’s definition of marriage and factor it into the decisions that you make.

Lastly, often those who do research do so among unbelievers and conclude unfaithfulness is the same among those in long distance relationships and those who are together. That is true in the world because there is no fear of God among them but that is not the case with believers. Genuine believers seek to be faithful to each other. It is often the long-time apart that wears away that resolve and exposes them to ongoing temptations that they fail to resist.

The Bible says, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him” (Genesis 2:18). This implies companionship and complementarianism are essential factors of the marriage relationship. We must never try to redefine marriage. It was God’s idea. He knew what he was doing when he invented it.

How do we counsel people who are wrestling with whether to live apart for a season as a couple? We counsel them at four levels, based on the apostle’s words in 1 Corinthians 7:1-5

  1. Do not live apart. Make this a basic assumption in your marriage.
  2. If you have to, ensure it is for a very short period.
  3. If it is for a longer period, ensure frequent visits that are long enough to re-establish intimacy.
  4. If stress begins to mount, go back to 1 above “yesterday”!

Let us also be mindful of the example we are leaving for the next generation. We may be able to manage but we are sowing seeds. Will those who look at our example also manage? God will hold us accountable for effects we have left behind in other people’s lives long after we have died.

[1] Sejal Parikh, in an article entitled, “15 unique problems only couples in long distance relationships can understand”— http://www.newlovetimes.com/unique-long-distance-relationship-problems-of-couples/

[2] Sejal Parikh, in an article entitled, “15 unique problems only couples in long distance relationships can understand”— http://www.newlovetimes.com/unique-long-distance-relationship-problems-of-couples/

[3] Sejal Parikh, in an article entitled, “15 unique problems only couples in long distance relationships can understand”— http://www.newlovetimes.com/unique-long-distance-relationship-problems-of-couples/

[4] http://www.longdistancerelationships.net/faqs.htm