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Hearing “I love you” is more than enough

The importance of maintaining long-distance relationships in college

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Long Distance

When I moved from California to Seattle to attend the UW, I knew the academic challenges that lay ahead. While I was prepared for the household chores, I was still surprised when I was faced with having to make my own meals, clean my bathroom, and vacuum my carpet. As time went on, I grew into these responsibilities — they were all things I could do for myself. 

What I couldn’t do alone, however, was patiently comfort myself as I cried about a bad grade, pat myself on the back when I did well on a test, and, I certainly couldn’t hug myself when I needed it most.

Luckily, hearing my mom or my dad’s voice over the phone can have a similar effect. Research has shown that when a child hears its mother’s voice, even over the phone, they experience a similar biochemical response to receiving a hug.

Oxytocin levels, a hormone typically released when in close contact with another person, were measured before and after girls talked with their mothers over the phone after a stressful activity]. Girls who had talked to their moms had significantly higher levels of oxytocin and as a result, lower stress levels in their blood compared to those who didn’t.

It took me moving 600 miles from home to realize that while I am independent enough to live on my own, I still depend on my family for emotional support. Luckily, the internet has made it significantly easier to fabricate this face-to-face connection. 

“You have to find different ways to maintain a relationship, which are different from what we normally expect or what we were used to,” Valerie Manusov, a communications professor who studies interpersonal and nonverbal communication, said. “So it kind of violates social norms, and therefore we know that in order to do it, we have to do it differently.” 

But different doesn’t mean bad. Without the possibility of physical touch, there is a much higher emphasis on other facets of relationships that we may not think of as important when in the same room as someone we love. 

“You can still see them, you can still hear them … but those senses that you do get become more concentrated and focused,” Manusov said.

According to Manusov, a phone or video call can be more focused than in-person contact because there is an emphasis on talking, whereas face-to-face interaction may come with more distractions. When you can only listen to a person’s voice to maintain a connection, conversation tends to be more intentional.

As soothing as the voices in these relationships may be, maintaining long-distance relationships with family, friends, or a significant other is undeniably hard and stressful. Understanding that the social norms have changed and the connections haven’t is critical to the relationship and to your health. 

According to the UW Center for the Science of Social Connection, a lack of close relationships “increases risk for cardiovascular problems, causes chronic activation of the body’s threat-response system, impairs immune functioning, causes depression and other mental health problems, impairs executive functioning and accelerates cognitive decline in the elderly.” 

Regardless, it’s kind of a struggle to become a ‘phone person.’ My millennial soul rarely called anyone in high school; my communication with my friends always originated in my thumbs. If I did receive a call, I instantly worried that there was a serious issue or that someone was in trouble.

It took me a long time to train myself to be a good communicator over the phone. Listening to someone’s voice may be soothing and can allow you to be more focused, but this isn’t without effort. 

Calling someone may require searching deep within the boring parts of your day for things to tell the person on the other end of the line, or asking a lot of questions that you might not normally think of. Conversations also don’t have to last forever. Five good minutes are better than 15 distracted ones.

I will never stop wanting hugs from my family, but hearing words of encouragement over the phone will suffice until I am able to make the trip back home. 

Reach Opinion Editor Rachel Morgan at Twitter: @rclmorgan

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