When I met the man of my life at Ankara two years ago, we moved quite swiftly through the first two stages of relationship outlined by Knapp (Roux, n.d.). I had met him in a friend’s place. We greeted each other formally, but our eyes did not leave each other. The Initiation Phase lasted all of five minutes, and I was left all agog, thinking about this person. Over the next few months, we met at get-togethers at friends’ places and got to know more about each other. Our Experimenting Phase finished when we knew enough about each other and decided to take our relationship to the next level. We began talking with greater depth about ourselves and started going out together. Life seemed wonderful in this Intensifying Phase. I was flying in the clouds and the future looked rosy.
And then one day, my admission letter to the University of Miami stood on my desk. It was time to make a decision. Should I forsake my dream for an American education to remain with the man I was growing to love? My boyfriend made the decision for me. He said that I must pursue my dreams. We could remain in touch over the Internet when I was at Miami. I could always meet him during my holidays. At the end of my education, there was the promise of our good life together. I considered his proposal , and agreed with a heavy heart.
So, at some point in the Intensifying Phase of my relationship, I moved into a long distance relationship. Our aim was to stay at the Intensifying/ Integrating Phase through the period of my studies in the States. We would graduate to the Bonding Phase with an engagement once I returned to Turkey after my studies.
Little did I know about the promises and perils of a long distance relationship. Today, halfway through my studies, I am in a position to take a stock of what a long distance relationship holds for a relationship.
The Incidence of Long Distance Relationships in the Modern World
When I confided to my roommate that I had a boyfriend back home in Turkey, she confided about her friend across in New York. Before long, I was not alone in the unique situation of having to commence a long distance relationship; many students in the college were in the same boat. Statistics show that 25-50% of all college students are currently in long distance relationships and that 75% of all students have been in such relationships at some point of their lives. Apart from students, three million married couples live apart in the USA for a variety of reasons (Jiang & Hancock, 2013).
The Tools of Online Communication
Within the first week of my arrival in the States, I established the ways in which I would remain in touch with my boyfriend. I would rely on Whatsapp and Viber for text based communication. We would use Skype for online audiovisual communication. Each of these means of communication, I later realized, had their own special characteristics.
Niklas Zennstrom and Janus Friss in Estonia founded Skype in 2003. Skype is a voice –over-internet protocol (VoIP) software allowing people who are geographically separated to speak through desktop telephony or through applications loaded onto smartphones. With the expansion of the Internet and increase of available bandwidth, millions of people are online and communicating through Skype at any point of the day. The Economist calls Skype ‘one of the most subversive and fastest growing businesses’ in the world. Calls from one Skype contact to another are free; Skype garners its revenue when people make calls through Skype to landlines or cellphones (Gollmitzer, 2010).
Whatsapp and the text-only versions of Viber and Skype belong to the category of instant messaging tools. In the medium of instant messaging, voice, visual and audio cues are filtered out. Communication has to occur through the written word alone. While instant messaging lacks the multi-layered interface of audiovisual conversation, its chief advantages are relatively lower bandwidth requirement and the promise of synchronous communication (Gollmitzer, 2010).
Long Distance Relationships Using Skype and Whatsapp
Once my boyfriend and I homed on to Skype and Whatsapp for communicating with each other, we began our long journey of interpersonal communication through the medium of a long distance relationship. Our journey had its share of highs and lows, which I would describe in further sections.
Whatsapp: Going Beyond Text
I installed Whatsapp on my smartphone from the Google Play service hosted on the Internet. As I loaded Whatsapp, I found that I could communicate with all my friends who had a smartphone and had installed Whatsapp on their phones. After a bit of searching, I found my boyfriend’s number, and was delighted to find the green Whatsapp icon by his name.
The chief advantage of Whatsapp and other text based instant messaging tools is synchronicity. I could send a message to my friend at any time of the day or night and get an immediate response. I could know when Whatsapp had delivered the message to my friend by observing two ticks appearing at the message I had sent.
After the novelty of the currency of the medium blew over, we realized the limitations of Whatsapp. We had only text as the medium of communication. While communication was best carried out with a combination of all five senses, we had to rely only on the written word when we communicated through Whatsapp. Before long, we had found the workaround to this limitation, just as millions of other Whatsapp users have found around the world. We discovered a rich mix of written and spoken language to be used in the text messages. Acronyms like “lol” (Laughing out loud) and “ROFL” (Rolling on the Floor Laughing) entered our lexicon. Little did we realize that we had found ‘secondary orality’ – a framework where our need for speedy, real-time communication nearly made up for the lack of audio and visual signals.
I soon found myself searching for the phone on my bedside at the crack of dawn, even before my eyes had fully opened up. The first thing I needed to do in my day was to send a ‘Good Morning’ message to my boyfriend. Sometimes I would wonder what this ‘good morning’ meant. Was it just an exchange of pleasantries, or was it something more? I found, once again, that I was not alone. Every morning, many couples exchange this pleasantry. According to Nardi, the ‘closeness’ attained through instant messaging was not about gathering information, but about the “pleasure of experiencing a social bond” (93).
Around two months into our long distance relationship, I began wondering as to what was the nature of our romantic relationship. Was it one or Eros, Ludus, Itania, Storge, Agape, or Pragma? I realized that we had a ‘Storge’ relationship. Our relationship was based on a sense of companionship. We were happy to be with each other. We respected each other, and would look forward to a companionable life together (Royal Valley, n.d.).
With the passage of time, I progressed on the scale of intimacy with my boyfriend. I yearned for some method to communicate this intimacy. I then found that there was in existence a framework of text shorthand to convey intimacy. I learnt how to send out a hug, and was happy to receive one in turn. I discovered the rich world of ‘emoticons.’ With emoticons, I could convey a vast array of emotions. For those in romantic relationships, there are emoticons conveying love – a heart, a broken heart, an ‘in-love’ smiley and a bear signifying a hug. Over time, however, I found that emoticons of happiness tended to reduce in their impact because of over-use. Researchers have come to a similar conclusion. They feel that emoticons conveying positive emotions play a lesser role in online communication than those conveying negative, hurtful emotions (Gollmitzer, 2010).
Communicating or Stalling? As we went along, we became more and more attuned to the various nuances of Whatsapp. Sometimes, when I would be feeling low, I would turn to Whatsapp and send a quick text message, hoping for a reply from my boyfriend. I would invariably get a reply and that would cheer me up. However, there were times when the reply would not be forthcoming. Many times, I put it down to the geographic time difference. After all, I would be sending a message in daytime from the class, while he was in the about to go off to sleep in Turkey. While I rationalized the lack of response from my boyfriend, doubts would begin to creep into my mind. Was he stalling? Did he find our relationship plateauing? I would look at the status button of my boyfriend on Whatsapp. If it was green, it meant that he was online. But when I researched on the topic, I realized that one could turn off one’s status button and prevent it from being visible. Was my boyfriend losing interest in me? Had he found someone else? Was that the reason he did not send the quick reply? Had he blocked his status button from me? I would be in the middle of a state of mounting panic when a ping would announce a message from my boyfriend. He had been busy with a client and had just returned to find my message. I would breathe a sigh of relief. Everything was once again alright in my world. The two ticks of Whatsapp, soon enough, became closer to me than the beats of my heart.
Status Message Politics. The status message is an important tool of online communication. It conveys the mood of a person when she writes the message. There may also be a hidden message being sent through an innocuous looking status message to a special person. I would look fervently for the status message my boyfriend kept on his page. On Valentine’s Day, I was rewarded with a heartfelt message in which he conveyed his love for me to the world through his status message. I was on top of the world.
Because we are human beings, we cannot keep our emotions on the same plane day in and day out. While I had my share of the blues, so did my boyfriend. So, sometimes he would go silent. His status messages would become cryptic. I would try to read between the lines. Was he trying to say something to me? What were those lines from Hamlet all about? What did he mean with that status message that said ‘everything that goes up must come down’? I would try to raise him on Whatsapp and try to find out what was wrong. As my boyfriend is a bit of an introvert, he would not be forthcoming about his mood swings. That, in turn, would add to my tensions. While we would revert to even keel after whatever the storms in my boyfriend’s soul abated, I realized that I had started investing too much effort and time on every syllable and every word on Whatsapp. Because I had not seen my boyfriend for a long time, my feelings for him and our love for each other had, to my mind, got dependent on each line of Whatsapp. I realized the importance of multi-sensorial communication. That was when I opted to indulge more into the audiovisual experience of Skype.
Skype: Advantages and Disadvantages in the Context of a Long Distance Relationship
Webcams have been around for many years. With the advent of Skype and other tools for audiovisual communication, webcams have become an integral part of communication. Today, webcams are integrated into computer systems and smartphones, obviating the need for a discrete component (Gollmitzer, 2010).
Audiovisual chat completely changes the dynamics of online communication; more so for a couple in long distance relationships. The medium makes nonverbal signals visible. Chatting via this medium fulfills an important need to see the partner’s physical presence, to follow the partner’s movements and to observe the partner’s facial expressions. Additionally, Skype makes it possible to introduce the partner to the social circle at the other end of the line. Partners also get to see each others’ rooms, the weather outside, observe what’s being cooked, what books one is reading and what show is playing on the television. With the extension of Skype to the smartphone, this sharing of physical presence is not restricted to the home. Wherever the network is strong and the bandwidth permits, it is possible to share the world with the partner through Skype (Gollmitzer, 2010).
I was extremely thrilled to share my world with my boyfriend through Skype. I introduced him to my friends in my College. I connected to him at times while he was at office, and come to know firsthand about the pace of work he had at work. That helped me to understand why he was silent on Whatsapp sometimes. I was happy to see my boyfriend’s face, and somehow that made the pain of being apart from him go away.
Limitations. At some level, Skype is an artificial stage. Partners have the option to project a carefully constructed persona through Skype. Sometimes, I found myself guilty of the same. If my boyfriend’s call came in though Skype, I would make sure that I put on my make up and coiffed my hair before I turned on the webcam. While such activity is true for all interactions, whether in the real world or virtual world, the potential for Skype to show an artificial setting is immense. Skype has a window where the caller can see her own image being projected to the other side. This window, therefore, acts as a monitor for the participants of a Skype conversation. Each participant looks at the self-monitoring window and observes how he looks in the window. This gives the participants of a Skype conversation the option to modify their behaviors to suit the occasion. As a result, spontaneity is sacrificed and artificiality returns to the medium (Gollmitzer, 2010).
Limitations of Long Distance Communication: Beyond the Tools to the Protagonists
I learnt about the limitations of long distance communication the hard way one fateful evening. My boyfriend had not been texting me on Whatsapp for some days. I put it down to him being busy in the office or going through one of his mod swings. I patiently waited for him to re-emerge in the online world. After a few days of waiting, I went back to my panic mode. I wanted desperately to communicate with him. I pinged my boyfriend on Skype, and my call was answered. But instead of my boyfriend’s face, I saw a female face on the computer screen. It was a face I had not seen before. Before I could absorb the contours of the face, the Skype conversation was disconnected. When my boyfriend came back on air after an hour, I asked him who the girl was. He said that it was a colleague from work. However, I was not sure about his explanation. I continued grilling him, and he kept evading my questions. Finally, when I threatened that I would cease all communication with him, he said that the girl was a new friend of his, and that the girl was no threat to me or to our relationship. I asked him as to why he had hidden the fact that he had a new friend. He said that he had not wanted to disturb my studies or hurt me unintentionally. He said that when I returned to Turkey, he would introduce me to this girl. He said he was sorry that I had been introduced to this girl in this unexpected fashion. He said that the girl had answered the Skype call because she thought it would be nice to meet me face to face and make friends.
I went cool on my boyfriend after that incident. I wondered whether he was going strong as my friend or whether the strain of continuing a long distance relationship had become unbearable to him.
I thought long and hard about my situation. There was no one with whom I could share my dilemma. Was my boyfriend telling me the truth about the new girl? Was she just a friend? Had she replaced me in my boyfriend’s framework?
I did not communicate to my boyfriend for a week. While he kept sending me messages on Whatsapp, I did not reply. His pings on Skype went unanswered. My mood paled and I began to fall back in class. When my roommate saw my state, she decided to have a heart to heart talk with me. Over one evening, she told me that I was going through one of the common crises in long distance relationships involving modern media – the crisis of reality. The communication media were not all encompassing. They conveyed a fragment of reality. They concealed more than what they conveyed.
Essentially, online means of communication are very close to physical means of communication as far as relationships are concerned. In the final analysis, they are based on trust. Once trust is out of the equation, everything can be suspect.
That evening, I thought long and hard about our relationship. How important was it to me? Was I prepared to give it another try? Did I trust my boyfriend? Should I try to trust him again? Did he trust me? Was he taking advantage of my trust?
I realized that silence was doing me no good. I had to get back to communicating with my boyfriend. I called him up on Skype and he promptly answered. It was a working day , but he had not gone to office. I saw that his face was tear-streaked and his hair was unkempt. He said that he was very happy to see me. He repeated his contention about the girl I had met. However, he said that he understood my concerns. He said that he did not want to see me leave.
We spoke for a long time, and we realized the depth of our love and regard for each other. At the same time, I realized the pitfalls of a long distance relationship. Often, there is the need for a friend in the immediate physical vicinity. It is not possible to tie oneself up to a long distance relationship to the exclusion of all else. A long distance relationship is possible to be sustained only on the basis of openness, trust and a mutual desire to make the relationship last.
I told my boyfriend that I would give him a week to think about our relationship. I did not want to push him into something he did not want. I told him that we would speak again when both of us were sure about ourselves, and what we meant for each other.
We began communicating again after a week. My boyfriend reiterated that I was the most important person for him in his life. I accepted his words. Slowly, but surely, out communication regained its strength and fervor. Our long distance relationship had just survived one of the speed bumps that even close distance relationships have trouble dealing with – the appearance of the ‘other woman.’
Every relationship is like a plant. It needs to be watered and nurtured for it to grow. A long distance relationship is unique in the fact that all the senses are not engaged in the communication. The communication has the advantage of being synchronous. The advantage is offset by the pitfall of artificiality and incompleteness.
Trust and a mutual desire to make the relationship survive and last are the key to what would make a long distance relationship last. My ongoing experiences in a long distance relationship over the Internet convince me of the power of the new media. Had the media not existed, I would surely have drifted away from my boyfriend. Today, we remain with each other, stronger than ever before. For that, I must thank Skype and Whatsapp, but more than that, the credit goes to mutual trust, faith and a desire to make the relationship work.
Gollmitzer, M. (2010). Closeness or control in interpersonal communication online? Long distance relationships mediated through Skype. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 17/2008. Retrieved 10 Nov 2014, from http://www.inst.at/trans/17Nr/8-6/8-6_gollmitzer17.htmitzer17.htm
Jiang, L.C., & Hancock, J.T. (2013). Absence makes the communication grow fonder: Geographic separation, interpersonal media, and intimacy in dating. Journal of Communication 63/3, 556. doi: 10.1111/jcom.12029. Abstract retrieved 10 Nov 2014, from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/07/130718101232.htm
Nardi, B. A. (2005). Beyond bandwidth: Dimensions of communication in interpersonal communication. Comput Supported Coop Work 14, 91-130. doi: 10.1007/s10606-004-8127-9. Retrieved 10 Nov 2014, from http://www.artifex.org/~bonnie/pdf/Nardi_beyond_bandwidth.pdf
Roux, J. (n.d.). Knapp’s relationship escalation model. Retrieved 10 Nov 2014, from http://roux_j.web.lynchburg.edu/public/classes/COMM%20112/Knapp's%20Models.pdf
Royal Valley. (n.d.). John Lee: Six basic styles of love. Retrieved 10 Nov 2014, from http://www.rv337.com/vimages/shared/vnews/stories/4b55e440aa0d7/John%20Lee's%20Love%20Theory.pdf