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Technological innovation takes miles away from long-distance relationships

With professional and educational opportunities available on the other end of the world, many couples are forced to get creative. They often use technology to overcome physical barriers and connect with each other

Relaciones a distancia
Natalia Tena, having dinner remotely with her partner, in a scene from the movie 'Long Distance' (2014).Cordon Press
Daniel Alonso Viña

This is what Franz Kafka wrote to his lover Felice Bauer: “I wanted us to be entirely alone on this earth, entirely alone under the sky, and to lead my life, my life that is yours, without distraction and with complete concentration, in you.”

Moving letters like these have given way to emails, text messages, WhatsApp video calls and emojis. Libidinous thoughts have been defeated by all kinds of modern gadgets: smart bracelets, vibrators and remote-controlled lamps, which allow for almost-physical contact between lovers… even if they’re hundreds of miles away from each other. In a world where long-distance relationships are increasingly common and job opportunities can be far from the person we love, these types of products help couples overcome physical barriers.

The best-selling touch bracelet on Amazon costs about $120. “Simply touch your bracelet and the other person’s bracelet will vibrate and flash, to let them know that you’re thinking of them,” says the product description advertised by Totwoo, a Chinese company that specializes in these types of devices (they also have smart necklaces and rings). These touch-based gadgets are connected to a cell phone app from the same company, which also serves to send romantic texts, voice message reminders and special videos. Then, there are the “friendship lamps,” which cost around $90 and are synchronized to turn on at the same time. And then, there are the vibrators, which can be activated by remote control and cost more than $100.

Psychologists affirm that these innovations can enrich a long-distance relationship, especially when there’s a lack of physical contact that’s difficult to replace. In her practice, Silvia Sanz — a psychologist and sexologist — has observed that, oftentimes, “the lack of this type of physical encounter makes the relationship lose intensity.” Spending time together, watching the same movies, eating together via video call, using bracelets to tell the other person that you’re thinking about him or her and remotely-controlled sexual devices can help keep the physical element alive. “Because, if not, this lack of connection takes a toll on the relationship. This can generate insecurity, uncertainty and even jealousy,” Sanz notes.

But relationships aren’t only about sex. And distance — on many occasions — can also serve to enhance communication and trust. Just as Kafka and Bauer wrote to each other on a daily basis and confessed insecurities that they probably didn’t dare to talk about in person, a modern long-distance relationship can also compensate for the lack of physical contact, while maintaining the extra dose of honesty that you have with the other person. “There are couples who live hundreds of miles apart and who are much closer than others who live together, because they talk more, tell each other about their daily lives and share certain activities,” Sanz continues.

Leandro has been with his boyfriend for more than seven years. Three of them have been long-distance. They spent the pandemic in the same studio in Buenos Aires, but work took each of them to a different part of the world. “For us — more than technology — the problem is finding the time to have quality interactions and be on the same page,” he tells EL PAÍS by phone. “I don’t care about the medium: sometimes I can feel that I’m having a serious conversation through WhatsApp messages, that we’re connecting. Other times, we spend an hour-and-a-half on a video call and each of us talks about our own thing, because maybe I’m seeing him on half of the screen, while reading Twitter on the other.”

Oftentimes, the conversation with his boyfriend lasts all day, ranging from banalities — like talking about a good meal they had — to more complicated topics. “The most important thing is to know that the other person is there and that I can talk to him when I need it… I can call him and tell him everything and vent.” There are times, however, when he prefers to wait to speak in person, especially when it comes to subjects like the future of the relationship or big professional decisions.

It seems that this way of connecting is becoming more and more common. But there’s a lack of data, as hardly any surveys are carried out about long-distance relationships. Even so, psychologists treat more and more of these cases, while specialized websites and certain studies talk about a growth in this trend. For instance, a survey conducted by the American Counseling Association a few years ago revealed that 75% of college students in the United States had — at one point or another — been in a long-distance relationship, 60% of them successfully. Generally speaking, though, couples who live together last longer than those who live hundreds of miles away. They also last longer than relationships that begin in the virtual world (through applications such as Tinder or Bumble), which are increasingly more common.

All kinds of accessories

In addition to smart bracelets and necklaces, there are other devices that allow long-distance couples to feel connected. There’s a large and diverse market of accessories for lovers who find themselves apart. For instance, there are personalized puzzles depicting a photo of your last moment together, which you can send to the other person. There are also digital photo frames, which play a slideshow of photos chosen by the giver. The best recommendation, however, is to make something by hand — like a drawing or a sculpture — and send it to your partner. If not, you can send wine or chocolate, or a pendant with the couple’s name inscribed on the back. The best option, perhaps, is a USB that stores music that the two of you can listen to when you’re together. There are endless possibilities to stay connected.

Sometimes, however, none of these efforts are enough. Ana, 28, started dating her boyfriend when they were both working in London. But two years later, she went to Madrid for work and they began a long-distance relationship. Initially, it was only going to be a six-month-long period of separation, but everything dragged on and the problems began. “You have a relationship with your partner, but in the end, it’s a relationship with your cell phone,” she says bluntly. They communicated with basic technology: text messages and video calls. But it was becoming increasingly difficult to find time for each, especially in capitals like Madrid or London, while holding down very demanding jobs. “We talked every day, but in big cities, work hours are long and it was very difficult, it became pretty monotonous.” They ultimately had to end the relationship over WhatsApp. That wasn’t easy, either. “Relationships like this are complicated,” she sighs.

Kafka didn’t find his long-distance relationship to be monotonous. Quite the opposite: the epistolary relationship he had with Bauer (they sent each other letters each day) was so intense that he had to ask her to slow down: “Write to me only once a week, so that your letter arrives on Sunday, for I cannot endure your daily letters, I am incapable of enduring them. For instance, I answer one of your letters, then lie in bed in apparent calm, but my heart beats through my entire body and is conscious only of you.”

Of course, Kafka proposed to her in a letter and she accepted. However, their love didn’t survive the in-person relationship. They had numerous clashes and reconciliations, which ended with their final separation on December 27, 1917, when Kafka took Bauer to the train station. They also stopped writing to each other.

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