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Always and Never the Same: Women’s Long-Distance Friendships During Life Course Transitions

Smith, Jessica T.
Committee Members: 
Dr. Michelle Violanti
May 2010

Abstract: Various challenges can threaten the security of personal relationships, but one of the most difficult problems to manage is geographic distance. As more people live apart from someone about whom they care, the prevalence of long-distance relationships will increase. However, research on how long-distance friendships are characterized and accomplished lags behind.

Therefore, the present study was designed to uncover how women define and maintain their long-distance friendships. A total of 34 interviews were conducted with first-year undergraduate students, first-year graduate students, and recently-hired faculty members at a large university. The interview transcripts were analyzed inductively, which resulted in the creation of nine categories. These were eventually reduced to six maintenance behaviors: openness, assurances, positivity, joint activities, personal networks, and mediated communication. Participants also challenged definitions of long-distance friendship based upon geography and replaced them with definitions based upon communication (access to interaction, use of mediated communication, level of closeness, and a commitment to expend the necessary time and energy to make it work).

Although long-distance friendships may require more effort and involve more mediated communication, this study demonstrates that long-distance friends rely on similar maintenance behaviors as geographically-close friends. This indicates that long-distance friendships may not be as dramatically different or as perplexing as commonly thought. Overall, the present study reveals that long-distance friendships can be satisfying and maintained successfully, which challenges both cultural assumptions and traditional social science research. Many long-distance friendships are well-equipped to weather both changes and challenges, making them flexible, not fragile.