Stephanie and Jordan face each other wearing similar clothing
Therapists agree that some things are better when they're the same.

PHOTO/Stephanie Howson

Score a point with similar goals

Stephanie Howson

Opposites attract. That's the adage we always hear when two seemingly disparate people get together. They balance each other out. They complete each other. They're each other's better halves.

Well, not always. Therapists agree that some things are better when they're the same. While personality differences can provide variety and excitement, couples need to have similar goals for their relationship if they hope to make it last.

Goals are like a destination. Once you know where you want to end up, it's easier to map out a way to get there.

Before professional matchmaker Jacqueline Nichols sets two clients up on a date, she asks each person for their relationship goals. The two people's goals have to match up before she connects them. Why would she set up a woman who never wants children with a man who wants four? That's a recipe for disaster. goals quote

Similar ambitions are especially important in long distance relationships because it gives the couple the feeling they're working toward something.

Additionally, goals can help ensure partners in a long-distance relationship that they are an important part of each other's lives. When you don't see someone every day, it's easy to feel left out. When you're in a long-distance relationship that can be a bitter pill to swallow.

It's important for people in long-distance relationships to bring the other person forward and get them involved in your life, Nichols says. One way this can be done is co-creating goals for your relationship.

Relationship therapist Dr. Gary Brown always asks couples about their vision for the relationship. Do they want to get married? Have a family?

"If everybody agrees then the question becomes 'How do we do this?'" he says.

Brown recommends couples decide on their individual visions for their relationship and then consider how they can combine them. "It's something I do a lot in my practice," he says.

So if you're feeling lost or unsatisfied in your long distance relationship, check in to make sure your relationship goals match your partner's. If you don't have a vision, make one. It doesn't have to be lofty. Goals can range from calling each other every day to moving in together in one year.

When you know where you're going, the trip is much more enjoyable, and your long-distance relationship will be too.



Love can't be shackled

Bryan Lowry

Leeanne Vavra walks into Baby Bull's Restaurant in Pontiac, Ill. - she comes here once a month - and is recognized right away by the host, who greets her as "California." Vavra used to live in San Diego, but currently lives in Iowa. She's looking to move to Pontiac in the near future. "Why would you want to move here from California?" the host asks. Leeanne tells him that her fiancé lives in Pontiac. "Oh, he has a good job?" Leeanne just smiles politely at the man. Her fiancé's in prison.

Gerard Schultz joined a street gang during his teens in Phoenix. He was incarcerated for the first time when he was just 16. In 1999 he committed murder, a fact neither he nor Leeanne denies.

He was sentenced to life without parole in 2002 and as part of an inter-state transfer system was sent from Arizona to Illinois. He spent six years in the infamous Tamms Correctional Center before it shut down this January under the orders of Governor Pat Quinn because of allegations of human rights abuses.

Schultz, like many former Tamms inmates, is now being held at Pontiac Correctional Center, on the site of a former death row unit.

vavra pull quote Four years ago, Leeanne Vavra was living in San Diego, afraid to leave her house because of the psychological scars left by an abusive marriage. She had her groceries delivered.

A former tattoo artist, she began making paintings for prisoners, which led to a correspondence with Schultz. The two discovered they had actually known each other years earlier when Vavra had run a tattoo parlor in Phoenix that Schultz frequented.

Eventually they started dating, writing 10 pages a day to each other. The courtship occurred completely through writing at first, but grew intimate very quickly, said Vavra.

When Vavra discovered more about the conditions in Tamms- prisoners were kept in total isolation - she decided to move to Iowa, her home state, in order to be closer to Schultz.

Her house is decorated with photographs of Schultz. She and her daughter follow a copy of the prison's meal schedule, so they can eat the same thing as Schultz whenever possible. She places a photograph of Schultz at that table to pretend he's also there. Every time she visits him, she gets a new tattoo.

This devotion is hardly one-sided. Schultz writes her poetry and creates art with the limited supplies he's allowed in prison. He talks to a photoshopped picture of the two together whenever he's lonely.

On Feb. 2, he asked Vavra to marry him. They were separated by glass with guards on both sides, and he was shackled to the floor. She said, yes.

Her decision to date a prisoner has met with harsh disapproval from many of her friends and family. She says it's worth the sacrifices. She also does not try to justify Schultz's past crimes, for which she says he expresses deep remorse.

Her attitude is that Schultz never got a first chance - his father also received a life sentence during his youth - and that he deserves to be loved as much as any other person.

word cloud of the most common words in the advice
PHOTO/Victoria Yates


Three ways to shorten the distance

Stephanie Howson

If relationships are hard work, long-distance relationships are like serfdom.

It's difficult to cultivate relationships when there is no physical connection. While technology such as Skype and webcam communications have made connecting over a distance much easier, talking to a laptop is simply not the same as a kiss or hug.

However, current technology can help couples maintain stability and connectivity despite distance, according to Dr. James Koval, professor at California State University, Long Beach.

Though relationship therapists disagree on whether long distance relationships are a growing trend, many find themselves addressing issues of distance in their work.

Here are three ways you can cultivate your relationship from a distance.

1. Communicate often

It is harder to stay in touch when in a long distance relationship, according to psychologist Dr. Sam Von Reiche. Therefore, you have to work a little harder, she says. This means getting creative in the ways in which you communicate. Technology can be a big help as there are myriad ways to connect through webcams, online games and picture sharing sites such as Instagram.

"The more important the relationship the more frequent the contact," is what relationship therapist Dr. Gary Brown recommends. He encourages couples to set aside a specific time or times throughout the week to chat. Frequent communication is good for relationships in general, but especially for long distance relationships, Brown says.

3 tips quote He also recommends a call or text to start and end the day. "Different time zones can make calling problematic but have some type of communication at the beginning of the day and the end of the day," Brown says.

There are some special long distance relationship categories that pose different challenges to communication such as military relationships and relationships with people who are incarcerated. In this case Brown says the same guidelines still apply-have as much contact as possible.

2. See each other often

It's important not to let long periods of time go between being together physically, if you can help it.

Too much absence can be like rust, Brown explains. "It can slowly erode the relationship," he says.

However, professional matchmaker Jacqueline Nichols says that couples need to think through these visits and their costs so that each person feels that they are contributing equally.

Nichols recommends couples create a schedule of visits where perhaps every month the couple rotates who travels. This can create a mutual sense of sacrifice, which can help keep both parties happy. Additionally, this allows for each partner to spend time in the other's world.

Nichols also recommends couples split the cost of travel and food, if possible.

If you can talk about these issues beforehand to make sure you both are on the same page, "then that energy is not going to be drained," Nichols says. No long distance couple wants to spend their time together fighting.

3. Set parameters

Long distance relationships are always easier to navigate if you know there is an end date. If you can set one, do it.

"It's certainly very nice to know when that's possible," Von Reiche says. However, she points out that not every couple can foresee an end date, for example if a spouse is traveling for work.

In this case, it's not about knowing there is an end date but knowing the parameters, she says. Is there an understanding the spouse will be faithful? That they will call every day or every two days? That they will come home on weekends? The couple needs to decide if the relationship is going to work via distance. If not, the spouse needs to look for another job or they need to move.

For Brown, living together needs to be a goal if it's a long-distance relationship where both people want to be together long-term. He agrees that sometimes the end date cannot be known, but it's helpful if the couple can determine a time frame. However, he steers clear of what he calls artificial deadlines - it's better to be honest then to set a date that isn't realistic.

Every couple is different and people express and understand love in different ways. Some people want to talk only two times a week while some may get sad if they don't get a morning text. Some people may not mind traveling to their partner all the time and some may hate it. Some people don't need an end date to participate in a long distance relationship; others can't be in one without it. Whoever you are, it's important to know what both you and your partner need so that you can make each other feel as loved as possible.

And Nichols doesn't want people to forget that the most important thing a partner can do in a long distance relationship "is really choosing to be in it."



For nearer or farther: A long distance marriage

Stephanie Howson

This is Cassie and David Robinson's second time taking their relationship long distance. Except this time around, they're married.

They first met in 8th grade student council. They dated briefly after they met (if you can call it dating in 8th grade) and remained friends throughout high school. They started dating again their senior year and decided to do long distance while they attended colleges in different states- David at University of Colorado and Cassie at Miami University in Ohio.

After graduation, they moved to Chicago and bought a condo in Boystown. They decided to get married "when Dave was ready," Cassie said with a smile. David proposed on Christmas Eve in 2009 and they were married October 2010.

In 2011 David decided to go to business school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The program was two years long and he and Cassie made the decision to do long distance again.

Going to business school was something David had wanted to do before he and Cassie got married, so they had already talked about it, he said. He only applied to schools in the Midwest including some in the Chicago area, knowing that he wanted to stay close. They decided to see how it was all going to play out - maybe he would stay in Chicago, maybe he wouldn't. Maybe Cassie would move with him if he left Chicago, maybe she wouldn't. cassie quote

When he got accepted to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he knew it was the best school for him. At the same time he received that news, Cassie got a promotion at the Lincoln Park Zoo where she worked.

They had to ask themselves what the best thing was for both them and their relationship.

The drive to Madison was only 2 1/2 hours, "so I think we just decided, we can do this," David said. "We've done it before."

Cassie wanted to continue with her job in Chicago because they both knew he was going to be in Madison for only two years. "I didn't want to just move there and get some whatever job," Cassie said.

So they both decided long distance was the best option while David was at school. "I felt it was very much our decision," David said.

The second time around, both Cassie and David agreed that long distance is easier. They're not big phone talkers so they communicate with short calls and texts throughout the day.

And unlike undergrad, they are only a drive away and can see each other whenever they need to, "which made it a little easier mentally," David said.

Not to say it's all been easy. When people hear that Cassie and David are newly married and doing long distance, they can't believe it.

"People look at you like you’re crazy," Cassie said. "Didn't you just get married? That's weird."

Additionally, all the traveling can be exhausting. "There's times when I'm just like, 'Oh I'm so sick of doing this'," Cassie said. "But it's gone really fast."

They have until May when David graduates, and then they have plans to move to Colorado where David will start work at Dish Network LLC.

They both recognize that long distance has always been simply something temporary they do to get to where they want to be - in the same place.

"I always felt it was a means to an end," David said.

Cassie agreed. "I couldn't do it without knowing there was an end in sight," she said.

"And something to look forward to," David added.

Sarah skims a stone on a lake near snow-capped mountains
“All of a sudden I was busy having these great experiences and I didn’t make the time.”

PHOTO/Jessica Murphy
Two halves, not whole

Sarah Sipek

When a long-distance relationship fails, there is a tendency to blame the physical barrier that distance creates.

But not being able to hold hands, share meals or sleep in the same bed is only part of the problem. The more pressing issue is the fact that space provides the opportunity for individual growth. Unfortunately, relationships often can't handle the strain that this growth creates.

Sarah Marcott knows this first hand.

Marcott, now 25, was just about to graduate high school when her friends set her up with Jack Beyler.

"It was just a casual group hang out thing at first," Marcott said. "He was going to college in Milwaukee and I was going to Eau Claire, so it wasn't anything too serious."

Though both headed their separate ways in the fall, they remained in contact through phone calls and emails. By the time winter break rolled around, they were a couple.

The next year and a half was spent taking turns driving to visit one another on weekends before Marcott decided to transfer to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee to be closer to Beyler.

"It was great being together," Marcott said. "It was really comfortable and nice, but at the same time I didn't want to get stuck in one place when I was only 21."

With graduation approaching, Marcott feared that she would never get to experience life outside of Wisconsin.

Her solution was to travel.

She and a friend made plans for a cross-country road trip to Alaska where they would spend the summer after graduation in the wilderness.

"Jack was really accepting of the idea," Marcott said. "He understood why I had to leave and he supported my decision." sarah's pull-quote

With the couple committed to the idea of making the relationship work long-distance, they decided to talk on the phone every day to share their experiences. After a few weeks, the six-hour time difference started to throw a wrench into their plan.

"It started to get harder and harder to make time," Marcott said. "I would miss a call and then call back later. By then it wasn't about sharing our days. It was about arguing over why the last phone call was missed. There was a lot of tension."

Marcott places the majority of the responsibility on herself.

"I was changing," she said. "All of a sudden I was busy having these great experiences and I didn't make the time."

When Marcott returned at the summer's end, the couple picked up their relationship, but when Marcott got cabin fever and proposed another trip to Alaska, she was not met with the same unconditional support.

"It was hard for him," she said. "This time he didn't understand why I had to go. It was easier for me because I was leaving and getting to have these adventures and he was just staying behind."

Though the couple agreed to continue their daily phone call regimen, it was met with even less success. The final straw was the drive back to Wisconsin. Marcott was out of reach for days at a time. Not hearing from her signaled the relationship's end.

Within a few weeks of her return, the couple broke up.

"Looking back, I became a different person when we were apart," Marcott said. "I had all this independence that in my mind coming back to a relationship was taking a step backwards. I felt like I wasn't being myself."

According to Laura Stafford, a communications' professor at the University of Kentucky-Lexington, Marcott and Beyler's relationship trajectory is common of young couples that enter into long-distance relationships.

Stafford studied relationships among college students and found that about one-third of couples in a long-distance relationship end it within three months of moving to the same town. The rationale is that there is a loss of autonomy when a couple is forced to interact together on a daily basis.

These results signal that the problem is not that the partners no longer care about one another. Instead, they simply develop different goals and needs that the other person is unable to fulfill.

For Marcott, who has since spent time volunteering in Africa, the possibility of returning to her relationship with Jack is not out of the question.

"I saw him for the first time [since the breakup] last week," she said. "I sensed that he might be interested in getting back together. Who knows? Our time might be over. It might not be. We're still so young. We need to figure out who we are first."



Sounds of Transition

Stephanie Howson


In many long-distance relationships, significant time is spent traveling. And when you're not traveling, you're probably pining for your loved one. Here's a playlist of long distance songs for planes, trains and automobiles to get you through those lonely times.


Is contact with your loved ones a human right?

Bryan Lowry

How important is it to have contact with your loved ones? Very.

Look at the psychological impact isolation from family had for the former inmates of Tamms Correctional Center. Many began performing self-mutilation, while others fell into mental illness.

Tamms was originally designed to be a temporary prison for the worst of the worst offenders. The philosophy was that by isolating the prisoners, it would break them down and allow them to be reintegrated into the main prison system.

It didn't work, according to Laurie Jo Reynolds, the founder of Tamms Year 10, the human rights campaign, which succeeded in shuttering the prison in January after an executive order by Governor Pat Quinn and a ruling by the Illinois State Supreme Court.

tamms pull quote Prisoners had no contact with each other and had only limited contact with their families. Phone calls were forbidden for most of the prison's 13 year existence, and visitations were difficult. The majority of the inmates came from the Chicago area, but Tamms was six hours away and not accessible by public transit, which made visiting impossible for many low-income families. Additionally, the prison had policies designed to discourage visitation, said Reynolds.

Reynolds started a campaign to close the prison, because of the belief that contact with your loved ones is a human right. She helped organize Tamms families to action to get the prison closed despite opposition from the correctional officers' powerful union. They used slogans such as, "I am a mom!" in reference to the civil rights slogan, "I am a man!" and "My brother is not a paycheck."

We tag along with Reynolds as she packs up her office at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, which housed the project. It's covered with photographs of the men once incarcerated in Tamms – symbols mark whether the man had a parent die during his time in the prison or whether he got married, which believe it or not some of them did. They didn't get to attend their weddings in person.

Reynolds said that prisons are supposed to rehabilitate inmates and that can only happen when their basic needs are met, one of which is contact with their families.

Tamms Year 10 undertook several projects to give inmates contact with their loved ones while they were incarcerated, such as a photo project that allowed prisoners to request a picture of anything they wanted to see. One man asked for a photo of his aunt's house, and another asked for a picture of his mother next to a pile of money.

Film is for (long-distance) lovers

Sarah Sipek

For those moments when it seems like you're the only one struggling with a long-distance relationship, Hollywood is there to remind you that the plotline is timeless. Since the movies began, audiences have watched lovers overcome obstacles to be together. Take a look at some of the most memorable films dedicated to long-distance relationships and see if you can't learn something from their endeavors.



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About us



The world is changing and relationships are changing with it. One way we see this transformation today is more and more people are separating from their loved ones for all kinds of reasons- work opportunities, educational prospects, military deployment or incarceration.

This project focuses on relationships at a distance and the ways in which people strengthen these bonds, or have them fall apart.

We have a woman whose fiancé is in prison, a married couple approaching the end of a two-year separation, a family spread all over the world and a woman who found long distance worked better than actually being together, among others. Explore and decide for yourself if absence makes the heart grow fonder.
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Stephanie Howson

Stephanie Howson is a 25-year-old from Connecticut with Midwest blood in her veins. She is approaching the end of her own long distance relationship slated to happen June. Though she is studying magazine writing and editing, she not-so-secretly loves self-help literature and considers herself an aficionado. Go on, ask her advice.

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Sarah Sipek

Sarah Sipek is an aspiring journalist who really has no business giving anyone else relationship advice. But the all-knowing Internet has brought you here, so you might as well stick around for a second and check out what she and her much wiser and talented collaborators have to say. A native Chicagoan, her favorite pastimes are hot dogs, Blackhawks hockey and mustaches. And she thinks she's funny.

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Bryan Lowry

Bryan Lowry, a Philadelphia area native, has spent a few years shuffling around before ending up in Chicago. Despite his wandering, his heart has remained firmly planted with his friends and family along the Delaware River. Studying public affairs reporting, he developed an interest in the challenges faced by the families of prisoners. It has been several months since he has eaten quiche, but he would welcome the opportunity to change that.

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Victoria Yates

Victoria Yates is a misplaced Brit who found herself studying journalism in Chicago after a few too many magazine reading binges. With her nomadic family flying the nest and landing on three continents, she knows more than her fair share about maintaining relationships at a distance.

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