Effect of Communication on College Student Satisfaction in Long-distance and Proximal Relationships
Sponsored by Missouri Western State University Sponsored by a grant from the National Science Foundation DUE-97-51113
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The proper APA Style reference for this manuscript is:
WATSON, E. M. (2001). Effect of Communication on College Student Satisfaction in Long-distance and Proximal Relationships. National Undergraduate Research Clearinghouse, 4. Available online at http://www.webclearinghouse.net/volume/. Retrieved April 25, 2017 .

Effect of Communication on College Student Satisfaction in Long-distance and Proximal Relationships

Sponsored by: MUKUL BHALLA (bhalla@loyno.edu)
This study compared amount of communication and relationship satisfaction in long-distance and proximal romantic relationships among a sample of 109 undergraduate students (81 women and 28 men). It was hypothesized that greater communication would lead to greater satisfaction and that long-distance relationships would be more satisfactory than proximal ones. A questionnaire developed by the researchers measured communication, length of relationship, and commitment, and it assessed satisfaction based upon the Relationship Assessment Scale (RAS) developed by Hendrick (1988). Results indicated that the number of phone conversations is positively correlated with satisfaction, but satisfaction differences were not found for the two types of relationships. Future research could compare communication with a commitment scale and a satisfaction with communication scale.

High school seniors all over the world ask themselves the inevitable question, what next? Many choose to move away to college, yet often with college comes separation from loved ones, especially significant others from high school relationships. Many college students are faced with a physical distance barrier that prohibits face-to-face physical contact and communication with their romantic partner for significant periods of time. All long-distance lovers seek ways to make the relationship work despite the lack of physical contact, and many are quite successful at bridging that gap until the two can be reunited once again. Entrance into college represents a major life transition that can transform many of the student’s existing relationships, as discovered by Shaver, Furman, & Buhrmester (1985). Most remarkably, Shaver found that the satisfaction in existing, or ‘old’ romantic relationships tends to diminish significantly throughout the student’s first year of college, while satisfaction in newly formed romantic relationships increases over this time period. In addition, levels of affection, intimacy, support, and companionship decrease, and conflict in the relationship rises steadily. Perhaps these findings are due to the general expansion in the freshman’s social life, when a number of new relationships form, and high school relationships are pushed to the side. Interestingly, the satisfaction and other factors in the old romantic relationship diminish over the first year despite the success of the relationship over that year, demonstrating that even relationships that survive at least a year of the extreme change experience difficulties and conflict. Since many students experience marked changes in the relationships they attempt to maintain through the transition from high school to college, research has concentrated on methods of maintaining satisfaction in turbulent relationships. Past research has found communication to be one of the most significant factors in the satisfaction of the relationship for both partners and the success of the relationship. In fact, Watzlawick, Beaven, & Jackson (1967) view communication as essential in all areas of human life. It is impossible to not communicate, so that a relationship between partners is a constant communicative interaction, affecting the satisfaction and commitment of the romantic bond. Speech is the most prominent form of communication, involving the speaker and listener in both interpersonal and socializing experiences (Keltner, 1973). Speech is an important form of communication between romantic partners due to the socialization and interactive self-disclosure that is involved. However, when speech is limited by a time or availability constraint, the satisfaction with the communication and satisfaction within the relationship is affected. As Keltner points out, a visit by a long-distance romantic partner is limited by the time available for the visit and the degree and balance of availability between partners. The moderate inter-involvement associated with the long-distance visit can be contrasted with the maximum inter-involvement between married partners in a spoken discussion. Whereas the long-distance visit is constrained by time and availability, the marriage discussion has virtually unlimited time and maximum availability, thereby increasing the satisfaction and involvement by the partners. The research defending communication as a maintenance strategy and integral part of romantic relationships is further supported by Felmlee, Sprecher, & Bassin (1990), who found that higher levels of hours spent together was correlated with lower rates of relationship termination. Apparently, time invested in relationships is viewed by the partners as an irretrievable component that represents their commitment to the partner, and individuals more committed to their partners spend more time with them in physical contact engaging in ongoing communication. With the rise of the technological age, a topic of interest for current researchers is the effect of the internet on communication in close relationships. One study conducted by Stafford, Kline, and Dimmick (1999) analyzed the use of electronic mail in households and found that 61% of those surveyed use email for interpersonal relationships. Most of the participants rated email as a popular form of communication in their household due to its low cost, simplicity and ease, and lack of geographical boundaries. Resisting the general view that internet communication is impersonal and ineffective, Stafford, Kline, and Dimmick supported email as an enhancement for sustaining meaningful relationships. Regardless of the method of communication, an interesting study conducted by Dindia and Allen in 1992, found through meta-analysis that there are significant differences between the sexes in their communication style, particularly self-disclosure. Females were more open to disclosure with other females than males with females. Further, the openness of women encourages more self-disclosure from their male partners, while the low self-disclosure of males inhibits the female partner’s self-disclosure. Along with communication, another interest of researchers has been the mysterious notion of satisfaction in romantic relationships. Early tests of relationship satisfaction only involved married couples, the most prominent of which was the Marital Adjustment Test developed by Locke and Wallace in 1959 (Cramer, 1998). Two distinct research traditions emerged from early studies of marital satisfaction (Bradbury & Fincham, 1989). The first, the sociological tradition, involved surveys that attempted to connect personality, demographic, and familial variables with marital satisfaction. Later, the behavioral tradition took form, in which interactional behavior was associated with satisfaction in marriage. The significance of satisfaction was emphasized by Sprecher who found that satisfaction and commitment were even more important in the desire of the partners to continue the relationship than any measure of love (Willenz, 1999). Couples do not dissolve due to a decrease in feelings of love, but rather because of unhappiness or dissatisfaction. While previous research has thoroughly examined satisfaction in romantic relationships and communication within relationships, virtually no research has examined specifically the effect of communication on relationship satisfaction. Also, long-distance relationships are highly under-examined, even though they are a common phenomenon, especially with college students. The variables important in the maintenance of long-distance romance need concentration in order to aid couples struggling with this difficult experience. Since previous research has shown that communication has an important bearing on the satisfaction of a relationship, our study attempted to correlate amount and type of communication with satisfaction and commitment of romantic relationships, while comparing long-distance relationships with proximal relationships. Our hypothesis was that among college students, (1) there would be a direct correlation between the amount of communication and the maintenance of a satisfactory relationship in both long distance and proximal relationships and (2) long-distance relationships would be more satisfactory and involve more commitment than proximal relationships. The researchers postulated that the effect of communication on satisfaction would not differ between proximal and long-distance relationships, since communication has been demonstrated to be essential to all relationships. However, due to the limited nature of the communication of long-distance relationships to mainly verbal and written forms of communication due to the separation by distance, these relationships require more commitment from both partners in order to sustain the relationship. The higher levels of commitment hypothesized to be found in long-distance relationships would lead to more satisfaction in these relationships.


One hundred and nine undergraduate Loyola University New Orleans students (81 women and 28 men, ages 18-24) volunteered to participate. The volunteers were recruited through snowball sampling and convenience sampling by means of announcement during psychology classes, in which the professors offered course credit for participation. Due to the nature of the study, only individuals involved in long-distance or proximal relationships, according to the definitions given on the questionnaire that were developed specifically for this study, were included in the sample. There was a random distribution of racial and ethnic backgrounds among the participants, and all volunteers were treated in accordance with the “Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct” (American Psychological Association, 1992).

A questionnaire was developed by the researchers that was three pages long with 32 questions, typed on white 8 1/2 x 11 paper (see Appendix for complete questionnaire). Following a standard consent form, the first section of the questionnaire asked for gender of the participant and type and length of romantic relationship in which the participant is currently involved. The questions in the second section concerned the number of times specific types of communication take place on average in a given time period between the romantic partners. For example, the participant was asked to recall the number of phone conversations between him/her and his/her current partner in a typical week, and the average length of the conversations. The third section asked the participant’s opinion of communication in their current romantic relationship and their opinion of communication in relationships in general. The final section measured the participant’s satisfaction with their current romantic relationship and their current commitment to their partner. These questions included “to what extent has your relationship met your original expectations” and “do you have a picture of your partner with you right now?” The last section of the survey was an expansion upon the Relationship Assessment Scale (RAS), a 7-item Likert Scale with a range of scores from 1 to 5, developed by Hendrick (1988) to measure relationship satisfaction.

The study conducted used a between subjects quasi-experimental design. The levels of the first independent variable were proximal and long-distance, the two types of relationships measured. A relationship was defined on the survey as a romantic relationship between two individuals that is exclusive (not dating anyone else), emotionally and/or physically intimate, and involving some level of commitment. The relationship was proximal if the two partners are not separated by a significant physical distance so that physical closeness is generally possible on a regular basis; however, the relationship was long-distance if the two partners are separated by a physical distance that prohibits immediate physical closeness for extended periods of time. Gender was recorded as an additional independent variable, along with amount and type of communication between the romantic partners. Specifically, number of phone conversations, emails, online chatting sessions, and mailed letters were measured as levels of communication. The first dependent variable, satisfaction, or pleasure and fulfilled needs in the relationship, was measured with the last page of the survey. The total score on those questions was equivalent to the amount of satisfaction in the relationship at the time the responses where recorded. Another dependent variable, commitment, was defined here as consideration of the current romantic partner in the participant’s future life plans, as well as full engagement of the participant’s emotions and actions in the relationship. Commitment was measured with opinion questions and whether or not the participant currently had a picture of his/her partner at the time of answering the survey. Length of the relationship, divided into intervals (less than 1 month, 1-3 months, 3-6 months, 6-12 months, 1-2 years, 2-3 years, 3-4 years, and over 4 years), was the last dependent variable recorded. We controlled for extraneous variables by excluding surveys taken by participants who were married or not in a long-distance or proximal relationship according to the definitions given on the survey. The definitions themselves also excluded relationships that did not fall within the specific boundaries given, so that non-exclusive dating relationships and ones that lacked commitment from either partner were weeded out. The process of obtaining the survey responses began with the entrance of the participants (solicited mainly through announcement in Loyola classrooms) into an empty classroom, and the volunteers were asked to take a seat and make themselves comfortable. The questionnaires were issued along with informed consent sheets. The researchers explained that one informed consent sheet would be kept by the participant and one would be turned in to the researchers with the participant’s signature when they finished the survey. Then the volunteers were asked to complete the survey, answering every question concerning only their current romantic relationship, and to turn the questionnaire and informed consent form in to the researchers upon completion. The participants were debriefed with a general explanation of the hypothesis and significance of the research, and the researchers directed the participant’s attention to the information on the informed consent form that tells how to obtain the results of the study. The participants were thanked and allowed to leave the classroom.

The reported means for each type of communication measured by the questionnaire were M = 8.55 for number of phone conversations per week with romantic relationship partner (SD = 6.44), M = 2.79 for number of emails received per week from partner (SD = 5.64), M = 2.92 for number of emails sent per week to partner (SD = 5.80), M = 1.97 for number of online chatting sessions per week with partner (SD = 3.64), M = .99 for number of letters received per month from partner (SD = 2.37), and M = 1.00 for number of letters sent per month to partner (SD = 2.28). The first hypothesis, stating that a positive correlation would be found between amount of communication and relationship satisfaction, was supported only in the particular category of phone communication. There was a statistically significant correlation between amount of phone communication (M = 8.55) and relationship satisfaction according to the researcher’s scale (M = 35.15) (r (106) = .21, p = .03). The second hypothesis proposed a relationship between type of relationship (long-distance n = 38, proximal n = 70) and satisfaction, but no such relationship was found. An independent groups t test was performed to compare satisfaction of participants involved in long-distance relationships (M = 34.99, SD = 5.76) with satisfaction of those in proximal relationships (M = 35.24, SD = 4.01) (t (106) = -.27, p = .79). Other relevant findings included a significant Pearson correlation between number of emails sent to the partner (M = 2.93, SD = 5.80) and number of emails received from the partner (M = 2.79, SD = 5.64) (r (109) = .96, p < .01). Number of letters sent to the partner (M = 1.01, SD = 2.28) and number of letters received from the partner (M = 1.00, SD = 2.37) were also found to be significantly correlated (r (107) = .84, p < .01). Furthermore, significant differences were found among the means of each communication type used by long-distance vs. proximal relationships. Among the variables length of phone conversations, emails sent, emails received, online chatting sessions, letters sent, letters received, and the ranking of preference for face-to-face, email, and phone communication, there was a significant mean difference between long-distance participants and proximal participants, as shown by Table 1. All variables are exclusive to communication with the participant’s romantic partner, and the length of phone variable refers to length of phone conversations with the partner divided into time intervals (see Appendix for questionnaire). The means and standard deviations are given for both long-distance and proximal relationship subgroups. The ranking variables are ranked on a scale of 1 to 5, in which a rank of 1 is the most frequently used form of communication. The significance level of every variable in the table was less than p = .05. Table 1Independent Samples T-Test for Communication Methods and Ranking of Communication Methods in Long-Distance and Proximal Relationships M SD Long Proximal Long Proximal t df pLength of Phone 2.62 1.55 1.09 .80 5.80 106 .000Email Received 5.68 1.24 8.53 1.92 3.17 39.02 .003Email Sent 6.11 1.23 8.70 1.86 3.42 38.82 .002Online Chatting 3.38 1.23 4.78 2.58 2.58 48.80 .013Letters Received 2.00 .46 3.65 .87 2.57 39.28 .014Letters Sent 1.91 .53 3.54 .86 2.37 39.34 .023Rank of Face to Face* 3.47 1.15 1.16 .36 12.05 40.98 .000Rank of Phone* 1.45 1.96 .69 .52 -4.01 60.20 .000Rank of Email* 2.37 3.50 .94 .56 -6.79 51.44 .000*Note: These variables are mean rankings for types of communication in which 1 indicates most frequently used with partner and 5 indicates least frequently used with partner.

The first purpose of this study was to compare the amount of communication with the reported satisfaction in romantic relationships. In the sample of 109 college students, the only significant correlation found was between number of phone conversations and satisfaction. The researchers discovered that the more phone conversations with which a participant communicated with their partner, the higher that participant’s reported satisfaction. The second hypothesis was not supported by the collected data, since no significant relationship was found between satisfaction in long-distance relationships and satisfaction in proximal relationships. One interesting finding, though, was that the number of emails sent by the participant to their partner was highly correlated with the number of emails received from their partner. This indicates a possible reciprocal relationship in terms of email communication, where each partner sends a relatively equal number of emails to the other. Letters sent and letters received share a similar relationship, although they were not as highly correlated as emails. The researchers also found a significant difference between long-distance and proximal relationships in the number of the following forms of communication: length of phone conversations, emails sent, emails received, online chatting, letters sent, and letters received. This makes since because long-distance relationships must use less face-to-face communication and more of other methods, while proximal relationships will rely on non-face-to-face methods less. A difference was also found between the way participants of each type of relationship rated three of the forms of communication, phone conversations, email, and face-to-face interaction, in terms of how much they employ these forms of communication in their relationship.In light of previous research, the results of this study have contradicted Keltner’s (1973) observation that when speech is limited by a time or availability constraint, the satisfaction within the relationship is negatively affected. The telephone is a means in which speech communication is limited by time or availability, especially long-distance relationships that may be paying for each minute. This study found that the more the participant used the phone to talk to their partner, the more satisfaction they reported in their relationship, expressing a positive correlation that opposes Keltner’s negative view of constrained communication. In addition, our research supported Stafford, Kline, and Dimmick (1999), who asserted that emails are often used to sustain meaningful emotional relationships. In this study, many student participants reported using email communication with their partner, although the average number of emails sent or received per week between partners was much lower than number of phone conversations. This study found a wide variety of results, but some limitations must be taken into consideration. First, the study concerned dyadic relationships; however, no effort was made to obtain both partners for testing purposes. Secondly, the subgroups of long-distance males, long-distance females, proximal males, and proximal females were not equally represented within the sample. Particularly, the sample of long-distance males was small enough that results could not be adequately generalized to the population. Thirdly, the survey needs improvement to reduce misunderstanding of the questions. The most misread question asked if the participant desired more or less communication in his or her romantic relationship. The survey was designed for both questions to be answered “yes” or “no,” but many participants only answered the first question about more communication desired. Also, a few participants skipped the length of relationship question for reasons unknown, and several participants read the “days per week you spend face to face” question as “hours per week.” These questions need to perhaps be worded more clearly and separated from the other questions. Another error the researchers rectified as the completed surveys were turned in was participants skipping the first question asking for gender. This question should be farther down on the page and should draw the reader’s eye more easily. The theoretical implications for this study include helping floundering romantic relationships. Long-distance relationships in which one or both partners are not satisfied could be aided by increasing their phone communication. This could have negative monetary effects on the individuals, but communicating more via telephone could help increase satisfaction. Further, struggling proximal relationships could use phone communication as an avenue to improve satisfaction if face-to-face communication is too volatile. Practically speaking, relationship counselors could use these results to help struggling relationships by encouraging them to communicate more over the phone. Free phone cards could be distributed to entering college freshman to encourage good phone communication among the budding long-distance relationships. Phone companies could make the best use of these results through advertising campaigns, publicizing that phone communication increases satisfaction within romantic relationships. They could even produce couple phone cards that come in pairs, targeting long-distance relationship couples. Many of the limitations of the present study could be improved upon for future research. A future study that obtained data from both partners within each romantic relationship would perhaps have more valuable and practical findings related to the interaction within dyads. In a proposed study of this nature, the partners could be compared on levels of commitment and satisfaction, and more significant gender differences might result than the current study was able to find. Also, that study could compare the partners reported amounts of each form of communication and satisfaction with the couple’s communication to discover its effect on relationship satisfaction. A future study would also ideally obtain much larger sample sizes to produce results that could be more accurately generalized to the population. The survey would be changed and improved to reduce errors and to ensure precision of statistical results. A tangential study based upon these findings would compare amount of each form of communication with a commitment scale and a satisfaction with communication scale. Another study could take a closer look at the latest technological forms of communication in order to obtain more data on the modes of email and online chatting and their frequency, length, and satisfactoriness as methods of emotional communication.

Bradbury, T. N. & Fincham, F. D. (1989). Behavior and satisfaction in marriage: prospective mediating processes. In C. Hendrick (Ed.), Close Relationships (pp. 119-143). Newbury Park: Sage Publications.Cramer, D. (1998). Close Relationships: The Study of Love and Friendship. London: Arnold.Dindia, K., & Allen, M. (1992). Sex differences in self-disclosure: a meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 112, 106-124.Felmlee, D., Sprecher, S., & Bassin, E. (1990). The dissolution of intimate relationships: a hazard model. Social Psychology Quarterly, 53, 31-43.Hendrick, S. S. (1988). A generic measure of relationship satisfaction. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 50, 93-98.Keltner, J. W. (1973). Elements of Interpersonal Communication. Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing, Inc.Shaver, P., Furman, W., & Buhrmester. (1985). Transition to college: network changes, social skills, and loneliness. In S. Duck & D. Perlman (Ed.), Understanding Personal Relationships: An Interdisciplinary Approach (pp. 193-220). London: Sage Publications.Stafford, L., Kline, S. L., & Dimmick, J. (1999). Home e-mail: relational maintenance and gratification opportunities. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 43, 659-669.Watzlawick, P., Beavin, J. H., & Jackson, D. D. (1967). Pragmatics of Human Communication: A Study of Interactional Patterns, Pathologies, and Paradoxes. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. Willenz, P. (1999, March). For romantic couples, love increases over time, a new study suggests. APA Monitor Online [On-line serial], 30. Available FTP: Hostname: apa.org File: monitor/mar99/love.html

A. Male / Female [circle one]

B. A LONG-DISTANCE relationship is defined as a romantic relationship that is exclusive (not dating anyone else), emotionally and/or physically intimate, and involving some level of commitment. The relationship is LONG-DISTANCE, as defined here, if the two partners are separated by a physical distance that prohibits immediate physical closeness for extended periods of time.

According to this definition, are you currently involved in a LONG-DISTANCE relationship? yes / no [circle one]

C. A PROXIMAL relationship is defined as a romantic relationship that is exclusive (not dating anyone else), emotionally and/or physically intimate, and involving some level of commitment. The relationship is PROXIMAL, as defined here, if the two partners are not separated by a significant physical distance so that physical closeness is generally possible on a regular basis.

According to this definition, are you currently involved in a PROXIMAL (not a long-distance) relationship? yes / no [circle one]

If you answered NO to BOTH B and C, you have finished the survey. Thank you for your participation. If you answered YES to either B or C, please continue.

D. Length of current relationship:

less than 1 month 1-3 months 3-6 months 6-12 months

1-2 years 2-3 years 3-4 years over 4 years [circle one]

E. Please write the answer that best applies to your current romantic relationship.

1. Number of phone conversations PER WEEK with your partner:___________________

2. Average length of phone conversations: less than ½ hour ½ to 1 hour 1-2 hours

2-3 hours 3-5 hours more than 5 hours [circle one]

3. Number of emails received PER WEEK from your partner: ____________________

4. Number of emails you send PER WEEK to your partner: ____________________

5. Number of online chatting sessions PER WEEK with your partner: ____________________

6. Number of letters received PER MONTH from your partner: ____________________

7. Number of letters you send PER MONTH to your partner: ___________________

For those currently involved in a LONG-DISTANCE relationship:

8. Time between physical visits with your partner: less than 1 week 1-2 weeks

2-4 weeks 1-2 months 2-3 months more than 3 months [circle one]

9. Average length of visit: __________ days

For those currently involved in a PROXIMAL relationship:

10. Average HOURS PER DAY you spend face to face: _____________________

11. Average DAYS PER WEEK you spend face to face: ______________________

F. Please circle the answer that best applies to your current romantic relationship.

1. Please rank these forms of communication from 1 to 5, assigning a 1 to the form of communication you and your partner use most often, a 2 to the second-most used form of communication, and so on:a. face to face ______ b. phone ______ c. email ______ d. chatting online ______ e. mailing letters ______

2. In the question above, what is the reason(s) you do NOT use the two forms of communication you ranked 4th and 5th. [circle one or more]

a. 4th choice: too expensive too time consuming not available dislike other

b. 5th choice: too expensive too time consuming not available dislike other

3. Do you find yourself desiring MORE communication with your current partner? yes / no LESS communication? yes / no

4. How important would you rate communication as a factor in the satisfaction of YOUR current romantic relationship? 1 2 3 4 5Not important Moderately important Very important

5. How important would you rate communication as a factor in the satisfaction of romantic relationships IN GENERAL?1 2 3 4 5Not important Moderately important Very important G. Please circle the number that best applies to your current romantic relationship.

1. How well does your partner meet your needs?

1 2 3 4 5Low satisfaction Moderate satisfaction High satisfaction 2. In general, how satisfied are you with your relationship?

1 2 3 4 5Low satisfaction Moderate satisfaction High satisfaction

3. How good is your relationship compared to most?

1 2 3 4 5Low satisfaction Moderate satisfaction High satisfaction

4. How often do you wish you hadn’t gotten into this relationship?

1 2 3 4 5Not very often Sometimes Always

5. To what extent has your relationship met your original expectations?

1 2 3 4 5Low satisfaction Moderate satisfaction High satisfaction

6. How much do you love your partner?

1 2 3 4 5 Not at all Moderately A lot

7. How often are there problems in your relationship?

1 2 3 4 5Not very often Sometimes Always

8. How committed are you to your current partner?

1 2 3 4 5 Low commitment Moderate commitment High commitment

9. Do you have a picture of your partner with you right now (wallet, purse, etc.)? yes / no

10. Are you married to your current partner? yes / no

11. Are you formally engaged to your current partner? yes / no

12. Do you plan on eventually marrying your current partner? yes / no / don’t know

Submitted 5/6/01 11:06:43 PM
Last Edited 5/6/01 11:20:05 PM
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