Long-distance couples tell SixDegrees how online communication helped their relationships.

When David and his wife Fiona first met at university in 2000, Skype was not yet available, and smartphones were barely a blip on the technological horizon. But when their studies came to an end and David moved back to Barcelona, their romance didn’t dwindle away, it blossomed.

Long-distance telephone calls were expensive, and the couple couldn’t afford to meet more than a few times a year. The solution they came up with was to go online.

In the early noughties, David explains, internet connections were often dial-up and slow, and video chat and voice over IP services were not available. However, the couple found instant messaging services like MSN Messenger were ideal for their needs.

“Text chatting wasn’t mobile in those days, but still I would say it was fundamental for our relationship,” David says. “It was really difficult being apart but because we were able to be in touch every day it actually brought us closer.”

“By using instant messaging we were able to keep the communication channel open the whole day, at work and at home, even with other people around,” he explains, adding that the couple continue to use text chatting to keep in touch during the day even now. “It’s the closest thing to telepathy – you can transmit your thoughts to the other person, you don’t have to say them out loud.”

One drawback of chatting in this way, he adds, is that it can be difficult to clearly convey emotions to the other person. “But when two people know each other well, there’s no ambiguity,” he says.

“Finding ways of successfully maintaining
a relationship over distance has become
a necessity for many couples.”

Video calls bring couples closer

David and Fiona’s experience is becoming increasingly common. As the world becomes ever more global and international relationships are kindled during studies or work placements abroad, finding ways of successfully maintaining a relationship over distance has become a necessity for many couples.

But it has perhaps never been so easy to manage a long-distance relationship. In the years since 2000, online communication services have become commonplace, and look set to continue growing in popularity. According to September 2011 figures, Skype has a staggering 929 million registered users, with nearly 30 million people online at peak times, while instant messaging service Microsoft Windows Live Messenger has 330 million users active every month. Smartphones are also growing steadily in popularity, and while text messaging remains the most popular method of mobile communication, with an estimated 8 trillion text messages sent during 2011, more consumers are embracing mobile versions of instant messaging and voice-over-IP applications like Skype. The number of mobile instant messaging users is forecast to exceed 1.3 billion by 2016.

Going the distance

Sofi Koivula and her husband are two self-defined “Skype nerds”. The couple got married this summer, and have been in a long-distance relationship for almost three years. Sofi lives in Helsinki, while her husband resides in the USA. She is currently waiting for her American visa to come through, but this may mean up to another year of living on separate continents for the newly-weds.

“The distance can be pretty hard to cope with, but without Skype it would be unbearable,” says Sofi. “When we were children video calls were science fiction, but now it’s so normal, we take it for granted.

Having instant online communication makes such a big difference – you stay involved in the other person’s daily life. We laugh about it now, because we remember what it was like when we first met over twelve years ago. We didn’t even use email back then – we used to write letters to each other, and it took ten days for those to arrive.”

While the traditional love letter remains a romantic gesture, it doesn’t compare to instant access to one’s amour. Even email can be too slow these days, says Sofi, who has now installed Skype on her iPhone. “It’s so great for keeping in touch with my husband. Even if I’m at work I can quickly and easily share my thoughts with him, just to say hi or complain about the bad weather in Helsinki – of course then he can tell me immediately it’s sunny in Los Angeles!”

Now using any smartphone it is possible to video call or text chat anywhere with a 3G or Wi-Fi connection. Using the internet for phone calls is convenient, but it helps save money too, says David. “Calling someone on Skype is free, although you need to buy Skype credit to call an actual phone number. We don’t have a landline phone in our flat, so we just use the phone’s Wi-Fi connection whenever we need to make a call when we’re at home.”

Technology makes the
heart grow fonder

The advent of online video conferencing now means
that couples living in different cities around the world
can still indulge in activities that they would normally
share when living in the same space.

Why not try:
• Watching a movie, or special event on television
together while online.
• Sharing a romantic dinner.
• Playing an online game with one another.
• Sleeping with Skype on, then waking up and getting
ready for the day together.

More than just chatting

David and his wife now live together in Helsinki, and as a result online communication has taken on a different role, this time primarily for keeping in touch with family back home. “I set up Skype at my parents’ place, and it was a big hit. We even cook and eat dinner together online sometimes!” he says.
“It’s great because even though the image quality isn’t always perfect, the video link is like having a little window into the other person’s home. There’s a real sense of presence, and it helps to stay close when you live so far away.”

“My husband and I are complete Skype nerds on the weekends,” says Sofi. “We permanently have Skype connected with the cameras on while we’re at home. We can be cooking in the kitchen and chatting as if we’re in the same room together.”

“If there is some kind of special event taking place we can also experience it together. For the Oscars earlier this year, even though we are in different time zones it was broadcast live, so we were on Skype and could comment on it together,” she adds.

Different media, different messages

Skype has also proved useful in other areas of life, Sofi explains. “In work, sometimes instead of calling I just send a message to a colleague or client on Skype. It’s a very fast and efficient way to communicate if you just want to ask a quick question. Email is sometimes a bit too ‘official’, and of course you have to wait for the other person to respond. With messaging, it’s instant, and it helps the communication to be a little more relaxed than it might otherwise be.”

“Funnily enough, nowadays I most often use Skype for voice conversations or instant messaging with family,” says David. “I’m online most of the time, and although there’s not much activity especially during working hours, we keep in touch with little text updates every day. It’s also a good way to keep in touch with my wife during the day – we both have smartphones and we’re always connected.”

David explains that he prefers the personal aspect of messaging rather than broadcasting his thoughts to a wider social circle through Facebook or Twitter. “With instant messaging I don’t have to censor myself because the message is for a much smaller group of people.”

Communicating figures

• Skype has 929 million registered users,
with nearly 30 million people online at
peak times.
• Microsoft Windows Live Messenger has
330 million users active every month.
• Some 8 trillion text messages have
been sent during 2011.
• The number of mobile instant
messaging users is forecast to exceed
1.3 billion by 2016.

“For me Facebook is more for public announcements, but Skype is more personal,” says Sofi. “It’s also easier to connect to people. Because I’m always connected, I can see who’s online and whether they’re available, and it’s easy to just say hi. It doesn’t have to be an hour long video call.”

“I’ve heard people say that online communication is impersonal, but I feel totally the opposite,” she continues. “I really enjoy using it. It’s a way of making communication easier, and that brings people together.”

Louisa Gairn