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Will holidays apart make the heart grow fonder?

Will holidays apart make the heart grow fonder?

It may be the secret to enhancing New Year's spark.

As ads keep telling us, the holidays are about togetherness. But, for a lot of people, they aren’t. The circles of who loves one another overlap extensively in a giant Venn diagram of festivity that makes it impossible for everyone to be with everyone important to them.

What this means for a lot of couples — particularly ones that haven’t been together for a particularly long time — is each spending the holidays with their own parents; i.e., away from one another.

Given that the holidays are an emotionally intense time for all kinds of other reasons (the end of a calendar year can highlight elements of people’s lives that may not have improved as much in the preceding twelve months as they’d like; the expectations of wholesome jolly togetherness can make people feel somehow lacking or inadequate; it’s cold as hell; some people’s families kinda suck?), so it can seem kinda harsh to go through them solo. Stressful times call for sexily stress-reducing measures, and if the person you most enjoy reducing stress with is potentially thousands of miles away, well, that doesn’t feel like the merriest of Christmases. 

But there’s a silver lining on that wintery cloud: according to cold, hard science, being apart for some time can lead to an increase in the effort made by both parties. A 2013 study looking at couples in long-distance relationships (where one person was at Cornell University) found that, due to limited face-to-face interactions, geographically separated couples made more effort to keep their relationship romantic and intimate, engaging in more frequent communication and discussing deeper issues such as love, trust and future plans. 

According to one scientist, being apart might make you find someone more attractive because you build an ideal version of them. Susan Whitbourne, professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst studies long distance relationships and, commenting on the above study, told USA Today: “When you're not there with the person every day, you're not seeing their highs and lows, and you're not exposing them to your feelings. You can create an ideal image of your significant other which builds intimacy.”

A 2016 study from Finland used as its starting point the behavior of primates that had spent some time apart — when reunited, they are closer than before they were separated. The researchers used enormous amounts of phone data to conclude that the longer people went without talking, the longer they spoke for when they next spoke — not quite the same as a hella affectionate monkey but, potentially, coming from a similar place in terms of instinct and emotion: looking to maintain the relationship and, if necessary, repair it.

Back in 2001 — a different time — a study concluded that there were evolutionary factors at play when sexual partners who were geographically separated for a while found themselves very sexually active on reuniting. As an idea, it certainly adds an element of species-progressing grandeur to “banging as soon as you get back from the airport”, albeit with the aggressively unsexy name “mate-retention behavior”. 

While it’s lonely and sad to be missing someone, there are many positives — social, sexual, psychological — to be taken from spending time apart. Familiarity can breed contempt — it’s very easy to take people for granted when they are there all the time, and there can be something very pleasant about missing someone. Plus then you get to reunite, and it might not take much time apart for that to be quite something: a survey in the UK in 2013 found that long-term couples who spent a few nights apart every month had almost twice as much sex as those that were together all the time. 

On a lonely winter’s evening when the person you want to be entwined with is a long way away, the holidays can feel anything but happy (especially when you’re sleeping on a shitty blow-up mattress in the basement of your childhood home because as soon as you moved out, your parents turned your room into a gym). But the science suggests that if your partner’s in the same boat, they’re going though the same, and when you’re back in the same place at the same time, well, it’ll have been worth the wait. The holidays come but once a year: you’re gonna do it a lot more than that.

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