A Psychologist Gives The Feeling Of 'Not Being Together Even When You're Together' A Name

The distance you're feeling with your partner could be relationship 'jet lag.'

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | September 25, 2022

A new study published in the academic journal Couple and Family Psychology attempts to understand why being in a relationship can feel like a daily limbo of transitioning between phases of separation and union. The study tries to decode this 'relationship jet lag’ and offers insight into how couples can develop the agility to deal with it.

"For many of us, these transitions happen every day," explains psychologist Danielle Weber, lead author of the research. "If you live with your partner, you experience a transition when you reunite with your partner after a day at work and you will transition again the next morning when you leave your partner to go to work."

Whether you’re feeling too mentally caught up in work to focus on your partner or an argument with your partner is keeping you from focusing on your work – according to Weber, in both these cases, you might be experiencing relationship 'jet lag,’ or the feeling that you and your partner are in traveling in different time zones and are not quite synced up.

Such transitions feel even bigger and more significant for couples in long-distance relationships.

"I think relationship jet lag can happen when for whatever reason we are not quite ready to be in that new phase," explains Weber. "Sometimes we want to stay where we are and we don’t want to transition. Sometimes we want to, but there’s a challenge relevant to the current task that is hard to let go."

After following couples through a period of reunion and/or separation phases, Weber’s study produced the following results:

  1. If the upcoming state is one that is less appealing to you in some way, it will be harder to make that transition and it will result in more negative emotions soon after making the transition.
  2. Separation is much harder for long-distance relationships.
  3. People naturally vary in how comfortable and natural they feel being by themselves or being with their partners, which affects the experience of 'jet lag’. (For instance, a naturally independent person may experience resistance moving into a reunion phase.)
  4. Your degree of relationship satisfaction also contributes to the degree of relationship 'jet lag’ you experience.

According to Weber, you can do a number of things to prepare yourself for relationship jet lag or even reduce it. These include:

  • Become aware of what makes you 'lag.’ It's important to know yourself and when transitions are easier and harder for you. Once you have that awareness, if you know that an upcoming transition might be hard for you, it may be helpful to intentionally think and act in ways that will make the transition easier.
  • Include a 'jet lag’ period into your schedule. We can also use calendar reminders and alerts to remind us to start thinking about or planning for the upcoming phase so that we are prepared when it happens. For an upcoming reunion, this mental process could include making plans for you and your partner or thinking about your last reunion. We can also act differently by starting to engage in activities that prepare us for the phase change. For example, if you struggle to separate from your partner, don’t let the first thing you do on your own be something repetitive or boring. Instead, plan an activity for yourself that will engage your mind in a positive way.
  • Normalize feeling 'jet-lagged’ (especially in long-distance relationships). Research shows that some period of readjustment after separation may potentially be common in long-distance relationships. Be patient with yourself and know that if you’re taking more time to get back into your individual routine, that does not make you needy or codependent. It might just be part of the process.

A full interview with psychologist Danielle Weber discussing her research can be found here: A psychologist explains what it means to have 'relationship jet lag’