A Psychologist Explains What It Means To Have 'Relationship Jet Lag'

Psychologist Danielle Weber disentangles the friction between our identities as individuals and as romantic partners.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | September 16, 2022

A new study published in Couples and Family Psychology addresses a common problem faced by many couples: experiencing difficulties in transitioning between phases of union and separation. The study refers to this common stumbling block as relationship 'jet lag.'

I recently spoke to psychologist Danielle Weber, the lead author of this research, to understand what couples can do to make such transitions easier for themselves. Here is a summary of our conversation.

Could you give us an example of what a phase of 'transition' might look like for a couple?

There are many transitions that couples can experience, but in this study, we focused on how partners transition between times when they are together (like when they are having a conversation or doing an activity together) and times when they are apart (like at work or doing individual hobbies).

For many of us, these transitions happen every day. If you live with your partner, you experience a transition right 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.

This might feel insignificant because you experience it every day. But, if you get home and you're still mentally caught up in work (maybe you had a bad day, or maybe you're thinking about an upcoming deadline), you may find it harder to focus on time with your partner.

Along with these everyday transitions, some couples will experience transitions that feel larger in scope. If you're in a long-distance relationship or if you have a partner who travels for their work frequently, these transitions may feel like a large shift because there might be longer stretches of time between each transition.

What can a couple do to improve their mental 'shift' before they are about to enter a phase of transition?

First of all, 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.

If we're struggling to transition, it might be because the upcoming transition was not on our minds. That's when we have to actively increase awareness of transitions.

We tend to use calendars and alarms for specific events, but we can also use these 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, for example, 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 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 really engage your mind in a positive way.

Bottom line, if you are able to set it up so that you have something to look forward to on the other side, then that transition will hopefully become less uncomfortable over time.

Do you have any words of advice for a long-distance couple who might have recently shifted into a period of separation?

The advice I gave in my last answer I think is helpful for all couples, but given that we found that the transition into separation is especially challenging for those in long-distance relationships, it may be especially important for long-distance partners to mentally prepare for this separation.

If you know that separating from your partner is particularly hard for you, plan activities for yourself that will help you stay engaged. But also understand that you are not alone in this experience.

When I was in a long-distance relationship, I would often judge myself for not immediately jumping back into my normal routine after leaving my partner. I think our research shows that some period of readjustment after separation may potentially be common in long-distance relationships.

So, my advice is also to 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.

Could you describe for us what relationship 'jet lag' is according to your study? Do we know why relationship 'jet lag' happens?

Back when we were starting to plan this study, Don Baucom (one of my co-authors) and I were talking about how sometimes transitions go smoothly and sometimes they don't.

Sometimes you might really want to be present with your partner, but whatever was occupying your time before you came home to them is distracting you.

And sometimes you want to be fully focused on your work, but your last interaction with your partner is stuck in your mind and making it hard to focus.

For those transitions where something is getting in the way, it might take more time to adjust and be present in the current phase.

As we were talking about these slower transitions, we realized it was actually quite similar to the experience of jet lag when you travel long distances. You might get off a plane and it's 2 am in your body and all you want to do is sleep, but at your destination it is 9 am and sunny.

You're in this new place and time and you are expected to act like it's 9 am — but your body still feels like it's 2 am. Your body will adjust, but it might take some time. That's what we think is going on here with these relationship transitions.

So, we decided to use the term "relationship jet lag" to capture those times when the transition into or out of time with your partner takes longer because your mind is still lagging behind, stuck in the last thing you were doing.

Now, why do we sometimes experience this relational jet lag? There are certainly some characteristics of individual partners and the relationship itself that can make it more likely you may find transitions challenging, some of which we focused on in our study.

But more generally, I think it can happen when for whatever reason we are not quite ready to be in that new phase. Sometimes we want to stay where we are and 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 of.

What was the methodology of your study? What would you say were your key findings?

We wanted to understand how couples experienced these transitions as they actually happened. So, we started by asking couples to complete an initial survey about their relationships and how they experience transitions. We recruited couples who were in long-distance relationships and couples who see each other frequently.

We then followed the couples across a time when they were actually having a reunion (time when they came together) and separation (time when they separated after a reunion). We asked couples to complete surveys within a short period of time after each transition, so we could understand how the transition might be impacting them in the moment.

Looking at our findings together, it appears that 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.

In other words, it's easier to jump readily into an experience that feels natural and enjoyable, so mentally it may be harder to make the transition if that anticipation isn't present. We saw this play out with a few specific findings.

For one, people in long-distance relationships had a harder time transitioning out of that reunion time with their partner. This made sense to us; after all, if you're long-distance, going from being with your partner (something that is uncommon if you're in a long-distance relationship) back to your daily routine may feel like a loss.

On top of that, the transition happens less frequently, which might make it feel unfamiliar. So, the loss combined with unfamiliarity likely contributed to that relational jet lag for long-distance partners.

Beyond the geographical distance in the relationship, we also saw some other individual and relationship characteristics that were relevant.

For one, people naturally vary in how comfortable and natural they feel being by themselves or being with their partners. If you're naturally more independent, getting into time with your partner might be harder for you.

Also, your satisfaction in your relationship matters for your transition into time with your partner. If you're currently unhappy in your relationship and time with your partner might be anticipated to be less enjoyable as a result, entering into time with your partner is understandably more challenging.

So, overall, we found a few different characteristics of people and their relationships that related to how challenging a given transition was.

Moving into a phase of reunion is usually looked at as an easy, happy, and beautiful process. But your research highlights that this can also be difficult. Could you expand on this?

When we are able to devote our full attention to our partners, reuniting after even a short time apart can be a great experience. But if something gets in the way and you're caught still focusing on what you were doing before, then you won't be able to get the most out of the experience.

People in long-distance relationships might feel a lot of excitement anticipating the reunion because they haven't seen their partners in a long time.

At the same time, these reunions are a big departure from what is routine for these long-distance couples, which could still introduce challenges. You might be very happy to see your partner and simultaneously find it strange for them to be in "your space."

In contrast, if you live with your partner, you might have a routine to unwind from your day and settle in with your partner. But, the fact that it is routine also makes it more automatic and less "unique."

So, rather than actively anticipating this upcoming time together, you might be going about your day on autopilot and keep thinking about your individual tasks even once home and interacting with your partner.

Do you have plans for follow-up research? Where do you hope research on this topic goes in the future?

My research is broadly focused on how people feel, think, and act in relationships and how those patterns can change over time, and how we can use that information to improve how we help people enhance their relationships.

I'm not collecting any data currently on relationship transitions specifically, but I hope to study this more in the future.

In this study, we just focused on a few important characteristics of relationships and individual preferences that could impact experiences of transitions.

I believe there is likely much more that influences "relationship jet lag" and more strategies that could improve the transition experience, and I hope that future research can take us more in those directions.