Can you make your long-distance love work while you're in school? 2 therapists sound in

When and how to try — and when to consider saying goodbye.

When and how to try — and when to consider saying goodbye

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Maintaining any kind of relationship when you are away at university or college can be challenging, but romantic relationships can be especially tough. They can be intense, exclusive, and often dependent on quality time and physical touch in ways that other relationships aren't. Often, students figure this out fairly quickly, leading to the Thanksgiving break-up glut known as the "turkey-drop."

We talked to therapists Janna Comrie and Nicole Chudzinski about what makes long distance relationships in university so hard, when it might be worth it to try anyway, and how to best make it work.

Why post-secondary long distance is so tough

According to our experts, long-distance isn't only hard because students see each other a lot less and are surrounded by new prospects. Post-secondary is an intense period of personal change and growth, when partners' experiences are different, making it easier for them to drift apart. As Comrie put it, "When you are living in the same place and grow up together it's easier to relate. If one person is going to college in Toronto and one in North Bay or not going to school at all… your experiences are going to be drastically different, and this can make it much harder to relate to each." While this is true for any couple attempting a long-distance relationship, said Comrie, "People in their 30s and 40s tend to have an easier time negotiating these things. It can be harder when you are still figuring out who you are."

But "challenging" is not the same as "impossible". According to Comrie, "If you dated your high school sweetheart for the last five or six years, it makes sense to try. If you found your person you found your person. We can't say you haven't." Chudzinski told us a long-distance period can even improve things. "Relationships can be very resilient when both people are equally invested in them.... Distance can often strengthen parts of a relationship that don't get as much of our effort when we can see our partners, such as written communication or planning dates."

Two bad reasons to stay together

That said, both therapists noted some bad, but common, reasons that people attempt long-distance relationships. According to Chudzinski, "Distance can be a passive person's way to allow the relationship to fizzle out 'naturally'." Instead of exiting the relationship, they just deprive it of the care it needs to survive. Comrie agrees. "These people figure it'll be easier to break up once they are gone. It may be easier for them but… it can be really hurtful. Their partner will feel more lied to and foolish. It's usually better to be honest and just say 'I don't think this is going to work for me'."

"I don't want to start over" is the most common bad reason Comrie hears for trying out a long-distance relationship. "They are not saying the relationship is good. It's just what they're used to and they have invested in it." Staying together to avoid "wasting time" is a nasty form of the sunk-costs fallacy. If the best thing you can say about a relationship is that you've been in it for awhile, then you and your partner may want to consider exploring relationships that are more fulfilling.

When is long-distance a good idea?

So, how to know when it's worth a shot? Comrie thinks that there are three aspects of yourself to consider when deciding whether to pursue any intimate relationship: your head (whether it makes sense to try it out); your heart (how you feel when you're with them); and your gut (your base-level instinct that draws you toward them or away). She says you need at least two out of three to agree that a relationship is worth trying.

If you do decide to try, Comrie warns against giving too much credence to societal assumptions. A lot of people believe that long-distance never works or that people who go away to university always wind up cheating on their partners. Take social assumptions with a grain of salt. A lot of them are factually incorrect and even those that are true in general may not apply to your situation. Each relationship is different. "As long as it works for the two of you it doesn't matter if it works for everyone else. Have faith in yourself to know what's right for you."

Tips for giving it your best shot

Chudzinski reminded us that being away from your partner has a tendency to "magnify insecurities" and spiralling doubts can sometimes get the better of long-distance lovers. According to Comrie, using GPS to track one's partner is common but a very bad sign. In the first place, needing to track your partner's every move means that you've probably already dropped below the minimum level of trust you need to make a relationship work. Second, it'll probably make you feel even worse. In Comrie's experience, those who use these means to keep track of their partners feel insecure for needing to check and silly when they find out their partners aren't doing anything they shouldn't be. Yet they're trapped because they're too afraid not to know. 

According to Comrie, good preparation can really improve the chances of a long-distance relationship. Define boundaries and expectations ahead of time. If you're uncomfortable with your partner hanging out alone in a dorm room with people they're attracted to, say so. These can evolve over time, but being explicit about it can prevent misunderstanding when you are apart. She also recommends setting up a realistic plan for communication. Are you going to text? Communicate by phone? How often? What times of day? "Don't just say 'a lot'. 'A lot' can mean two completely different things to each partner. You need to be concrete."

It's also a good idea to decide how you'll address problems before or as they arise. Will you raise issues by email? By phone? Don't just fire off an angry text. "Texting is not the best medium for this," said Comrie, "it's easily misunderstood and can make things worse." It's better just to set a time to talk things through in full. In the meantime she says, "Give your partner the benefit of the doubt. Don't make assumptions." Chudzinski agreed: "Openness and honesty are key. Be intentional about expressing your affection. If you have insecurities or worries that pop up you want to be able to share that with your partner and have them receive it without being defensive."

Long-distance relationships that last through exams are not impossible. Sometimes, said Chudzinski, distance can "strengthen your love for one another and help you reflect on what you appreciate." According to Comrie, if your head, heart and gut all tell you that your relationship is good, then you owe it to yourself to try. But you also owe it to yourself to be honest with yourself if you change your mind. "Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn't. You just have to trust yourself enough that if it starts not working for you, you'll say so."

Clifton Mark writes about philosophy, psychology, politics, and other life-related topics. Find him @Clifton_Mark on Twitter.


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