Dear Dr. G.,
I am a 19 year old college student. My freshman year boyfriend and I have been in a relationship for 7 months. We get along so well and are such great friends. The problem is that he is transferring to a state college in our home state because it is less expensive and his parents can no longer afford the tuition at our private college which is out of state. Our freshman year is just about over and we are both going home to the East Coast where we live. We have spoken about this so much and have decided that we want to try to make our relationship work next year when we are at different colleges. We wonder, though, if it is possible to make a long distance relationship work. Please help us think this through.
Dear College Student,
Thank you so much for writing to me. You, as well, as many others are in the same boat and I will help you to steer it carefully even though it may not always be easy. Who said good things are easy though, right? This time of year I have many high school students talking to me about how to best maintain their high school relationships while going to different colleges than their boyfriends or girlfriends. I, have, over the years, watched many individuals of all ages do their best to maintain long distance relationships. Some have been very successful while others have not lasted.
I have a number of suggestions based on the unfolding of many, many relationships that I have watched over the years.
1. The most important issue is that of commitment. Are you and your partner totally in and committed to trying to make the relationship work? If the answer is a resounding and emphatic yes then you are starting out on solid ground. Every relationship, whether in the same home or across the country is more likely to work if both partners are committed to making it work. Problems inevitably occur when the 2 people in the relationship have different commitment levels. Talk to your boyfriend about whether or not you 2 are both in fully. As the relationship progresses, continue to check in with each other. Commitment levels can stay the same, lessen or even strengthen. The key is to be on the same page here.
2. Set up clear expectations. Discuss how frequently you will communicate. Are you expecting to connect daily? When will you visit each other? Will you fly from coast to coast to see each other? Who will pay the plane fare? Talk about everything that you can think of so that you are clear that you have similar expectations. Plans to communicate and see each other are essential. There are a number of factors at play here. You are practicing developing good communication skills which are essential to any thriving relationship. You are planning to stay in contact at regular times. This, too, is essential because as we have learned over the years “absence makes the heart grow fonder” is false. We need to stay in contact for fondness to remain intact. Finally, it is important to develop relationship habits and rituals. These keep the relationship alive and well.
3. Check your envy meter. When you are in a long distance relationship, your partner will make friends that you don’t know. This may make you nervous and jealous. Keep an eye on this. It is extremely unlikely that a relationship can thrive if it is characterized by insecurity and jealousy. Make your own set of friends and develop a full and healthy life that is characterized by a healthy balance of friends, work, and play. Relationships are certainly not helped along by social isolation. Social isolation will make you more vulnerable not only to being dependent on your long distance partner but will also place you at risk for anxiety and depression and you don’t want that, right? You want a life where you are feeling good and contact with your partner is enriching.
4. Try very hard not to idealize your partner. There is a tendency to think of your long distance partner as closer to perfect than he or she actually is. This is problematic because this will lead to disappointment and heartbreak when we see our partner’s imperfections. Keep in mind that, in reality, no one likes a perfect person anyway!
5. It is extremely helpful if you have an endpoint-a point at which you will be together. This is a long way off if you are in college so perhaps you can think of mini endpoints such as spending summers together. For those in a different set of circumstances such as having jobs in different states, you may need to set up a plan to look for jobs in the same state so that long distance comes to an end.
I wish you luck and good choices as you embark on this journey. Over the years, I have seen relationships of all sorts thrive and others fall apart. Relationships that work take lots of work and thoughtfulness. Check in with each other along the way to take the temperature of the partnership. Good luck.