Life Transitions, Carol Gonzalez will focus on the natural and not-so natural stages of our lives. Each issue I’ll spotlight a particular transition. From graduating from college, getting married, having a baby, or helping your child get ready to leave the nest, I’ll provide Identity readers with practical advice, tips and resources that I’ve learned over the years. With over 20 years in corporate America, 21+ years of marriage and three children ranging from 7-18, I’ve transitioned a lot! I’ll also look to Identity readers to share how you navigated those transitions too.
Can a Long-Distance Relationship Work?
By Carol Gonzalez
It’s senior year and things couldn’t be better. You graduated. You’re hanging out with your friends, going to the beach, vacationing, and having the best time of your life. You have a great boyfriend, a looker and the envy of all your friends. He’s listens when you talk and most importantly, he gets along with your friends and family. He’s perfect and your relationship is perfect except for one thing; he’s off to college in the fall.
Many young couples will be experiencing a range of emotions this time of the year: excitement about meeting new people, living independently, discovering new things about themselves and campus life. Yet, at the same time, the transition to college can be bittersweet as you leave the familiar and begin a new chapter in your life. Some relationship decisions will be easy to make but others will be difficult, especially those involving your first love.
What do you do if you are in an ongoing relationship? Do you make a clean break and start fresh? Or, would you embrace a long-distance relationship?
Three women shared with me their personal experience and offered their perspective on this life transition.
Brenda maintained a long-distance relationship throughout college with her high school sweetheart. She met her boyfriend in her junior year and was still serious with him when she went away to college. Her boyfriend stayed at home and commuted to school. They were both committed to making the relationship work. Brenda says that “the commitment came natural.” He was very supportive of her and neither of them was jealous. They saw each other often and talked as much as possible. (Theirs was a relationship before Smartphones and FaceBook, so it wasn’t as convenient as it is now to communicate.) Yet, at times she was lonely when her boyfriend wasn’t around and she felt she was missing out on the “couples” experience. But, they made it through college and eventually married. However, despite their lasting relationship throughout college, after more than a decade of being together (including six years of marriage) they divorced.
In hindsight Brenda realized that she that ignored some red flags in their relationship. Their interests weren’t really aligned. They had unique experiences and influences. They had different views about what they wanted out of life. She eventually understood that while she was growing, her boyfriend wasn’t. Part of her knew, intuitively, that it wasn’t the right choice for her to marry, but she ignored it. It wasn’t negative; it’s just that he wasn’t the right one for her. She understands now that she didn’t know herself well enough then to realize that they weren’t truly compatible. Her advice: know yourself and don’t be afraid to trust your intuition.
Brenda will always be connected to her ex-husband because they have a daughter together. They have a friendship, but just weren’t meant to be married.
Sue met her sweetheart, a senior, during her junior year of high school. She was “madly” in love. When her boyfriend went away to college she was determined to make it work. She wrote letters every day. (Once again, this was before the techno revolution fully kicked in.) They saw each other every other week. He’d come down to visit her by car, train, or bus. The following year, she went away to college and they’d take turns visiting each other. That year was an even bigger transition for Sue because she was living away from home. However, as time passed, she became more involved in social activities and college life
At the time she was satisfied in her relationship. Their relationship lasted four years, and as each year passed they became distinctive individuals, developing different passions and interests. The relationship took its natural course and they ended it on good terms.
I asked Sue if she would have done things differently and she said no. Sue believes her first long-distance relationship helped her to establish good social and communication skills. Sue’s experience laid the foundation for a later long-distance relationship that resulted in her current marriage. She is now very happily married with two children.
Megan and her boyfriend started out as friends before they dated in high school. She maintained a long-distance relationship with him throughout college, graduate school and they eventually married. Megan and her then boyfriend chose together early on to make the relationship work, an important decision. Although she believes her successful long-distance relationship may be the exception rather than the rule, she believes they can work.
Megan’s circle of friends shared similar values and interests as her. They weren’t looking for boyfriends, pressuring her to drink or hang out. Also, her roommate was in a long-distance relationship. Megan had her own personal telephone line, so she could talk to her boyfriend on a regular basis. They IM’d each other and visited each other as often as possible.
It’s not that Megan’s relationship didn’t have any challenges. Megan’s experiences were different than her boyfriend’s because he commuted and she dormed during college. She learned early on how to include him in her interests and activities. She studied hard and was involved in student leadership activities. At first her boyfriend was upset that she was so busy and didn’t have enough time for him. But when he came out to visit, he experienced a bit of campus life and her involvement and he understood. Still, it wasn’t always practical to see each other. So they talked on the telephone. Megan noticed that at times they would argue over trivial things. ”If we went more than three weeks without seeing each other, we tended to start to get pretty snippy over the phone . . . we were fighting because we hadn't seen each other, not because we didn't love each other.” Luckily they recognized this pattern and came up with a “three-week rule.” If they started to argue over petty stuff, they immediately ended the conversation, similar to a toddler’s time out.
By the time Megan was ready to go to graduate school their relationship had advanced enough to discuss marriage. They had effectively navigated their long-distance relationship throughout college and Megan believes it helped her get through graduate school.
Megan points out that concerning relationships, “It’s not always going to be easy and it takes a lot of effort and work. If you start to argue step back and ask why. Think of ways to get involved with each other. Tell the person about your day, even if it’s boring. Trust is also very important. “
These women all chose to continue their relationships but had different experiences and outcomes. And, even though Sue and Brenda’s relationships didn’t last, they still learned something valuable from the process. It is common knowledge that relationships take a true commitment on both sides to succeed. However, based on these stories, long-distance relationships require not only a commitment, but a plan.
Below are some tips to help guide you through your transition, and to cultivate and manage your long-distance relationship.
1. Set the rules for your interaction: Communicate daily even if it’s a just an email or text message. Consider sending MMS pictures of your day in class, studying in the library or attending a school event.
2. Skype as often as you and your partner feel comfortable. (Wish they had that back in the day.) Remain exclusive. Plan to visit each other (at least every 2-3 months if possible) and don’t cancel. Of course things may come up, work / family emergencies, etc. If your partner changes his mind because he partied all week and now has to work on a final project when you are suppose to visit, don’t ignore it. Watch if a pattern persists and develop a plan on how to proceed.
3. Surprises: Discuss the possibility of surprise visits and take action.
4. Express your feelings: Let your partner know how you’re feeling, share your excitement about a grade you received or your disappointment that you can’t see him. And remember to listen too! Communication is a two-way street.
5. Send “care” packages: The excitement one has when an unexpected package is delivered is sure to create fond, dear memories. Gifts or care packages don’t have to be expensive; chocolate chip cookies, a video game or pictures are always winners. What’s important is that you care enough to send something. The more personalized the better.
6. Trust: Mutual trust is key. This is critical to a long-distance relationship, to any relationship for that matter. Without trust you will not be able to enjoy each other and the true intimacy a relationship can bring. If there is no trust in your relationship (you’ll know if it’s there), you need to think about whether to change the relationship, or end it on good terms and move on.
7. Be creative: Think of unique ways to foster the relationship. Go to the same movie at the same time and talk about it afterward. Read the same book. Create a scavenger hunt ultimately meeting together. Let your new friends know about your boyfriend, don’t keep him a secret. Continue to learn about your boyfriend. Make his passions, your passions and share them together and vice versa.
8. Don’t assume: You know the old saying: “when you assume, you make an ass out of you and me.” This old adage goes for long-distance relationships as well. Because you’re not together all the time, you will be relying on different communication techniques. It will take some adjusting to figure out social cues and contexts. In the past you could read the disappointment in his eyes or other body language, but now you’ll need to read it (if he writes well!) or listen to what he says or doesn’t say. Don’t assume you know what’s going on. Listen and process first before sharing your feelings.
9. Re-evaluate the relationship/ the plan: Are you both happy with the relationship? Do you see each other enough or too much? Are you equally committed? Does it seem like it’s too hard or everything is going fine? Are you missing out on your own personal experiences and is this a problem for you? Ask these questions and make adjustments to your plan that you can both agree on.
Long-distance relationships can work. Accept the challenge. Follow these tips to help guide you. Appreciate each other and the experience you will gain from it. Lastly, achieve a fulfilling relationship! You’re worth it!