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How Long-Distance Relationships Can Thrive in College

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I have to start this article with a confession: I was the kid who broke up with his high school girlfriend before taking off for college, and no, it was not my most sensitive, sterling moment. In fact, the sting stuck around even after I settled into college life, when it finally hit me: I didn’t want our relationship to end. I was pretty fortunate that my ex-girlfriend agreed to reconcile, but unfortunately, not everyone is so lucky.

So, before making any sudden adjustments to your Facebook status, take some time to consider your options, and we’re not talking about the many ready-to-mingle singles on campus. Whether you’re leaning toward staying together, breaking it off or testing the waters of an open relationship, here’s what you need to know before “the talk."

couple in loveKeep it together

Last season on MTV’s “The City,” fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg doled out this gem to the reality show’s star Whitney Port: “Absence is to love what the wind is to fire. When it’s a small fire, the wind kills it. But when it’s a real fire, it intensifies it.” True?

“Absence makes the heart grow fonder for a while, but if it keeps up, the emotional distance grows,” says Mira Kirshenbaum, author of When Good People Have Affairs: Inside the Hearts and Minds of People in Two Relationships. "Love is about intimacy, connection, the experience of the other’s voice and smell and touch. The kind of lifestyle in which couples don’t have time for each other is an anti-intimacy machine,” she continues.

Staying in touch

Tools like Google Talk, video chat, email and texting make it convenient to bridge the distance in your relationship. (FYI: My girlfriend and I set time aside every day, even if it’s just a few minutes, to talk on the phone or face-to-face via Skype, and it works for us.) The key is to first commit to making the effort. Then, work to strike a balance between staying involved in each other’s lives and smothering each other. And no, we’re not saying this is easy.

Seeing each other

Finding time, and money, to meet in person is a challenge, especially without a car. Like many long-distance college relationships, mine began in high school, so there’s the benefit of visiting at home during breaks. If you don’t share a hometown, you’ll need to take turns visiting each other at school. Advance planning goes a long way in strengthening your relationship by giving you something to look forward to. And remember: Even in the middle of nowhere, when there’s a will there’s a way, it’s called public transportation. 

Bigger issues

Besides maintaining contact while apart, the biggest challenge is retaining trust. Temptation is inevitable when you are on your own and living in a bubble filled with kids your age. “The best predictors of infidelity are opportunity and unhappiness, and this is what is created when one partner is away,” says Kirshenbaum. “If one of you discovers the other has cheated, this is the relationship equivalent of someone having a coronary. But the best antidote to suspicions that something might be going on is to spend time together, be more intimate and continually try to make your relationship better.” Easier said than done, right? Which is why some people opt for our next topic.

open relationshipThe open relationship

College students have wildly varying perspectives when it comes to arrangements in which couples, though in a primary relationship, are free to date others. Those in open relationships often struggle with jealousy and insecurity, but it can be a temporary solution that won’t leave either of you feeling confined, or heartbroken, from a full-on breakup.

“It’s perfectly natural to explore the boundaries of fidelity in a new environment with new people,” says Harvard sophomore Chase Carpenter. “I think open relationships can be difficult and vague, but if both parties are trusting and relaxed, they can be fantastic.”

  • Peers on pros: College of Charleston sophomore Alex Crowley identifies what she sees as a benefit: “It’s nice to be able to talk to someone like you’re in a relationship even though there might not be a full commitment.”
  • Peers on cons: “I’ve never met someone who’s been in [an open relationship], but it sounds like a load of crap,” says Georgetown University junior Molly Redden. “You’re either with someone or you’re not. Getting back together when you’re at home doesn’t count as a relationship. Even if you talk every day, if you’re casually seeing or sleeping with other people, I don’t see how you’re still dating the guy back home.”

So, enter an open relationship with caution, unless you choose this next option.

girl on cell phoneBreak it off

In some instances, it may be appropriate to break things off. If you and your significant other will be hundreds of miles apart and unable to visit for extended periods of time, let’s be real: Attempting to sustain a healthy relationship is borderline unrealistic. Maybe you want to be free to have the total college experience, and for you, that includes the prospect of hooking up. Or perhaps after trying the long-distance thing, you realize it’s just not working out the way you’d planned.

Dealing with it

Breaking up is never easy. Even if you know it’s the right decision, expect emotions of grief and loss. “Don’t mistake grief for love,” Susan J. Elliott, author of Getting Past Your Breakup: How to Turn a Devastating Loss Into the Best Thing That Ever Happened to You, warns on her blog. “It’s normal to grieve. Don’t let grief cause you to second-guess your feelings.”

  • Distancing yourself: Elliott recommends a no-contact rule. “Even if you still love him or her, you don’t have to act on it,” she advises. “Grief is a hard process, and often, contact will seem like it temporarily alleviates the pain. But it just postpones the inevitable.”
  • No intimacy: She also promotes “no sex with the ex.” Writes Elliott: “While breakup sex seems like fun, it comes with complications and is another no-no. Even if you have a terrific time, you will end up feeling confused and maybe even used.”

Staying friends

Can you remain friends? “The answer is probably no,” according to Elliott. “Even after the most amicable breakup, the people involved need time to work through their feelings. Most people cannot remain friends after a breakup, but if it ever is to be, it will be later … much later. The atmosphere following a breakup is too emotionally charged for it to happen right away.”

So, are you single? Spoken for? Or open? Take your options to that talk and find out.

By Eric Pilch for The Real College Guide

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