To all of those participating in long distance relationships (LDRs), I hear you. No one said it would be easy, but they also didn’t say it was impossible. In a generation characterized as wanting instant gratification, many young couples struggle with an LDR. Despite this, it isn’t unusual for many students who are entering college to collide headfirst with issues due to an LDR. But how healthy and how realistic are these relationships? Can we expect them to last through a semester, or beyond?
After my boyfriend graduated from high school about three years ago, our relationship transitioned into an LDR. Helpless, I had to figure out how to deal, and I am certainly not the only one. When circumstances and goals lead two people in opposite directions, a decision has to be made – often regardless of the relationship itself. “Whenever geographical separation occurs, it is enormously taxing on relationships,” said Dr. Steven McCornack, associate professor and undergraduate coordinator of communication. Keeping that union strong is sometimes a hard process to configure when there are already a lot of new experiences and challenges that come with a foreign environment.[doctor1]
This is one of those “easier said than done” scenarios. Even without the long distance element, relationships can be taxing and stressful, and there are going to be discrepancies. “Arguing is healthy in a relationship in a sense of disagreeing. Once every couple of weeks is a good rule of thumb to live by,” said Dr. William Donohue, distinguished professor of communication.
During the first few months of my boyfriend’s absence, we would argue constantly about not being able to see each other due to our conflicting agendas. He had a strict football regime and I still had long days of classes, sports and studying. We came to the realization that arguing about things out of our hands was futile. This agreement was an important mechanism to avoid unnecessary arguments. “Know how to nurture a relationship. It’s just like kids. They need a lot of routine,” Donohue said. Set dates and times to when you plan to meet in person. Remember to factor in how you will meet, where you will meet and what you will do to make the most of your time. It’s always relevant to incorporate activities that made the relationship flourish from the beginning. This makes it easier to look forward to the next time you can be together, rather than be focused on separation.
This “to be continued” status has become somewhat of a routine in my relationship. Now, we both attend different colleges and are two hours apart versus one. Instead of seeing each other every weekend, we are sometimes forced to skip one. Our relationship structure had to change. I thought it was hard before, but that was just a baby step. What makes things easier, however, is the fact that we have instilled in our relationship an understanding of what we are. From the beginning, we were both very adamant about maintaining trust, and, in our relationship, trust comes from lots and lots of communication.
“All the data we have suggests a huge contributor to LDR survival is the sharing of mundane, everyday information,” McCornack said. Things such as the nasty casserole in the cafeteria, the annoying classmate in calculus or the picture of your niece sitting on your desk are the stuff that is forgotten in conversation when one is not around. Even though your partner may not want to hear about your bad hair day or the crazy squirrel that jumped in front of you today while you were riding your bike, it keeps him or her involved when they’re not physically able to be there.
[class]”I think it’s almost fun to be in a long distance relationship because it’s a challenge,” hospitality business freshman Lawrencia Atakora said. In her first year of an LDR with her boyfriend, Michael, Atakora found that being apart has actually made their relationship grow stronger by focusing less on the physical aspect. “It really has helped us to get to know each other in a different way,” Atakora said. Meeting first in Ghana, West Africa at an international Turkish school, the couple got to know each other over the course of two years. To make up for distance, they rely heavily on technology, a common element in most other LDRs. “Interactive qualities can be great, but sometimes how people present themselves can be of a concern,” Counseling Center professor David Novicai said. In some situations, technology can hinder the strength of a relationship by indicating infidelity. This most obviously occurs through social networking Web sites, like Facebook or MySpace. Compromising photos posted by a mutual friend or a cryptic wall post can mean a lot to a partner who is unaware of the context.
It sounds controlling to ask anyone to put limits on their behavior, because nobody should have to alter his or her social life for another person. But an agreement of what is socially acceptable between each member of the couple can help alleviate any spats of this nature. If each person considers the direction of the relationship, as well as the expectations of each other, guidelines should be set amicably. “Your conversation should be very open, direct and non-defensive,” Novicai said. Each partner should be able to hear the other say, “I went out with so and so.” The other should be able to respond with, “That’s great. How was it? What did you do?” without getting suspicious. If there’s any trust at all in the relationship, it shouldn’t be a big issue. “We never actually sit down and talk about our social limits, but we just go by the same standards as when we were together and that keeps us faithful,” Atakora said.
In other LDR cases, it’s not a matter of being faithful. It’s a matter of trying to get schedules to coincide. “It’s quite common for couples to struggle because they have a lot of ambiguity in schedules,” Donohue said. Criminal justice freshman Jake Rathbun shared his unsuccessful effort in trying to make a LDR work with his previous girlfriend, Casey, who attended Marquette High School. Rathbun and Casey became involved with each other when they were set up by a friend in high school. They spent several months together before becoming separated when Jake went to college. “The hardest part for us was when we had the possibility of seeing each other, and our schedules got in the way,” Rathbun said. As much as technology has helped in maintaining relationships in this generation of LDRs, it’s still not the same as being together physically. “[Technology] relates in a different way than pictures. There’s more reassurance and clarity,” Novicai said.[david]
Even when the lines of communication are open and honest, there can be other relationship obstacles from the background. These people usually are the most interested in the relationship and offer the most opinion and insight. “Friends and family members typically put pressure on partners to disband when separation occurs, especially if no ‘firm commitment’ (such as an engagement) is present. The attitude is, ‘why stay with him [or] her when so many people are right here?'” McCornack said. Currently reunited with his girlfriend, no preference freshman James Bryde acknowledges that it isn’t someone else’s decision to commit to an LDR. “You have to remember not to listen to everyone else. Do what you know and feel is right,” Bryde said.
Although friends and family do not intend to stir up trouble, they definitely can put a lot of negative pressure on the relationship. “Sometimes my friends would say anything to make me go out with other people,” Atakora said. “It’s a bad situation to be stuck in.” On the other hand, Bryde’s family was a positive support in his efforts and talked him through the hard times. “You have to remember not to listen to everyone else. Do what you know and feel is right,” Bryde said.
Despite all of these potential outside influences, the internal quality of the relationship is often the biggest indicator as to whether it will last. “The context in which people meet has absolutely nothing to do with how long they will stay in an LDR,” McCornack said. Some predictors of relationship stamina are similarity in personality, values, tastes, commitment, attachment styles and conflict strategies. When you are compatible in most of these areas of similarity, you are better able to understand how well your relationship will function through distance. “You are going to feel a connection no matter what. Distance won’t make it go away, so there is no reason why you shouldn’t pursue something that can work out,” Atakora said.
[bride]Of course, no one opts for an LDR casually. It’s not something you can predict or avoid. “Seventy percent of people will have a long-distance romantic relationship at some point in their lives; 90 percent will have a close friendship that becomes geographically separated,” added McCornack. Be realistic with an LDR. Do you have plans to be together in the future? Are you going into the relationship with good intentions?
Atakora is sure of the future of her LDR. “As soon as I graduate from MSU, I plan to either meet up with Michael in London or Michael will travel to the United States to be with me. This way, Michael and I will both have the education to provide us with jobs and we can get back to what we had before we were separated,” Atakora said. With Atakora’s situation, college could only be a small hump on their long road to relational permanence. To those truly committed to others across land or sea, LDR more accurately stands for “love doesn’t roam.”