The Emotional Affect of Long-distance Relationships During Study Abroad

Written for & published y (Feb 2013) Wellness Wednesday column

Link to original article:

By Melissa Doman, M.A.

In the spirit of Valentines Day coming up – it’s a good time to talk about relationships in the context of studying abroad.

For anyone that has ever been in a committed relationship, it’s widely known that it takes commitment, effort, and learning to be flexible. Especially during college years, when the inner workings or your identity are crystallizing, it’s a time when you start to find who you are or aren’t compatible with. All relationships experience ups and downs, and during major periods of discomfort and challenge, you’re most likely to see whether a relationship can really stand up to the test. Studying abroad is one of those tests! It brings the question to mind, “does absence make the heart grow fonder?” If there were anytime to ask yourself that question, it would be when you’re in a long-distance relationship while you are studying abroad.

Also written about by in July 2010 - major periods of transition, i.e. studying abroad and being away from each other for long periods of time, serve as a true measure of the foundation of your relationship. Such key elements that are being challenged are how compatible you are with your partner, how comfortable each of you are with change and how you handle it, and if that relationship will gel with your experiences you’re having while you’re globetrotting.

Let’s not kid ourselves; it’s really tough to be away from someone you care about for long periods of time. The hurt you’re experiencing shows how much you really value that person in your life. Even though the pain of long distance hurts, how you handle it shows a lot about yourself and your partner during times of strain. The reactions seen during this period can be indicative of how well suited you are for each other when the going gets tough. It’s a good learning experience to see how you and your partner can manage the discomfort, and believe me guys, those skills will serve you well in the future.

Being homesick, especially for someone you care about, is not enjoyable. Rest assured you are not alone in your pain. As I’ve mentioned in my other article about managing depression while overseas, if you’re ever feeling very depressed about missing your partner to the point you feel you can’t manage it, please reach out for help to either your friends, program leader, or a counselor. Having someone to talk to about what you’re feeling and to give you a big hug can go a long way! The key during these down in the dump moments are to keep busy! Exercise, go see new sights, or hangout with friends. It’s ease the your mind about missing your significant other.

If you didn’t already do so before you left for your host country, address these things with your partner sooner rather than later:

-       What’s the status of the relationship? (i.e. monogamously committed, open relationship, etc.)

-       How often will you be in contact with each other?

-       How will you contact each other? (i.e. Skype, email, Facebook chat, etc.)

-       Will your partner come visit you in your host country?

Don’t worry, there are ways to manage those long-distance woes!

It’s very important to have healthy boundaries in place during a major transition like this, because without them, there is bound to be confusion or potentially hurt feelings that may ensue. Don’t forget to take care of not only yourself, but your partner too. If you’re ever feeling down and really missing your partner in crime, make sure you have pictures of them to look at or trinkets that remind you of them. A fun way to show your partner you really miss them is to buy a locally made gift that is symbolic of the host country you’re living in and send it to them as a surprise. There are lots of positive ways to ease the transition of being away from each other that will not only show that you are thinking of one another, but your partner back home will have a piece of your study abroad journey to cherish for themselves.

Also, for those of you who are studying abroad, remember that you are having the adventure of a lifetime!

While your partner will miss you a lot, the sign of a great relationship is when your partner wants you to do great things for personal development that will push you to be the best version of yourself. Allow yourself room to breathe while you’re away. Just because you’re off writing one of the best chapters of your life in a far away land, doesn’t mean that you’re putting less value or importance on your relationships at home. Each relationship is unique, so come up with whatever works best for you as a couple and respect those boundaries. Every single relationship is different, so it heeds no benefit to either person in the relationship to compare yourselves to other people who are in a similar situation. It’s very useful to practice adaptability and resiliency during these types of experiences.

Since it’s 2013, we all know there have been stellar developments in the online communication realm. The best part is – a lot of the best ones are free!  Here's a few ways that you can keep in touch with your sweetie pie while you’re away:

o   Voxer: a free smart phone app that serves as a walkie-talkie. You can record short voice messages that you can instantly send in real-time to anyone else who has the Voxer app on their smart phone anywhere in the world!

o   Skype: a free computer-to-computer telephone/video chat program. In case you want to use your Skype account to dial an actual telephone, you can load up your Skype account with money to do so.

o   All forms of email: Gmail seems to be the most comprehensive email account that also has voice and video functions for free.

As someone who has been in a long distance relationship, I can tell you first hand it has its positives and negatives. While it was a tough experience to go through, it made me learn a lot about myself, what types of people I’m really compatible with, and how I deal with those types of changes. I know a lot of people who have done long distance relationships during study abroad as well. Some of them stood the test of time, and upon the study abroader’s return, continued on their normal course. My own parents did long distance for 2 years during graduate school, and through that test of their relationship, are now approaching their 38th year of marriage. Other people, during their study abroad experience, decided ultimately that they were going on a difference direction in their life and chose to move on. Don't be scared of these potential changes.

These movements have purpose behind them – pay attention to and value where they guide you.

I leave you with the wise words of French memoirist Roger de Bussy-Rabutin, who can describe what I’m talking about the best. “Absence is to love as wind is to fire; it extinguishes the small and kindles the great.”