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SEPTEMBER 20, 2002

They started dating the week after our high school graduation.

Three months later Molly was off to Stanford, and Andrew to the University of Illinois.  And so every year it would go — the two or three visits during the semester, the requisite winter break sighting, the Spring Break get-together and hopefully, if they were lucky, the summer spent at home.  Entering their senior year this fall, they remain a couple, despite four years of my pointed comments chiding them for avoiding the world of undergraduate dating.

Although Molly and Andrew are far from the norm, everyone knows their type — they form part of the quintessential “long distance relationship” so common on college campuses.
Ah, LDRs. The beginning of the school year is rife with them, as students return from summers spent with non-Hoyas, having made promises to their significant others to remain faithful (either mentally or physically) throughout the coming year. Relying on free Night & Weekend minutes and cheap airline tickets, these couples are determined to “make it” to the next weekend, next month or next vacation they anticipate spending together.

They can be as obvious and extreme as the high school version of a hyphenated couple (“oh, there goes Mike-and-Jen again …”), constantly talking about their love for one another and noticeably tearing up Monday mornings as they separate again. Others are known to be more discreet, keeping their LDRs on the down-low, answering probing questions about dating with one word answers (“So, do you have a girlfriend?” “Yes.” Does she have a name? “Yes.” Does she go here? “No.”) and even adopting a quasi-single mannerisms as a disguise (“You have a girlfriend?!? But … umm … you were just grinding with me!”).

We all know at least a half dozen of these couples, students who have, for one reason or another, made the decision to stay with someone living in a different city. From the Naval Academy to the London School of Economics, from the University of Pennsylvania to the Universidad de las Americas in Ecuador — the distances vary, but by and large the rationales behind these relationships are remarkably similar.

So what exactly is it that inspires two people to maintain a relationship even the most lovestruck admit isn’t always ideal? The first words that sprang to my cynical mind were “security, stability and predictability.” The next was “laziness.” (No hate mail from angry LD couples, please.) Then I thought, no, that’s not fair — before I judge an entire relationship category, I should at least ask some of the couples exactly why they stay with their partner, despite all of the circumstantial complications and frustrations.

All echoed a version of the following statement: “We had to make a choice one way or the other. If we didn’t try it, we wouldn’t know if it could have worked out.”

While a certain sense of fate and inevitability ran throughout their comments, many had also discovered the practical benefits of such relationships as well, including the ability to develop as an individual and have one’s “own life” at a campus, independent of their significant other. As one four-year veteran of an LDR remarked, “We get to have our separate lives … we don’t have the other person distracting us from homework or friends, etc.” Pausing for a moment, she added tellingly, “Of course, we’re trying to look for the good in a really crappy situation.”

Couples looking for that silver lining in the cloud of physical distance found it by forming relationships that were based upon conversation and non-sexual friendship.

Said one junior, “[LDRs] force you to form a real friendship with the person … all you have is the phone and talking. You really get to know a person, rather than just being caught up in the physical attraction.”

All involved maintained that LDRs, while not always ideal, were easier and more desirable emotionally than breaking up. As one couple explained, “We cared about each other a lot, and had a hard time thinking that we could stop caring about each other just because we wouldn’t be living five minutes away.”

Of course, comments solicited from students with slightly less positive experiences about LDRs may yield a different perspective. Well known is the warning from parents and college counselors “Don’t base your college decision upon school colors or where your significant other is going!” Slightly less known is the warning, based upon strong anecdotal evidence (ask me, I will share) supporting the correlation between freshmen involved in LDRs and being unhappy or not adjusting completely that first year.

Perhaps I am biased. Involved in two serious long distance relationships my freshman year, I was constantly shuttling back to Chicago to see “my family,” meaning, of course, my boyfriend.  My long distance bills were obscene, and quite honestly, I didn’t endear myself to my sorority sisters by ditching many of the oh-so-exciting frat parties to go home.  As a result, my freshman year was, well, not extraordinary.  Since then, I vowed to never again let a LDR take control of my life.

So what’s the answer? Are LDRs innocuous, an inconvenient but valid relationship for those in love? Or are they harmful, not only to the individual, but to the social community of the university as a whole, taking people away on the weekends and focusing their attention elsewhere?

It seems that for every couple who have made the difficult choice to take a “break” as they experience new people and new surroundings, there are those who feel as one junior in a LDR did, remarking that she chose to continue the relationship because “I found someone worth the emotional pain and stress … a person who allows me to live on the hope of what it will be like when we both can be together.”

Perhaps during college, as we wander from place to place, switching addresses, zip codes and friends upward of three times a year, there is a certain inevitability to LDRs. While Molly and Andrew say that, “Right now, we are just very happy together, and we’re not going to give up anything so good,” they are the first to admit, “I don’t know, I think we’re probably insane.”

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