So You’re In A Long-Distance Relationship

In honor of Valentine’s Day, I thought I would share a bit of my relationship experience as a graduate student. Many graduate students struggle with the coursework-relationship balance. I remember happy hour after my first year orientation: About three quarters of my new classmates either brought a date or referenced a long-term relationship. I remember a similar happy hour a year later: More than half of those relationships had ended.

Relationships are hard in the most ideal circumstances. Grad school is far from ideal for cultivating romance. Both a relationship and a doctorate require a huge amount of dedication and focus in order to be successful, and both can be exhausting. No matter how supportive and wonderful your partner is, there will be times that they drain your energy. You need give and take, and it is difficult to give when your adviser, supervisor, professors, dissertation, and job are all taking from you constantly. Making time for date night is impossible, and no matter how hard you try to have interests outside of your program, you will go for long stretches when that is the only thing you want to talk about. And no matter how empathetic and understanding they are, your partner will not be able to truly relate to what you are going through unless they are in your program. It will stress you out, it will stress them out, and it will take a toll on your relationship. Magnify this by about 1000 and you have a long-distance relationship.

I am among the lucky ones who is in the same relationship as when I started graduate school. I am also among the unlucky ones who has to cope with over 1000 miles of distance between mine and my partner’s apartment (1288 miles, to be exact). My partner and I have dealt with extreme fluctuations in our living situation – we both moved to Connecticut for my first year in the program, and then my partner took a job in South Dakota my second year. We were together again for my third year, and are living apart again now. During our first year apart, we struggled. I was working too much for a job that paid me with housing rather than a paycheck, so we could not afford to visit each other often. More than once, we went 3 months without seeing each other, and visits ended with no knowledge of when we would be together again. We both had personal struggles happening and took the stress out on our relationship. After my partner returned to Connecticut, we had to fix a lot of the damage caused by how poorly we handled our time apart.

Based on our experience, my partner and I compiled the following list of “survival tips” for long distance graduate school relationships. As usual, this is what has worked for us, so take only what you find helpful.

1. Never lower your standards. This is one of my more general rules to live by. It does not matter how long your relationship lasts if the person is not worthy of you. I’ve been single, and I have dated people who did not treat me with the respect I deserved. It is always better to be single. Hold out for someone who deserves you, because anything less is not worth your time and energy.

2. Make time to talk to each other. By this I mean actually hear each other’s voices. Ideally, see each other (web cams are an amazing invention), but prolonged phone conversations work too. Technology makes it easy to contact people who are far away, but difficult to connect with them. Try to have a real conversation at least five days per week, and hear each other’s voices every day.

3. Always know when you will see each other next. When you live far away from your partner, it is difficult to say goodbye at the end of a visit. This is even sadder when your next visit has not been scheduled. I find managing the distance is infinitely easier when you can count down the days to when you will be in the same room again.

4. Go on virtual dates. Thanks to on demand streaming, my partner and I have regular “dinner and a movie” dates where we watch a movie together from 1288 miles apart. It certainly does not replace in-person dates, but there is an intimacy to doing these activities together, no matter how far apart you physically are.

5. Send care packages. When you are in a long distance relationship, you don’t have the luxury to come home to a pre-cooked dinner and a back rub. I try to periodically send care packages with candy, stuffed animals, and small sentimental trinkets. Other times I send hand-written letters. My partner periodically orders take out to be delivered to me when I am having a particularly stressful week in lieu of cooking for me. Again, it does not replace their physical presence, but it does make the separation easier.

6. Make the time apart productive. In the spirit of therapeutic re-framing, my partner and I try to use our time apart to invest in personal interests that we might have less time for if we were seeing each other on a daily basis. (For example, I started this blog.) Maintaining your independence is important in any relationship, and this gives you an excuse to re-prioritize your own interests.

7. Remind yourself that you are in this together. When one partner moves away, it can be difficult to remind yourself that the distance is difficult for both of you. Cut your partner slack if you are struggling to stay supportive on bad days.

8. Always give 60%. One of the fun things about studying psychology is that I hear about all kinds of relationship research as a component of my program. One study that I decided to apply to my personal life surveyed couples and asked how much each person did various chores around the home. Participants reported the percentage of the time they felt they completed different tasks. Researchers found that the couples’ totals added up to about 110% (for example, one partner might report washing the dishes 60% of the time while the other reports washing dishes 50% of the time). Basically, we tend to over-estimate how much work we are putting into a relationship and under-estimate our partners’ contributions. My partner and I thought about these results in light of our own relationship and thought we might be doing the same thing, assuming the other isn’t pulling their weight. So now we each make an effort to do 60% of the relationship “work” in the hopes that this will compensate for any biases we have. After all, it’s not about who does more – in a happy relationship, everyone wins.

Happy Valentine’s Day!