How to do a long distance relationship at university
It can be hard keeping a romance going once fresher's week hits: an expert tells us how to rise to the challenge
words Megan Wallace
With A-levels results week thankfully disappearing in the rear mirror of our minds and the clearing process finished for many, the majority of the people going to university this autumn now know where they're headed – congrats! have likely already started their bags in preparation for a fresher's week filled with uncomfortable hallway interactions, drinking neat vodka from novelty mugs, and an overwhelming number of forced fun activities primed and making you forget about your exorbitant tuition fees.
And for most freshers-to-be currently in a relationship and planning to keep it that way, anxieties about moving, making new friends and adjusting to a university workload are going to be aggravated about stresses about how you and your significant other will weather these changes. Will you be able to last if you don't go to the same uni? And how do you navigate jealousy? What about the difficulties of having a mostly online relationship?
Well, to help you give some of the answers you're looking for, we called in the experts. Woo rang up Polly Miskiewicz, an expert in neurodiversity, personal identity and sense of self and art psychotherapist at high street therapy service, Self Space to talk us through some commonly asked questions about LDRs at university.
How do you stay feeling connected if you're seeing each other less regularly?
When you weigh up the cost of rail travel and the discomfort of a six-hour Megabus, you begin to realise that your probably not going to be seeing your s/o for a while. If you're used to living in the same town or area as the person you're seeing, it's going to be a hard adjustment to go from regular, low-pressure contact to only seeing them every few months. So, how do you deal?
Well, a good place to start is discussing what both of you need, establishing expectations and starting an ongoing dialogue about how things are going before you make the long-distance switch. "Talk to each other, establish what physical and emotional intimacy mean to each of you and how you might imagine it changing while your relationship shifts to long distance. Do that before things change and continue this conversation while apart," explains Miskiewicz.
And, yes, this can be a bit of a daunting process – especially if this is your first serious relationship. When entering into these kinds of conversations, you're going to have to remember that nothing in a relationship can be taken for granted and that there is really no norm about what a relationship. If you have a need or a preference, no matter how small, say it rather than thinking your partner can read your mind. Invite them to open up and say what is important to them, too.
Then, you're also going to want to be strategic (as much as this might feel counter-intuitive to the spontaneity we associate with romance) – try and work out together a plan, so you can both get your needs met. "Think about your experiences. Find the answers to what actually makes you close to the person you are physically far away from. Let those guide you in plotting how to facilitate the in-depth intimacy, says Miskiewicz.
And, finally, you should keep the conversation going so that you're voicing any frustrations and being sure to adapt to any changes. "Check in with each other regularly. Things might shift, and you don’t want to get lost in it all. What brings you comfort? What excites you? Ask questions about everything that keeps you sleepless at night."
Is there a way to stop feeling like I'm in a relationship with my phone?
The plus side of a long distance relationship is keeping the bond going with someone you care about. The downsides? Well, unless you're someone who loves alone time, it can be pretty lonely and you're likely going to spend a lot of time missing that special person. And while we're lucky to live in an era of smartphones, there are plenty of drawbacks to digital-only communication (not just the constant flashbacks to the two years we spent in lockdown). Namely, we miss the more intimate, embodied connection IRL and anyone whose love language is touch isn't going to be faring well. And real talk... that hours of screentime notification is going to skyrocket.
So, how do you make this online relationship feel that much more intimate? "There are few things to keep in mind that can make those contacts much more meaningful and more closely resemble real human-to-human experience you might crave," says Miskiewicz.
As an initial pointer, start with one of the first lessons of flirting 101. "Eye contact is extremely important in dating, gauging people’s attraction and in maintaining those long distance relationship," she explains. "Humans, in fact, bond emotionally as we gaze into each other's eyes—a process mediated by the hormone oxytocin."
Make your video calls feel like a proper date. "Plan, put an effort in and… embrace Zoom again," Miskiewicz adds. "When it comes to long distance dates, those need to be the dates you put in your calendar. Value the time with each other, don’t postpone or reschedule. While your timetables might differ – let’s be honest, nothing is as simple as when you lived within the two mile radius from each other."
Lastly, Miskiewicz advises creating shared experiences even when you're apart. "Read the same books, watch the same movies - share the emotions and exchange your experiences afterwards."
What do I do when jealousy strikes?
When you're not in close proximity to the person you're seeing, it can be easy to start becoming worried about the relationship, that the spark might gone and that your partner's attention might be wandering. Your imagination runs wild. Jealousy isn't just painful for you to experience, it can also be detrimental to the trust and health of this relationship and others. But that doesn't mean you should ignore these feelings: you just need to work them through.
As Miskiewicz explains; "Acknowledge it and pin down the reasons behind it. What makes you feel jealous? Is this feeling rational? Challenge the negative thoughts associated with jealousy and use them to your advantage. Can you use it to create some new, helpful patterns of behaviour within your relationship?"
It's also keeping in mind the link between anxiety and jealousy and use that as a way of exploring where these feelings are coming from. "Mindfulness helps with anxiety. Anxiety is a close friend of jealousy - both lead to making assumptions that can be hugely destructive both to your sense of self and your relationship," she explains. "Mindfulness also helps with jealousy. It can help you to silence your critical inner coach, the know-it-all of all things that can go south."
I can't help but want to explore other romantic situations, but I don't want to lose my s/o. What do I do?
Just like with jealousy, repressing rather than dealing with your attraction to other people is not going to do anything to help your situation. "Be honest with yourself and then consider being as honest as possible with your partner," Miskiewicz says. "Plan ahead, try to predict those feelings surfacing. If they do surface - they cannot be ignored."
You might even want to change your relationship structure from monogamy to ethical non-monogamy, though this is a transition that needs to be properly planned and thought through and which you need your partner's enthusiastic and explicit consent. "Opening your relationship is an option that might fit just right. Talking about those feelings with your partner might equally help releasing the tension, at least to some degree," she explains.
Ultimately, you should remember that all emotions mean something, and it's up to you to reflect and find the answer. "As a psychotherapist I need to tell you that every feeling or even a little emotional nudge you get must have started somewhere and must have been caused by something," Miskiewicz adds. "Think about motivation and then make an informed decision."
I have doubts about long distance. Would it be better to break up?
Naturally, long distance relationships come with challenges, and so too does starting a new phase in your relationship like university or moving city. If you do want to keep things going, it will naturally require effort and a change to your dynamic.
"As humans we’re continually growing and as we grow our needs grow and change too. Staying together with a partner during a time of significant change and exploration will need communication both with yourself and your partner so you can stay in close awareness of your changing needs," explains Miskiewicz.
It's important to also be brutally honest about whether you're both equipped for the challenge and if you can imagine being compatible when the relationship has stopped being convenient. "Yes, you can grow together and happily but I’d recommend asking yourself, how well do you know yourself? How well does your partner know themselves? How important is this relationship for you today? How close or similar are your goals and plans?"
If you do have strong doubts, it's important to remember that breakups are really part of life and being emotionally vulnerable. If you're someone that dates and has a romantic life, it is more than likely you will go through at least a few of these in your life, and it's good to approach them as a learning experience. "It’s important to normalise change and breakups at any stage, particularly a stage of growth like this," says Miskiewicz. "Breakups are sad, often dramatic, never simple – at the same time, each relationship teaches us something about ourselves and leaves us with a box full of experiences. Keep some, process some, trash others, but what this means is that you have been changed, and usually this is how growth works."