You’ve researched countless destinations and programs, discussed the pros and cons, gotten parental and advisor approval and are finally all set to study abroad––woo-hoo! The only question left now is what you’ll do about that boyfriend who won’t exactly fit in your suitcase. We’ve got you covered with tips on how to decide whether or not you want to keep things going with your guy, as well as advice on how to make it work when you spend time abroad if you do decide to stay together.
Before You Go
Have the DTR talk early
Once you have your study abroad plans set, settle on a time to sit down with your boyfriend and talk about whether or not the two of you want to make a long distance-relationship work. Megan*, a senior from the College of William & Mary, recently spent a semester in Paris away from her boyfriend. “With the date of my study abroad departure looming, [my boyfriend and I] were both a little afraid to bring up the conversation of the future,” she says.
Fear aside, waiting until your last night together to figure out what the two of you will do when you’re abroad? Probably not the smartest move.
“We started talking about it as soon as we both realized we were both going to go abroad to different places,” says Brooke, a rising senior from Northeastern University, who is getting ready to study abroad in Spain. “This was maybe five to six months before going abroad. It's important not to wait too long because it will just make things more difficult.”
Cover all the bases
Not sure what to talk about? Dr. D Ivan Young, a relationship coach, provides several suggestions for collegiettes getting ready to leave their boyfriends and study abroad. “You definitely need to have a discussion about ground rules,” he says. “Otherwise, don’t be surprised when someone does something that surprises you.” Bring up various changes and expectations you have concerning study abroad, and how you feel those will affect your relationship.
Discuss what’s going well that would make maintaining a relationship abroad worth the extra effort, as well as what could be challenging or worrisome during your time away from campus. If you’re already on solid ground, this may be an easy conversation.
“We both pretty much assumed we would be staying together and then we briefly talked about it to make sure we were on the same page,” Brooke explains. “The only factor we really weighed was whether or not we saw ourselves together after we went abroad. The answer for both of us was yes.”
How much or how little you’re willing to keep in touch with each other could make the decision on whether or not you want to stay together (or stay exclusive) easier as well. “You also have to be thinking about what you want from your trip, regardless of what you want from your relationship,” says Elizabeth, a recent graduate of the College of William & Mary who has left boyfriends back home during several trips abroad. “If you plan to immerse yourself in this new place and be constantly on the move, it might not be fair to ask someone to stay in a relationship with you, unless you really are going to commit to writing/emailing/texting/Skyping on a regular basis.”
Regardless of how easy or difficult the conversation will be, it’s an important one to have. Be open and honest to make sure the final decision you and your boyfriend reach is one that’s truly right for you and your relationship. Be sure the decision reflects what’s realistic for the both of you; being honest from the start could pay off majorly in the end.
“Of all my friends or the couples I know who went through a semester abroad this past spring, we were the only ones that made it to the end, and I think it had a lot to do with that understanding from the beginning,” Megan says.
Be clear: are you broken up, on a break or in a committed relationship?
As dedicated as you are to your boyfriend, a semester or year abroad is a long time (and let’s face it––those foreign guys and their accents are just so adorable). Circumstances change, making a break from the relationship appealing for some couples. “I was going away for a year, and we didn't want to hold each other back from experiencing anything––myself in Europe, him in college,” says Jill*, a junior at Skidmore College who recently studied abroad in Paris and decided to take the time away from her boyfriend to reassess their relationship.
If cracks are starting to show when discussing your expectations or you’re having a hard time agreeing on relationship terms, a break might be best. It's not wise to commit to a full-blown long-distance relationship unless you feel you're already a strong couple and you're willing to devote considerable time and attention to keeping up that communication.
“I broke up with someone before spending an entire semester abroad because I wasn't willing to do the work to maintain that relationship for such an extended period of time,” Elizabeth says. “Interestingly, that moment before I left ended up being the perfect time to really do an evaluation of the relationship–I realized I wasn't getting what I wanted anyway, and it became an opportunity to make a clean break.”
That being said, a relationship abroad can definitely work out for the better as well despite the distance. “After a few weeks, it was clear to both of us that we didn't want to be with other people, but giving ourselves space to figure that out was probably why it worked,” Jill says. Be sure to discuss your expectations for your relationship – whether you can see other people or not, the reasons for making whatever decision you come to, how open you’ll be with one another while abroad, how often you’ll communicate and with what means – and make sure you come to an agreement to make the most of your long-distance time together.
While You’re Abroad
Stay accountable to the ground rules you decide on
Be sure both of you know why you’re together and what the expectations associated with staying together are. The two of you should be committed to staying together for similar reasons, and should both be comfortable with the justifications for your decision. If one of you really wants to try and make it work while the other one isn’t too into it, problems might not be too far down the road.
“We're willing to go through a period of separation in the interest of our ‘end goal,’” says Alicia, a senior at Penn State who’s studying abroad in Spain. “We're willing to be apart for a while so we can be together in the long run… We trust each other, are honest and are willing to deal with a little distance so that eventually we can be together again afterwards.”
Trust is key in making a long-distance overseas relationship work. Dr. Young says that with young adults in particular, it’s hard to go for more than six weeks without being tempted to cheat. To avoid tears and heartbreak down the road, be absolutely 100 percent sure the both of you fully trust one another to ensure your relationship remains strong.
“Naturally there's a part of me that's scared he's going to find a tall, blonde beer wench with pigtail braids, but that's the part of me I work hard to ignore because I know I can trust him,” says Alicia. “If I didn't trust him so much, there's no way I'd be comfortable being abroad in separate places.”
Strike a balance between exploring and keeping in touch
As important as trust is when it comes to making a relationship work despite distance, it’s also important that both of you allow time to explore your new home away from home and experience new things.
“Since we'll both be abroad in different places, we realize the importance of making new friends for each of us,” says Brooke. “Additionally, we realize going abroad is pretty much a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and we both want to enjoy it to the fullest extent.”
Regardless of your relationship status, don’t spend all your time keeping in contact with your BF. “The number one thing to avoid: Skyping him 24/7!” says Jill. “One girl on my program barely left her homestay because she would Skype her boyfriend every night, and when they broke up near the end of the semester, she was really upset that she hadn't spent more time experiencing the city and getting to know people.”
Deciding how much you’ll communicate with one another (whether it’s Skype, email, or whatever else you can think of using!) will have to be a decision the two of you make based on how much you’re used to talking and how much time both of your schedules will allow. This is especially true if you have to factor in a significant time difference. Moral of the story? If you’ve decided to make a relationship work in some shape or form, agree on a couple shared goals for how much the two of you stay in touch with each other. However, “be sure to send little reminders you exist so it won’t be out of sight, out of mind,” says Dr. Young.
Consider visiting each other
For collegiettes absolutely determined to make a relationship work, Dr. Young encourages couples to do everything possible to make at least one in-person visit while abroad. He describes the experience of sharing your time abroad with a BF as a “very romantic adventure” that can help develop a “sense of excitement” in the relationship through experiencing new sights, sounds and activities together as a couple.
When You Come Back Home
Recognize that studying abroad changes you
Studying abroad is a life-changing experience that will no doubt affect you and your relationship in ways you won’t be able to predict before you depart. “Don’t expect [the person abroad] to come back the same, because they won’t be,” Dr. Young says. “For most people, enlightenment as a result of studying abroad changes them. You’re coming back with new appreciations in play.”
Jill suggests reuniting with your boyfriend (or ex, depending on what happened during time abroad) regardless of where your relationship stands. “It might be good to decide that you'll meet up once you're home again no matter what--whether you've stayed close or drifted apart,” she says. “That way, even if it seems like things are headed south, you have a chance to remind yourselves what was so worth waiting for in the first place and then decide if you still want to work at it.”
Once you touch down back home, have another honest conversation with your partner and reassess where your relationship stands and what you mean to one another. Be open to the fact that both of you may have changed after being abroad.
Obviously there’s no easy answer on how to navigate relationships when you are abroad. Be genuine, sincere and caring, and you’ll no doubt reach a smart, (hopefully) satisfactory decision about what to do about your relationship that will allow for an amazing adventure abroad, regardless of what you and your boyfriend decide!
*Names have been changed.