It’s a common sight to see Stanford couples holding hands in the quad or cuddling up next to each other while sharing a hot chocolate at the CoHo. But what about those students whose sweethearts are more than a five or 10-minute bike ride away?
According to The Center for the Study of Long Distance Relationships, there are an estimated 4 to 4.5 million college couples in the United States that are involved in a long distance relationship. Long distance relationships suggest a mixed bag of emotional experiences–weeks, perhaps months, of being apart, finding gushy love letters sent via snail mail in your mailbox and of course, the eventual, ultimately gratifying reunions. But that’s not all there is to it.
Ginny Scholtes ‘13 and her boyfriend, Murphy, have been together for two years and seven months. They met while both attending Laguna Hills High School in Laguna Hills, Calif. when they were members of the swim and water polo teams. For Scholtes, the idea of breaking up with her long-time boyfriend never crossed her mind.
“We just couldn’t break up,” she recalled with a smile.
Despite her faith in their relationship, Scholtes said that the stress of being in a long distance relationship did affect her life as a Stanford student.
“It’s very hard to deal with trying to balance two different lives, because in a way you can’t be fully in either one,” she said. “No matter where you are, you’re missing a part of yourself all the time.”
In order to keep up the spark in their relationship, Scholtes frequently Skyped and exchanged letters with her boyfriend.
However, the relationship put a strain on her social life at Stanford.
“I like going out and I love dancing, but for the first two quarters of my freshman year, I wouldn’t go out,” she said. “Before spring quarter [in which I rushed and joined a sorority], I probably went out a total of three times. I just couldn’t deal with seeing other couples everywhere or watching my girlfriends dance with other guys.”
Now that Murphy is attending The Culinary Institute of America in Napa, Calif., only a two hour drive away from Palo Alto, the couple gets to see each other nearly every weekend.
Some couples don’t have that luxury. What about those couples whose relationships span across the country, perhaps even thousands of miles?
Randy Casals ’13 has been with his girlfriend, Katrina, a freshman at Drexel University, since his junior year of high school. After taking a break last quarter, Casals and Katrina got back together, conscious of the expectations and restrictions of a long distance relationship.
“It’s really hard to have as much fun when you’re at school because you know you’re missing something, and then when you are home [together], you feel rushed because you feel like you have to make up for the time you missed,” he said. “It puts a lot of pressure on the time when you’re together.”
Their short break showed him what life would be like if they weren’t together, which he admits would be significantly less stressful, but not as worthwhile as being in a relationship with Katrina. During their break, Casals found himself more engaged with friends that he might have otherwise lost touch with after freshman year, and he went out more on weekends.
“[Being in a long distance relationship] definitely makes me less social because I have to devote a portion of time to my relationship,” he said. “So I’m definitely withdrawn, but I don’t see that as a bad thing. If I had a girlfriend on campus, I would be even more withdrawn.”
Marcia Levitan ’13, whose boyfriend is studying abroad this quarter in Florence, Italy, maintains that her preconceived expectations of being in a long distance relationship differ from her actual, temporary experience.
“You have to be really patient,” she said. “We Skype a lot, way more than I thought we would, and that’s the only thing that has really kept our relationship going.”
Robert Levenson, a professor of psychology and researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, said that in general, the biggest challenge for couples in long distance relationships is dealing with the lack of day-to-day contact, even with the abundance of forms of electronic communication modern technology provides.
“Relationships sort of digest the events of every day together,” he said. “Couples tend to get together at some point during the day and get caught up, and they live through the changes of life together. In long distance relationships, it’s really difficult to do that.”
In addition to the inherent lack of communication that comes with the distance, Levenson cited the threat of falling prey to other suitors as an additional stress on these relationships.
“Obviously, when couples are apart, there are all sorts of temptations,” he said. “I think fidelity, monogamy and whatnot are really challenging because you get lonely and you’re in these environments with all sorts of other options, particularly young people in the social environment of the university.”
Because stress, insecurities and temptations abound in the college setting, long distance couples, naturally, have a higher risk of relationship failure than the average couple.
“Relationships always fail over the failure to resolve conflict, and anything that makes conflict resolution more difficult, like lack of proximity, is going to make it more likely to fail over the inevitable kinds of conflicts that arise,” he said. “I think the key to making a long distance relationship work is setting realistic expectations rather than extraordinary unrealistic ones. If you set the bar too high, you’re going to be constantly disappointed.”
However, Levenson believes that there are some eventual benefits to maintaining a long distance relationship.
“The reunions, looking forward to seeing each other, are the potential glue of keeping this type of relationship together,” he said.
According to Annie Osborn ’14, whose roommate is in a long distance relationship, these relationships seems like an added anxiety in a college student’s already demanding life.
“In general, my friends in long distance relationships seem slightly more stressed than my friends in non-long distance relationships,” she said. “I think that with a long distance relationship there are inherent questions of trust and intent, and I think that any ties that you have with somebody back home requires an extra amount of energy and effort to maintain.”
But for Casals, the extra energy required in maintaining his relationship is a small price to pay.
“It’s worth it when you know that you’re coming home to somebody,” he said. “It’s like a breath of fresh air.”