Love It or Lose It: Long-Distance in College

Anna Shimkus, Feature Writer

Prepare to bump “Kiss Me Thru the Phone” by Soulja Boy, ‘cause we’re talking about long-distance relationships.

According to a study conducted by the American Counseling Association, approximately 75 percent of college students have been in a long-distance relationship. The success of long-distance relationships in general, however, is reported at below 60 percent. 

Amidst the whirlwind of first-year orientation, Whitman seemed to model these statistics. While navigating my first weeks on campus, I couldn’t help but notice a significant number of students carrying both soon-to-be student loan debt and long-distance relationships with them to Whitman. 

I admit, maybe I was more observant of these relationships because I could relate to being in one. Or maybe there really was a surprising number of people choosing to try long distance. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but feed into my lingering pessimism and wonder: how many relationships will last

From this wondering, I wound up here, shamelessly listening to Soulja Boy and seeking out my long-distance relationship peers as we navigate this strange terrain through frequent FaceTime calls and constant text messages.

I think a Spotify playlist featuring “Kiss Me Thru the Phone” and other long-distance ballads would communicate more about the struggle of long distance than I ever could. Sadly though, DJ isn’t part of my job description. Instead, I’ll be using the names of some musicians with iconic long-distance tracks as pseudonyms for my interviewees.

Illustration by Eleanor Amer.

Track 1. Come Back, Be Here – Taylor Swift

Hate on Taylor Swift all you want, but she has a heartbreak song for every situation. For those in a long-distance relationship, this pop-culture recognition of the long-distance struggle is a small comfort. Chances are if Taylor Swift is writing about it, someone else can relate too. 

While camaraderie amongst those of us choosing long-distance can help with the challenge, people in long-distance relationships aren’t exactly easy to spot—because it could be anybody. Taylor, a first-year student at Whitman, explains this feeling of isolation. She came to Whitman one month into her long-distance relationship and described her situation as a “social impairment.” 

“There’s a lot of pressure heading into college,” Taylor said. “A lot of people are flirting and figuring out what to do, and I feel like I haven’t been able to make as many guy friends as girl friends.”

She described the challenge of heading into a new environment with an existing relationship.

“It’s kind of hard,” she said, “because if you go straight off the bat with ‘I have a boyfriend,’ they might not be as interested in you.”

As shallow as this observation may seem, it’s perfectly valid. There’s something new and exciting about arriving in an unfamiliar place with total freedom, but maybe not if you’re still loyal to something—or, rather, someone. 

This loyalty is one of the defining features, and sacrifices, of a long-distance relationship. It demands a certain amount of maturity that may not be for those looking for light and fleeting college experiences. However, for those of us who would rather skip the novelty college stories, the absence of physicality in a relationship can lend itself to a deeper connection.

Track 2. Hey There Delilah Plain White T’s

“I’m kind of glad that we weren’t in person,” Delilah, another first-year, said. “I feel like [in physical relationships] you can focus on the physical aspect and overlook the rest. When you’re in a long-distance relationship, you don’t have the luxury of doing that.” 

Delilah’s been balancing her long-distance relationship for about a year now, but instead of being disheartened by the distance, she’s motivated. 

“We’re both really, really hard workers for each other,” Delilah said while describing herself and her partner. “There aren’t many other people for us, so it’s tough, but it makes me feel good to be working on something.”

A substantial amount of human communication goes beyond what is spoken. Our body language and actions can sometimes say more than words ever could. In a long-distance relationship, however, you don’t have the added luxury of physical communication. This creates bigger problems within ourselves, as physical connection is how we often feel and validate love. 

Delilah explained that in general, it’s hard for her to accept love from others, but especially when it’s only verbally communicated. For her, radical emotional vulnerability has replaced physical intimacy. The foundation of her relationship revolves around the emotional work she and her partner have guided each other through. 

Delilah expressed how it was challenging for her and her partner to establish an emotionally intimate relationship solely through verbal communication.

“It’s one thing for someone to try and convince you out of your intrusive thoughts,” Delilah said, “but it’s different if they were there physically.” She continued, “Having someone to take you out of yourself can be super helpful.”

Our bodies help to tether us back to the present moment, but we have to get creative when we’re deprived of our kinesthetic senses. Texting someone about your day, describing your surroundings and telling stories about people or places you’ve been to can seem like mundane small talk, but in a long-distance relationship, it’s conscious and crucial. 

“Documenting your life for [your partner] helps them understand your perspective and feel connected to you somehow,” Delilah said. “Whenever you would want someone there physically, you treat them as if they were there physically by giving them a little insight into your day so they can interact with that part—or at least understand.”

In this way, long-distance relationships place an abnormal amount of pressure on communication. While communication is necessary for any healthy relationship, in a long-distance relationship, communication is all you have. 

Track 3. Talking to the Moon – Bruno Mars

“I’ve had long distance relationships the entire time being at Whitman,” upperclassman Bruno said, reflecting on the pair of two-year relationships he’s had while at Whitman. Similar to Delilah, Bruno confessed that the lack of physical connection has made it difficult to feel loved in his relationships. 

“Being so separate from them, it’s hard to receive those visual or body cues that they love you. I should just take them on their word that they do, rather than acts of love,” Bruno said.

However, Bruno explained that the energy-intensive nature of long-distance helped him prioritize who he really wanted in his life. 

Referencing a particularly difficult past relationship, Bruno described how his feelings toward the person became more clear with distance:

“I realized that I don’t super care for this person,” Bruno said. “Long distance was good in that case because I realized ‘I don’t really wanna be with you.’”

Distance causes us to prioritize, as there’s no escaping the fatigue that comes with upholding a relationship stretched by several—if not several hundred—miles. There’s a bittersweet simplicity to long-distance: if it works, it works, and if it doesn’t … well, maybe it just wasn’t meant to be. 

Track 4. One Call Away – Charlie Puth

“I’ve been in a long-distance friendship for the past seven years,” Charlie said in a shared email thread. In a later interview, Charlie explained that she and her best friend had actually met in person, but her best friend moved across the country to Maryland shortly after. Charlie admits that she and her best friend “weren’t even that close when she was there,” but that once they reconnected after the move, their friendship “flourished.” 

“I think we’ve achieved soulmate status,” Charlie said. “Our relationship is based on things you can’t say in person, and I think it’s a very strong bond … we kinda treat each other as our personal diaries.”

At its best, distance seems to become a superpower. Delilah described how she felt that long-distance relationships can be a gateway to finding committed, mature partners. She noted how this can be especially important to women in heterosexual relationships. 

“A lot of men our age have not done that inner-vulnerability work,” Delilah said.

Delilah continued to describe how we tend to overlook the emotional health and maturity of our partners when we have instantaneous physical comfort. When this instant gratification is eliminated, we seem to build more sustainable relationships.

With distance comes a variety of paradoxes: isolation and connection, sacrifice and self-prioritization, trust and doubt. Amidst these doubts, Charlie offered an insight that applied to her friendship, but is a comfort to any form of long distance relationship:

“I wouldn’t stress by thinking that they’re not thinking of you. I can say that people are always happy to hear from you, even if it’s something minor.”

Modern technology has given us the ability to maintain our relationships across the many spaces we occupy and lives we live. Whether you’re balancing a long-distance relationship or friendship—or avoiding texting your parents back home—taking the time to reach out can make a huge difference. Checking in is a kind way of letting someone know they’re on your mind, and who knows—maybe someone, somewhere, is thinking of you too.