Studying abroad comes with a lot of challenges. You have to learn to navigate a new city and culture and, depending on where you go, may even need to learn a new language.
Some of us have an additional challenge to overcome too—having to balance the study abroad experience with maintaining a relationship from back home.
From the moment my boyfriend and I started dating last year, we knew this was coming. I’ve wanted to study abroad since I was in high school, and I had planned my schedule around spending this semester in South America. But that didn’t make it any easier when I had to get on a plane in July and say, “See you in six months!” Neither of us had ever been in a long-distance relationship before, so we had no idea what to expect. All we knew was that we wanted to give it a shot.
More than four of those six months have passed, and we’re still going strong. Thus I feel it’s safe for me to share what I’ve learned so far about studying abroad while in a committed relationship.
1. Make a plan before you leave.
In the months leading up to my flight to Chile, we talked a lot about how we were going to continue our relationship despite the distance. What were our expectations of each other? How would we keep in touch, and how often would we call or FaceTime each other? We had several open conversations about our worries and our hopes for this semester apart. It’s especially important to discuss your concerns early if either of you has any doubts about the experience.
I would also encourage you to plan fun ways to keep each other present in your lives during your semester away (warning: this is going to get gooey). Like the classic girlfriend I am, I have one of my boyfriend’s flannel shirts with me here, and the journal I write in every day was a gift from him. Before I left, I wrote him 182 love notes (one for each day we’ll be apart) and put them into a jar so he can “hear from me” even when I can’t actually talk to him. (I swear I came up with the general idea on my own, though I do have Pinterest to thank for helping me sort out the details.)
2. Communicate, communicate, communicate.
I literally cannot emphasize this enough. This doesn’t mean you and your SO need to constantly text or Skype each other, but it does mean you should let them continue to be a part of your day-to-day life as much as you can. Since Wi-Fi is pretty abundant in Chile, we chat with each other regularly and send each other videos and articles we find funny or interesting.
There are so many ways to stay in touch now without needing to buy a data plan. WhatsApp has been our go-to app for text messaging and audio calls over Wi-Fi. For video chat, consider programs like FaceTime, Skype, or Google Hangouts.
But the major relationship game-changer we discovered is Rabbit. This website allows you to video chat with each other and watch TV or movies together. You can use it to watch basically anything, from Netflix and HBO to YouTube videos, so now your SO has no excuse for watching Game of Thrones without you. Since a lot of young couples bond over watching shows together, Rabbit can really help you and your SO continue to share that experience while you’re abroad.
3. Enjoy the freedoms that come with being in a relationship.
People have asked me many times whether I feel tied down or restricted because of my relationship status. I don’t, and here’s why: I don’t have to worry about boys anymore!
This one is all about your mentality. You can either get down about the fact that you can’t kiss that cute guy at the club, or you can start enjoying the fact that you don’t have to deal with the drama. There’s a lot of freedom in feeling like you can talk to anyone you want while confidently knowing there’s no way anything romantic will happen between you.
Having an SO back home also means there’s someone outside your abroad network who has always got your back. Sometimes I really need to complain about my friends or my classes and I can vent my frustrations to my boyfriend, knowing I’ll receive his full support.
4. Remember it’s hard for them too, even if they’re not abroad.
Your SO cares about you, so they will worry about you the same way your family will. Put their mind at ease by ensuring that you share your travel plans with them and let them know whenever you’ll be out of touch. This can go a long way toward easing their concern for your wellbeing.
It’s also important to make sure your conversations aren’t always centered on you. Though you’re the one trying to figure out a new way of life, that doesn’t mean your SO’s life is on pause. Remember to ask them how they’re doing too and be there to support them when they need you. Get excited about the goings-on in each other’s lives, like birthdays or jobs or trips, even if it’s a bummer that you can’t be there to share them.
5. Don’t be afraid to fight once in a while.
Study abroad is a big opportunity for you to grow as a person, so your relationship will have to grow too. And that can mean growing pains—miscommunications, envy, resentment. Small miscues can become much bigger with time and distance apart. Be open and honest with each other about your thoughts and feelings, and share your different perspectives. They might conflict, and that’s okay. As hard as it may be, talk through any issues as they come up. We have had our fair share of arguments these past four months, and each time we’ve worked through them and come out a stronger couple as a result.
6. Recognize if it’s not working anymore.
Being in any relationship involves work, and sometimes one or both of you just isn’t able to make the effort. One of my good friends here was in a long-distance relationship with her boyfriend for two years, and after a couple of months abroad they realized it wasn’t working for them. The way they saw it, they were experiencing all the hardships of being in a relationship without enjoying any of the benefits, so they decided to take a break and figure things out when she gets back. Sometimes that’s what you have to do.
On days when I feel down nothing cheers me up like getting an impromptu ‘I love you’ text from my boyfriend.
For me though—and for many other people I know—the benefits have always outweighed the hardships. On days when I feel down nothing cheers me up like getting an impromptu ‘I love you’ text from my boyfriend. Having his support and encouragement while I’ve been in Chile has made the other challenges of study abroad much easier to overcome.
The key to successfully navigating a long-distance relationship when you are abroad is to know yourself and your SO. Come prepared, keep the lines of communication open, and work through the bumps in the road as they come. Take this time apart to grow and learn about yourselves as people, so that when you get home you’ll have lots of new stories to share.
Olivia Berlin was a Creative Writing student at Colorado College and studied abroad through the IFSA Chilean Universities Program in Valparaíso, Chile, in 2016. Olivia served as a Content Marketing Intern with IFSA through the Work-to-Study Program.