Navigating Relationships Abroad: Three Kinds of People You’ll Miss
When you leave the country for three months, you take your life into account. Affairs must be put in order: bags packed, calls made, storage containers rented and filled. The practical takes precedence and you become objective in your choices, taking only what you need.
Then you say your goodbyes.
Friends first, then parents and family, and then perhaps a significant other.
And then you leave.
I found that, only once I was on my own, making new friends and taking classes, did I realize how challenging communication can become without the added convenience of seeing one another daily or sharing the same time zone. However, I would learn how to create effective communication and strong relationships despite the circumstances.
Calling your Parents
I’ve never been the most adept at calling my parents or keeping them in the loop, so to speak, but when I was overseas this habit became much worse. My tearful early phone calls were followed up with silence and an occasional photo exchange, always received and replied to hours apart.
I found it helpful to start pencilling in times to message my mother when we were both awake. I also found it helpful to be in contact with one or both of my parents while I was travelling on my own around Europe. Knowing that someone else was keeping track of my comings and goings alleviated a lot of my own anxiety about being in a new place by myself.
Overall, during my three months in Scotland, I only called my parents two times, but we talked more often than we had in several years. Our relationship actually improved in a lot of ways, and we opened up to one another for the first time in a long time.
Write to Your Friends
I have always struggled to keep up with social media, and messaging my friends has always been a pretty occasional activity for me, but I wanted to make sure that all the people I loved at home knew that I was thinking about them abroad. Every time I have travelled, I’ve been surprised at how deeply I missed my friends.
I found that the most effective way to communicate with my friends from home was not through our various snapchat group chats, but through letters and postcards. Even a short note sent from overseas can make people feel special. Handwritten letters have long been out of vogue, yet I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love to receive mail from loved ones. Snail-mail has become associated with phone bills and ads, so opening your mailbox to find a friend’s familiar handwriting is more valuable than ever.
I had been dating my boyfriend for about a year when I left to study abroad. We had already spent a summer apart, so I knew what to expect emotionally, but I found that the issues we’d had then with communication were exacerbated by our new school and sleep schedules. At home, I probably spent at least seven hours a day either in his company or communicating with him in some capacity. It was jarring to find myself waiting up to twelve hours for him to answer my texts.
There is no truly effective way to make up for a lack of physical presence, but we did our best. I sent numerous letters and attempted to call once or twice a week. We watched TV shows together to the best of our abilities, and just generally tried to make sure we were doing activities together despite the distance.
However, I think that time apart is valuable in relationships. Though I would not want to be in a long-distance relationship again, I found that spending time alone helped me gain some perspective on how my life had changed since we started dating. I was glad to discover that I still knew how to go about life by myself, and that I could still enjoy new experiences alone.
My boyfriend and I are still together, and I think that spending a semester apart made our relationship stronger because we both went the (figurative) distance to be together when we were not together. We both valued the experiences we were able to have alone, and now that I am back, I think we appreciate one another more than we did prior to my leaving.
Don’t Pressure Yourself
Keeping in contact with people is difficult, anyone who has ever moved knows that. When you’re overseas and navigating new terrain, talking to people thousands of miles away is hardly the first item on your mind.
I tend to put a lot of pressure on myself to maintain conversations with almost everyone I know all of the time, and I think that a lot of people can relate to this experience. Studying abroad helped me to recognize who was important enough to stay in touch with. If I didn’t have the energy to write to someone, they probably weren’t worth the effort of a four paragraph text message. And sometimes there just won’t be time to do either. It’s important to focus first on experiencing the place and the people you’re with, and your friends and family at home understand that.
I was especially touched by the fact that while I was abroad, my loved ones rarely expected lengthy, explicit communication, and were happy to hear from me in any capacity. It takes a certain amount of bravery to move far away, even if it is only for a little while, and there is far more to gain than to lose.
Chloe Dubisch is an English major at Stephens College and studied abroad with IFSA at the University of Glasgow in Fall 2018.