University relationships: The long distance dilemma

It's possible for couples to survive lengthy separation, but they have to work hard at the relationship

It's one of the age-old questions for new students: can a relationship survive university? Going to uni for the first time can be hugely exciting. You're entering the next chapter of your life, and you've got an awful lot to look forward to: new friends, fresh experiences and intoxicating amounts of sudden freedom.

For those in a relationship, though, it can be bittersweet. If, as is likely, you and your partner are planning to attend different universities, the prospect of trying to stay together while living apart is an unpleasant one. Even before you get to your new city, you're faced with a dilemma: do you want to try and make a go of things, or will it be easier to break up beforehand?

Some people just see the problems as insurmountable. But Paula Hall, a relationship psychotherapist for relationship charity Relate, believes that it is very possible for couples to survive the distance – but that it isn't necessarily going to be easy.

"Of course they can survive," she says. "It's challenging, and it depends on how good the relationship was before you went away. University is a time of significant personal growth, and some couples grow apart."

"It's easier than it was – technology such as Facebook, FaceTime and Skype makes it much easier to keep in touch with each other's everyday movements and to be involved with your lives, regardless of how far apart you are physically."

Ollie, 27, is living proof that pre- university relationships can work. He got together with Helen, also 27, in the summer between their A-levels and university. Though they split up briefly in their third year at Liverpool and St Martin's in London respectively, they got married earlier this year.

Distance wasn't the problem it tends to be for some: "London and Liverpool are only two-and-a-half hours apart on the train. Sometimes she'd come and visit just for the night. And with student railcards and careful planning, we could see each other for a tenner."

Ollie enjoyed the chance to spend time in two different cities with two different groups of friends, but there were difficulties. "Speaking on the phone is a huge problem," he says. "Obviously, you want to know what's going on in your girlfriend's life, but you can only get so much out of a call. It's not nearly as good as spending quality time with her. You do also have your own lives going on at the same time, so you have to concentrate to stay involved with each other. Then there's the small matter of doing your degree."

Not everyone's story ends so happily. Ed, 25, had been dating Justine for over a year when they went to university, in Southampton and Oxford. They made a go of it for another 18 months, but in the end it fizzled out.

"It certainly affected my social life," Ed admits. "We would spend so many weekends in each other's company that I neglected my friendships in Southampton. I didn't mind at the beginning, but I started to miss out on more and more social events, and I suppose I didn't make as many friends as I could have."

As a result, they started – unconsciously at first – to see less and less of each other as the terms went on. "We'd already begun to change as people, which made us drift apart even further. Towards the end, we hardly saw anything of each other except in the holidays," he says.

There's plenty you can do to avoid an inter-city rut. Ollie recommends being "spur of the moment".

"Don't always plan too much. Jump on a train if you can afford it and see each other at short notice. Make sure you do fun things together, too – don't stay inside and watch DVDs. And get a good mobile phone contract."

What if you do break up? Well, you've one thing going for you at least: you can stay out of each other's hair. "If you split up while you're away at university, distance is a kind of consolation. You've got your new groups of friends, and separate social lives and so on," Hall says.

"Of course, it does depend how long you've been together. A break-up at university will be much better if you've only been together for six months than it is for couples who've been together since they were 14. If a relationship has been as big a part of your life as that, you need to give yourself space to grieve, and find people who can really support and accept it."

Ed recommends, after a break-up, that you throw yourself into university social life. "There's so much stuff happening on campus that you don't have to sit in your room feeling sorry for yourself. For me, it was a bit of a guilty relief to be single after so long, and I got to make the most of going out with my friends for a change."

But what about fresher flings? The change of scene brings with it a raft of temptations that are bad enough if you currently have a partner. For single people, newly or otherwise, the fortnight of mayhem that makes up Freshers' Week can be intimidating.

"In the first term of university," says Hall, "I often find that there are a lot of people feeling quite insecure about all the sudden changes in their lives – like having left home. It can be tempting to throw yourself into a relationship just to avoid being alone, rather than because you actually want to be with that person." Of course, that doesn't mean you should keep yourself single – you're going to be meeting dozens of new people and there's no law against having fun.

In truth, relationships need work whether your partner is there with you in halls, or miles away in another city. There are pitfalls in any scenario, but as long as you're honest and committed, every relationship has a chance.

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