There is an age-old question that many students will face throughout university; can a long-distance relationship survive the student culture? All I had to do was Google “do relationships last at university” to be met with a full page of negativity. Even The Guardian has published an article titled “Don’t even think about starting university in a relationship” where the opening statement is “avoid making the same mistake we did: ditch your partner before freshers’ week and make the most of the university experience”. To this quote, Paige Leggett, 22 and a University of Essex graduate commented “I definitely think if you can ditch your partner because you’re going to university, you never cared for them in the first place! You don’t need to be single to make the most of university!” I couldn’t agree with her more, the running commentary that students cannot make relationships work is a rather absurd norm to enforce for those who enter university with a partner.
I ran an Instagram poll out of curiosity to see how many people thought that relationships could work at university. Due to the sheer amount of negative press and comments I have heard during my long-distance relationship, I was expecting it to sway in favour of no. To my surprise, 88% said that they thought you could still enjoy your university experience with a partner.
So where does all the negativity surrounding relationships actually come from? Perhaps what we are actually hearing is a direct criticism of university culture and attitudes surrounding experiencing sexual freedom at university. Nina Myskow, a guest speaker on Good Morning Britain and responding to the claim of young people raising the number of COVID-19 cases, stated that “the problem is, and you don’t need a piece in The Times to explain it, that young people can’t keep their hands off each other.” If people can publicly announce attitudes such as this it does become seemingly clearer as to why the older generation are reluctant to believe that relationships can work out.
There is such a damaging image that you can’t maintain a healthy relationship and enjoy your university experience at the same time. Again, to this Paige Leggett said when “I first started university, I was in a relationship and freaked out so we ended up having a break. I think that was actually a bad idea and that navigating the new environment and the long-distance together would’ve been the best outcome, as well as communicating my worries. I think ending a relationship for a “university experience” would be something you end up regretting (as it was for me)”. This real-life example of people coming out of relationships as a result of external pressures is a sad reality for many young people, leaving good and healthy relationships just because there is this running narrative that that’s what you have to do to have fun at university.
Inevitably, yes, some relationships won’t work with distance but it’s down to the two people to make it work. If you are two committed people and are happy together, why wouldn’t you give it a shot? With external pressures from media outlets and even just friends or family, a really negative stigma has been created towards maintaining a long-distance relationship. I have had horrible comments thrown my way, such as “bet your boyfriend isn’t happy you are going to uni” and “that’s so sad for you and your boyfriend”. The worst thing about hearing these comments is that they were direct responses to me saying I had gotten into university. Instead of being congratulated for my efforts and success, I was being comforted for the seemingly inevitable break up I would face. However, three years later and we are still together so let me tell you, it can be done.
It takes a whole lot of adapting but isn’t that what university is all about? Growing and adapting as a person and this can be done with your relationship too. I personally have come out of university not only with a degree, not only with some incredible new friends and fun stories to tell but also with my boyfriend from home. We both went to university in completely different cities. While I was studying at Royal Holloway, University of London, he was in Nottingham. The three-hour distance was hard to get used to, don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting long-distance is easy but that it’s not impossible. However, we are two level headed people with a joint understanding that we are focusing on set career paths that demand a lot of hard work. Ever since we met in 2016, we always knew university was happening at some point for the pair of us, so we had some preparation time.
I really do think the key is this mutual understanding that things will not be the same and you have to expect a big change. You will both meet new people, you will both be going on more nights out etc. This is inevitable. You cannot go to university and isolate yourself because you have a partner, you just need to be trusting and allow them to have their space and explore their new lifestyle. Initially, I’ll admit, this was the toughest thing to get used to. I found it especially hard in my first year feeling like we would drift apart because we both had these new lives, which almost existed without one another, yet this didn’t happen. When you have a good dynamic in your relationship then this understanding just falls into place.
Furthermore, I don’t think this is through luck, I’ve also had people tell me “we’re some of the lucky ones”. I genuinely do not believe we are just an exception to a ridiculous rule. We worked it out, we had set dates to see each other once a month and would spend time together during reading weeks or over holidays when we were both at home; it worked! If you’re still thinking this is the only success story you’ve heard, let me pinch that in the bud. Olivia Nation, 22, said “I wasn’t a student but we were together the whole three years he was at Sheffield and it worked out fine, he still had the time of his life! Fast forward 5 years later and we just bought our first place together. So was [definitely] worth staying together, we didn’t even discuss breaking up when he went to uni!”.
Don’t let a common narrative scare you from staying in a relationship you are happy with just because you are about to embark on a new path in life. If you want to stay in that relationship, then work at making the changes fit around your relationship and grow together, long-distance or not.
Words by Courtney McLaven
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