The Ex-Factor

For many freshmen, it’s a tough call: split up with a high-school sweetheart or try to make it work long distance?

By Bret Begun, Newsweek

August 28, 2006 — As Amy Shaunette and Cooper Gango contemplated college, they considered an issue beyond the SAT and GPAs: their love life. The pair started dating as juniors at Lake Oswego High in Oregon. As college loomed, they weren’t sure whether-or how-to continue their relationship after graduation. To keep their options open, they applied to some of the same schools. But last spring, Shaunette and Gango got into their first choices. Shaunette would go to Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., and Gango would attend Columbia College in Chicago. Did committing to schools 400 miles apart mean they should break up? They went back and forth, but by the time they mailed their deposits off to college, they had decided to break up at the end of the summer. “It’s kind of impossible to have a solid relationship when you don’t live in the same state,” says Shaunette.

There are pros who can navigate you through every aspect of the admissions process, from where to apply to which sheets to buy (twin, extra long). But when it comes to whether you should split up with your significant other before loading up the minivan, you’re the expert. Take solace knowing you’re not the only couple trying to figure it out. “It’s a common dilemma,” says Steve Roy Goodman, founder of Top Colleges, a private admissions-counseling service in Washington. “Many students won’t express their apprehension.”

These decisions can be agonizing, which is why many couples go to college with either vague hopes for the best or complex agreements about what behaviors are-and aren’t-cool. Before Adam Elramsisy arrived at the University of Michigan last year, his deal with his girlfriend, Teal Black, whom he left behind in L.A., was that hookups were OK as long as it wasn’t their anniversary and he wasn’t wearing a T shirt she’d bought him. (Got that?) She says he backed off from the “open relationship” idea, but as Black contemplated her own freshman year at the University of Pennsylvania, she said she might want to explore her options.

Giving a long-distance relationship the old college try is a proud tradition. Still, authors who’ve written about college life, university psychologists, admissions advisers and even NEWSWEEK staffers (in recollections of their own pathetic college-era love lives) all sadly conclude that most long-distance relationships just don’t work. In fact, Thanksgiving breakups occur so often that counselors at the University of California, Santa Barbara, use the term “turkey drop.”

Experts cite two key reasons that breakups are as inevitable as the “freshman 15.” It’s tough to be involved in a partner’s life when you’re far away-and there’s no shortage of, well, opportunities. Last October, after seeing Facebook pictures of his girlfriend in an outfit he didn’t approve of, Mike Razak bumped into a female classmate intending just to chat. They did more than talk. By 6:30 a.m., “I was in tears,” says Razak, 20, a junior at Denison University in Granville, Ohio. That day he flew 1,000 miles to see his girlfriend at her college and said, “Last night I cheated on you.” Turns out she’d hooked up with someone else, too. “I regret that it happened,” says Razak’s ex, who declined to be named.

Most universities lack formalized ways of preparing freshmen to cope with long-distance love. Orientations focus on the community that students are entering-not the one they’ve left behind. Some schools, like Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, tackle the issue in one-credit “University Experience” courses. At NIU, 75 percent of students live within 60 miles of campus, so many high-school relationships remain intact. Denise Rode, NIU’s director of orientation, asks students, “If you’re home on weekends visiting your girlfriend, won’t your college transition take longer?” (Answer: yes.) The University of Vermont runs a workshop called “Apart But Together: Coping With Long-Distance Relationships.” Recommended reading includes “The Dance of Anger,” by Harriet Lerner.

If problems with a relationship fester, experts advise students to seek out friends with experience. Risa Polansky’s sorority sisters at the University of Florida helped her with a breakup. “I lived in a house with 46 girls who knew him,” she says. “I had this huge support system.” Mom and Dad’s counsel helps, but it’s not always objective. Many parents prefer high-school sweethearts to split up; they don’t want their child’s opportunities limited. Sometimes, students may need counseling. Nearly 24 percent of University of Michigan freshmen who sought help listed “relationship concerns” as a reason.

Despite the odds, some couples find ways to go the distance. Katherine Kirkpatrick and Justin Quick have lasted four years-and counting. After a fight, a text message from him-good night, i love you-usually diffuses any tension. Kirkpatrick, a University of Southern California graduate, has made about a half-dozen visits to see Quick at Kansas State University. “I wanted his friends to develop a rapport with me so when I left, they could be, like, ‘Your girlfriend’s awesome!’ As opposed to ‘Justin, why are you with this stupid girl who’s 1,500 miles away?” She no longer is. Kirkpatrick is now a first-year law student at Notre Dame. Which puts them just 700 miles apart.

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