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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Thursday, April 18, 2024

When love makes it worthwhile: College couples undeterred by distance


“I learned that your relationship with someone lasts a lifetime. What you [learn] from them lasts a lifetime without having to be together for it all,” Becca Zajac said.

Zajac is one of three Tufts students the Daily profiled about their long-distance relationships. While Valentine’s Day only comes around once a year, there need not be any particular reason to warrant the celebration of love, especially in a dating landscape evolving with technology, broader socioeconomic realities and growing awareness of nontraditional relationships.

A second-year combined-degree student at SMFA, Becca Zajac goes to school several hours apart from her boyfriend, who is a student at New York University. They have been together for almost a year and a half, dating long distance for the entirety of their relationship thus far. 

As they started their first year at university, it was clearly and mutually communicated that their friendship felt like something more. Despite that, Zajac and her current boyfriend agreed to not speak to each other for about a month.

“We wanted to give each other the chance to fully focus on where we’re at and meet people there,” Zajac said. “Then in October, … we were both still having really strong feelings for each other. So we had a four-hour-long conversation of what the terms and conditions would be like to make a healthy relationship for each other while being long distance — and that's when we started dating.”

On the other hand, some relationships start in proximity and transition into long distance without much deliberation about the matter. Jasmine Kwan, a senior studying biomedical engineering, met her boyfriend in her last semester of high school in Hong Kong. For them, it was a given that they would continue dating after graduation, no matter where life took them.

“We’d never really had a serious talk about it. We just assumed that we would keep dating, I guess,” Kwan said. “Also, I really started talking to him after we applied for colleges, so … it's not like our relationship would affect which colleges we applied to.”

At the start of their relationship, Kwan and her boyfriend — a student at Williams College — were met with atypical obstacles.

“[Due to COVID-19] that freshman year we were all sent back [home] and we were both in Hong Kong … for one semester,” Kwan said. “He went back to the U.S. and I was still in Hong Kong [for a year and a half]. And then junior year, he actually studied abroad in the U.K. … So it's really this year that I'm actually going to school in Massachusetts [with him].”

Natassja Setiadji, a sophomore studying psychology, met her partner in her hometown in Singapore. Throughout their university life, they have been geographically separated by over 10,000 miles —her boyfriend attends the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. They see each other in person twice a year during breaks from school.

“It's definitely difficult every time you see each other in summer and winter and then you have to leave, then it feels like it’s so long until you see each other again. That will never get easier,” Setiadji said. “But you definitely get less sad, because you know how to handle things from there.”

A reservation that Zajac had about dating long distance stemmed from a fear of limiting each other due to the challenges of being apart.

“We’re going to be taking each other away from our respective locations by visiting [Tufts or NYU]. But we always know that it’s worth it, and my ask of him was to [evaluate] when it feels worth it, and be aware if it ever feels like he’s leaving there too much,” Zajac said. “And then I would do the same, because it was important [to] me for us to be an addition of possibility instead of a restriction.”

Moreover, Zajac and her boyfriend are non-monogamous, in that they have an open relationship that is romantically exclusive. With the line of communication always open, this has not posed much of a challenge to them; rather, Zajac cites social surroundings as being the most pronounced struggle while dating long distance.

“Sometimes we’re in different phases of our social lives. Last summer, pretty much all of my friends were out of town … versus all of his friends were together in the place that he lived. So it's kind of like the separation exaggerates social differences, because it becomes more of a comparison,” Zajac said.

Alternatively, a positive side effect of being separated for long periods of time can be personal growth.

“I think being long distance helps you [get] to know yourself better,” Kwan said. “I guess that's also kind of what you learn in college too, right? … You kind of learn that you don't have to be dependent on the other person, which I think is pretty important for a healthy relationship.”  

With a 14-hour time difference to navigate, Setiadji and her boyfriend swear by honesty and regular online communication to keep their relationship thriving. In a long-distance relationship, Setiadji claims that there is no room for passive aggression.

“We call morning and night, and that is kind of a schedule,” Setiadji said. “Throughout the day, we text each other even though the other one’s sleeping, … that’s why we use Snapchat because we can send photos and videos. And then, communication-wise, if someone's upset, I think we just say it — we’re not ones to bottle it up.”

In this day and age, long-distance relationships very often involve keeping in touch virtually. Zajac and their boyfriend habitually remind each other that they are a priority for each other, so as not to feel neglected. However, this inevitably incurs extra time spent on their phones.

“I feel like communication through text is easy, because I’m not wanting to throw my phone at a brick wall and lock it in the box all day. Even though sometimes I want to, I think the communication is worth the screen time,” Zajac said. “It’s also an understanding that, if we feel like we’re having too much screen time, we can say, ‘Hey, it's kind of hard for me to be focusing on my schoolwork.’”

What are some ways that long-distance couples can spend quality time with each other virtually? Setiadji and Kwan offered some ideas, including watching shows and movies through Netflix Party, playing online games or making plans in advance for the next time they meet up with their partner.

Occasionally, Zajac and her boyfriend will visit each other at their respective colleges. Even though they have to commute a number of hours each way, the trips are something to look forward to and provide a sense of excitement in their relationship.

“I’m happiest in Boston, at Tufts. And he’s happiest in New York,” Zajac said. “I like that we get to have a little tour of the other person’s life for a weekend. And it’s a little bit more immersive during the times of visit than I feel like it would be if we were in the same place. And it's just a more diverse experience.”

Nevertheless, being long distance is not a preferred choice. According to Zajac, the positive aspects of dating long distance are mere silver linings. There is also the pressure of uncertain futures. 

“We would both prefer to be short distance, at least for a short time in the future,” Zajac said. “That picture is important, in that we both know we want it, [but] not that we’re both expecting to see it happen, or holding each other down … We have big ambitions for what we want to do in our personal lives and in our [careers], and we don’t know what that’s gonna look like.”

As seniors, Kwan and her boyfriend are working through this time of change coming up. After graduation, Kwan will be returning to Hong Kong while her boyfriend will be living in New York.

“We’re [still] going to be in different places, and I guess we’re still working through that, because we don’t really know what it’s going to be like. Especially with work, … it’s not school anymore so that’s going to be an entirely different pace of life,” Kwan said.

As a piece of advice, Setiadji emphasized that the decision to date long distance has to be mutual and steadfast.

“If you really want to be in a long distance relationship, you both have to really want it. It cannot come from just one side, because it will just end badly,” Setiadji said. “It’s also important, I think, for any long-term relationship in general, that you need to have fun.”

Julie Jampel, director of training and the continuing education director at the Tufts Counseling and Mental Health Service, shared in an email to the Daily some aspects worth reflecting on before heading into a long-distance relationship.

Dr. Jampel wrote, “Long distance relationships might work for some people but not others, and they might work for a given person at some points in their life but not other points. Questions to consider include: How important is the relationship to the person? How mutual are those feelings? Is it this specific relationship that is worth holding onto or mostly the fact of having a romantic partner in one’s life? How long will it need to be long-distance?”

As with most situations, every person — or every couple — is different. A common thread that seems to surface again and again in these conversations on long-distance relationships is the importance of communication. Hurdles of distance must be evaluated within the context of each relationship, for there are no one-size-fits-all answers.

“I think it’s not something you can really plan for, because life happens,” Kwan said. “You just have to deal with it. And yeah, take it one step at a time, because you can’t predict what’s going to happen.”