Grace Lower | Dec 21, 2020
Studying abroad creates the perfect framework for a coming-of-age story. A hero, or heroine, is uprooted from their familiar life and embarks on a journey to an unknown place. There’s no saying what they’ll experience, who they’ll meet, and what they’ll discover about themselves along the way. But occasionally, that study abroad narrative has a complicating factor: something that makes the journey a little less like something out of a storybook. For me, that factor was the boyfriend I’d leave behind for 6 months while I studied in Spain.
I had been dating my boyfriend for a little less than a year when I shared the news that I’d be spending a semester overseas. He was thrilled for me, and he immediately agreed that it was a goal worth pursuing. But we knew we had our work cut out for us. In the months leading up to my trip, we devised ways to keep in touch and support one another from across the Atlantic.
Today, that same boyfriend and I are approaching our four-year anniversary. Although my time abroad had its challenges, the distance ultimately brought us closer together. My travels challenged us to communicate openly and honestly, and trust one another while I was away. After looking back my experience—and chatting with fellow study abroad alumni about how they handled their own relationships—I found a few key tips for maintaining a healthy, happy relationship while abroad.
Before I left for Spain, my boyfriend and I thought up all sorts of ways to stay in touch while I was away. Some ideas, like “texting” over Facebook Messenger and going on “Skype dates,” were a hit. Other ideas, like weekly postcards, fizzled out shortly after I had arrived. What mattered most was the mutual effort we made to stay connected. I always recommend that prospective study abroad students establish an agreed-upon time, and frequency, for communication with their significant others. Keep in mind that it’s best to be realistic about your availability. Rescheduling chats when necessary, rather than letting them fall by the wayside, will help you and your partner prioritize one another while you’re away.
All this talk of priorities brings us to the next—and arguably most important—tip. Although your partner is an important part of your life, you should not feel guilty if you want to focus on your travels while you’re abroad. Occasionally, that might mean rescheduling a video chat or missing a celebration back home. But when you look back on your trip, will you regret skipping a weekend trip to Lisbon to spend another night screen-sharing Netflix with your partner? Try to make the most of your time abroad, but be considerate of your partner’s feelings. Be gracious if you need to miss an event, and make sure your S.O. knows how grateful you are for their support. Ultimately, it’s a matter of balancing your commitment to your loved one with the joys of travel—and that looks a little different for everyone.
If communication is the foundation for a strong relationship, trust is what holds the relationship together. And when you and your partner are thousands of miles apart, that mutual trust becomes all the more essential. It’s difficult to spend months away from your loved one, and that distance becomes all the more agonizing if you start expecting minute-by-minute updates from them. Trust that your partner values your relationship as much as you do, and give them the space they need to enjoy their life back home.
As cheesy as it sounds, one of my favorite parts of studying abroad was sending letters to my boyfriend. I’ve always loved writing, so jotting down a memory on the back of a postcard was a fun way to reflect on my latest adventure. And while I was away, getting letters and packages from my boyfriend never failed to brighten my mood—especially on days when I was feeling homesick. Today, my boyfriend and I still have stacks of notes and postcards from my time abroad, and it’s always fun to look through them together and reminisce.
My semester in Spain was a fantastic experience, with one key exception: I was never able to find spicy food! I tried international restaurants, grocery stores, and food stalls—no matter where I went, I could only find foods with mild- to medium-levels of spice. It was infuriating. Then one day, I came home to a package. Inside was a bottle of Sriracha, along with a note from my boyfriend! I was elated, and I spent the next few weeks slathering Sriracha on any savory foods I could find. Thoughtful surprises like that bottle of Sriracha are a simple gesture, but they’re essential in maintaining a joyful long-distance relationship.
Sometimes, a quick call just isn’t enough. If you’re looking to spend a weekend afternoon or a weekday night with your significant other, there are plenty of apps and platforms out there to help you get started. You could take your S.O. on a virtual tour of your host city by sending them snaps from all your favorite places. Or you could use a video chat platform like Rabbit to binge-watch your favorite TV shows together. As thrilling as travel can be, taking time to create new memories with your partner will help you feel closer than ever.
Another way to keep your significant other in the loop is to record your thoughts in a travel blog. Regular blog posts can help you preserve your memories, while sharing them with the people who matter most. In between calls and chat sessions, your partner can read about your travels from your perspective. And no worries if writing isn’t your thing—documenting your memories on social media or uploading a video of your travels to YouTube will keep your S.O. up to speed on the memories you’re making.
As a traveler, it’s normal to experience homesickness while you’re away. Although it’s important to prioritize your own wellbeing, remember that your absence impacts your partner, too. They’re missing someone they care about, and frequent updates on all the fun you’re having without them might sting more than you’d expect. As a way to build the excitement for your return, spend some time planning a few local adventures for the two of you to try once you’re home. From sampling entrees at a new restaurant to attending a nearby music festival, there’s plenty of exploring left to do when your travels come to an end. Once you’ve wrapped up your time abroad, you and your S.O. can get started on your next great adventure.
Grace Lower is a recent college graduate with a love for writing and an incurable case of wanderlust. When she's not exploring new places, Grace enjoys teaching English as a Second Language, making terrible puns, and running incredibly long distances at incredibly slow speeds.