The New College Relationship Phenomena & Why You Should Be Paying Attention

Why Are So Many College Freshman Trying To Keep Their High School Relationship Going?

As a parent, you probably knew people who dated in high school back when we came of age in the 70s and 80s,  then tried to make it work when they went off to college. It typically lasted until Thanksgiving Break. By that point, the distance, difficulty and sheer desire to just be somewhere new would intervene and most of these relationships would end. Those that lasted beyond that at most made it to spring time.

After all, how many people do you know who wound up marrying their high school sweetheart? Very very few…!

My wife’s Grandparents met in high school, married and stayed together for 70 years… of course they met in 1920 and back then every one was getting married and settling down by the time they were in the 20s. They met in Chicago, married in Chicago and stayed in Chicago their whole lives. It’s what people did back then.

Not too deep down, we all knew when we were teens that while young love and first love was intense, it was also not going to last forever. 

Something has shifted amongst today’s teens. An astounding number of them are desperately  trying to stay together in long distance relationships when they go off to college. They do this in spite of all the discouragement and advice they are receiving not to do it.

Why then are such as astounding number of today’s high school graduates trying to defy the odds and make their high school relationship work even though it is long distance and even though the odds are stacked against it?

In the last year or two,  this has literally become one of the most common topics of discussion I am having with high school  graduates turned college freshman… I had two more such conversations just this week!

It was always something that might come up in my work with this age group, but not with the frequency and intensity that it does now… nowhere near!

As my mentor and colleague Joseph Riggio said “See it once, you notice it. See it twice, pay attention. See it a third time, it’s a pattern.”  And I would add in now that I am hearing this for more like the 30th time:


And it sucks.

  • It sucks tons of time and attention away from just being able to be in this new place. The daily FaceTime and texting alone can literally take hours a day of their time and attention away from being present in this new place.
  • It sucks tons of emotional energy out as they go on this intense roller coaster of what happens when they are apart and from seeing each other’s Instagram and snapchat stories, wondering who they are with, jealously wondering if other guys or girls are flirting with them, insecurely worried their partner will find someone new or is having so much fun at their new school that they’d rather be free from a relationship.
  • It makes the contrast of the challenge of leaving home even more intense because they go back and forth between the comfort of the familiar and known vs the discomfort of the unfamiliar. Many times now I hear stories of this leading to scheduling weekend trips to leave their school and go see their girlfriend or boyfriend, and even wanting to leave their college all together to go transfer there or be closer.
  • They are typically making the biggest mistake people make: Making the journey of life about staying in the comfortable familiar, rather than stepping fully into the journey of their lives,  even it when it demands they leave behind what is comfortable and known.
Why Are They Holding On Even Though Long Distance Sucks?

I’ve thought a lot about this and have come to several conclusions:

  1. The pervasive ease of staying in contact that modern technology offers, gives a false sense of being together. Back in our day, we waited for the payphone to be available. It made long distance 10000 times harder. Now they can tech each other all day even if they can’t actually touch.
  2. INSTEAD OF HOOKING UP, TO SUDDENLY TRULY CONNECT… In this age of thousands of electronic friend counters (like Instagram and Facebook) and in this era where there is a pervasive casualness even cavalierness about sex, the moment these kids actually experience and feel what it is like to have the REAL THING… REAL INTIMACY… REAL CONNECTION..  they are overwhelmed by how enriching it is and feels compared to the shallow, hollow and falseness of what they had been doing prior.
  3. They work so hard to get the glory of grades and coveted college admissions and all the external markers of success, yet feeling satisfied on the inside in the way they do in a relationship is so overwhelming that everything else pales in comparison…
Such is young love.. always has been, always will be.

And there is a much deeper part to this… one that they are finally able to begin to process… that life is impermanent and there are things that matter and make it worth living, and things that don’t… and yet we live in a society that values far more all that doesn’t and they have been subscribing to it and caught up in it.

When they find this love connection, they also  suddenly come to know the deep loneliness and emptiness they had been living with but had been unaware they were feeling… they know it because what had been so familiar and normal, is now absent. And what is now suddenly – and finally – present, feels so “REAL”…

The pursuit of attention, like the pursuit of material goods, provides at best fleeting satisfaction… it is never what people wish they’d had spent more time pursuing and obsessing about when they look back on their lives, and this offers Wisdom.

People always look back and wish only for these kinds of things: To have had and held meaningful relationships  even more closely. . . to have taken more risks to go after their dreams. . .  and to have had more gratitude for the privilege it was to be alive.

No one ever lays on their death bed and says “My only regret is that I didn’t have more casual meaningless sex with people who didn’t care about me and who I didn’t care for… or I wish that i had spent more time finding ways to give me ‘likes’ and ‘thumbs up’ on my  instatwitterfacechat…. or I wish I’d spent more time watching porn or playing video games…”

It is this deep profound human truth:

That coming-of-age and growing old depends in part on having growingly complex and deepening relationships, developing them, working through conflicts, finding ways to make it work, and yes, moving on from them when it is time. This is work. It is not always easy. And it takes PRACTICE…

In the old days, before a few years ago, boys and girls had crushes, they fell head over heals in love.. then they broke up and moved on… and so by the time they were having a serious girlfriend or boyfriend senior year, it not the first time they had experienced the rush of hormones and shifts in brain chemistry that happens when we deeply connect… They knew by this point that each such relationship enriches our lives and offers us invaluable learning…

They also had experienced what its like for them to end and to realize that they get over it and move on and everything turns out fine! They experienced what its like to have learned from previous relationships and not make the same mistake again.

In other words realizing that not only can they live without this person, but they needed to go through that to learn the invaluable lessons that allows them to grow into the person they want to be and who one day can actually have a healthy life long committed relationship.

Perhaps most importantly they learn that while these early relationships  add to our lives and growth and learning, they are not what makes our lives.

What makes our lives is to have the courage and boldness to fully go on the journey … to find out who we are and what we are capable of in the best ways possible… and when relationships help move that forward, than these are the relationships we keep and invest in and never take for granted…and when one finally comes along that becomes our life journey, then we drop everything and marry that person and do whatever the work is necessary to help one another continue to grow.

But when relationships actually impede us from growing, then we must let go and move on. And most of these long distance ones they cling to impede them – and they either know it or soon find out.

They keep them from being able to be fully present where they are.

As I often describe it to students:

“You are going to be spontaneously hanging out with a group of kids in the dorm, having a great time and someone will suggest you go out to listen to music as their friends band is playing at some local club… You will be all excited to go when all of a sudden RING RING RING you look down and your boyfriend wants to FaceTime… now you have to step out to a quiet place and have whatever talk he wants to have because he misses you and has been thinking about you and wants to tell you about his day…and while you FaceTime away with him, your potential new friends go on their way to the club, without you…

But Friendships are formed in the’10,000 you had to be there moments’ and when you are on that FaceTime call or in that two hour textathon on your phone, you are not There with the people you could be building bonds with… and the hours add up while they bond and build friendships without you… So when you look up and it seems like every one around you seems to have more friends and is happier there than you, to the extent it is true, realize that it is because they did what it took to make this happen, while you have done what it takes to ensure you are stuck in the past.”

Often these relationships drag them down as well  because they are often driven by the fear that “I don’t know that I will be okay without you” or a belief that “this is the best there will ever be so I can’t let go of it”…

And they become a drug that wards off the awful – yet profoundly useful and critically important feeling – of being homesick, disconnected from the comfortable and familiar and forced to venture outwards towards new people and new adventures… the kind that necessarily precedes and feeds a quantum growth in self-confidence and self-reliance.

“But Our Relationship Is Different…”

If it is, then it is the 1 in a 1,000,000.  Again, how many people marry their high school sweetheart and stay together for life?

What I tell my clients is that if you are 100% sure that this is the person you want to marry and spend your life with and you are fully ready to make that commitment and act on it now, then by all means, go for it.

If on the other hand you have any hesitation about either this being the right person or your own readiness (or theirs), then let go and move on.

Thus the reality is, no, most likely yours isn’t the exception.

It is the norm. It won’t be the love of your life. It won’t last forever.

And even if it has the potential to be that relationship, you must let him or her go have the experiences they need to have to grow into that person you can one day marry, just as there is so much more growing up you have to do.

So What Is My Advice To A Student Contemplating “Staying Together”?

It won’t surprise you. As hard as it may be, let it go. End it before you go off to college. Then cut off ALL SOCIAL MEDIA and all contact whatsoever. Treat these next few months like Basic Training… no contact, just being where you are with whomever you are with… go through whatever withdrawal and loneliness and discomfort and homesickness… and go forward BEING WHERE YOU ARE… BEING PRESENT AS BEST YOU CAN.

There will be times – maybe many – that it will royally suck. Go through it anyway.

When everyone else around you is running to the phone to call their safety net who will tell them what they want to hear, BE THE EXCEPTION… only call people who will tell you what you NEED to hear… as I am doing right now.

If you do this, what awaits you on the other side will elevate your self-confidence, your sense of security will soar, you will develop tremendous clarity about who you are, what you want and what matters to you to make your life a success – your own personal definition of success, not anyone else’s…

And you will not wind up alone as you fear. You will instead move to a kind of peace and connectedness that few people ever attain.

If you think you are mature enough to make a long distance relationship last, then you first must be mature enough to let one go.


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