Does this courtship sound familiar to you?
“We used Instant messenger a lot. But sometimes you just want to get away from your computer, so then we’d text. But fighting while you text is so tedious you may as well just get back on IM.”
This description is from Sandra Proulx, who maintained a long-distance relationship with her boyfriend for two years, before they moved in together in New Hampshire.
Their relationship reflects one of the big changes that millennials have brought to dating: The long-distance relationship. It’s becoming more and more mainstream as young people increasingly rejigger what it means to step out into adult life.
The trend starts before college, when young people are tied to technology, communicating with people all over the world, and making friends with people they’ve never met in person.
Then college comes, and the experience includes much more travel than it used to. Junior year abroad used to be the time to travel. Now there’s also a summer internship for most students, and many students travel to another state every summer for a coveted internship of one sort or another. Among college students 78% say they have been in a long-distance relationship.
After that, traveling for a job seems normal. Thirty years ago, people would generally look for a job out of college in a city they wanted to build a life in. Today, the first job is just a first step.
And millenniels are experimenters. They see their twenties as a time to try out a bunch of different jobs, and they also see it as a time to try out a bunch of different cities. It used to be that you could tell where someone was living by the area code on their phone. Now that area code on their cell phone only tells you where they started.
Additionally, millenniels are acutely aware of the problems generation X encountered from putting off having children. Baby-boomers mothers told gen-X daughters: “Don’t worry about getting married, you have time. Focus on your career. You can have kids later.”
Now we have a whole industry of women penning their ordeal of trying to get pregnant. And it’s pretty clear that IVF is not something that makes putting off having kids til age 40 something to plan for.
So the typical gen-Y graduate plans on being married around age thirty. Which means that while he or she is gallivanting from job to job and city to city, there is also, a parallel hunt for a stable partner.
Enter the long-distance romance.
To be sure, not everyone likes doing the long-distance routine, and New Kid on the Hallway lays out a lot of reasons why. But anecdotal evidence suggests that long-distance relationships have become mainstream for people not only in college, but after college. And, in fact, when it comes to making two careers and one relationship work across state lines, there are some best practices. Here are three:
1. Have a plan for being together eventually, and be flexible.
Ben Morris, founder of Boston Pedicab, spent a semester of school in San Diego where he met his girlfriend, Carolyn Soohoo. Two months after meeting her, he went back to Northeastern to finish college, they agreed to maintain a long-distance relationship while Morris finished school and then, he’d move to San Diego.
Knowing that they had a plan to be together made them committed to daily, hour-long phone calls. “It’s not like you can kill an hour together watching TV,” says Soohoo, “in order to be together we had to be talking.”
But before he got to San Diego, he founded Boston Pedicab, and Soohoo ended up coming to Boston instead. It was a big move for Soohoo. But she points out that learning to live together was not that hard because she and Morriss knew each other very well, “Because of the distance, we were forced to talk about things that would come up a lot later in other relationships.”
2. Get comfortable with deep conversation that flows electronically.
The ubiquitous Blackberrry is evidence that technology has allowed people to blur the lines of work life and personal life. And the better you can use technology the more you can blur the lines. For example, Twitter – technology to update people about what you’re doing all the time — makes IM look like low-maintenance communication. And if you’re good with a wiki then collaboration with people you can’t see doesn’t seem that hard.
Much of the technology that makes the workplace telecommuter-friendly to young people makes a telecommuter relationship possible as well. And, perhaps the most surprising thing is that these relationships seem to work out.
Proulx says that a lot of their communication took place within the 160-character limit of a text message. “When you only see the person once a month, you figure out how to write a whole novel’s worth of information in 160 characters.”
3. Be honest with yourself when it’s going nowhere.
Elina Furman is the author of the new book Kiss and Run: The Single, Picky, and Indecisive Girl’s Guide to Overcoming Her Fear of Commitment. Not surprisingly, she has experience with long-distance relationships.
But hers lasted five years, but it didn’t really go anywhere. “I thought it was the best thing in the world. But I was much less committed than I realized. The long-distance allowed me to gloss over issues and keep a safe distance without ever having to commit.”
Not that all dead-end relationships are bad. Furman is the first to say that having a boyfriend who was generally out of the picture probably helped her career: “I had the security of the relationship without the responsibilities of a relationship, and that freed me up to concentrate on my career.”
But as she got closer to age thirty, she got more interested in the idea of settling down. And in hindsight she recommends that you ask yourself: “Are you making a plan for living in the same zip code, or are you just coasting?”
Either is fine, but the key to success – in both the long-distance relationship as well as the careers it accommodates – is to know what you are aiming for so that you can ask yourself if you’re getting it.