You Need Help: Will Studying Abroad Break Us Up?

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Q: Me and my girlfriend love each other dearly. However, I have been given the opportunity to study abroad, which may give me wonderful career chances I otherwise may not get. She is unable to accompany me for two years. We’ve tried long distance before for six months, and we barely got through it. In addition, she and I have different life plans (kids/place to live). I want to be with her, but I do not want to suffer through long distance again if we’re only going split up afterwards because of our different life plans. We are both afraid to confront this issue. What should I do?


A: Hello friend! First off, congratulations on being given the opportunity to study abroad! I studied abroad in Paris as an undergrad and I believe it changed me both for the better and for good. I recommend it to anyone who can make it happen. But I’m sorry you’re also feeling all these tough, mixed feelings as well. What could otherwise be an unmitigated celebration of getting this opportunity is bogged down a bit by relationship woes, and that sucks. There’s a lot going on here. Let’s unpack all of it.

First off, studying abroad and long distance, those aren’t necessarily death knells for a relationship, especially if part of what you love about each other is your drive and ambition. That’s how it is with my fiancée and I — even as we are getting married, we’re encouraging each other to apply for opportunities in other cities and other countries. Part of the price of admission for both of us is our focus on our careers, and because it’s the price of admission for both of us, it’s easier to deal with. If I apply for something that takes me to Europe for a year and I get it, we’ll figure it out. If she applies for something that takes her to Canada, well, we’ll figure that out too. But never will either one of us tell the other not to do something she really wants to, because neither one of us would appreciate being told not to do all the cool things we want to in our careers. And both of us have some pretty exciting goals.

While some of those goals are the same (we’re both on board for kids, for instance), a lot of them are very different from each other — I want to go back to live in Paris for a time, she does not. She wants to apply for opportunities in a lot of different US cities, some of which I actively dislike. But even in their disparity, what we have in common is our drive to pursue them. I love that about her, that she’s a genius with a badass career trajectory. She loves that I want to wander around the world telling people’s stories. We love each other so vigorously, so wholeheartedly. Every we day we get to support each other on our individual journeys, whether or not we’re right next to each other, is a joy. The rest, we’ll figure out.

I wanted to say that, that whole rambling paragraph, for those who may be reading this and grappling with some of the same issues — study abroad and long distance won’t kill a relationship if that relationship is strong and healthy. What I’m hearing here, however, isn’t that. When I first read your question, I thought this was going to be a simple talk about the price of admission for this one moment in your life. About how, if you both care about each other, it’s a question of whether or not you’re willing to pay the price to ride the ride — that price might be long distance for two years, or conversely it might be staying home from this great opportunity (which I am CERTAINLY NOT suggesting you do — such a thing almost always ends in resentment). But after your study abroad concern, you jumped to another one entirely: the lack of commonality in your goals. For some, that might not be a death knell either — it’s all about weight. For instance, back to the thing with the kids — I didn’t want them, or rather I wouldn’t have wanted them if my fiancée hadn’t. Whether or not I have kids in my life just isn’t that important to me. But it was the price of admission for my fiancée, and now I’m really psyched to do that with her (eventually, in five or ten years, timing is everything). I would be psyched to have them or not. Place to live is the same — I’m a writer, I can live a lot of different places. I can also travel a lot and still do my job. My fiancée goes to a building and works at a job where she has to be there, in the same physical space, every day. The way we decide on a place to live will be heavily weighted that way, because its more important to one party than it is to the other. We haven’t run up against a price of admission that we can’t pay for each other. But for you, it sounds like what’s happening is that each of your prices of admission—the goals and achievements you each want — are looking mutually exclusive to you as you progress in your relationship. This question isn’t actually about long distance or study abroad. This isn’t a simple price of admission talk, it’s a complex one.

Friend, that sucks because it feels like “well if it weren’t for this one thing, we’d be together.” But the things you want out of your life, the deal breakers, those prices, aren’t actually separable from the rest of you. They’re part of you. And for her, it’s the same. If she wants to live on a farm forever and that’s one of the most important aspects of her dreams, I’m sorry. That is a price of admission problem. And you probably will break up if you cannot pay it. And yo, what we don’t talk about is how totally okay that is. A lot of times we fall into this weird, “well if she loved me she would’ve sacrificed this one thing for me” vortex, or the feeling of guilt that you were unable to sacrifice that one thing for her, but that’s bullshit. It’s part of you, and sometimes you gotta break up because those important parts don’t fit together. I’m reminded of the (straight) couple that announced to their friends that they were breaking up via DIY music video a couple years back. A bunch of people bemoaned it as hipster nonsense or a grab for attention, but I don’t think it was. I think was actually really mature — sometimes the price of admission is mutually exclusive. It’s not about it being too high or reasonable or unreasonable or whatever, it’s literally that both prices can’t be paid at the same time. It’s as if you had to purchase a ticket for the wooden roller coaster and you had to purchase a ticket for the spinny teacups, but they were only each running once—at the same time.

But friend, I think it’s beyond even that. I hear no joy at spending time with her in the way you phrase your question: “I do not want to suffer through long distance again if we’re only going split up afterwards.” I hear, well, would this be a waste of time? If you’re thinking about your relationship in terms of wasted time, you’re about to break up. I’d bet money if I had any. You are already telegraphing the break up. You are essentially asking permission to break up. Moreover, if both of you are scared to confront the issue as you say, I’d also bet nonexistent money that both of you know what’s coming.

So what to do? Well, I’m an internet person to you and do not have to live with the consequences of your decision. You do. I will not explicitly tell you to finish reading this and go break up with this woman. In the end, you have to decide if you want to that for yourself. But I will tell you that if I felt like my relationship couldn’t survive this kind of career focus, this kind of long distance, this price of admission problem, then I’d take that not as a problem with study abroad or with the options before me, but as a fundamental problem with my relationship. And I’d act accordingly — with a scheduled conversation. If I were in your shoes and I was going to have this tough talk with this other spectacular human who has done nothing wrong, just as you haven’t, I’d consider having the tough conversation in a way that blames no one. The same way that the music video acknowledges that break ups suck and it’s no one’s fault — this situation could get messy, but neither one of you is to blame. I’d sit down and talk about the price of admission for each of you, honestly and earnestly. And then you’d both decide if the prices were mutually exclusive. And if either one of you feels that they are, well then, it’s probably breakup time. But it’s not blame time. You part ways and no one gets shit talked, no friends are asked to choose sides, and you don’t burn the bridge down behind you. Because that’s life. Good luck.

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A.E. Osworth is part-time Faculty at The New School, where they teach undergraduates the art of digital storytelling. Their novel, We Are Watching Eliza Bright, about a game developer dealing with harassment (and narrated collectively by a fictional subreddit), is forthcoming from Grand Central Publishing (April 2021) and is available for pre-order now. They have an eight-year freelancing career and you can find their work on Autostraddle (where they used to be the Geekery Editor), Guernica, Quartz, Electric Lit, Paper Darts, Mashable, and drDoctor, among others.

A.E. has written 543 articles for us.

15 Comments

  1. Life is actually quite short – follow your passions… angels will follow, make your choices and live them to the fullest: ‘what if I had..’ is a game for drunks; the only difference between adventures is the stories you tell in the old folks’ home. Leave no room for doubt, fill the spaces with love – puppy love, people love; love in all its guises … love until the end of time, and when the end comes: love the time you had. Which choice will make you feel that?

  2. Such spot-on advice, Ali! I totally relate to your feelings about kids (as I sit here with a fetus taking residence in my body). I did over time go from vehemently opposed to “that would be OK” and I think it’s absolutely about what you call the “price of admission.” However, I wasn’t always as upfront and cool as you were in your relationship.

    When we were wee queers, we were much more like this Anon. We really didn’t think through this stuff much and we knew we had different goals and wants and needs. It did (in addition to other factors) lead to us having an unhealthy and unstable relationship and we had a really serious breakup (and lots of on-and-off ones) that was literally the best thing we ever did for each other. I’m actually still with that person, but we came back to each other as whole people who could talk about and negotiate our needs and wants and we’re so, so happy now because of it.

    So anyway, this advice is rad. Honestly, I’d say to the Anon to do the study abroad because you’re going to regret it if you don’t. Whether you break up or not is up to you, but it sounds like you already know what the right answer is. I’ve always known that it’s time to break up when I starting thinking “Should we break up?” out loud in my head. That’s a sure sign. I never think that anymore. Now my inside voice says, “I’m sure we can get through this.” If you’re inside voice is questioning, it’s probably time to make a decision that will save you both a lot of heartache later. <3

  3. This advice is great, I totally agree with all of it. And as someone who has been through this before, if you decide to break up make it a *clean* break.

    For us the writing was on the wall for our break up, although officially it was just because I didn’t want to do long distance while I was abroad. We stayed in contact cause we were still friends in our eyes, but really it began a push and pull song and dance that lasted two years and left some pretty significant emotional scars. I sometimes wonder if I would have gotten more out my abroad experience if I hadn’t been dealing with so much drama back home. So I definitely recommend NOT doing that.

    • Same. I started a brand new relationship with the paperwork already laid out that I was going to be in Europe for 6 months, and would be living permanently in a different province from her upon returning to Canada. She heartily paid that price of admission in exchange for me accepting her shitty internet for a long-distance relationship. It was honestly the easiest and most rewarding conversations I’ve ever had with a romantic partner, and I consider this time apart like a down payment for a future that we both want to share but can’t have in the moment. We get to live our own separate lives without any regret or restrictions while building something for later.

      Reading your advice, Ali, has just made me feel very confident that I’m making the right choices every day with doing long-distance. So, thanks.

  4. My fiance and I had to actually sit down and really talk about the idea of me wanting to travel abroad in the future. It took a lot of honesty on both our parts so that we knew how it would affect both of us. She supports me 100% after she realized why it was important for me to do it on my own and I support her 100% for aspirations I never knew she had because those are important to her. If your partner can’t understand why it is important and support you, they probably won’t be supportive for other important things too. Support is one of the best ways to say I love you.

  5. Heyhey Ali! Thank you so so much for your response, and for taking the time to deal with my stuff. Its still kinda a bummer to read, as I’m sure you can imagine. This is certainly great food for thought for a while, and I’m going to read it a couple times over again, thank you. One thing I do want to correct myself on though is my word choice of “suffer.” At first I thought it must’ve been my brain telling me something I wasn’t ready to admit, but I have to conclude that my haste in translating got to me as English is my second language. I didn’t mean to imply “suffering” in my going away for two years. I know however that it will suck, from this earlier experience (which was a foreign exchange on my part, btw, so I do agree with you from experience that these opportunities are freaking amazing). We didn’t have fights, we didn’t blame each other for anything, but we missed each other so much that being apart and not being able to physically hug or something hurt incredibly. Doing this for two years solid seems like “suffering” in that perspective, but it is because we connect so awesomely on an emotional level that its just heartbreaking to be apart.

    So that’s a mistake on my part. You are spot on about the “price of admission” part though, as much as it pains to say me. And even though I’m not ready to admit it to her just yet, I do think you are right in suggesting we sit down and confront the issue–even if that results in us going our separate ways.

  6. I have watched friends go through these conversations/breakups and they are rough. It’s hard to think about your long-term needs and be honest about them when that could mean ending something that is currently good.

    But STUDY ABROAD!!! True, you can maybe travel later. But it will never be as easy to up and leave for several months as it is now. Student visas are soooo much easier to get than work visas! Take full advantage.

    When my BFF went on a summer study abroad, I jokingly “explained” to her and her boyfriend that with a 7 hour time difference, she could pick up a Greek boy and still have a few hours to call America and break up with her boyfriend before it ever happened, so it wouldn’t be cheating. He took the joke pretty well and was just like, “Rachel, that is not how time and space work. Trust me, I’m an engineer.”

    But then I felt like an ass because although she didn’t pick up any Greek boys, the distance made her realize that they didn’t want the same things in the long-term and she broke up with him when she got back. Which was horrible and many months of crying followed, but now they are both married to people who are much better suited to them.

  7. I really like the advice here! I do think it’s important to remember though that little time with someone you love is really wasted – my partner and I are in a similar boat, one of us wanting kids and the other doesn’t, and I couldn’t deal with living the rest of my life here and they don’t want to live anywhere else. These are non-negotiable things and eventually we’ll have to break up over it… but not now. Now I can live here for a bit, and she doesn’t want kids right now, so for now we’re just loving each other. In a strange way I think we feel closer knowing our time is limited.

    Has anyone else had similar experiences?

  8. I broke up my three-year long marriage because she absolutely did not want kids and because there was no end in sight for our long distance. We were/are still in our twenties, but I knew her well enough to know she would not budge on this issue, and neither us of really had the gumption to tackle immigration (neither of us was really psyched to live in another country, also). Should we have gotten married at all then? No, but that’s life.

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