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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.