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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Break Room

Going Long Distance for Your Career? How to Keep the Relationship Strong

One of the things many people are not excited about when it comes to business school is starting a long distance relationship. It makes sense: The school that is the best fit for you might not be in a city that is a good fit professionally for your partner. But since business school really only takes 18 months, a lot of couples decide to stay together even if they don’t both move.

While long-distance relationships can be very difficult, they are definitely doable, and they can even strengthen your relationship. I talked to a number of people in my class who have successfully dated from afar this year and asked them to share what’s worked for them. Whether you’re temporarily going long distance for grad school or for another work-related move, it’s great advice to keep in mind as you get ready to take the leap.

Set Realistic Expectations

It’s easy to come up with a rosy view of the way this will go—you’ll see each other every weekend, you’ll FaceTime every night—but, of course, real life often gets in the way of best-laid plans. Before you leave, make sure you talk realistically about what you think the year is going to look like and how much time you both will have. For example, you probably aren’t going to be able to take a trip the weekend before midterms, even if it is a long weekend. It’s also worth discussing how you’ll handle it when last-minute things—like a study session for an upcoming exam or dinner with friends—gets in the way of your planned time together. It’s bound to happen eventually, and it’s important to talk about now to avoid someone feeling left behind later.

Another way to structure this conversation is to think about the minimum amount of time you both truly expect from each other on a weekly basis. Does this look like a phone call a day, a long quality talk on the weekend, constant small updates via text, or some combination of these things? Setting your baseline honestly will go a long way toward making the year easier—and keeping you both happier.

Talk Frequently

Of course, it’s important to put in the quality time. How you two communicate is up to the both of you, but you should be purposeful about it so that you both feel like you’re getting the attention you need. For example, one of my good friends hates making small talk and prefers to “save up” conversation topics and have longer phone calls with her husband a couple times a week. Others, however, like having frequent touch points and make sure to text first thing in the morning and throughout the day. A lot of people like to schedule at least one quick conversation during the day (either right before bed or first thing in the morning), so you can at least touch base. Many couples are dealing with time zone differences, which can make this tricky, but it’s nice to be able to stick to a schedule.

There are, of course, other ways to communicate. One of my friends and her fiancé think that it’s really important to see each other, so they spend a couple minutes on FaceTime every morning and send pictures back and forth throughout the week. Another texts his girlfriend every morning to set five minutes to talk sometime during the day because they live in different time zones, so the “chat before bed” strategy they initially tried didn’t work out.

Make Them Feel Like Part of Your Experience

It’s extraordinarily important that you do everything you can to integrate your partner into your grad school experience, even if he or she isn’t living near campus. Going to grad school will likely be one of the biggest decisions you make in your adult life, and your partner needs to be able to participate in it as much as possible, both so that he or she can support you and so that he or she can be a part of the journey you’re getting ready to start. While this takes investment, it’s one of the key things you can do to make sure the two of you stay connected.

One way to do this is to talk about people from the very beginning so that he or she can learn the names and faces of your new friends as soon as possible. You can also try to prioritize visits during the fall so that your partner can meet people early and be around as everyone is just getting to know each other.

Of course, it’s easy to get trapped in the b-school bubble, so make sure you’re also asking your partner about what’s going on in his or her life back home! It’s important that you both get balanced air time so that you can also understand what he or she is going through. A good way to do this is simple, but effective: Just make sure to ask “How is your day going?” and follow up on one of the things your partner says before hanging up the phone. It sounds mechanical, but multiple people in my class have found this to be an effective check to ensure that they’re not dominating the conversation.

Plan Your Trips

It’s also key that you plan out times to see each other before you go off to school—this will help break the time up and give you both something to look forward to when you’re missing each other. In order to do this, you’ll need to talk about how frequently you want to see each other, how you are going to balance the traveling with school or work obligations, what specific events you want each other to travel for (i.e., a birthday or a gala at school), and how you will approach trading off between visiting each other and you going on trips with your friends.

Also, depending on your relationship, you may need to talk about budget constraints and whether or not you’ll be sharing the cost of these trips. For example, the boyfriend of a close classmate is a consultant, so he pays for most of the travel expenses because it’s subsidized by his work. Other couples try to split the bill, even if one person is doing more traveling, so that expenses are shared evenly.

When your partner comes to visit you at b-school, it’s also important to talk beforehand about how much time you’ll be spending alone as a couple and how much time you’ll be spending with all of your new friends. It’s easy to fall into the trap of bringing them along to grad school events, so don’t forget about good old quality time! A good rule of thumb that works for most people I talked with is to split the time 50/50 by spending one night out with grad school friends and one night alone with each other.

In an ideal world, when one of you leaves you should have planned (or booked) your next meeting together, because having set a time that you’ll see each other again absolutely makes it easier to get through the year. Many couples try and set a target for how frequently they’ll see each other—the most popular among my friends is at least once a month—to help keep them focused and pass the time more quickly.

Be Flexible

Even with the best efforts, many unforeseen factors can impact your ability to stay in touch and do everything you said you would do at the beginning of the year. Both of you might have crazy schedules at the same time, your free time might not overlap, someone could get sick when they’re supposed to be traveling, and the like.

The key here is to stay flexible and call out when you’re feeling upset—it’s easier to be passive aggressive or bottle things up when you’re long distance than when you live in the same place, so you’ll have to fight against that periodically. For example, a friend just went through a period where he was annoyed because he felt like he was always the person initiating contact with his girlfriend, so he decided to not talk to her until she reached out to him. This went on for two days, as he got more and more upset, until she called to explain that she had been pulling all-nighters to finish a work project and hadn’t wanted to talk until she felt she could focus on the conversation. They both ended up feeling terrible about the way things played out, and now have a rule that they have to start one conversation a week with a “feelings check-in” so they can really touch base about what’s going on in their relationship.

Despite the difficulties, however, successful long distance relationships during a career move are definitely possible. Think in intervals—instead of seeing your time apart as two whole years, just think that it’s one month until you see your partner again.

When you start feeling like it’s too much work, just remember that at one point you committed to doing this, and there’s likely a good reason why you did!

For more, check out Fran Dorf's advice on making a long distance relationship work.

Photo of phones courtesy of Shutterstock.