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Maintaining Relationships Abroad


By Bobby Kuechenmeister, UWEC Junior

Prior to attempting the maintenance of a relationship complicated by a study abroad experience, there are preliminary elements that must be present and healthy. Those elements are trust, honesty, and communication. With those in place, couples should consider issues study abroad raises such as: possibility of growth together or apart, dependence versus independence, lack of physical interaction, and lack of support from partner.

Possibility of Growth Together or Apart

An issue needing to be addressed prior to the study abroad experience is the possibility of growing together or apart. It is important for the partner left behind to understand how the experience may influence the traveler by broadening his or her mindset outside of our own culture. It is also possible for partners to become so different that continuing the relationship seems pointless. However, through the use of good communication skills and understanding, this outcome is avoidable if both partners commit the time and energy upon departure and return.

Dependence Versus Independence

How dependent partners are on each other in a relationship may become stressed while living through a study abroad experience. Dr. Kenneth J. Davidson, sociology professor and co-author of the textbook, Marriage and Familyat the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire describes three types of dependency in marriages (chapter 10): A-frame, H-frame, and M-frame. Although these types are discussed in the context of marriage, they are also an excellent model for relationships.

Frames of Marriage (Types)

  • A-frame marriage - A marital relationship in which one partner is too dependent upon the other.
  • H-frame marriage - A relationship of total independence in which very little couple identity develops.
  • M-frame marriage - A relationship which balances dependence and independence to form an interdependent marriage.

The M-frame marriage is the ideal style partners are encouraged to strive for, and considering couples in relationships separated by an ocean, this same style applies. It is important for couples to remember they have separate lives and that it is acceptable for them to have experiences outside of the relationship, but it is equally important to understand one another as still available for support whenever possible. This does not mean the other styles are doomed to fail surviving a study abroad experience, rather, it means partners must take additional time and effort in adapting to the experience. Good communication and coping skills are important toward this cause.

Lack of Physical Interaction

The term "physical interaction" in the context of relationships refers to not only sexual acts, but also affectionate acts such as conversation, praise, facial expressions, and body language. This obstacle is inevitable and allows couples to work on their interpersonal relationship outside of physical acts.

An alternative method of interaction is Instant Messaging. Many free e-mail servers offer this form of communication, and in addition to being able to engage in conversation textually, this method also allows the use of emoticons (computer symbols resembling emotions). Using these, it becomes possible to share common feelings like: smiles, laughs, kisses, frowns, and a host of others using picture representations.

When using any method of expressing emotion, remember that something must be left to the imagination, proving technology has still not evolved beyond humans.

Lack of Support from Partner

This is another stumbling block for partners who decide on attempting a long-distance relationship. However, the problems are magnified by the study abroad experience because of the ocean separating the partners.

Because of the inability to both share and provide support during good times and bad, it is important for the couple to find (or maintain) other avenues of support, most commonly done through friendships with people who care. Through these friendships, partners find the support they may be lacking due to the absence of their significant other.