Now that the summer is coming to a close, young adults are fervidly preparing for their transition to college (though they may be more excited about leaving their parents’ house). College, of course, offers incoming students many social novelties: independence, new friends, all-nighters to cram for finals, and perhaps even new “temptations” around campus (you may very well find yourself checking out the Facebook page of the person in the next dorm). But what if you are entering the ivy-covered walls while still involved in a relationship with your high school sweetheart? Should you break up with your romantic partner, or should you maintain the relationship? Indeed, there are pros and cons to both staying with and leaving your high school sweetheart while transitioning to college, and findings from relationship research can help shed some light on this dilemma. Although no study (to my knowledge) has directly explored how transitions to college may affect romantic relationships, we may be able to draw several inferences from studies of related issues. Let’s see what these findings have to say.
It’s Not You It’s Me: Should We Break Up Before Leaving For School?
There are undeniable challenges to maintaining your high school romantic relationship while transitioning to college. If you two are going to different universities, you have to overcome barriers such as spending less time together and long-distance communication. Even if you are going to the same university, you two may develop different social networks and interests, thus spending less time with one another. Likewise, there is a possibility that your new social networks may not approve of your partner – social network approval, of course, can determine the fate of relationships.1 Still, how may the transition to college itself affect your relationship? In a study of a related question -- how the transition to college affects high school best friendships -- college students’ satisfaction and commitment toward friends declined between the fall and spring semesters of their freshmen year (even if the high school best friend lived close by).2 These declines, however, only occurred for those who spent relatively little time communicating with their friends. Thus, communication is an integral part of keeping your relationship intact while away in college.
Communication barriers, however, may not necessarily be the only challenges facing two lovers during the transition to college. Unlike best friendships, romantic relationships entail sexuality, which may be fairly difficult to maintain via telephone (sexting – or even sex-Skyping – not withstanding). Your relationship with your high school sweetheart undoubtedly contains elements of a best friendship and at least some dimensions of sexuality as well (if one of these two are missing, then you may have other challenges as well). College can put some strains on both of these dimensions, especially in new students. Thus, should you consider ending your relationship?
You can encounter many novel “temptations” when you begin college (procrastinating a paper for your psychology class, however, doesn’t count), and some of these temptations may be sexual. Indeed, some students decide to forego romantic relationships altogether in favor of casual-sex-based hook-up relationships, which are fairly prevalent on college campuses.3 Perhaps some of you may be thinking that a person who is involved in a relationship will probably not decide to enter him or herself back into the “market” and engage in a casual relationship such as a hook-up. Unfortunately, that is not the case; even those who are romantically involved may engage in infidelity (especially sexual infidelity in the case of hook-ups) or in other acts of relational transgression (e.g., lying to your partner, or even flirting with another).4,5
What may lead a person to transgress? When people perceive that both the costs of maintaining a relationship and quality of alternatives are high (which may be the case in college, especially for possible hook-ups), they will be less motivated to maintain their relationship.6 Indeed, feeling that an alternative is more attractive than a current partner may predict not only dissolution but also engaging in infidelity.7,8 Thus, increased costs of maintaining relationships and presence of [often “tempting”] alternatives at school may lead to challenges in keeping the relationship going during the transition to college.
We Can Make This Work: Should We Maintain Our Relationship During College?
Despite these challenges, some people may want to maintain their romantic relationships during the transition to college. If one is motivated to keep the relationship with his or her high school sweetheart alive, will the relationship be worth keeping? Fear not, for despite the many challenges one may face in their relationship during the transition to college, it is very well possible to keep the flame going once college starts.
Much of the relationship maintenance we practice is grounded in the degree of investment we have in our relationship. In this case, we are not talking about money (though investments of some relationships may very well center around money; most of those relationships can probably be found in Orange County). Relationship investments can come in all shapes and sizes, including time you and your partner have been dating, or even the emotional connection you have with your partner.
As you may recall from above, researchers who examined the high school best friendships during the transition to college found that communication is a key component of maintaining the relationship.2 People who are motivated to communicate frequently with their partners may also be fairly invested in their relationships; thus, they are already committed to and satisfied with their relationships.4 Higher degrees of investment may motivate people to maintain communication with their partners and maintain their relationships during the transition to college. After all, if one is highly invested in a relationship, then breaking up may be especially distressing.9 Likewise, those who are invested in their partners will not pay as much attention to alternatives (and thus will probably not engage in relationship transgressions) and may not perceive the costs of maintaining their relationships as high enough to motivate ending the relationships. Indeed, in this case, one may be able to maintain his or her relationships due to simple motivation: if you want to make your relationship happen, to keep the flame alive, then you will be motivated to do so, and will probably maintain the level of communication and connection that predicts success in relationships during the transition to college. It may not be an easy feat, but it is, according to the research, possible to achieve.
The Big Picture
Should someone end their high school relationship before the transition to college? Unfortunately, there is no clear answer: the decision to break up depends on the relationship and the people involved in it. The costs of maintaining a relationship during the transition to college may be perceived as high for some and low for others. These costs may be associated with various challenges that people face in college: new friends, attractive alternatives (or, “temptations”), barriers in communication, and others. Of course, it is important to consider how you may feel about your relationship before going away to college. If commitment and satisfaction are low, the motivation to sustain the relationship will also be low, and a decision to break up may ensue. On the other hand, if two people are invested in their relationship, perhaps they will be more likely to attempt maintaining their relationship. The decision, however, is in the hands of the partners; hopefully, the research discussed here will help them reach an answer.
1Sprecher, S. (2011). The influence of social networks on romantic relationships: Through the lens of the social network. Personal Relationships, 18, 630-644.
2Oswald, D. L., Clark, E. M. (2003). Best friends forever? High school best friendships and the transition to college. Personal Relationships, 10, 187-196.
3Garcia, J. R., & Reiber, C. (2008). Hook-up behavior: A biopsychosocial perspective. Special issue: Proceedings of the 2nd Annual Meeting of the Northeastern Evolutionary Psychology Society, Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology, 2.
4Drigotas, S. M., & Barta, W. (2001). The cheating heart: Scientific explorations of infidelity. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 10, 177-180.
5Metts, S. (1994). Relational transgressions. In W. R. Cupach & B. H. Spitzberg (Eds.), The dark side of interpersonal communication (pp. 217-239). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
6Rusbult, C. E. (1983). A longitudinal test of the investment model: The development (and deterioration) of satisfaction and commitment in heterosexual involvements. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 45, 101-117.
7Felmlee, D., Sprecher, S., & Bassin, E. (1990). The dissolution of intimate relationships: A hazard model. Social Psychology Quarterly, 53, 13-30.
8Drigotas, S. M., Safstrom, C. A., & Gentilia, T. (1999). An investment model prediction of dating infidelity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 509-524.
9Fine, M. A., & Sacher, J. A. (1997). Predictors of distress following relationship termination among dating couples. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 16, 381-388.
Stan Treger, M.A. - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Stan is interested in (1) interpersonal connectedness and closeness; (2) attraction and relationship initiation; and (3) sexuality. He has published on infidelity, sexual attitudes, and women’s sexuality, and is currently investigating affective forecasting, humor, and transactive memory in close relationships.