Distance Dating: Students Check Baggage Before Heading Abroad

From her profile pictures alone, anyone can see that Anita Castillo-Halvorssen ’15 is in a happy, long-standing romantic relationship. There’s the photo from October 2012 featuring her and her honey standing in front of the SEPTA tracks at the base of campus, dressed to the nines with their arms around each other (caption: “philly restaurant week wee”). There’s Anita clutching a pumpkin — aforementioned honey clutching Anita — from November (caption: “your own personal dorks, just in time for fall!”). There’s Anita, doubled over and wrapped around a plush Simba, while her boyfriend hugs her from behind and kisses her cheek (caption: “tomorrow. anniversary.”).

But there’s also the photo featuring Anita, smiling into the camera, while boyfriend Joshua McLucas ’15 rests his chin upon her head and gazes into space, lips pursed in a mock frown. Set at the end of June, the caption reads, “I miss goofing off with Josh.”

Apart for over a month, the couple had two weeks to go before a two-week long visit in Castillo-Halvorssen’s hometown of Boulder, Colorado when the photo was posted. While the visit was special for many reasons — including its propulsion of McLucas onto his first domestic flight — bittersweet overtones tinted the reunion. With both Castillo-Halvorssen and McLucas studying abroad for the fall semester, the trip merely marked the eye of the storm.

Semesters abroad serve as serious speed bumps for junior year students and their significant others. Whether couples decide to break up, open up, or continue dating long-distance, impending splits are often catalysts for reflection as time and energy costs are weighed against the unknown — and sometimes idealized — nature of a few months overseas.

For Mallory* ’14, there wasn’t a question as to whether she and her boyfriend of a year and a half would try to make their relationship work. Studying abroad during opposite semesters, they decided early in the spring of 2012 that they’d call it quits before she departed in the fall.

“I think it was really just the knowledge that we’d be apart for so long,” she said of the breakup. “I think the whole time we were dating it felt right for the moment but I never really saw it as permanent, so it was just sort of an impetus for a breakup that I think would’ve been inevitable anyways.”

Whereas Mallory never seriously considered attempting long-distance, Castillo-Halvorssen and McLucas never seriously considered ending their relationship, despite being separated for seven months. Both attribute this to McLucas’s view that every relationship has the possibility to last a lifetime.

“As far as dating goes for me, I think once you’re in a relationship with someone, once you commit, that could go on for the rest of your life,” McLucas said in a Skype interview. “You shouldn’t be looking for failure points.”

McLucas considers one of those “failure points” to be transitioning to an open relationship. Although he and Castillo-Halvorssen discussed the option, McLucas considers it to be “antithetical to the point of being in a relationship in the first place.”

Samantha ’14*, however, sees it differently. Nervous that she and her month-old boyfriend, Charlie ’15*, would feel “anchored” to one another while occupying disparate worlds last fall, Samantha insisted on opening the relationship up to other sexual partners.

That doesn’t mean she wasn’t a little anxious the first time she called to tell him she had been with another woman. And that also isn’t to say the openness wasn’t without caveats.

Samantha limited herself to hooking up with women while overseas. She said the self-imposed gendered restriction felt natural to her: whereas intimate relationships with men felt like shoddy replacements for the  one she truly wanted, she perceived her relationships with women to be more foreign in nature.

“I still really loved [Charlie] and didn’t really feel right hooking up with other guys,” Samantha said. “Any time I came close to it, it felt like it was a substitute for him. I would rather be doing it with him, and that felt wrong. But I didn’t feel that way with women.”

Samantha proposed an open relationship for a variety of reasons, including the bitter aftertaste of a long-distance high school love gone awry. Other concerns, including the newness of the relationship and Charlie’s plans to spend the spring semester abroad, initially caused her to synchronize her departure with a termination date for the relationship. However, she and Charlie remained in contact when she arrived in Europe, and daily Skype conversations as her relationship with her flatmates failed to mature soon evolved into romantic commitment.

Whereas Samantha operated under a gendered provision, Charlie was free to take advantage of the open arrangement with women. He cited the open relationship as the biggest piece of advice to couples hoping to make it work while spending time apart — despite the fact that the idea was originally Samantha’s. Although both hooked up with only one other person, each said the perception of openness was a “really important” feature of their budding romance, and sharing their different sexual experiences with one another actually fostered a closer connection.

The lack of sexual openness in Castillo-Halvorrsen and McLucas’s relationship doesn’t translate to eyes only for each other. This summer, a quick crush “freaked out” Castillo-Halvorssen, who says she’s never before experienced romantic feelings for anyone but McLucas. After telling McLucas about her feelings, he confessed to developing a similar infatuation with a girl he met through his theater program.

“You’re going to have crushes on people, that’s fine,” McLucas said. “Everyone should acknowledge that that’s a healthy part of the relationship, as long as it doesn’t develop and get in the way.”

Despite the crush – and a second proposition made by a female student that she was sorry to decline — Castillo-Halvorssen doesn’t believe an open relationship would make her any happier during her time overseas.

“[A friend] was explaining it, that it’s better [being in a long-distance relationship] than just not having them,” she said. “It’s completely worth it, if they’re best thing in your life, why would you give that up for an experience with someone you don’t care as much about?”

For Mallory and Samantha, however, the issue at stake wasn’t a romantic evening with anonymous foreign men and women, but opportunities that they couldn’t have fully taken advantage of while in a monogamous long-distance relationship.  The challenge of filling her free time without the crutch afforded by a boyfriend challenged Mallory to consider wellness and self-reflection while overseas.

“One of the toughest things to come to terms with when I was abroad was I had so much free time, so I needed to think about what was best for me in that moment or day or semester,” she said. “And I think having the opportunity to focus on self-care in a way that isn’t available here at Swarthmore was really helpful.”

“I was constantly having to push myself to just enjoy the present and enjoy spending time with myself because I feel like one feature of study abroad experiences pretty universally is that you can be lonely,” she added. “You have much more time than you do at [Swarthmore], and I think it’s important to learn how to deal with that and learn how to enjoy it.”

For Samantha, exploring her sexuality in a new environment offered a freeing change from attitudes towards bisexuality on campus.

“People don’t really assume that bi’s an option, so I found that for the most part I had hookups and relationships on this campus with men,” she said. “Being abroad and having the ability to explore actually being bi and being in a relationship with a man but hooking up with women felt liberating.”

Although Charlie planned to study in London last spring, he decided early into Samantha’s semester abroad that he’d remain on campus instead. The change of heart originally coincided largely with his feelings for Samantha, but he later realized the academic and extracurricular benefits of remaining on campus.

While both he and Samantha said the transition back to Swarthmore dating was smooth, busy schedules proved trying this past spring. Near the end of the semester, the pair revived the idea of the open relationship as a possible solution to some of the difficulties they experienced; however, they ultimately decided to remain monogamous, and are still dating today.

Since McLucas’s recent arrival in London, he and Castillo-Halvorssen have reduced the time zones separating them from six to one. Although physically closer than they have been for most of the summer, McLucas said visiting will depend on the flexibility of both of their schedules.

Both learned from their first summer apart that daily communication can be a hindrance rather than a relationship booster, and so they Skype only about every few days. Castillo-Halvorssen said this arrangement makes the conversations more special, and allows her to focus on her experience as an individual while still receiving support from McLucas.

Mallory enjoyed one of her best semesters on campus post-breakup. She advises ex-couples not to harp on a lost love connection, but to enjoy being single, whether at home or abroad.

“A lot of people do make long distance work, and it’s great if you can do that,” Mallory said. “But I guess you should also know that breaking up can lead to wonderful journeys of self-discovery and other cheesy, Lifetime movie-esque moments.”

Or, perhaps, Kodak-worthy moments. After all, you might need a new prof pic.



The Phoenix