08/16/2012 11:17 am ET Updated Oct 16, 2012

Caught in a Bad Romance? Relationships and the Transition to Campus Life

In reaction to my previous column on the evolving relationships between parents and their college bound sons and daughters, I was asked questions about how boyfriends and girlfriends fit into process of making the transition to campus life. Of course, moving away to college impacts a variety of relationships, not just those that are romantically inclined. For example, good-byes are often said to best friends, neighbors, teammates, and other individuals who have been a meaningful part of one's life to date.

However, there seems to be something distinctive about situations that involve a significant boyfriend or girlfriend. Although there are quite a number of different variations on this circumstance, the three most likely scenarios include: 1) one of the partners is not college-bound and hence is being "left behind" by the other; 2) both individuals are going off to different universities; or 3) the partners are going to attend the same university.

In the first two situations, the impending geographic separation is going to force a decision about whether to break up or attempt to continue on in some sort of long-distance relationship. Breaking up immediately often can be acutely painful, especially if the individual is the one being left behind. The partner breaking up the relationship also can be deeply affected by a range of emotions that can include guilt and uncertainty, especially if there is a large amount of drama involved in the dissolution process. However, the decision to carry on a long-distant relationship can generate its own copious amount of heartache, especially as time goes on, and particularly if one of the two individuals starts to recognize that (and perhaps start to take advantage of) the pool of attractive new dating partners found in a college setting.

In the third scenario, the two romantic partners are going to be entering a new phase of their life alongside someone who, for better or worse, has been an important part of their life to date. Often as not there is a comfort factor early on in the transitional process related to the "built in" nature of being an existing couple. That same aspect can quickly become a drag on the relationship over time, especially if one or both of the partners begins to experience themselves (and each other) growing in different directions.

Regardless of the specific situation being faced by a college-bound student, the role of the parent is a relatively straightforward one. You are the one who will be able to help your son or daughter connect one simple fact of life -- relationships take a lot of work -- with an equally uncomplicated yet necessary statement about college coursework also demanding a great deal of effort. What does this look like in reality? For sons and daughters contemplating long distance relationships, as an example, parents can create conversations about how to balance schoolwork with all of the extra time that will be spent remaining in contact through phone, texting, etc. and the inevitable extra travel time that two people typically must endure in order to see each other at least periodically.

What parents should not be doing also is fairly clear-cut. Resist the temptation to tell your son or daughter what to do about their present relationship. Most likely, they have not asked you to render an opinion. And even if they have, your reply should underscore your belief that they will be able to come to their own conclusions after having carefully thought through their circumstances. As I have written previously, parents must move away from being supervisors of their sons and daughters and closer to the role of "coach." And coaches, by the nature of their being on the sidelines, are wise to not "get in the game" with their college bound students, especially when it comes to their intimate relationships. While you may believe that your son or daughter is caught in a bad romance, it's an important life lesson that is best learned without direct family involvement. Instead, parents in a coaching role can impart advice, guidance, and feedback in a supportive and nonjudgmental manner throughout this important transitional phase.