How College Causes These Important Relationships to Evolve

Stressed out about going away to college? These four relationship shifts are totally normal — and often great.

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Going away to college is an exciting and stressful time. For many freshmen, it’s a radical change: the first time living away from home, if not entirely “on their own,” physically and financially speaking. 

Along with granting new students the opportunity to cultivate an array of new friendships and connections, leaving for college can also radically alter existing relationships. And that’s not always a bad thing.

Here’s how you might see the following important pre-college relationships shift once you’ve moved into your dorm. 

You’ll start to get on even ground with your parents

College is an unprecedented time in the parent-child relationship: often for the first time, kids aren’t under the nearly-constant supervision of their parents, and are de facto in charge of important daily logistics like feeding themselves, doing their own laundry and setting a self-imposed curfew that won’t leave them dozing off in class. 

While this shift can make for a learning curve for certain students (and parents, for that matter), it can also be wildly liberating. And as it turns out, a little bit of distance can improve the relationship between students and their parents. 

In fact, according to a CollegePulse survey of nearly 14,500 students, 59% said their relationship with their parents got better once they went to college — and 25% said it got much better. That shift may be due in part to the parent-child relationship evolving into something closer to a friendship than a dictatorship as students gradually learn how to fend for themselves. 

For example, college may be the first time kids get a more comprehensive picture of their parents’ financial situation, depending on how the family goes about paying for school. Parents might help their teenagers navigate the process in order to apply for aid, but the loans may still be in the student’s name — perhaps the first major financial commitment of their lives, and a  welcome to adulthood. 

You may develop more appreciation for your siblings

For those lucky enough to have them, siblings can account for some of the deepest childhood bonds possible. Siblings witness each other’s lives from the very beginning (or close to it) and can understand each other’s circumstances in an intimate way.

Of course, it doesn’t always feel like a lovefest. From grade school bickering to teenage sibling rivalry, these relationships can also be stressful and fraught.

Going away to college can shift sibling relationships in a wide variety of ways depending on what the existing bond looks like. For instance, a younger sibling might initially feel left behind when an older family member goes away to school — only to realize, after a few months, how much they love and look up to their comrade. 

Meanwhile, the sibling who ventured off to school might become suddenly, keenly aware of how deeply they miss the kids who are still back home. Over time, these relationships often settle into a new kind of normal — one where all parties come out with a better understanding of and appreciation for each other.

You may outgrow friends while making new ones

Friendships are more than just fun — they’re vital. According to the Mayo Clinic, friendships can increase our happiness and decrease our stress levels while promoting a sense of belonging and purpose. Even among children young enough to be elementary school students, research suggests that friendships promote academic engagement and even better grades. 

Of course, going away to college can wreak havoc on existing friendships from high school (and earlier), especially when each friend is packing up for a different university, potentially hundreds or thousands of miles from one another. By the same token, though, college creates an extraordinary opportunity to craft new friendships among people of diverse backgrounds but similar interests. 

Fortunately, digital technology affords today’s students a much broader range of ways to stay connected with old friends even while cultivating new ones, whether it’s a weekly Zoom hangout or just keeping in touch on social media. But even with these measures, it’s normal for some friendships to fade away while others get stronger. 

Your high school sweetheart may turn sour

For those who experienced a fairytale romance in high school, college can loom like a great big “The End” — and not one preceded by the words “happily ever after.” With so many opportunities to meet new people (and learn more about ourselves), college can be a difficult place to maintain an existing partnership.

Whether each partner is going off to a different school or if one is staying home while the other walks off into a new life, a certain amount of jealousy and fear is understandable. And that’s to say nothing of the physical distance.

Which is to say, even psychologists who specialize in working with couples often suggest high school sweethearts break up before they ship out. The hopefuls who do try to make it work usually end up fighting — and are typically broken up by winter break. 

Of course, there is the occasional couple who survives the shift, perhaps even attending the same school. 

Either way, it works best when everyone involved is honest with each other and with themselves, even as those selves evolve. After all, when it comes to college, evolving the self is pretty much the point. 

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