The Effects of Pre-College Romantic Relationships on College Adjustment

    Jennifer M. Colella        

 
Links:

 Abstract
 Method
 Results
 Discussion
 References





     For questions or comments please feel free to e-mail me at:  jcolella@anselm.edu
 



    Abstract

    The present study investigated the differences in college adjustment between freshmen that are in a long-distance romantic relationship, and freshmen that are not. When a person goes away to college for the first time, and becomes physically separated from a significant other, many uncertainties arise.  Various forms of depression, overwhelming feelings of loneliness, and sometimes regret and resentment could develop. Based on what the literature suggests, the hypothesis is that freshmen that are not in a long-distance relationship tend to have a better adjustment to college than those who are.  To test this hypothesis, 2 questionnaires were given to 50 college freshmen.  The first was brief, and contained 11 questions.  It was specifically designed for the present study, and focused on oneís romantic status.  The other was the Student Adaptation to College Questionnaire (SACQ), designed by Robert Baker, Ph.D. and Bohdan Siryk, M.A.  An independent-samples t-test was conducted on the dependent variables, and no significant differences were found between the groups.  However, the mean scores of the SACQ were in the predicted direction, and indicated some differences.  Practical applications and improvements are discussed.
 
 

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    Method

Participants

    Participants consisted of 50 introductory psychology students from a small, Catholic, liberal arts college in New Hampshire, all 18 years of age or older.  Each person was participating to earn a course credit, and all were freshmen.  Although 50 participants were involved in the original experiment, data from only 28 participants was analyzed.  These 28 participants were randomly selected.  This was done in an attempt to even out the number of people in each group.  Fourteen members of the group were involved in a long-distance romantic relationship.  In order to be considered a long-distance romantic relationship, the significant other was said to live outside of the Manchester area.  The other 14 members of the group did not have any romantic attachments that could be considered long-distance.

Materials

    The study used two different instruments.  The first tool used was a self-report questionnaire, which was created specifically for this experiment.  In this self-report questionnaire, the participants revealed his or her romantic status.  It focuses on questions such as whether or not the participant has a significant other, how long they have been dating this person, how far away does the other person live, and how often do they see the other person?  The second instrument utilized was the Student Adaptation to College Questionnaire (SACQ).  Robert W. Baker, Ph.D., as well as Bohdan Siryk M.A developed this instrument in 1989.
    This questionnaire includes 67 items, all of which apply to oneís experience in college thus far.  There is a full-scale score, as well as four sub-scales that measure academic adjustment, social adjustment, personal-emotional adjustment, and attachment.  Academic adjustment measures a studentís success in coping with the various educational demands characteristic of the college experience.  Social adjustment measures a studentís success in coping with the interpersonal-societal demands inherent in the college experience.  Personal-emotional adjustment focuses on a studentís mental state during his or her adjustment to college, and the degree to which he or she is experiencing general psychological distress and any somatic problems.  Attachment is designed to measure a studentís degree of commitment to educational goals and the degree of attachment to the particular college that the student is attending.
    The SACQ has high values of reliability and validity for each scale.  The alpha value of internal consistency reliability for academic adjustment is .87, for social adjustment is .89, for personal-emotional adjustment is .79, for attachment is .88, and for the full-scale it is .94.  However, validity was measured by intercorrelations among the SACQ scales.  Alpha coefficients for academic adjustment/social adjustment are .45 and .39.  For academic adjustment/personal-emotional adjustment it is .60 and .55.  For social adjustment/personal-emotional adjustment it is .49 and .42.
    The participants answered the 67 items on a nine point scale, ranging from "applies very closely to me," to "doesnít apply to me at all."  Examples of items include, "I have been feeling tense or nervous lately", "I have several close social ties at college", "Iíve put on (or lost) too much weight recently", and "I have been feeling in good health lately."

Procedure

    All 50 participants gathered in a classroom setting at one time.  First, each participant was handed instructions for the study, with an informed consent form from the department of psychology. Once this task was completed, the self-report questionnaire, which inquired about his or her current and past romantic status, was handed out to every person.  Also included in the self-report questionnaire were filler questions (i.e.: what is your major, do you have any siblings, etcÖ).  This was done in order to gain a general sense of the individual.  Once the participants completed this, the Student Adaptation to College Questionnaire (SACQ) was administered.  Each participant answered the 67 items on the SACQ.  When this was finished, all 50 of the participants were given a debriefing form, and asked to read through the whole thing before they left. Everyone was then thanked for his or her time and effort, and a credit slip was given to all of them.

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    Results

    Participants involved in long-distance romantic relationships and participants not involved in long- distance romantic relationships were compared on college adjustment.  There was an overall (full-scale) average of college adjustment score, as well as four sub-scale averages (academic adjustment, social adjustment, emotional adjustment, and attachment).  All were taken from the Student Adaptation to College Questionnaire, (SACQ).  The hypothesis of this comparison was that significant differences were going to exist between the college adjustment of people who are involved in long-distance romantic relationships, and people who are not.  The expectation was that those involved in the long-distance romance would have a much more difficult time adjusting to college, as compared to those who are not.
    In order to test the hypothesis, an independent-samples t-test was conducted on the dependent variables. The variable of interest in common between the groups was college adjustment.  When looking at the values of the dependent variables, keep in mind that a higher number indicates consistency with good adjustment to college, and a lower number indicates consistency with poor adjustment to college.
    Contrary to the expectation, no statistically significant effects were found (see table 1).  Hence, there do not exist any significant differences between the groups and their college adjustment.
 

                                             Table 1.
                                             T-Test for Equality of Means for the Student Adaptation to College Questionnaire Scales
 

 
t-values
df
2-tailed sig.
Full Scale
-.680
26
.502
Academic
.886
26
.384
Social
-1.246
26
.224
Emotional
-.337
26
.739
Attachment
-1.391
26
.176
                                                                    Note.  Equal variance is assumed for full scale and each sub-scale.
                                                                    Full scale = overall score on SACQ; sub-scales of SACQ = academic adjustment,
                                                                    social adjustment, personal-emotional adjustment, and attachment.

However, the means for each group on each dependent variable suggests near significance (see table 2, figure 1).  For four out of the five scales that were measured, the group not in long-distance relationships had higher means than the group in long-distance relationships.  According to the means, those not in a long-distance relationship showed better adjustment on the overall full-scale, as well as in social adjustment, emotional adjustment, and attachment. Those in a long-distance relationship adjusted better only in the area of academics.  The overall direction of these means support the hypothesis of this study.
 

                                                         Table 2.
                                                            Mean Statistics for Scales of the Student Adaptation to College Questionnaire
 

 
Romantic Status
N
Mean
Standard Deviation
Full Scale
LDR 
No LDR
14
14
430.5714
448.8571
87.2024
50.1334
Academic
LDR 
No LDR
14
14
160.4286
151.0000
34.9080
19.1231
Social
LDR 
No LDR
14
14
124.1429
135.8571
29.3595
19.4021
Emotional
LDR
No LDR
14
14
92.5000
95.2857
21.8975
21.8260
Attachment
LDR
No LDR
14
14
101.2857
112.1429
24.1961
16.3418
                                                   Note.  LDR = in long-distance relationship; No LDR = not in a long-distance relationship;
                                                   Full scale = overall score on SACQ; sub-scales of SACQ = academic adjustment, social
                                                   adjustment, personal-emotional adjustment, and attachment.

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    Discussion

    This study investigated the effects of pre-college romantic relationships on college adjustment for a group of college freshmen.  It was predicted that those freshmen that entered college while attempting to maintain a romantic relationship that began prior to college were going to experience a more difficult time adjusting to college than those who were not were.
    Overall, there were no statistically significant differences found between the two groups.  Therefore, it can be stated that these findings are not consistent with what was expected.  Although no statistical evidence was disclosed supporting the hypothesis of this study, it does not mean that differences do not exist between the college adjustment of freshmen in pre-college romances and the college adjustment of freshmen not in pre-college romances.  Considering that new college students have been found to place very high value on romantic relationships, it would make sense that differences may emerge (Hammersla & Trease-McMahan, 1990).
    In fact, the means for each group on each dependent variable suggests near significance.  The full-scale, as well as the sub-scales of the Student Adaptation to College Questionnaire, which measured social adjustment, emotional adjustment, and attachment, all indicated higher means for those not in a long-distance relationship.  This implies that the freshmen not involved in a pre-college romantic relationship did in fact adjust better than those freshmen that were involved in such a relationship.  The group that were in a relationship only scored higher in the area of academic adjustment.  Hence, the overall direction of the means support the hypothesis of the study.
    These findings are important because they suggest that being in a long-distance relationship as a freshman in college may be a deciding factor in how well a person adjusts to college.  For students who are involved in a long-distance romantic relationship, and are having a difficult experience in college, these findings could explain a lot.
    Some literature proposes that no differences in college adjustment exist between people in long-distance relationships and people not in long-distance relationships.  According to one study, individuals in long-distance relationships report the same levels of relationship satisfaction, intimacy, trust and commitment as do individuals in proximal relationships (Guldner & Swenson, 1995).  Consequently, if being in a long-distance relationship does not cause any emotional problems unique to the distance issues, then Guldner and Swenson (1995) would argue that there is no reason to believe it would cause any college adjustment problems unique to that issue.
    Attridge (1994) contended an idea similar to what Guldner and Swenson (1995) claimed. This researcher pointed out that long-distance relationships are very common among college students, including freshmen.  This indicates that maybe oneís romantic status does not affect his or her college adjustment at all (Attridge, 1994).  If it did, then the number of people pursuing a long-distance romantic relationship while in college would not be nearly as high.  If such a relationship were an attribute to poor college adjustment, then why would it be so common?
    Nonetheless, the indications of the mean scores uphold the findings of most of the literature relative to this issue.  It has been reported that tension and depression can result from romantic relationship difficulties, and in turn oneís adjustment to college can suffer (Paul, Poole, & Jakubowyc, 1998).  This goes along with the means of this study.  Distance can be included as a difficulty in a relationship, so it can be considered a reason why one may have a hard time adjusting to college. One explanation for an individual experiencing difficulty adjusting to college due to relationship problems, is because there is continued over-involvement in pre-college romantic relationships and failure to invest in college relationships (Paul et al, 1998).
    The near significance that was uncovered with the four out of five scales measured in this study also vindicate what Holmbeck and Wandrei (1993) attested.  Their study suggests that depression and physical symptom scores were at the highest levels for people who also demonstrated the highest levels of separation anxiety from family, or a romantic partner (Holmbeck & Wandrei, 1993).  These same people scored lowest when measuring their adaptability to change.  According to the mean scores of this study, the idea that a relationship does exist between romantic status and college adjustment can be confirmed.  This study confirms the ideas that Holmbeck and Wandrei identified (1993).
    Lokitz and Sprandel (1976) emphasize this same point.  When it comes to prioritizing in the lives of college students, relationships tend to come before academics, or other goals.  This may be because college studentsí whole world revolves around friends and romantic partners when away at college.  If those things are distressing, then the person may have a hard time concentrating on school work, as well as other activities in his or her life (Lokitz & Sprandel, 1976).  This also supports the contention that people in long-distance romantic relationships have a harder time with college adjustment than others. Hence, it also supports what the mean scores of this study testify.
    Of course it needs to be kept in mind that no statistical significance was detected with this study. There may be many reasons why significant effects were not found with this particular study.
    One explanation may be because of the sample size.  In the end, the responses of only 28 participants could be included when analyzing the data.  Due to personal limitations and time constraints, finding a larger sample of the college population was not possible. With future research, a much larger sample should be used.  This would increase the chances of obtaining more even numbers of people in each group.  The intention behind using 50 participants was to increase the chances of obtaining a high number of people involved in a long-distance relationship, and obtaining just as high of a number of people not involved in one.  This did not work out the way it was hoped.  Surprisingly, only 14 people out of 50 were involved in a long-distance relationship.  This happened because the sign-up sheet for the study did not specify that people in long-distance relationships were needed, because the focus of the study may have been suggested, and results could have been influenced.    This was certainly a drawback for this study, and may have affected the results.
    Another factor that should be taken into account when considering reasons as to why no significant effects were found, is whether or not the participants answered the Student Adaptation to College Questionnaire honestly.  Although anonymity was greatly emphasized, it is possible that they were embarrassed to admit that they were having difficulty in certain areas of college.  This could be due to the fact that the researcher was present while they were answering the questions, and feared their questionnaires would be looked at immediately following them being handed back.
    It is also important to remember that the participants did not get involved with this study on a completely volunteer basis.  They did it to earn credit requirements for a class.  Therefore, it is possible that some, if not all, participants rushed through the questionnaires administered to them, in order to be able to leave the study sooner.  If this is the case, then one can be sure they did not carefully read, think about, and answer the questions in front of him or her. Both of these possibilities have definite potential to alter the integrity of the results.
    Future research conducted on this question should pay attention to each of these inherent flaws.  A system of guaranteed anonymity should be developed.  Maybe it would be a good idea for the researcher to leave the room, and oversee the study from an observation room.  Also, when they finish filling out the questionnaires, they should leave it in a pile.  When the researcher sees that everyone has finished, he or she can enter the room again.  This way, participants will be less likely to feel threatened or embarrassed upon answering the questions, and more honest answers will be given.
It would also be a good idea to include strictly volunteers as participants.  This method will reduce the likelihood of individuals rushing through the study.  If they take their time assessing each question, people may be more truthful as well.  Volunteers may also increase the chances of gaining participants with the demand characteristics that are essential to making the study a success (such as being in a long-distance relationship).
    Despite the faults within this study, it can still be considered important.  Although there are no statistically significant outcomes, the directions of the means support the hypothesis of this study.
    This study contributes to society because it suggests that long-distance romantic relationships may play a role in the college adjustment process.  This particular piece of information could be useful to colleges everywhere.  Guidance counselors or health services may want to investigate this possibility further, when dealing with particular students who are having a hard time adjusting to college.  Outreach programs or seminars that pertain to this issue could also prove helpful.
    Further research should be conducted.  If college students are fully aware of the potential consequences of pursuing a pre-college romantic relationship upon entering college, he or she may think more carefully about doing it.  If they are going to do it regardless of what the literature claims, then maybe he or she will handle the situation better.  For example, the individual will be aware that even though he or she has a significant other that is far away, it is still important for them to get involved with their college, and meet new people.  The individual will better understand that if he or she holds back from doing these things because they are pre-occupied with their long-distance relationship, his or her college experience will be difficult, and less enjoyable.    Either way it can still be said that college students place romantic relationships very high on their lists of concerns (Hammersla & Trease-McMahan, 1990).  It is clear that not every person entering college is going to break up with their boyfriend or girlfriend.  If anything, the hope of this study is to emphasize the importance of maintaining a healthy balance of oneís new college life and oneís past or present romance.  If that can be done, then the college adjustment will not be negatively affected, and neither will the romantic relationship.

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    References

Attridge, M.  (1994).  Keeping in touch when out of touch. USA Today Magazine, 122 (2586), 10.
 

Gerdes, H. & Mallinckrodt, B.  (1994).  Emotional, social, and academic adjustment of college students: a longitudinal study of retention. Journal of
    Counseling and Development, 72 (3), 281-296.

Guldner, G.  (1996).  Long-distance romantic relationships: prevalence separation-related symptoms in college students.  Journal of College Student
    Development, 37 (3), 289-296.

Guldner, G. & Swenson, C.  (1995).  Time spent together and relationship quality: long-distance relationships as a test case. Journal of Social and Personal
    Relationship, 12 (2), 313-320.

Hammersla, J.F., & Trease-McMahan, L.  (1990).  University studentsí priorities: life-goals vs. relationships.  Sex Roles, 23, 1-14.

Helgeson, V.  (1994).  The effects of self-beliefs on adjustment to a relationship stressor.  Personal Relationships, 1 (3), 241-258.

Holmbeck, G. & Wandrei, M.  (1993).  Individual and relational predictors of adjustment in first year college students.  Journal of Counseling Psychology,
    40 (1), 73-78.

Lokitz, B.D., & Sprandel, H.Z.  (1976).  The first year: a look at the freshmen experience.  Journal of College Student Personnel, 17, 274-279.

Paul, E., Poole, A., & Jakubowyc, N.  (1998).  Intimacy development and romantic status: implications for adjustment to the college transition.  Journal of
    College Student Development, 39 (3), 274-288.

Reske, J. & Stafford, L.  (1990).  Idealization and communication in long-distance premarital relationships.  Family Relations, 39 (3), 274-279.

Van-Horn, R., Arnone, A., Nesbitt, K., Desilets, L., Sears, T., Giffin, M., & Brudi, R.  (1997).  Physical distance and interpersonal characteristics in college
    studentsí romantic relationships.  Personal Relationships, 4 (1), 25-34.

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