There may be tears around the dinner table tomorrow; as any campus psychologist can tell you, Thanksgiving is "turkey drop" time. The term famously refers to the holiday break-up, when college students who've been in long-distance relationships return home and end things with their sweethearts. The stereotypical "turkey dropper" is a college freshman whose boyfriend or girlfriend is still in high school, attending another college, or not in school at all. Come late November, he or she has spent two or three months marinating in a new environment, has met new people, perhaps had a hook-up (or fallen for someone new). Summer's starry-eyed promise to "make it work, no matter what" has become late autumn's "I think it's time we took a break."
The turkey drop tradition has endured for decades, even as social and technological changes have dramatically altered the way in which long-distance relationships are conducted. I first heard the phrase back in 1985, when I was a Berkeley freshman. While I was home for Thanksgiving, my girlfriend –- a year younger and a high school senior –- dumped me. She had already started dating one of her classmates, and explained to me that it was "just too hard" to keep our relationship going on phone calls and letters. When I told my cousin what had happened, he turned the term into a verb: "Hugo, you're the one in college. You were supposed to turkey drop her!"
Over some twenty years of teaching and mentoring at the high school and college levels, I've often been asked by students about my take on long-distance relationships. At the community college where I teach, it's common for the two members of a couple to each transfer to different four-year schools. Some break up before they separate, or agree to an open relationship; others decide to try to make the distance thing work. It's the latter ones who tend to seek my advice.
I offer the predictable warnings, but at least some of the time, also suggest that there's a lot to be gained. I've seen how students in successful monogamous long-distance relationships find much more time to study or do other extracurricular activities. Their "taken" status means they don't have to spend a lot of energy looking for, as one of my students memorably put it, "new skin with which to swap spit." I usually offer my own little turkey drop story –- and some happier anecdotes as well. A couple I know, married for several years now, met in one of my classes nearly 15 years ago. One transferred to UC Santa Barbara, the other to NYU; they endured several years apart, seeing each other no more than once every three or four months. They each had their minor infidelities, but they stuck it out, reunited, and live together in San Francisco. Each claims they didn't miss out on much that mattered about college by being in a long-distance relationship.
It's also important to note that at least in some ways, college students' long-distance relationships today bear little resemblance to the sort that I was in just over a quarter of a century ago. When I went off to Cal and left my high school girlfriend behind, we didn't have email or text. We certainly didn't have cell phones. People under 30 have little memory of just how expensive domestic long-distance phone calls once were. Until I was dumped that first Thanksgiving of my college years, my girlfriend and I talked three times a week –- always after 8:00PM, when rates went down, or on Sundays. After a horrendous first phone bill, we forced ourselves to limit our calls to no more than 15 minutes. The one low-cost method of communication we had was letters (wonderful to receive, but maddening to wait for).
Today, a couple separated by an entire continent can text and chat on their phones for one flat fee; Skype and similar services make lengthy video conversations essentially free. I can remember the few times that freshman-year girlfriend and I had phone sex, I couldn't keep my eyes off the clock, feeling pressured to hurry up and finish and save money. While college students who have webcam sex today risk having these private exchanges recorded and shared, they also get an infinitely more intense –- and substantially cheaper — opportunity for intimacy. For a generation comfortable with the idea of maintaining all sorts of relationships online, long-distance romances are both far more practical and far easier to maintain than they were just a few short years ago. (And this is even before the new "shared heartbeat" pillow hits the market.)
But it's easy for people of my generation to oversell the degree to which today's college students are willing to live out their lives online. FaceTime and iChat aren't a substitute for real sex, or for the wonderful awkward feeling, familiar to generations of college students, of trying to fall asleep next to a lover in a narrow twin bed. As Meghan (a 20 year-old student whom I spoke with for this article) put it, "Long distance relationships are too hard. 100 text messages a day don't add up to a single hug."
Though it's made communication much easier, there's no reason to believe that technology has made long-distance relationships any more popular for college students than they were 25 years ago. But there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that lots of frosh (and transfers) still make passionate August and September farewell declarations of love to their significant others. Over the next four days, many of those same students, home from college for the first time, will be singing the proverbial different tune. In a ritual as time-honored and unavoidable as a Thanksgiving Day Cowboys game, the heartache of the turkey drop is coming.
Hugo Schwyzer is a professor of gender studies and history at Pasadena City College and a nationally-known speaker on sex, relationships, and masculinity. He blogs at his eponymous site and co-authored the autobiography of Carré Otis, Beauty, Disrupted.
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