Duke and its peer institutions are often criticized for having a “hook-up” culture that makes “real relationships” difficult. While many students lament the lack of “real dating,” the achievement-based, high-pressure, opportunity-rich environments that define elite campuses lend themselves better to more casual interactions.
A long-term relationship takes time and effort that many students would prefer to expend in other ways: taking a host of challenging, but engaging courses that will broaden their intellectual horizons; working as a researcher, tutor or teaching assistant for a bit of extra money; attending conferences and dinners to forge a better relationship with faculty members; going out with hallmates to expand their circle of acquaintances and friends; going abroad to spend a semester in that city that has always been on their bucket list; attempting an adventurous new extracurricular activity to keep their other interests alive; or making time for the essential, but ever elusive, sleep.
Our lives here are chock-full of rejection and the questioning of own our self-worth. Particularly at Duke, there is very little we can do without risking being told that we aren’t good enough to participate in something that matters to us. We have to try out to continue our high school passions, audition to experience new things, and interview to make friends. Would we put ourselves into another situation in which we might be told we can’t be a part of something we care about because we aren’t good enough? No, we wouldn’t. We don’t. We either remain detached; or we enter into a relationship so committed and comfortable it becomes part of our daily routine, so we no longer have to worry about putting in hours of effort to be worthy of another date, and the odds of rejection are seem infinitesimally insignificant. We are either at 0 or 100.
While this risk-aversion might seem like just another reason to call out college students for being delicate and insecure, the fact remains that students at Duke and similar schools are often punished for taking academic chances. For example, if I want to take a class in an area I'm interested in but not terribly familiar with, I take on the fear that students often contend with such courses annihilating GPAs and thus pride. If this kind of rejection is already such an integral part of our college experience, why would we actively put ourselves on the line for a romantic relationship, something that could really crush our self-esteem?
We are taught in school to fear failure, rewarded for avoiding risks and always choose the path of least resistance. The same is true for relationships: with low stakes there are no heartbreaks. Thus, not only do casual relationships give us time to do what we came to this university to do, but they limit the sense of failure we are conditioned to fear.
One could try to argue that relationships are worth risking it all because they offer tremendous benefits, give students an opportunity to practice taking risks, and bring out people’s best selves. That being said, the primary positives that a romantic relationship provides can also be the results of strong friendships. Having people to socialize with, to look out for you, and to practice looking out for are all goals that can be achieved with a few good friends. Furthermore, unlike romantic relationships, friendships tend to allow the participants greater freedom to develop as individuals and offer lower-stakes environments for risk-taking because of the deep, but less emotionally charged nature of friend-to-friend connections. While a good romantic relationship can bring out the participants’ best attributes, as college students, neither party can really assess the effectiveness of their relationship in that regard because no one really knows what their “best self” is until they’ve done ample exploration to discover this self. This messy, nondirectional and unpredictable process of discovery is what the liberal arts curriculum at elite American universities strives to help each student accomplish.
Ambitious college students might often be wary of long-term, committed relationships because they can have an unexpected, but nonetheless tremendous impact on the way students formulate their college careers. College sweethearts tend to make a point to enroll in the same classes, so they can study together. Some will even go so far as to switch their majors or forego studying abroad to continue their freshman year romance. A Pratt junior explained, “I’m from a small town in middle America, and culturally, there’s real pressure on girls to find someone to settle down with if they go to college. A lot of girls don’t even realize they’ve internalized these standards and unknowingly allow these expectations to affect how they approach relationships.”
Though this phenomenon is particularly prevalent among girls, who ever is the “people-pleaser” in the relationship is susceptible. Someone always has to be the one who compromises to “make it work”, and it is usually the same person who has been changing their lifestyle to please their partner (ex. going out out less, spending less time with their non-mutual friends, passing up job or personal development opportunities, etc.). The one compromising will likely be the person who decides their career and their dreams are less important. While couples often insist they will alternate who compromises, that is not always feasible. Commitments like medical school, military service or starting a family can complicate this basic plan in the future, and the more dependent partner is likely to end up in thirty-something-years-old with no idea what they want out of life because their twenties, the decade American students from elite institutions have reserved for self-exploration, was spent in the kind of relationship many people plan to settle into. Cue the mid-life crisis.
Compromising one’s dreams and ambitions might seem like a noble sacrifice in the name of love, but at a school like Duke, it can also mean you don’t get to take advantage of the wealth of opportunities you’ll might never get again. Some people use their relationship, consciously or unconsciously, as a crutch for not trying new things because the comfort of familiarity is preferable to the stress of uncertainty. This is particularly prevalent for people who start their relationships as freshmen and continue in a state of “puppy love,” in which they spend as much time together as possible. After dating the same person for the majority of a college career, it’s very difficult to imagine a life without them. This is understandable because, in reality, they haven’t had a college experience without said significant other.
Relationship expert and author J.M. Kearns cautions against this practice, saying that “a couple may seem well matched, but some people still have a lot of growing to do, and they may grow into two very different types of people. For many people, college is a time to discover who they are, what they want and where they are headed in life. While it’s nice to bring someone along on that journey, there is no guarantee that you will still want him there once you reach your destination. People change, and, sometimes, this results in growing apart.” It’s undeniable that young adults change dramatically during their late teens and early twenties, and serious relationships that begin during the college years without both parties engaging in significant personal development is likely to flounder when the couple reaches their thirties.
Sure, breaking up is hard to do, but it is undeniably better to break up in college, surrounded by friends, peers, courses, activities and other healthy distractions than while you’re trying to make critical decisions that will set the pace for the rest of your life. Ending a serious relationship as a recent graduate comes with a new set of social and financial challenges. You’re no longer just worried about avoiding your ex’s favorite campus hangouts. You might be living together, sharing expenses, residing in an area your ex selected and you know nothing about, or even starting a family. If you never had to take care of yourself in college, and if your ex is the only person you’ve formed a strong connection with, breaking up means going at it alone. These are very real struggles that are less common with college breakups and much easier to navigate on campus than they are in the real world.
College is the one time you’re allowed to think about yourself, find your passions, and pursue what you really want. If you’re a college student in a relationship, be sure you’re allotting time to figure out who you are, and to ensure that the person you’re becoming is consistent with your vision for yourself (not someone else’s idealized version of you). Single people are always thinking about themselves, but you students in relationships should make sure you’re taking time to do the same. You do you, but whatever happens, don’t give up on the rest of your life before it’s really started.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our editorially curated, weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
Amani Carson is a Trinity senior. Her column, "a commoner's sense" runs on alternate Tuesdays.