Let me set the scene: you’re a twenty year old Black girl who goes to Duke. And wait, there’s more: you have never seriously dated anyone, but you’ve wanted to, and have sometimes even actively tried. Hold on, that was a bit too self-descriptive. Let me start again: you may or may not be twenty, and you may or may not be a Black girl, but you’re a Duke student who is single and not necessarily by choice. Well, as your fellow comrade, nay, connoisseur, in all things single, here, I want to give a bit of space to some of the challenges we experience, in hopes that at least one of you knows that someone else out here gets it.
We’ve all seen the not-so-subliminal messages that we should have started dating by now. The marketing of a sustained, two partner relationship as the ideal is chronic, from our friendships with a member of our preferred gender being met with that knowing look of the passerby, all but shouting “You can’t JUST be friends! Right? RIGHT?” to the iconography of a highschool—and even more terrifying—a college sweetheart, which rivals the high school couple trope epically in the media we consume. The messaging makes it seem like relationships grow on trees, like it’s something that simply falls into your lab in a serendipitous storm, rather than what it truly is: the complex product of many dialoguing factors of identity, condition, and context.
I have to admit, I had it all planned out. I was going to date around, perhaps hop from flirtationship to flirtationship freshman and sophomore year, until I undoubtedly found my Serious College Boyfriend™ junior year. And aside from Covid-19 happening, which has found me sitting in my sparsely decorated childhood bedroom day in and day out rather than living the “good ole college experience,” I am beginning to suspect that I wouldn’t have had a Serious College Boyfriend™ anyway.
For all the objectivity with which we can examine why the relationships portrayed in media are often never found beyond the realm of fiction, or truthfully remind ourselves that a sustained, monogamous relationship is not the only avenue to happiness: if this kind of relationship is what you want but have been unable to achieve, you may feel unattractive, undesired and like something is wrong with you, among a laundry list of other untrue, self-deprecating things. First and foremost, there is nothing wrong with you. Despite the centrality of conventionally attractive bodies that approximate whiteness in public imaginations of desirability, relationship status is not a linear function of beauty in this most reductive sense. So, why are we still single?
As is the case with many things, the beginnings of this answer lie within. Have you ever been hurt by someone you perceived to be a potential romantic partner? Maybe this hurt took the form of a years-held crush that went unreciprocated. Maybe you were deliberately led on. Perhaps someone dropped off the face of planet Earth in the tried, true, ever-morally ambiguous implementation of “ghosting.” Potentially, you were stood up by a guy at your favorite ice cream parlor and subsequently had to sit in a Target parking lot for an hour with two heaping scoops of salted caramel because waiting any longer at the ice cream parlor would be undignified, but your mom would question why you returned so soon from “watching a movie with your best friend.” Hurt doesn’t adhere to the language of “if”, only “when.” So, what do we do with it all? Well, we do what we, as humans, were designed to do: use these experiences to inform how we see and navigate our world. If hurt, in this context, has been the rule rather the exception, you may have subconsciously (or consciously) closed yourself off to new experiences as a protective mechanism. You may even seek out people who are uninterested, emotionally unavailable or malicious, because that is what is most familiar, and familiarity is comforting. I know that it can feel maddening to want a healthy, monogamous relationship, but to be rendered further and further from that goal by your need to protect yourself. Regardless, be gentle. Your body is taking care of itself in the best way it knows how, and even if slightly misdirected, the value of this act of care is in no way diminished.
This relationship riddle doesn’t solely lie within, though. Just as we examine the self, so too must we examine our environment, starting with our institution. We’re Duke students, and the culture in which we exist is not one that leans heavily into the traditional structure of two, monogamous partners over a sustained period of time. Rather, we lean heavily into hook-up culture, which involves less time investment—often perfectly suited to those stretched so thin by their work, that this quick, easy, gratifying pleasure is more attractive than the emotional labor requisite to a relationship. So, even if you have reached a sense of wellbeing and security that has imbued you with the desire for a relationship, by and large, many of our peers don’t want the same.
Barring context, low self esteem, a general distrust of good things happening to you, or the classic it’s-unfamiliar-and-I-don’t-like-it routine could be one of many reasons why you’re still single. And, unfortunately, a bit of work is needed; you must identify which reason is personally applicable and recruit the necessary support from others and yourself to heal. In the meantime, though, take it from me: to be single is not a personal failing, and your single life is not a prequel to a “real” life of some sort. In this moment, relationship or not, there’s a whole lot of life to be had, and you’ll carry much less regret in the future if you seize it now.
PASH is a student-run organization providing resources for sexual health and relationship-building. Their column, “Let’s talk about ‘it,’” runs on alternate Mondays. To ask them a question about sex or relationships, submit to this form. This column was written by Carly Jones, a Trinity junior and Vice President of PASH.