«“When we graduate, this is over”: Young Women’s Experiences with Hooking Up and Relationships EMILY PAGE ...»
“Tell me about yourself.” After some discussion of the generalities of the women’s lives, I asked them to describe the last time they “went out.” In cases where the respondents didn’t mention the topic on their own, the prompt was an effective segue into discussion of experiences with and/or perceptions of hooking up, casual relationships, and committed relationships. My belonging to the same cohort could be a double-edged sword in that the women interviewed sometimes fail to invoke the more explicit detail they might otherwise if they didn’t assume that I understand their experiences as a result of my perceived similarity to them (they punctuate their responses with “you know?” innumerable times). I referred to an interview guide (see Appendix A) when the conversation was not flowing or leading to relevant lines of inquiry. Many of the interviewees ultimately reflected on their experiences in Lawrence chronologically, a process that one woman described as “cathartic.” Through interviewing women about their individual experiences, I gained valuable information about their personal and professional goals, social lives, romances, sexualities, hopes, and disappointments.
The Isolative Nature of Committed Relationships The college years have come to be regarded by Americans – from working class to ultra wealthy – as a time for young people to acquire knowledge in classrooms as well as to take steps toward adulthood, forming and cementing ideas about self-identity and one’s place in the world. Where finding and marrying a mate was once considered a significant part of this experience, many factors, like the invention of the birth control pill and the second wave feminist movement, have interceded to change this. With marriage-minded students now a minority, those who enter committed relationships struggle to reconcile its demands with competing devotions: academic achievement (excelling not only in the classroom but securing internships, studying abroad, studying for post-graduate entrance exams), family commitments, social life and friendships, part or full-time jobs, and citizenship.
An element of isolation in committed relationships is far and away the most universal experience the interviewees report. Five of the six women in the older cohort had been in an exclusive relationship lasting at least six months; 100% of these women report feelings of isolation as a result of the relationship. Of the five undergraduate women who had been in similarly serious relationships, four alluded to the isolative nature of these relationships. These women discussed committed relationships interfering with or impeding their attempts to develop a strong sense of self, which they often at least somewhat purposefully cultivated through participation in the activities mentioned above. Isolation from friends after entering a relationship was referenced most often.
For some women, isolation is a vicious cycle; they “cling” to their boyfriends because they do not have friends, but they do not make friends because they are so enmeshed with their boyfriends. Bryn*, a 23-year-old woman pursuing an MA, explicitly refers to the isolation plaguing her first serious relationship, which began the summer
after her freshman year:
And because [the relationship] had started out as this like secret thing, it was always us by ourselves kind of…. then we both lost our fake IDs, so we just couldn’t go out anymore like at all. So then we just completely isolated ourselves and did that whole “couple who has no friends” thing. And… so we did that the whole fall and then we studied abroad. So, that summer we lived together and that next year we basically stayed together because we started growing up and caring more about school and seeing a future and everything, and that was in stark contrast with our group of friends. So we started just getting so fucking fed up with our friends and so annoyed by them because they were so immature and so selfish and so annoying. …So it was those things and then it was clinging on to each other again, like our whole relationship was kind of this weird clinging on to each other thing, and in retrospect it probably wasn’t very healthy for either of us. (Bryn, class of 2010) Bryn was open with her then-boyfriend about her willingness to continue the relationship for the sexual benefits and other conveniences after she had “checked out
emotionally,” but he was unable to cope with her ultimatum:
I would be like, “When we graduate, this is over. So if you want me back, like, knowing those are the conditions… ball’s in your court basically.” …I just tried not to think about it basically because I was so fucking busy and it was just so nice to have that one person that will always help me when I’m stressed out, will always be there, he didn’t really have any friends either and we didn’t like the friends we did have, so it was kind of just like… I mean it was practical, honestly. (Bryn, class of 2010) The “practical” arrangement Bryn and her now ex-boyfriend maintained was unable to weather the brief period of platonic cohabitation the two attempted after breaking up;
after several months of “sharing a lease” the former couple severed ties completely.
* Not her real name. All names and identifying details have been changed to protect respondents’ identities.
Claudia, a 22-year-old woman who transferred to KU from the University of
Indiana, describes the all-consuming nature of her first college relationship:
We literally were inseparable and did everything together, I quit hanging out with my friends from the dorm, and that was because of my boyfriend but also because – we were friends, but they were the first people I met, they weren’t my soul mates, they were filling the friend spot but it’s not like they were the people that were going to be my lifelong friends. And I think, had I not been in a relationship, they would have fallen away… and I would have met closer friends, but that never really happened because I was with him all the time. It would have been be so different had… this happened after a year or two of me establishing myself in Bloomington. It was like, frightening.
This was my whole life there; we’d been together since the first weekend of school. (Claudia, class of 2011) Claudia recognized that she was too isolated to remain in Bloomington as her relationship began to fail in her third semester. Upon moving to Lawrence nearly a year after leaving Bloomington, she planned to “establish” herself – avoiding a committed relationship, though not seeing any problem with more casual ones. Both Claudia and Bryn terminated relationships that left them unsatisfied early in their college careers to experiment with and participate in hookup culture and subsequently enter new relationships.
Before meeting her current boyfriend, Krista recalls that she “had a lot of trouble meeting people” her freshman year because she had a boyfriend in Kansas City. She spoke more positively of her social life and “becoming, like, who I was going to be in Lawrence” following the dissolution of that relationship. Her year of participation in hookup culture ultimately led to the relationship she has been in since 2007, and she
reflects on the period of time she was single:
It was really short, and I kind of, every once in a while, wish it was longer because I’m absolutely in love with my boyfriend now… and could possibly marry him, so I’m like – there was a short period of time where I was single… When we first started dating, he had dropped out of school like a year before, so we were both just kind of on this party level where we were just like, you know, “I don’t care about school, let’s just party all the time” but then once we got past that phase, I’d say maybe four or five months after we were exclusive, he was like “I want to go back to school” and I was like “I should really get serious about school,” so yeah it was really helpful to support each other, because he’s really dedicated to school and I wasn’t, and that helped me, because seeing how dedicated he was, I was like “I should be like that.” So he motivated me a lot... my priorities when I was in college shifted over the years, like I said, in the beginning it was more about making a social circle for myself and meeting people, and then junior and senior year my priorities were definitely my artwork and school. And now I think that it just kind of balances itself out because, um, I’m living with my boyfriend and we have a lot of really great friends around town and so that’s… solid for me, like I don’t have to worry about that anymore. (Krista, class of 2009) Krista is one of the few interviewees who recounted overwhelmingly and unanimously positive experiences with hookup culture, possibly because these experiences culminated in a gratifying relationship. Her description of the ways in which her partnership with her boyfriend helped her excel as a student artist and retain a large social network indicates that both she and her boyfriend actively worked to maintain their friendships alongside their romance. In Krista’s case, timing was also critical; she had several years for “making a social circle” and becoming “who [she] was going to be in Lawrence” before meeting her boyfriend.
Victoria, a senior, also entered her freshman year with a boyfriend, though her relationship was long-distance. Although the relationship did not impede her ability to make friends, both in the dorm and through an intramural sport, she recalls an element of isolation resulting from the constant technological contact and overwhelming feelings
It was definitely hard having a boyfriend. I didn’t tell a lot of guys when I was meeting them that I had a boyfriend just because… I just learned that if you say something right off the bat, even if [men] aren’t looking at you as more than a friend, it just makes them uncomfortable to know what boundaries they can overstep or not. …I remember being unhappy with it by the end of my freshman year because it was really hard to be apart… We were always, always in contact. At first, that was really cool and cute, and then eventually it just became a bit too much for me... I came to the realization I missed him so much, like I literally felt sick and incompletely being apart from him and being almost 19 and being in college, I just didn’t feel like that was an appropriate feeling to have so I broke up with him. (Victoria, class of 2012) Victoria’s inkling that her relationship could hinder the development of an attractive social life was perceptive. Often being in a relationship limits not only the interactions one can comfortably have with the opposite sex, but also what types of activities female friends feel comfortable engaging in together. Krista reflected on occasionally feeling “really different and outcasted” throughout college when her friends went out looking to meet men.
Kylie describes her relationship with a man four years her senior as “casual;” the fact that she resides in Lawrence with a handful of her sorority sisters while her boyfriend lives in Kansas City undoubtedly helps her avoid the isolation in college
relationships described by the women in the older cohort:
I feel like the age difference isn’t like, I’m 21 and he’s 25, it’s that I’m in college and he’s not. Because when I’m with him it’s not like “oh, I’m with a 25‐year‐old.” Like it seems so old but it’s just that we’re in different lifestyles right now, so it’s still pretty casual. Like he’s focusing on work and stuff and I’m enjoying my senior year. So that’s kind of nice, to just have fun right now.
(Kylie, class of 2012) Like Krista, Kylie had the advantage of experience when entering this relationship; she escapes the isolation plaguing many other relationships perhaps in part because she learned what to avoid from a prior relationship that was much less conducive to enjoying her social life and forming her identity.
Sarah and Elizabeth, both 18-year-old freshmen, repeatedly returned to the theme of the seclusion that accompanies relationships and their ardent desire to avoid both. A month after arriving in Lawrence, Sarah ended a 10-month-long relationship that began in high school. She expressed that she ultimately decided to terminate the relationship to facilitate the formation of her identity and expansion of her social
There are so many other fish in the sea at the University of Kansas, and being 18 is not the time to be like “this is the man I want to marry for the rest of my life.” I want to meet new people; I want to enjoy myself. Because going along the lines of identity, finding myself, he didn’t let me go out with my friends, like if I was going to a party, he was like…”I have to come with you…Girls who have boyfriends don’t go to parties by themselves.” (Sarah, class of 2015) The decision to end the relationship quickly proved to be in her best interest; in the subsequent section on abuse, you will read about the tactics Sarah’s ex employs to attempt to coerce her to reunite with him.
None of the women in the older cohort alluded to any aspect of isolation in their current relationships but nearly all pointed to isolation as a prominent trend in their university years. Though these women had their share of bad experiences in relationships, many of them expressed feeling that they acquired valuable knowledge to avoid these situations in the future. Both of the coupled women described relationships that seem nurturing, while the unattached women expressed a desire for committed relationships at some point, but did not seem fixated on bringing that desire to fruition immediately.