Young adults — arguably in their social and physical peaks — are grouped together for four years to obtain degrees. In the midst of this newfound independence, college students often find themselves entertained by the inevitable – dating each other.
“College is a time of multiple high-impact transitions,” clinical and community psychologist and psychoanalyst Mark B. Borg said. “Dating brings to the forefront the main needs associated with being the social creatures we humans are – the need to belong and the need to differentiate.”
Students don’t necessarily go into college with dating expectations, but the situation they are in sometimes leads them to it.
“I had family and friends tell me, ‘Don't go into college like dating someone because you're gonna meet so many other people,’” supply chain management sophomore Julia Lower said. “So that was my idea. I didn’t have the intention of wanting to start dating someone as soon as I got (to college).”
Lower and her boyfriend, business sophomore Zack Talovich, met while living next door to each other in McDonel Hall at Michigan State last year. After months of on-and-off talking, the two became official July 2019.
“I still knew there were a ton of people and whatnot, but him and I just clicked,” Lower said.
Whether that’s their intention or not, college students end up in relationships as a way to explore their independence, Borg said.
“Young adults in college are just learning who they are and are establishing their independence,” Beth Sonnenberg, a relationship expert in New Jersey, said via email. “Having a boyfriend or girlfriend could give them self esteem, decrease loneliness and provide a source of extra support.”
However, dating in college adds another level to the responsibilities one has as a student.
“Dating is among the most compelling distractions to the actual attainment of maintaining the attention, concentration and commitment often associated with — if not required to — obtain a college degree,” Borg said. “Much more so if the college student hopes to maintain the GPA to go on to grad school.”
Sometimes students find themselves too distracted by their social lives to focus on school. This is not the case for everyone, but some students choose not to date at all in college, or do not actively seek it.
“I assumed that people are dating a lot more often than I thought,” business sophomore Alex Abbott said. “I honestly do see it as good, but at the same time, I’ve seen so many relationships just crumble. ... It’s unfortunate, but it’s just true that in college ... There’s so many weird things.”
Since he is not currently in a relationship, Abbott said he observes the college dating scene as an outsider.
“I know personally that my friends that are currently dating, I just feel like a lot of times they miss out on opportunities because, depending on who they’re dating, (it) can be kind of controlling,” Abbott said. “I guess in a stressful atmosphere it can go the other way as well, where the relationship can be heavily stressed on hanging out a lot.”
Borg said college dating is like an experiment ran by the hormones in young adults who are simultaneously trying to discover themselves. They are still unsure of what exactly they need and want from a relationship and use this time to explore.
Since college students hold many new responsibilities, they require a certain amount of maturity for their relationships. But since they are young adults, that maturity is not always there, Borg said.
“Even when they know what they want and need, they may not be good a communicating and expressing this to their partners,” Sonnenberg said.
Some young adults who reject relationships often find themselves dealing with “hookup culture,” which doesn’t explicitly attach emotions or dating rituals.
“Acting out is a term that simply means behavior becomes the expression of emotion so that uncomfortable feelings can be ‘acted out’ and thereby bypass awareness,” Borg said. “With all the anxiety of the transition to adulthood, the acting out of a hookup culture is often a way to be actively engaged (in) dating while being still able to balance other elements of college life.”
Many students agree that there is not necessarily anything wrong with hooking up, as long as both parties are on the same page. This can be a way for young adults to continue learning about what they need or want from relationships.
Another layer to dating in college is the pressure to maintain past relationships.
“I don’t think it’s fair to say all long-term relationships are bad,” Sonnenberg said. “It’s worth staying together if both partners feel that the other helps them to be their best selves and that they aren’t missing out on or taking away from the social activities and connections available around them.”
Environmental geosciences freshman Sara Snyder and business freshman Emily Chinoski began dating while in high school in 2017. The two started attending MSU this year, and even decided to room together.
“It’s been a good surprise,” Snyder said. “Everyone was telling me before we moved in together that we would get sick of each other and fight a lot and it might lead to the end of our relationship, but we’ve seen none of that and only bonded.”
Rather than it being a distraction, Snyder said being in a relationship has helped them adjust to living in college, making sure to spend time together while also giving each other space.
“Right now, we pretty much only get up at the same time no matter what time our classes are,” Snyder said. “We both have the morning together. And then we’ll meet for lunch, if we have time. And then I’ll pretty much see her for dinner, and then we have the night together.”
When relationships transition into a college setting, couples often face new challenges, including long distance or just not having enough time for each other.
Business freshman Marina Ackerman said she began college while in a four-year relationship from high school, but they separated in October because of the long distance between MSU and the U.S. Military Academy in West Point.
“The first week of college I moved in, and I went back Labor Day weekend to work and to also see him because that was the first time he had been back in a while,” Ackerman said. “Leaving after seeing him after so long was weird because it was like, you’re doing long distance, you’re still texting but you haven’t seen each other.”
Borg said trying to latch on to these relationships can serve as a psychological defense against the transitional state they are in — it gives them familiarity in the new environment.
“When people keep up previous long distance (relationships) it is often because they care for their partner and are willing to maintain that connection cost what it may emotionally,” Borg said. “That is OK.”
Ackerman said after witnessing a friend make a long-distance relationship work, she decided she wanted to try it out, but the time apart was too much to keep up.
“I think college, for everyone, is a time to grow and develop and try new things. ... I don’t have any high school memories without him,” Ackerman said. “In college, it was just different because it’s not as easy to do things together.”
Borg and Sonnenberg said they agree that if students can handle the pressure of school while also dating, there’s nothing to lose.
“If they can successfully balance the time required to be in (a) relationship with their other priorities and the (benefits) of being a couple outweigh being single,” Sonnenberg said.