College Relationships: How to Balance Learning With Love and Dating
Are college relationships doomed to failure, or are they valuable sources of support? Is it better to hook up occasionally or have a steady partner? Can long-distance love last while you're going to school? Personal questions like these only add to the many academic and career-related challenges and decisions often faced by post-secondary students.
Love may make the world go round, but dating in college can be confusing. And simple answers are hard to come by. After all, every relationship is different, so a one-size-fits-all approach to romance doesn't really exist.
However, this article will teach you about the signs of healthy relationships and how to maintain good connections to partners and friends during your college years. You will also discover why long-distance college relationships can be so challenging, and you'll get to explore tips on sustaining love from afar. In addition, you'll learn the warning signs of a bad relationship that can keep you from achieving your goals. Plus, you'll find tips on recovering from a breakup and protecting yourself from the STI epidemic that's occurring on many college campuses.
Just keep this in mind: If you need help or advice about specific problems in your personal life, or if you are stressed about relationships or sex, your campus counseling office is the best place to start seeking support.
- Dating in college: Myths and facts
- Pros and cons of having a relationship in college
- The differences between a healthy and unhealthy relationship
- Long-distance relationships: Are they a good idea?
- When you're at the same school as your partner
- Breaking up: How to cope when a relationship ends
- Safety first: What you need to know about STIs
Dating in College: Myths and Facts
College relationships can take many different forms. And what we see in movies and on TV doesn't always match the reality of what happens on campus. In fact, one-third of female college seniors say they went on fewer than two dates during their entire time at college.1 So if you're single, college relationships statistics confirm that you're not the only one—even if you sometimes feel as if everyone else on campus has a love life.
In addition, some students say that the whole concept of having a relationship—or even just dating—is getting more difficult to define because "hookup culture" has replaced "courtship culture." (A courtship culture is one in which a relationship follows a traditional path and a long-term relationship is assumed to be the goal.)
But the phrase "hooking up" is often vague since it can be hard to tell what different people mean by it. Just consider what one study found when students were surveyed about the topic:2
- About half of them think that hooking up always includes sex.
- Nine percent think that sex isn't a part of hooking up.
- About one-third think that the meaning of "hooking up" is ambiguous.
- About 37 percent of students had hooked up (however they defined it) at least twice during the school year. But those who were surveyed assumed that, among their peers, hooking up was actually much more common than that. So it might not be as common as we tend to think it is.
Aside from hookups, a serious college relationship is definitely possible in college if that's your goal. In fact, 15 percent of engaged people report that they met their future spouse in college.3 (In contrast, that number was 44 percent in 1955.4) So finding and building a healthy partnership that enriches your college experience is definitely possible, even if students generally aren't as committed to the process as they were in the past. The key word is "healthy."
Pros and Cons of Having a Relationship in College
Should you have a relationship in college? The nature of love suggests that nothing you read here will make a difference in your decision. (If you really like someone, you want to be with them, no matter what anyone else says. More importantly, you'll try to find a way to make it work.) But, of course, there are good things and not-so-good things about having a relationship in college. Here are a few to ponder:
Pros of Having a College Relationship
- It can help with loneliness. Feeling isolated is a common problem in college with 63 percent of students reporting intense loneliness in the previous 12 months.5 Having someone to share in your experiences can help. But keep in mind that not all relationships offer feelings of connection.
- You'll probably have more support. College can be stressful, so it's nice to know that someone has your back. A good partnership can give you that feeling.
- It can save you from too much awkward socializing. College is a busy time. Having an exclusive relationship can save you from having to deal with mingling and dating. And while your friends worry about what to wear at parties or on dates, you can lounge around in your PJs with your partner. (We're mostly joking here, but there's something to be said for feeling comfortable.)
- You might be healthier. If your relationship is sexual (and the sex is safe), you can experience many health benefits, such as improved immunity.
- Love, actually. It's true: Falling in love can be one of life's greatest experiences. When we're in love, our brain releases more feel-good hormones like dopamine and norepinephrine. That's a pretty scientific explanation for a process that often seems to transcend the physical, but the end result is that, combined with the new freedom of college, your first college relationship can be exhilarating.
Cons of Having a Relationship in College
- It can add more stress. Even a good relationship can sometimes be stressful. One study found that over 30 percent of students felt their intimate relationships had been very difficult or traumatic in the previous 12 months. And nine percent said that relationship stress affected their school work.5 In fact, some students think they already have enough to deal with in college, so they choose to forgo relationships completely.
- You might miss out on important parts of the college experience. Again, this depends on the nature of your relationship, but being attached at the hip to another person can prevent you from having new adventures and meeting a more diverse range of people. And those experiences are often an important part of going to college.
- You could have less time to study. A relationship can't run on autopilot. You have to invest at least a little of your time in order to make it work. And spare time isn't exactly plentiful when you're studying and keeping up with assignments.
- It might distract you. Remember those feel-good chemicals? They can also keep you from focusing on the less exciting things you need to get done, like completing lab reports or finishing essays. Plus, studies have found that we lose some of our cognitive abilities in the heady early days of a relationship.6
The Differences Between a Healthy and Unhealthy Relationship
As the lists above demonstrate, the pros and cons of college relationships are highly dependent on what kind of relationship you have. Clearly, you have a much better chance of success in a healthy relationship.
What makes a relationship healthy? Simply put, it won't hold you back. A healthy relationship can expand your world, opening you up to new experiences and giving you the security to do new things. With so many life-changing experiences available in college, you want to be with someone who allows you to grow and celebrates your accomplishments with you.
Here are some signs of a healthy relationship:
- You know how to disagree. Every couple argues sometimes. But in a good relationship, you're able to argue fairly, without sweeping accusations (like "You always mess things up!"), name-calling, or personal attacks (such as "You're just a loser!"). Instead of talking about the other person's faults, you keep the focus on how you feel. (For example, consider the difference between "I feel like I'm unimportant to you when you're late" and "You're an idiot who can't even tell time!")
- You already like yourself as well as the other person. Nobody wants to be a "project," so don't go into a relationship with the assumption that you can eventually change the things that annoy you about the other person. For example, if it's important to you to date someone who is outgoing, don't tell yourself that you can make a shy person more extroverted. Look at a potential partner as he or she exists right now, not as a fantasy you create in your own mind. Similarly, don't expect another person to magically make your life better. Ultimately, we're all responsible for our own happiness.
- You can overlook the little annoyances. Sure, your partner squeezes the toothpaste from the wrong end, but is that really worth being annoyed over? If someone is a good person and tries to make you happy, it's often worth keeping the peace by biting your tongue. It's human nature to always look for problems, but (to state the obvious) everybody has faults. Some relationship counselors talk about an 80/20 rule in relationships. That means a good relationship offers about 80 percent of everything that you want. But you may have to learn to live with (or without) the other 20 percent. You are not "settling." Rather, you have realistic expectations.
- You're free to be you. Amidst all the changes the college years can bring, your relationship should be your "safe place." You should feel free to be your own wonderful and weird self. If you find yourself censoring your words a lot or lying about who you are, it might be time to re-evaluate what you want. An authentic relationship is more rewarding in the long run. Maintaining your own interests and friends can help you grow as an independent person.
- You trust each other. Trust can be tricky. But it's an essential part of feeling safe with another person.
Unfortunately, some college students find themselves in unhealthy relationships. In fact, 43 percent of female college students say they've experienced physical or emotional abuse while in school.7 Male students can also experience abuse. Always keep this in mind: Sexual assault and other forms of sexual violence can occur even within the context of a relationship. So it's important to remember that even if you are in a relationship, it's still a crime for your partner to assault you in any way.
Any type of abuse within a relationship is unhealthy—and unacceptable. If someone hits you just once, it's abuse. If you're experiencing any type of abuse within an intimate relationship, your college counseling center has resources to help you. You can also call:
- RAINN's National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE
- The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233
- The National Dating Abuse Helpline at 1-866-331-9474
Here are some other warning signs of an unhealthy relationship:
1. You feel controlled. In an unhealthy relationship, one person might try to control the other by dictating choices about clothing, behavior, or friendships.
2. You have to "walk on eggshells." If you don't know how your partner will react, you might always feel as if you have to be careful about what you say or how you act. In a good relationship, you can say what's on your mind without worrying about the other person freaking out. You can be yourself.
3. You frequently feel humiliated. Name-calling, belittling, and insults are not normal parts of a respectful relationship. It's one thing to joke around, but if you feel hurt, speak up.
4. You struggle to maintain your boundaries. This doesn't just apply to sex. If your partner pushes you to do anything you're not comfortable with—or won't ever take "no" as an answer—then he or she is not respecting your boundaries.
5. You don't trust each other. These behaviors can be "red flags":
- Constantly checking in with the other person and monitoring what he or she is doing
- Trying to control who your partner spends time with when you're apart
- Telling the other person how to dress or act
- Going through a partner's phone, email, or social media to find proof of infidelity
These actions reflect insecurity, not love or trust.
If your partner is doing any of those things—or if you are—it's time for a heart-to-heart conversation. Trust is built through open communication, not suspicion, control, or spying.
Long-Distance Relationships: Are They a Good Idea?
Do long-distance relationships work in college? As with any type of relationship, it really depends on the quality of the partnership. But many people do find themselves in long-distance college relationships. In fact, over 75 percent of college students experience one at some time during their post-secondary years.8 (In general, a long-distance relationship is one in which it's not practical to see each other at least a few times a week. Some people use a guideline of being more than 125 miles apart.)
One of the most common scenarios is a high school relationship in which one partner moves away for college or each partner goes to a different school after graduation. Deciding whether or not to continue a high school relationship can be a tough process.
Consider this: You will change a lot in college—and that's a good thing. Some people find that as they mature, they have less in common with high school partners and friends. In fact, so many students decide to end their long-distance relationships when they first go home for Thanksgiving that there's a term for it—the turkey dump.
As well, maintaining a relationship from your past can sometimes hold you back from building your future. Students in a long-distance relationship can have more difficulties adjusting to college life than students who are not in one.9
But other students enjoy going through those changes with a partner, even if it's from a distance. After all, it's an exciting time of life, and sharing your growth and discoveries with someone you know well can make college even better. And sometimes a high school partner is simply too awesome to let go.
That often leads to this question: How long do high school relationships last? One commonly cited statistic is that two percent of married couples met in high school, although it's hard to trace where that number originated from. (Facebook found that about 15 percent of married people went to the same high school as their spouse, but it's unclear if they actually started their relationship while in high school.10)
Nonetheless, you can find many examples of high school relationships that have lasted long after graduation. For instance, basketball superstars LeBron James and Steph Curry and rock stars Bono and Jon Bon Jovi are just a few famous people who met their spouses while in their teens.
Psychologists say that long-distance relationships are often happier and more meaningful than so-called geographically close relationships.11 That might be because it's easier to idealize someone when you don't have to see his or her faults every day. And students in a long-distance relationship can learn independence by being on their own.
If you do decide to go the long-distance route, here are some tips for success:
1. Have a heart-to-heart talk before you leave. Good communication will play a big role in how successful you are in maintaining the relationship. Talk about your goals and what you expect from one another.
But also do a bit of soul-searching on your own. Why do you want to keep the relationship going? Sometimes, people who are about to face a big change like going to college hold on to someone else because they're afraid to be alone. That's not fair to either of you.
2. Set clear expectations about contacting each other. That could mean agreeing that you don't have to text each other all day, every day. Or it might mean scheduling a weekly Skype chat during which you both eat dinner. It's important to be on the same page so that one person doesn't panic if the other isn't responding to texts or calls. Keep in mind that you don't want your relationship to interfere with your college experience, in terms of both academics and your social life. It's OK (and in fact preferable) to make new friends at college even if you're in a long-distance relationship.
If you bypass social activities because you don't want to offend or feel disloyal to your long-distance love, you may end up resenting the relationship.
3. Consider making "dates" and creating routines. For example, you could sync your Netflix and watch a movie together. You could agree to send each other a photo first thing every morning. Even playing an online game together can keep you connected. The important thing is to maintain the sense that you matter to each other.
4. Don't create unnecessary drama. Both of you have lives to live and things to do. Try not to overreact if the other person is busy sometimes, meeting new people, or changing as they learn more about themselves. Don't try to overcompensate for the geographical distance between you by taking away psychological "space" and being jealous or possessive.
Being aware of the risks of long-distance relationships can help you and your partner create strategies to avoid problems down the road.
When You're at the Same School as Your Partner
As with a long-distance relationship, having a relationship with someone at the same college can pose challenges. But on-campus relationships can also lead to rewards. After all, you're in college to learn about the world (and yourself), and those lessons can happen both in and out of the classroom. But as with other relationships, you want a partnership that enhances your post-secondary experience, not one that detracts from it.
Of course, some students think it's possible to be too close to a partner. That's why it's often a good idea to avoid dating people who live on the same residence floor as you. So-called "floorcest" can lead to awkward moments if you eventually break up.
Many of the tips that apply to long-distance relationships can actually work for any relationship (including friendships). For example:
- Find time for each other.
- Communicate regularly and share your feelings if something is bothering you. (Try to communicate in person, instead of by text.)
- Have realistic expectations. It's often hard to know the future of college relationships after graduation, so keep the lines of communication open and don't rush into anything.
- Respect each other's responsibilities at school.
- Keep your own friends and hobbies.
- Remember the little things. It's not always the grand gestures that prove love, but the small acts that show the other person you're thinking about them.
- Take responsibility. If you mess up, own it. Apologizing can be difficult, but it's better in the long run.
- Make an effort. The "whoever-cares-less-wins" dynamic is common in college. But often, it's healthier and less confusing to work on a relationship instead of pretending you don't have any feelings.
Nurturing a relationship in college can take world-class time-management skills. So if you find it tough to balance homework and love, consider mixing work and pleasure. For instance, schedule study dates during which you and your partner crack open the books together. (Keep in mind that studying in a public place may be more productive than studying in your room.)
Of course, it's best to avoid spending all of your time together. Don't let a relationship hold you back from experiencing the social side of college. But also keep some of the risks in mind. Although partying is embedded in college culture, making smart choices will help you protect relationships of all kinds.
For example, alcohol use in college can lead to relationship difficulties. That's because drinking can make you more likely to argue or say things you wouldn't normally say. And for some students, that's just the beginning. Poor sexual decisions can also lead to negative consequences. Overall, heavy drinking in college is linked with lower satisfaction in relationships.12
Breaking Up: How to Cope After a Relationship Ends
It's impossible to list all the reasons why a college relationship could end. Sometimes, it just comes down to timing. In other words, not being able to sustain a relationship isn't necessarily anyone's fault, especially during times of transition like the college years. If it turns out that your relationship wasn't meant to be—or that it's simply too difficult to maintain on top of your schoolwork—don't beat yourself up. Experiencing the end of a relationship doesn't mean you're incapable of a happy partnership or that nobody will love you in the future. Sometimes things just don't work out.
In fact, breaking up can be a good thing in the long run. Many students say their breakups ended up being positive experiences. This is especially true if one partner was holding the other back. But that's all hard to appreciate when the breakup still feels raw.
Grief can feel as if it will go on forever. But taking some time to deal with it can shorten the grieving process. You will feel better. Try some of these coping strategies to ease the pain of a breakup:
- Write about it. Writing your thoughts down can be therapeutic. Record your feelings without editing or questioning them. Consider making lists of the best things about being single, the most annoying things about your ex, or your most exciting plans for the future.
- Let yourself be sad. Feeling pain is normal and understandable. You don't have to shut down those feelings or pretend that everything is OK. Fully experiencing sorrow will actually help you recover faster. So go ahead and cry if you want to. Listen to songs about love gone wrong if it helps. (There are a lot of breakup songs out there!)
- Talk to someone. Reach out to friends and family members for support. But focus on the positive people in your life. If you're struggling or feeling alone, talk to someone in your college's campus counseling center.
- Look after yourself. Now is the time for self-care. Try to exercise, eat well, and sleep. And avoid binge drinking. It might make you feel better temporarily, but in the long run, alcohol will bring you further down.
- Try to let go of any anger. Seeking revenge, cyberstalking, or badmouthing your ex may all be tempting behaviors, but they're not going to help you recover. If your ex wronged you, he or she doesn't deserve your energy or time. That includes obsessing about the relationship. Try to move on and look ahead, not backwards.
Remember, the period just after a breakup can be a vulnerable time. Don't make any rash decisions or changes. And be sure to seek help if you feel you need it.
Safety First: What You Need to Know About STIs
Whether you're in a steady relationship, casually dating, or regularly hooking up on the weekends, you should be aware of the risk of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Don't assume you're too young or that you're protected from an STI while in the bubble of an academic environment. The fact is, STIs are spreading on campuses across the U.S. at epidemic rates. And you might be surprised to know that the 15-to-24 age group has the highest risk for STIs out of all age groups. Take a look at these facts:13
- About half of all new STI cases diagnosed every year are in the 15-to-24 age group.
- Out of the over one million cases of chlamydia diagnosed in the U.S. in 2017, 62 percent were in females between 15 and 24. Chlamydia can cause pelvic inflammatory disease and infertility.
- In just one year (from 2016 to 2017), the rate of gonorrhea for the 20-to-24 age group increased by almost 13 percent. New strains of gonorrhea are resistant to most antibiotic treatment.
- Syphilis cases among males between 15 and 24 increased by over 50 percent between 2013 and 2017. If not treated, syphilis can result in blindness, paralysis, and death.
Those numbers might be alarming, but STIs are preventable. The steps below can help you reduce your risk:
1. Practice safe sex.
Safe sex (sometimes called "safer sex" since only abstinence is 100-percent safe) refers to sexual contact using a barrier to protect yourself. That means using a condom, female condom, or dental dam any time you have oral, genital, or anal sex.
Practicing safe sex at college doesn't have to be difficult. Many colleges provide free condoms to students. One study found that 85 percent of college campuses give out condoms at their campus health centers.14 Some student residences also supply condoms, so ask your resident advisor if you're not sure whether yours does. And, of course, you can buy condoms at drug stores.
It's worth noting, however, that despite numerous public-awareness campaigns and easy access to protection, fewer than 36 percent of college students say they always have sex with condoms.15
Remember, most people with an STI don't know they have one. Don't assume your partners are clean just because they look healthy, seem nice, and tell you they don't have an STI. Always protect yourself, at least until you know for sure that you have both completed STI testing recently and gotten a clean bill of health.
Conversations about STIs and testing can be awkward, but it's much better to have "the talk" before you have sexual contact than after. Planned Parenthood has some good tips for starting this conversation.
2. Get tested regularly.
Staying on top of your STI status is one of the most important things you can do for your health in college. Fortunately, most campus health centers offer confidential testing. So don't be embarrassed to ask for STI tests. Testing is offered to help protect your health, and the people who work at health centers are trained to be professional and nonjudgmental.
Some students avoid STI testing because they are afraid that their parents will get the bill or somehow found out. However, STI testing and results are protected under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). That means your privacy is assured. But if you have concerns or want to know more about your rights, talk to a healthcare provider in the medical office where you get the test.
Find Your Place
The college years are a time to expand your horizons, learn about yourself and the world around you, and take the next steps toward the future you want. For some students (but definitely not all), college also includes romantic relationships. And in healthy, happy partnerships, love can add to the whole college experience.
Of course, part of balancing relationships and college is choosing a school and program that aligns with your personal and professional goals. So take the time to explore and evaluate your options. Get started right now by entering your zip code into the school finder below!
1 Independent Women's Forum, Hooking Up, Hanging Out, and Hoping for Mr. Right—College Women on Mating and Dating Today, website last visited on January 17, 2019.
2 ScienceDaily, "When it comes to college hookups, more is said than done," website last visited on January 17, 2019.
3 The Knot, "Only 1 in 3 US Marriage Proposals Are a Surprise; Engagement Ring Spend Rises, According to The Knot 2017 Jewelry & Engagement Study," website last visited on January 17, 2019.
4 Yale Daily News, "Fewer college couples marry post-graduation," website last visited on January 17, 2019.
5 American College Health Association, National College Health Assessment II: Fall 2017 Reference Group Executive Summary, website last visited on January 17, 2019.
6 Motivation and Emotion, "Reduced cognitive control in passionate lovers," website last visited on January 17, 2019.
7 Knowledge Networks, 2011 College Dating Violence and Abuse Poll, website last visited on January 17, 2019.
8 Journal of Counseling Psychology, "Predictors of Satisfaction in Geographically Close and Long-Distance Relationships," website last visited on January 17, 2019.
9 Emerging Adulthood, "Long-distance dating relationships, relationship dissolution, and college adjustment," website last visited on January 17, 2019.
10 Facebook, "From Classmates to Soulmates," website last visited on January 17, 2019.
11 International Communication Association, "Long-distance relationships can form stronger bonds than face-to-face ones," website last visited on January 21, 2019.
12 Journal of College Student Development, "Drinking and Dating: Examining the Link between Relationship Satisfaction, Hazardous Drinking, and Readiness-to-Change in College Dating Relationships," website last visited on January 21, 2019.
13 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "STDs in Adolescents and Young Adults," website last visited on January 23, 2019.
14 Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, "Condom and Safer Sex Product Availability among U.S. College Health Centers," website last visited on January 23, 2019.
15 Journal of American College Health, "Condom Use in Heavy Drinking College Students: The Importance of Always Using Condoms," website last visited on January 23, 2019.