On friendship, love, and being single

I am 19 (nearly 20) years old, and done with my second year of college. If you’re anything like my mother, you may be asking, Shreya, why don’t you have a boyfriend yet? Haven’t you found anyone in the last two years? Perhaps I am being a little too hard on my mom; her inquiries are (usually) made in jest. Nonetheless, I think these questions represent pressures that many people my age face, and pressures that I myself have repeatedly encountered. The purpose of this post will ultimately be to push back against those pressures, and to make the case for Being Single™ — at least for a significant chunk of one’s early adult life.

One of the things that I repeatedly encountered after coming to college was people who stayed in relationships with their high school boyfriend or girlfriend. On first glance such relationships are endearing; here are two people who found each other at the tender ages of 15 or 16 (give or take a couple), and decided to just keep on going. (I don’t entirely blame them — I was in a similar position myself, once upon a time.) Maybe they’re in love, or at least believe that they are.

Then I began to realize that many (most, if I’m being honest) of the people who stayed in their high school relationships during college were incredibly static in their personal development. Already having a partner allowed them to comfortably cruise in the same kinds of interactions, patterns, and social behaviors that they subscribed to in high school. What is more, they tended to branch out less, because their relationship prevented many of the vulnerabilities that come with a new place, and its loneliness. For example, a friend of mine who stayed with her high school boyfriend for the duration of her first semester at UVA spent many of her Friday and Saturday nights on Skype with her boyfriend, who attended Cornell. This friend is just one of many examples; I could name countless other scenarios of friends/acquaintances sacrificing weekends, school nights, etc. to video chat/visit/stay in with their significant other.

Don’t get me wrong — I can completely understand the temptation to stay in these existing relationships upon arriving at college. I remember being incredibly unhappy and lonely myself during my first month or so at UVA, and I imagine that if I was in a relationship, life would have been, in some ways, a lot easier. While everyone in my dorm hall was going out to frat parties for the first month of school, I probably would have been on the phone with my boyfriend, or at his place watching a movie, and so on. And I get it — some people just aren’t “party people,” and would just prefer to spend their free time cuddling and watching a movie (I am one of those people).

But I didn’t have anyone. And eventually I got tired of staying in alone every single night (Ally didn’t cuddle with me, sadly…). So I had to find ways to combat that loneliness and feeling of disorient on my own. I fought my introversion and went to parties; I befriended new people (only one of whom I’m still close friends with, admittedly); I applied to spend a weekend at a Model UN conference (despite never having done MUN before); I interviewed for different clubs and organizations; I made mistakes, and bad decisions, and so on.

As a result, I found myself changing immensely during my first year of college. And in my view, they were incredibly positive changes. Having branched so far out of my comfort zone made me a little more weathered, a lot more mature, and a lot more well-rounded. I am convinced that, if I had been in a relationship during my first year at UVA, this would not have been the case, at least to the enormous extent that it was. Maybe that is “just me,” and you are free to make that judgement. But believe me when I say, most 18 year-olds don’t have the maturity to ensure that they have a significant space and an identity apart from their significant other that are conducive towards personal change and growth. In fact, many people, generally speaking, don’t have that maturity.

[Another small side point (especially for my girlfriends out there). By the end of your college career, you will probably look back on your high school (and early college) crushes/boyfriends and cease to be impressed or even remotely enamored by them. This is because the pool of available potential mates in high school is incredibly limited as compared to that of college, and later, the real world. Therefore it is far easier to “settle” in high school, and then just get attached over time. Don’t fall into this trap. Seriously, the guys you’ll be interested in as an upperclassman in college will probably be in an entirely different league than the guys you like in high school. Trust me. TRUST ME.]

Which brings me to my next point. At what point do you decide that someone is right for you, and settle down? Of course, there is no single “correct” answer to that question. Ultimately it is up to you to decide on what your standards and criteria are for a partner. My list includes the following: kindness, genuine empathy, consideration for others, maturity, honesty, trustworthiness, deep sense of purpose, high intelligence, emotional intelligence (ability to understand and express one’s own emotions), and humility. Beyond that, I also look for sheer compatibility and shared interests. There are also little things that I find particularly attractive (openness towards Indian culture, romanticism, pensiveness, bookishness, some kind of spiritual/cosmic awareness) that I don’t necessarily “require” but still find myself drawn towards.

I’m sure some of you are asking, isn’t that a long list? First of all – it really isn’t. With some patience, you’ll find (especially as you get older) that these people do, in fact, exist. But to you I also ask: why would you settle for anything less? If you have a clear understanding of what you value and what makes you happy, then having the discipline to wait for what is right really pays off in the end.

College, and the period immediately afterwards, should ultimately be about you, and taking steps towards your long-term goals. You (probably) don’t have a spouse, an established career, kids, or any real responsibilities — it’s one of the last times you get to (and should) be selfish and just focus on yourself. If you are willing to devote a chunk of your busy schedule towards a relationship, it should be with someone who empowers you, lifts you up, and provides you with the agency to be better, stronger, and more successful. It should be with someone you can see yourself really, truly loving. It shouldn’t be because you’re lonely, or because you feel “left out” for being single, or because it’s just more convenient and nice to be/stay in a relationship.

One last point. If you take my humble advice and stay single for at least your first year of college, use that time to build and cultivate meaningful friendships. That way, when you finally do decide to settle down, you’ll have an established support system, and an exciting and enjoyable life outside of your relationship — the key to any healthy relationship.

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