Relationships In College Have Become So Ambiguous, No One Knows Where They Stand

I still remember the first time the purposeful ambiguity of college dating dawned on me. A friend had been regularly texting, going on dates, and being physically intimate with a guy she liked, but insisted they were only “hanging out.” She couldn’t call him her boyfriend because she didn’t want to start a conversation with him about what they were doing, and he seemed unconcerned about it. She had no idea whether he even liked her — as if spending all your time with someone indicates anything other than interest. That was only the first of many confusing conversations about dating where I stood utterly lost about the status of people romantically involved with each other, and it turns out I’m not the only one.

Since at least 2014, several news outlets have attempted to create a vocabulary that describes the common — and bizarre — dating behaviors people experience today. According to The New York Times, the term “orbiting” is used to describe what an ex does when your relationship is over, but they continue to creep on your social media. “Gatsbying” involves posting a photo or video to social media in the hopes that someone you like will see it and reach out, the New York Post reported. And while these terms help in naming common behaviors, the truth is, it’s not that simple. People aren’t actually using these words to talk about dating. In fact, they’re not even using defined terms at all.

Looking back, I realize my friend’s ambiguity about her relationship status was purposeful. Being ambiguous about romantic involvement is a supposedly desirable approach to relationships that goes hand-in-hand with the supposedly chill vibe of college life. But after gathering insight from 140 women and femmes from colleges and universities around the country, it seems like they actually do still want to have serious relationships, and this code of nonchalance around dating isn’t setting anyone up for success.

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To try and understand why people in college are so vague about the way they talk about dating, I sat down with 15 students ages 18-22. We laughed, ate snacks, and bonded over common dating experiences, but mostly, what they had to say was not great. It was clear the language people are using to describe dating behaviors is overwhelmingly unclear. Even the word “dating” can be used to describe anything from being in an exclusive relationship to “occasionally having sex but not exclusively.” People who are romantically involved are hesitant to label themselves as “dating” because the word so strongly implies a committed relationship — something often considered way too serious for college life, and even when desired, something many find difficult to bring up in conversation. One participant said “hanging out” is typically used over “dating” because “anything that suggests less commitment is more common.”

Furthermore, a survey of 121 Bustle Digital Group readers ages 18-22, conducted between July 9 and July 29, revealed that 64% of respondents would use “hanging out” to describe texting and getting to know someone romantically, whereas 92% of respondents would also use “talking” to describe the same behaviors. While 80% of respondents said “dating” implied exclusivity, 13% said it could also imply non-committal sex and seeing other people. “Hanging out” can be anything from spending time together (83% of respondents) to making out, having sex, or going on a date (10% of respondents). And as for the viral dating terms popularized by the media, only 8% of respondents claim to have experienced gatsbying, 16% claim to have experienced orbiting, and 12% claim to have experienced benching (when someone you like is “keeping you in their rotation while still playing the field,” according to Women’s Health). Most focus group participants had never heard of these “viral” dating terms, and said that most of the behaviors associated with them could all just be considered “playing games.” But as one participant so aptly pointed out: “There are a lot of games to play.” The point? No one is on the same page about what anything means, and it’s happening on purpose.

There are a lot of games to play.

This ambiguity is incredibly frustrating for people who actually want to pursue serious relationships. “For the most part, people themselves are confused about how they should label their relationships,” says Mhaya Polacco, 21, a student at SUNY Purchase. “You could be seeing someone but not be together, be hooking up exclusively, but not be in a committed relationship. It’s confusing! People are often afraid that their partner doesn’t think of the situation the way they do, so that could lead to some hesitancy when it comes to giving it a title.” This makes sense. If two people are dating casually and one catches feelings and expresses a desire to define the relationship, they may worry their partner feels differently. Instead of losing them, they’d rather just keep quiet even if their current arrangement doesn’t fully fulfill their desire for commitment.

But committed relationships aren’t what everyone in college is looking for. The very nature of college — an exploratory period of life where your whole path is essentially up in the air — often goes against what a serious relationship needs: time, care, commitment, and a forward trajectory. And when you’re busy working, interning, studying, and having a social life, there might not be any time or desire.

“As far as long-term exclusivity goes, I think it’s rare,” said Eloise Davenport, 21, a student at the University of Miami. “Many people are career-focused and understand that college isn’t ‘home’ to anyone. Everyone’s going to pack up every winter and summer break and post-graduation and migrate somewhere far away. I think that lack of establishment in one place deters a lot of people from making a commitment.”

The lack of stability that comes with college life is a huge factor in some people’s intentions to keep their relationships casual, but there’s another factor that also continues to fuel this ambiguity: the evolution of cultural norms. Quite simply, people can indulge in fun, casual sex, and no-labels relationships because they’re no longer in a hurry to get married, have children, and play house. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the estimated median age for first marriage is now 27 for women and 29 for men, up from 20 and 22, respectively, from 1947 to 1972. Since 1973, that age has increased every five to six years. That’s a rapid spike compared to 25 years of consistency.

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“We have completely shifted in respects to what a relationship looks like, and what marriage looks like, and if that’s something we even desire at this point in our lives,” Kiaundra Jackson, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, tells Elite Daily. “So most people — even though committed relationships are still valued and marriage is still valued — are more open to dating someone casually, or having sex with them, or even just being in a long-term relationship without ever technically getting married.” Jackson points out that because less people are rushing down the aisle, they don't have to be as open and honest about their intentions to keep their relationships casual. As more people adopt these behaviors, they become a trend.

In the incubator that is college, you’ve got everything from people looking for casual sex, people looking for marriage, and people just looking for a fraternity formal date. Mix these populations together, subtract any kind of vulnerability and open communication because you don’t necessarily “need” it (since there’s no rush into marriage), and you’ve got a recipe for confusion and heartbreak that often results in a casualness that Davenport describes as so ingrained, it’s “muscle memory.” Being vulnerable enough to express yourself can be considered “too much” by those who expect this casualness to be the norm.

“People hide their emotions in fear of exposing themselves as vulnerable,” Davenport says. “You get into situations where you may like someone, and someone may like you, but you don’t tell each other because it’s not the culture and you have to play the game. And then someone hooks up with someone else and you either end up hurt or with guilt and regret.”

At the end of the day, sex with as many people as you want can be fun and liberating, and college can be the perfect time to indulge in it. This desire is nothing to be ashamed of, and everyone should feel like they can seek out exactly the kind of dating life they want. But those who do want serious relationships are caught in the crossfire of this inescapable chillness — a battlefield where the ammo is sex and “wyd?” texts at 1 a.m. Hookup culture can be fun, but it shouldn’t be an excuse to treat people like trash just because it’s the norm. And because this mindset is adopted by so many, it makes finding a serious relationship a challenge. “If you’re looking for a serious relationship, you feel like you have to relegate your opinions back toward casual relationships because you feel like that's all anyone else is looking for,” says Renee Tiedt, 19, a student at the University of Washington.

But those who do want serious relationships are caught in the crossfire of this inescapable chillness — a battlefield where the ammo is sex and “wyd?” texts at 1 a.m.

“It sounds so unromantic to be like ‘I want it to be monogamous, and I want you to tell people I’m your girlfriend,’” Alana Massey, editor and writer behind the viral essay “Against Chill,” which so accurately describes how infuriating chill culture can be, tells Elite Daily. “But I think that people who are not articulating what they want a relationship to be are afraid that if they do say what they want, and the other person doesn’t want it, that they will settle for the thing that they already had and it will keep them from pursuing the kind of relationship they want with someone else.”

This unspoken norm and the subsequent fear of emotional vulnerability aren’t fostering healthy dating habits post-grad. It’s unrealistic to emerge from a four-year, sex-fueled, casual dating incubator of confusion ready to establish a serious, committed relationship. “If you’re not practicing reciprocal connections with people that are based in communication — that you felt the expectations were managed and all parties are agreeing to exactly what’s going down — if you’re not practicing that in these formative years, when you come out, why would you magically all of a sudden know how to structure a mutual relationship?” asks Shan Boodram, sexologist and author of The Game Of Desire.

Both Boodram and Jackson say communication is the key to establishing clarity, managing expectations, and establishing the habits necessary to date in a healthy, stress-free way both in college and after. “If we don’t start being real about our desires and wants and needs, even in college, it’s not gonna be a healthy situation when we do find someone we want to be with and connect with because those old habits will continue to creep in and stay present when we want more,” says Jackson. And because honest communication is often easier said than done, Boodram recommends keeping the conversation as light-hearted as possible, and framing it in a way that keeps the pressure off.

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“I think the talk about ‘where this is going’ shouldn’t be this heavy conversation” says Boodram. “It should be something that is light, that is curious, and you’re almost approaching that person like a tourist. What excites you right now? What kind of connections are you looking for? Out of an intimate connection, what makes you feel fulfilled? What is your end goal?” Whether it’s sex every Thursday in the stacks or a serious relationship with labels, it doesn’t matter what you’re doing ⁠— just as long as you’re both on the same page about it.

Vulnerability is hard. It takes courage to do something that has the potential to result in hurt, but having this type of conversation before getting too emotionally invested is the best way to avoid heartbreak and disappointment down the line. Ultimately, no one should have to settle for a relationship they don’t want, and that goes for people who want to have casual sex, people who want a committed partnership, and people who just want a freaking formal date.