For many young women, a serious relationship sounds like a dream. The idea of being with a guy who’s exclusively committed, makes his feelings clear, and takes you out on real dates can sound like the college version of a fairy tale. You might picture wandering hand-in-hand around campus, sharing milkshakes at that little hipster café downtown, and crying on his shoulder after a rough exam. In fact, you might have even seen your friends post pictures on Instagram of dinner dates, formals, and trips to Disney, and wished the same for yourself. Most of all, you read the sappy anniversary posts — one year, two years, even three years or more — and hope that someday, you’ll have someone you love (and who loves you) just as much.
While these things are common to many long-term relationships, they don’t tell the whole story. Sure, you’ve probably heard clichés like “no couple is perfect,” “social media is like a highlight reel,” and “every couple fights sometimes.” However, as someone who’s been in a relationship for two college years, I can personally attest to how hard it is. And I can tell you that those clichés, while very true, don’t do things justice.
I came across this well-written piece about relationships that echoed some thoughts I’ve been having for a while. It made me feel a lot less alone — like the author, I too have wondered whether or not my relationship is “normal.” It also inspired me to write about the topic myself. There’s a lot about serious relationships that goes unsaid, especially because most people avoid airing their dirty laundry. And when we have the added layer of college — of the beginning of our 20s, of learning how to be an adult, of our first real taste of independence — it can make things a lot trickier.
Before going on, I need to clarify two things. The first is that abuse in a relationship is never, ever okay. Everything I say in this piece is under the presumption that the relationship is not abusive. The second is that I’m writing this from the standpoint of two people in a heterosexual relationship — a female college student dating a male college student. While many of these things may also apply to relationships for those who are on the LGBTQ spectrum, I cannot really speak from any other perspective other than my own. So, in this piece, although I will be writing as a girl dating a boy, this isn’t meant to exclude girls who are dating girls, or people who identify as non-binary genders.
Obviously, there is no way I can cover everything about a relationship in this piece. I’m going to focus on a few important points — just remember that they’re part of a bigger, and almost infinitely complex, picture.
1. You may not always feel “sure” about things.
Some days, you’ll be on top of the world. You’ll be able to picture spending a lifetime with this person. You know that you love him, and that he loves you. You’ll laugh together. You’ll feel connected. But other days, you won’t feel so confident. You’ll question whether or not you’re truly compatible in the long run. You won’t know for sure if you love him. Does he love you, or just the idea of you? You’ll cry yourself to sleep — in a separate bed, as he needs the rest for an early class the next day. You’ll feel disconnected. And on both ends of the scale, you’ll often be filled with questions. Lots of questions, questions that weigh on you like stones.
With a future that’s already hazy — you aren’t even totally sure what you want to do with your own life after graduation — the concept of “certainty” increasingly sounds like a far-off myth.
2. A lot of factors could make or break it.
You switched majors three times. He never switched, but he considered medical school for a semester, until organic chemistry nearly kicked his tush. You’re toying with the idea of moving to New York post-grad. So is he. But then, one night, he casually considers moving abroad. And you know you want to stay in the States. He’s pretty sure he wants to stay here too, though, so you’re not too worried. But what about further education? Will you need to be long distance for a while? He’s dreaming of a Jewish studies program, and you’re considering nursing school. But you’re still not sure. You hope to grow together, but you also don’t want to hold him — or yourself — back from your dreams. And as time goes on, you won’t always feel certain (see #1 above) of what those dreams are.
A lot of buts, and we’re not just talking about the cute one he sits on.
3. Your family (and some of your friends) may not approve.
Early on in the relationship, a good friend of yours warned you not to complain too much to your family. She was in a psychology class, where the professor reminded her students: Mothers never forget about anything.
When your grandmother first met your boyfriend, she seemed to like him. And she still does. Sometimes. Maybe. You asked her for advice, because a woman married to the same man for 63 years probably knows a thing or two.
Unfortunately, this advice gradually shifted into criticism. Now, she doesn’t think your boyfriend does enough for you. “Why hasn’t he bought you any jewelry?” she asks. “I feel like he’s too pushy,” she chides. “How could he leave you alone in a room with not one, but two cockroaches?” You cried in front of her during school breaks. You once even cried in front of your hairdresser, because your boyfriend had sent you a text that was meant as a joke but came across as rude. Grandma stopped by during that episode, and she wasn’t impressed with your boyfriend’s poor communication. And he still hasn’t bought you any jewelry.
But sometimes, she comments with heart eye emojis on Instagram pictures of the two of you. Occasionally, she prints them out to hang on her fridge. And she still treats him to dinner whenever he visits. However, none of it will ever soften the blow you felt when she said, “I don’t believe you two are actually a match made in heaven.”
Every so often, when you’re upset, you’ll vent to close friends, too. As a result, some of them may end up seeing more of the negatives than the positives and question the stability of your relationship. On the other hand, you still have that one best friend who puts you in your place when you’re the one in the wrong, and she’s probably the reason you never fully ventured into “crazy girlfriend” territory. She believes you two are soulmates. If she’s right, she’s definitely getting an extra slice of cake at the wedding.
4. Being independent is hard.
This would still be true if you were single. But sometimes, it’s even harder when you’re in a relationship. You can take care of yourself, of course. You can cook your own meals, travel the world on separate programs, and console yourself after a rough day. And, on many occasions, you’ll have to. However, when he’s too busy to make dinner for the two of you or when his summer plans don’t overlap with yours, you’ll wish things were different. Going through tough situations he can’t logistically be there for will be the hardest. You’ll be upset at 3 a.m. while he’s fast asleep. You’ll cry alone in a bathroom in a foreign country, and the best he can offer is a phone call from the campus library, many miles away. You’re fortunate to have a boyfriend who’s supportive — but realistically, he can’t always help you.
Being apart is hard. But you refuse to succumb to co-dependency.
5. You’re not crazy.
You’re really not, even though you had tears streaming down your face while you sat in class and kept taking notes as if nothing was wrong. Even though your grandmother lectured you for an hour over the phone the night before about how your boyfriend “isn’t sensitive enough” and “doesn’t truly understand you.” Even though you believe she’s generally wrong. Even as you wish one of your little charm bracelets were one he had bought for you, just so you could dangle a tiny heart with your finger as you tell yourself that all will be okay.
Even though, while you’d never admit it, you secretly wish he had bought you jewelry.
A serious relationship, especially in college, can feel like a nightmare. And no matter what you know to be the truth, others’ facades will always enamor a part of you. Samantha’s boyfriend took her to Disney World, while yours cancelled breakfast plans — and forgot to let you know. It hurts to see their pictures in front of Cinderella’s castle, while you’re sitting on his doorstep and he’s out to study with a friend. But for all you know, Samantha’s been in your shoes, too. Most people don’t air their pity parties on Facebook. And I’m not saying we should. At the same time, though, we need to stop comparing our relationships with what we think they’re “supposed” to be. And we need to open up about the reality of the fairy tale.
My boyfriend has never taken me to Cinderella’s castle. But in his arms, in forgiving embraces after our disagreements, in never-ending loyalty, in the sound of laughter amidst fear about the future — I think we’re starting to build our own.
Picture belongs to the author, Valerie Berman.