College Week

What Your College Relationships Mean for Your Adult Dating Style

Dating in college
merzzie/Shutterstock

Congrats on your acceptance to Insert Here University! The next four years will be some of the best and most significant of your life. The major you select will pave the road to your dream job. The clubs you join will expand your horizons. And the people you date will shape the relationships you cultivate in adulthood.

Unlike the shallow dating pool of high school, college is an ocean of options. You can stick with your high school bae, find a hookup buddy, plunge into a sexual-emotional gray area, or discover an on-campus soulmate. You can also refuse to choose, and just rep the single life. Regardless, the unique partnerships (or lack thereof) you choose during this time will affect how you date for the rest of your life. Here, relationship expert and author Ana Weber fleshes out how each of these five college relationships influences the kind of adult partner you'll become.

"Even when your romantic partner stays the same, change happens in and around you all the time."

Remaining with your high school sweetheart

Your mom's minivan is all packed up and you're off to tackle your freshman year of college! But you're still in love (or in contented lust that you think is love) with your prom queen -- so she's either heading to State with you, or going to film school in California and you're committing to an LDR.

Because even with 30,000 new people on campus to meet, you're happy with what you already know and like. And in some cases there's nothing wrong with that! Some people really do marry their high school sweetheart and the relationship is happy and healthy. Weber calls this model a "shared identity" -- meaning each partner is their own person, but they're open and willing to share and compromise for the sake of the union. There's a sense of maturity that goes along with this commitment. And when it all works out, cheers to them on their happily ever after and for never having to endure a terrible Tinder date.

But even when your romantic partner stays the same, change happens in and around you all the time. And when your relationship transcends from homecoming court to History 101 to parenthood and beyond, getting too comfortable isn't so good. "Post-college, a majority of students want to explore and get to know more people," says Weber. "They want to graduate, see the world, and feel the sense of freedom attached to it. Couples who settle down early risk feeling bored with the relationship and life -- and that's when one or both partners look elsewhere for emotional and physical exposure."

Friends with benefits

That hot guy whose dorm room is down the hall from yours has never taken you out to dinner, but you do engage in vast amounts of intercourse. There's no pressure, no commitment, and no drama.

If this scenario sounds familiar, then you, my friend, have a friend with benefits: a sexual relationship with no romantic commitment. So you hook up and enjoy each other's (naked) company and understand that the arrangement is 99.2% sexual and probably not monogamous. No pet names, formal dinners, or goodnight texts required (or expected).

Believe it or not, this casual relationship can have benefits that go beyond physical euphoria, influencing a positive approach to building future relationships while learning to differentiate between settling and just having fun.

"A no-strings-attached relationship spotlights the difference between emotional commitment and no commitment," explains Weber. "Thus, it can help you uncover what it is you want and don't want out of a future relationship."

College is the perfect time to get this out of your system. So when (or if) you eventually decide to take a more serious path of love, sensitivity, and co-dependency, you'll feel ready and more certain of what you want.

"Exclusively non-exclusive" (and other gray areas)

College! No parents! No rules! And no guidelines... which leads to ambiguous relationships with confusing titles! Such as:
"We're talking."
"We're hanging out."
"We're texting."
"We're exclusively hooking up, I think, but we never discussed it so we're like exclusively non-exclusive because I'd be SO pissed if he slept with someone else because he made me breakfast Sunday morning but I don't know maybe he is seeing Angela's roommate behind my back? Because technically that wouldn't be cheating."

Basically, the mutual title of "boyfriend and girlfriend" just seems too… official right now. You're young, on your own for the first time, and seeking out exciting experiences. Oh, and then there's double majoring, chess club, and track practice. You don't have time to fully commit to someone emotionally. But you do like this person, so twin-bed coitus, DFMOs (Dance Floor Make-Outs), and late-night convos in the common room with Solo cups of Georgi and her UGGs up on your lap satiate you.

"College students are curious and somewhat narcissistic," says Weber. "They do not seek full-fledged exclusivity because it feels like too much on their plates."

That's why these "convenient" relationships can almost be more confusing than FWB -- there are some emotions involved, and the convenience factor makes it an easy pattern to fall into. Exclusivity is something both people have to agree to -- so attempting to add a non-exclusive component can complicate things for a person who wants to be emotionally available down the road; bringing about "feelings of envy, jealousy, and external judgment," says Weber.

"When the person feels ready for a monogamous relationship, the past could make her or him feel too opinionated or demanding to ask for more," she says.

"In college you're new to the process of 'adulting' -- but you are adulting nonetheless."

Monogamous relationship

College life is a bubble. Thousands of humans between the ages of 18 and 22 who have similar backgrounds and commonalities all live, learn, and party on one campus together. So when it comes to seeking companionship, the math works in your favor -- everyone you meet knows someone who knows the girl you like. It's like dating with training wheels. And enjoy it while you can, because trust me: you're not set up for that kind of success in a New York City watering hole.

In college you're new to the process of "adulting" -- but you are adulting nonetheless. So you may feel ready and willing to exclusively commit to that nursing major you met by the ice luge at Phi Kappa Tau. You may even fall in love! But no matter your age, to be monogamous is to be vulnerable. Freshman-to-senior year is one giant learning curve, and everyone is naturally naive. The negative here is this: "You can experience passion, connection, and deep admiration in a college relationship," explains Weber, "but young people often confuse love with sex, and lust with intimacy."

Settling too quickly can lead to an unfulfilling long-term relationship, or getting your heart broken. But the upside to getting your first heartbreak over with at age 19? When you're 25 and that paralegal from eHarmony stands you up on date number two because his "lizard came down with Zika," you know from experience that you can get through it.

"Hell, I would've had a 4.0 GPA if I hadn't devoted myself and my freshman year to my high school boyfriend, then unnamed members of the baseball team during the rest of my liberal arts career."

Living the single life

There are some students who just aren't into the dating game. They'd rather put their time and energy into academics, athletics, and fostering platonic friendships. They feel confident with who they are as single entities and a quest for love just isn't a priority.

Hell, I would've had a 4.0 GPA if I hadn't devoted myself and my freshman year to my high school boyfriend, then unnamed members of the baseball team during the rest of my liberal arts career. But just because I was flunking Intro Spanish didn't mean I wasn't learning important lessons about life and love via mistakes and romantic endeavors. Every relationship -- even the bad ones (actually, especially the bad ones) -- illuminates what you truly want out of a partnership, and how you can be a better partner. So down the road you're more likely to choose a relationship that fits all your personal and emotional needs.

Yes, the completely independent lifestyle can be a nice comfort zone, but it can lead to skewed and immature expectations as an adult. "The perpetually single student never learned from experience how to give, receive, or listen to a partner's needs," says Weber. "Once the person reaches adulthood and wants to enter a relationship, he or she will feel invalidated and exhibit a lack of compassion and understanding."

So go ’head -- go to formal with that cheerleader and break up three months later after realizing you have nothing in common; date the artsy guy who "isn't really your type" and develop a new appreciation for Ansel Adams. Make some love (and mistakes) in the name of… well, love. Your future husband/wife/partner/self will thank you.

Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, and get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.

Brooke Sager is an NYC-based contributing writer for Thrillist who coined the term "exclusively non-exclusive." Listen to her rant about how much she loves coffee and hates Mondays on Instagram and Twitter @HIHEELZbrooke.