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Everything I know about (uni) love

Sahar Malaika loved Dolly Alderton's take on a working girl's love life, but thinks she skipped over an important stage. In this article, she discusses the joys and disappointments of dating at uni.

During summer vacation, as part of my mission to read as little of my reading list as possible, I picked up Dolly Alderton’s first and only novel so far, “Everything I Know About Love.” It is a fabulously written book, not only an autobiography, but also littered with stories in whichever order she felt was right – recipes of delicious comfort food, and my favourite, her lists. Specifically, lists of everything that she’d learned about love in the 30 years she had been alive, prior to drafting this book. One thing that I felt was missing from this was her experience of love at university, as Alderton chooses to focus on the years after her graduation. Being an editor of a university magazine and a part of a play that explores the experiences of sex and relationships of Oxford University students, I thought I might – briefly – try to fill this gap. Every university student is exposed to a world of drinking and sex –one that is likely much more intense compared to secondary school–especially in an insular city like Oxford. In an attempt to add to Alderton’s witty observations on love, I will provide you with my own list, which, for some, will verbalise the internal whirlwind of thoughts that have been fighting each other in their minds. For others, it will be an insight into some of the mysteries that you might be faced with in the scary world that is “sex and relationships at university”.  

  1. Casual hook-ups and dating apps

Recommended song: “Let’s Fall in Love for the Night” – FINNEAS

My first act as a mature university student and proper adult was to download Bumble and Hinge. It’s the first step to embracing your freedom to go and see whoever you want, whenever you want, without a parent poking their head in to see who you’re talking to. It also comes as part of having those friends who will have made-out with or slept with 5 people within the first week of university while you’ve just started to think about kissing someone in a club.  

This is one of the most beautiful transitions, especially for those who are queer, to be able to open the door to a sex-positive and shameless world. Once we open that door some of us will desperately want to start being part of it.  

However, the world of dating apps is also a difficult one. Creating your profile provides the first revelation. You get in your head about how these fun photos that you took in matriculation make you look too posed, too pretentious – could they like you based on how you look in subfusc? You realise that these other faces will judge you based on the pictures that you choose to show them and you’ll begin to deeply analyse the impressions that they have made over text message conversations. It’s less about the smooth, in-person courtship of someone you’ve found attractive at the college bar. It’s all about what they look like on your phone screen. It can reduce our evaluation of someone to a purely aesthetic oneThis is perfect if what you’re looking for is a casual hook-up or a first date and no more. You can draw yourself into the fantasy of someone who looks great in the sea in Thailand. As long as you forget that they are mostly attracted to you by the surface that you’ve presented to them. 

This surface may not even be the real you – the self that you want to connect with someone.  Being at Oxford, you are a people pleaser, and you are placing the expectations of others onto yourself. It can be harder than “organically” meeting someone because you’re only showing them things about you that you think look good. Then comes the emotional attachment. You’re sitting in a coffee shop, and you are worried that you don’t really know them at all, and you cannot anticipate their reaction to you. There is also a disadvantage to the context of the dating app; there is no need to take the risk of telling someone, verbally, that you think they’re cute and that you should go out on a date. You’re not going in with vulnerability, whether you’re looking for a casual-hook-up –where being vulnerable is incidentally out of the question – or not. Because of this lack of the first risk, you may also find that it’s harder to communicate further on. 

These apps are not entirely evil and should not be villainized – in Dolly Alderton’s view, they are essential. And in my experience, Bumble facilitated one of my first relationships. They take away the fear of the “crush” and anxiety over whether they like you back. You’ve both swiped right on each other and so you both already know that you like each other, otherwise you wouldn’t be out for a drink.  

So, despite the disadvantages, the way I liked to see it was as practice – an introductory session for how to date, how to tell what kind of person you like, how to figure out what you’re looking for in a relationship, how to flirt and how to ask someone for a drink, or – if you’re lucky – a second date. I think the experience of dating encompasses the fact that “no experience is a bad experience”. You can learn so much from the bad dates, the whirlwind romances and the heartbreaks that come from things that may have sprung from a brief encounter on a dating app and a first Bumble date that you didn’t think was going anywhere. It might not be as romantic as the Instagram adverts make you think it is, but it gives you the chance to discover that romance for yourself. 

  1. Going from 0 to 100

Recommended song: “Share Your Address” by Ben Platt 

This will be especially significant for those of you that have never had a casual relationship yet. It is also something that I would say is quite commonly seen in Oxford. When you first move into your accommodation as a fresher, you will be hit with the realisation that you live IN your university. There’s no commute, no travel, and you’ll be living with people all the time. Your friends will become like your family, living with them all the time – although, luckily, you can be a lot more selective. The constant connection is essential, when you’ve just moved into a new place with centuries-old customs with everything and anything going wrong in Freshers Week and new experiences hitting you at every corner. What’s better? You’ll find out that these friends have endless mutual friends with you and you’ll be able to walk down Cornmarket Street or Broad Street knowing at least one other person you’re walking past. Focus on maintaining this high, because you’ll only get to feel it once. You should, however, be wary of how this makes you behave in your relationships. I have seen, from other people as well as myself, a tendency to want to immediately integrate your newfound relationship with your social life.  

Before I carry on: this is not me telling you to keep all and any relationships a secret. That’s probably not good for any party involved. However, there is a benefit to maintaining the fact that your partner/s are having a relationship with you and not all your friends yet. There will be moments when all that you want is to have a conversation with them or watch a film with them or cuddle them but you’ll either feel like your missing out on something super exciting or perhaps you’re avoiding a difficult conversation that could turn awkward. It can become overwhelming for your friends and people you’re living with to be able to know a lot about your relationship and to have your partner integrated into a life with people who you’ve probably been more emotionally vulnerable with. It creates a dissonance, it can become uncomfortable because you’re rushing yourself into combining those who’ve seen you at your most vulnerable and a partner who – whilst you may have been physically intimate with them – may not have seen you crying into a bottle of Tesco rose just yet.  

You can face these challenges with partners who go to a different university and people who are at the university with you; the former because they won’t understand how your life is so integrated with the people that you live with when they live in flats with people they’ve not met before and won’t see very often, and the latter because it’s so easy for them to come over and spend time with you and your friends that going to level 100 happens in a heartbeat.

There are videos littered throughout TikTok about the stages of dating and how to know where you’re at – be it “dating” “talking” or “situationship”. This sudden jump can make things harder especially when you might really like someone but you’re not sure about how serious things are yet, even though you’ve introduced them to your chosen family within a matter of weeks. The lesson here is to maintain some autonomy and separation in the early stages of your relationship so that you’re allowed the space to process how you feel about your relationship and at what stage you want to integrate them into your more personal life, especially if you’re wanting someone more serious.  

  1. Communication 

Recommended song: “Pancakes for Dinner” by Lizzie McAlpine. 

A simple truth: One needs to be able to communicate in order to have a relationship in the first place. To express interest, attraction, and love. It is – by far – the most important thing for a relationship to work. In a recent project for a play, I interviewed Oxford students, asking them about their stories and their experiences with love and relationships to reveal how diverse these experiences were. However, even with those who had felt that they had had fewer experiences, unsuccessful experiences, abnormal experiences, especially not heteronormative experiences, the comfort that they had found in this subject associated with fear and trauma, was through that of communication. One of them even said that, for them, this was an attractive quality in a person, the ability to not set boundaries or expectations for themselves, but to ask that you share them as well. What, then, does it mean for those of us who see self-expression as some sort of a brick wall? When the desire to tell someone that you love them, or to tell them of something that you are unhappy with or want to change, represents an overwhelming pressure and anxiety .  

Just because it’s a healthy thing to do, doesn’t mean it’s easy. The way that we have learned to communicate has changed in the world of dating apps and DMs. It’s also a hard thing to do in the way that it makes us realise that we’re vulnerable and that your partner may not like what you have to say. We do the same thing to ourselves in the way that we need constant distraction from our own thoughts. Every student here has or shares a subscription to a streaming service such as Netflix or Amazon Prime or will not have time to use them because they are swamped with work or spending time with friends. Whilst Oxford has a beautifully unique environment that fosters friendships and co-existing with other students, your space is often filled with the sounds and voices of other people, their lives and thus, your experiences wind together. We are conditioned, never to be alone. Our attention is always being focussed on a project or event or answering a DM that we have forgotten how to be alone with ourselves. There are poets and writers who embrace that, but we find nothing so terrifying. If there is no space to learn about us and know what it is exactly that we want, then how is it that we can express these desires to others? 

  1. When things are hard 

Recommended song: “Street by Street” by Laufey. 

I would say that most of us are familiar with the Oxford checklist: 

  • A first 
  • A spouse 
  • A blue 

It would be a lovely thing to come away from Oxford with at least one of these things. The fact is: we are all over-achievers. It’s how we got here. And things like this list mean that we’ve also been made to believe that part of a complete Oxford experience is to be either with a partner, many partners or many casual relationships. It creates a lot of insecurity for us to admit when things don’t feel normal, right or even worse – when things feel bad and it’s time for a break-up. It doesn’t matter how many people I’ve spoken to – friends or interviewees, at one point or another this year, one of us has been in tears over the lost achievement of not being able to find a spouse let alone a short-term partner within the 24 weeks of us being here. It’s so easy for us to forget that we worked hard to get here. That we’re going through a huge emotional ordeal moving out of our family homes. The fact that we are at one of the most academically intense universities in the world. That we are human – and yet– barely adults. That we only just figured out what we want to study, let alone what we like in a partner. I can go on about the pressures that society puts on us to be sexually desirable and sexually active. We’re too easily allowed to forget that there is another side to ourselves besides the spouse.  

I love to romanticise Oxford as much as the next person. But you will also worry about going into a coffee shop that your heart got broken in. Remembering that you won’t be able to kiss them at the kissing gate in Christchurch Meadow. In this world of Oxford “where dreams are made on”, we either resent our lack of love or we hold so tightly to our romances we lose ourselves in them. I won’t tell you to try and find the romance yourself. In an interview about her recent novel, Beautiful World Where Are You?, Sally Rooney made an excellent point that we suffer when we’re not together. We need other people. We thrive from experiences that we’ve been able to share. 

So, take what you will from this attempt to consolidate my knowledge of love in this strange place. Whilst I have tried to gather those universal truths about “uni love”, sometimes the best way to figure it out is to learn through practice. Everyone’s experiences are so different, there’s no “right way” to do things. Let yourself fall in love, let yourself get your heart broken. Let yourself hook-up with people you can’t stand when you wake up the next morning. Appreciate the whole experience, even the awful, heart-wrenching bits. It makes the rose-tinted parts even sweeter. 

As a small add-on: if you’d like to learn a bit more about how different the experiences of the Oxford Dating scene are, I would recommend going to see the play “Chemicals and Attraction” that’s on in Week 6 of this term. Doing research for the play inspired me to write this article and hopefully will be equally as eye-opening for you.

Concluding songs: 

“Denim Jacket” by Sammy Rae and the Friends

“I Drink Wine” by Adele

“Sing” by Hozier

Image credit: Good Faces Agency

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