In Love and in College: Romantic Relationships in Emerging Adulthood

04 May 2021 Comments Off on In Love and in College: Romantic Relationships in Emerging Adulthood


You hear everyone talking about it, and it’s on the agenda of your close friends. Romantic relationships are a big deal while we’re in college. With that in mind, I walked around campus and used social media to ask students (and former students) about their experiences and observations related to love during their college years.

Humans always have a need for love and intimacy, but the years we spend in college represent a time in our lives when we’re just the right age – not too young and not too old – for so many things, including romance. And so, romantic relationships are formed or at least attempted in the midst of the many dilemmas that the dynamic nature of emerging adulthood brings with it.

Education vs. Romance

Some, including the well-known Turkish author and psychologist Gündüz Vassaf, consider it unfortunate that university studies, where rationality is expected, coincide with the excitement of being young. To get the full benefit from higher education, one should be more mature. Therefore, the appropriateness of the traditional education system’s timing is indeed questionable.

From the student’s perspective, pursuing your education and maintaining a romantic relationship at the same time requires a not-so-easy, if exciting, balance. As a third-year student commented, “Even if I have a relationship, I can’t spare time for it because of my studies.” Another student discovered a way to solve this problem. “It’s necessary to be at the same university,” she said. “If my partner hadn’t studied at Bilkent, he would never have understood me [and my workload].” Yet even this formula isn’t as simple as it seems. Some say that the only way to establish a healthy romantic relationship when you’re also trying to focus on your education is to study at different universities. According to this point of view, when both partners are attending the same school, social life is interrupted, and it’s often difficult to distinguish between studies and relationships. Study or lunch dates dominate the relationship and make it monotonous.

Maturity vs. Immaturity

In a 2001 article published in the Journal of Adolescence, researchers Shulman and Kipnis note that emerging adulthood represents a developmental shift in romantic experiences. Early adolescent experiences are more affiliative and companionate, while those that take place during late adolescence exhibit more commitment, caring and devotion. Some students’ observations mesh with this idea; they suggest that their relationships are more “open-minded, intimate, active and happy.” One respondent said, “I think college years are a time when we’re not afraid to speak up and live what we feel.” Compared to the way we were in high school, our identity is more developed, we perhaps think less about others’ approval, and we’re more confident in our attempts to form relationships. We’re better at expressing our feelings, and we don’t overthink them.

When I asked if people felt mature enough for a long-lasting commitment, I got much more hesitant answers. One respondent said they believed that 90 percent of college relationships are not real and based solely on physical attraction. Another suggested that this should naturally be a time to experiment. “These years are generally when we first try to establish committed relationships – not for them to last, but for us to learn about the process.”  In the end, students say, within these relationships you discover more about yourself than you learn about the other person. So, we’re not so young that we’re immature, but we’re still open to experience; we don’t always feel old enough to be fully committed. “I think the further we are from old age, the better,” said a senior student, laughing to think that there were only a few weeks to go before graduation.

Right Time vs. Right Person

The college period is like a crossroads between various individual roads. As one student put it, “We watch people that we couldn’t meet at the right time pass through our lives.”

Even if we catch up with those people and walk together for a while, we still won’t continue on the same path. Another student, who is busy applying to universities in other countries, noted that “post-university options cover the whole world.” Pursuit of fulfilling jobs can also lead people in different directions, as one respondent noted. “There were times when I questioned how willing I was to find a career path in common with that of my partner, and whether such an effort was worth it.”

Trying to balance career and travel plans with romantic relationships is one factor that accounts for later marriages having become the new normal. Indeed, this is why researchers are more often conceptualizing emerging adulthood as a separate developmental stage. Emerging adults still, it is found, give great importance to their romantic relationships while in college. But they also question whether the timing is right for long-lasting, fully committed love.

Regardless, I would say it’s beautiful to be in college and in love: to be mature enough to begin to make sense of love, but not yet old enough to take on all its responsibilities.