University

Love, sex, and dating at the RUG

The commitment paradox

Students want to be in real relationships. They also avoid commitment like a disease. It’s the commitment paradox. ‘If they find someone they really like, they run the other direction.’
By Megan Embry / Photos by Luís Felipe Fonseca Silva

When I decided to investigate love, sex, and dating at the RUG, I thought I knew what I would find. The Netherlands is famous for frank sex education and legalised prostitution, and RUG students are coming of age in an era of meaningless, tech-mediated hookups. So I assumed their interest in romantic commitment would probably reflect those influences. That is to say, I thought they wouldn’t be interested in commitment at all.

But I was wrong; the picture is a lot more complicated than that. In an anonymous UKrant survey, 78 percent of students said they would prefer to be having relationship sex than any other kind. And an overwhelming majority – 76 percent – say they want to be married someday (80 percent of male respondents and 71 percent of female respondents). So it seems safe to say that most students actually are interested in commitment.

What kind of sex do you want to be having?


Do you want to get married someday?


Privately, students told me they would love to have the sexual and emotional benefits of a committed relationship. But paradoxically, most of them studiously avoid commitment anyway.

What’s the deal?

Consumer behaviour

Of course students want the benefits of a committed relationship, says Cantin, an American RUG student. That doesn’t mean they actually want to be committed. ‘Most relationships at the RUG are about comfort, not commitment. People hop from relationship to relationship because they are afraid to be alone.’

Media studies student Alejandro agrees. ‘I’ve had a lot of those superficial romances where you just pick a person who fits your need at the moment. But when the moment passes, you move on.’

People hop from relationship to relationship because they are afraid to be alone

Douwe, who studied music at the RUG campus in Leeuwarden, reports that most of his peers at the RUG ascribe to the Netflix model of relationships. They’re willing to ‘sign up’ for a partner on a month-to-month basis, but they want the freedom to unsubscribe when circumstances change. ‘People don’t want to work for a relationship; they don’t want to make some kind of long-term investment. Not right now.’

That’s not new, says RUG social psychologist, Rebecca Sargisson: younger people have always been interested in keeping their options open. But the way dating app culture has commodified relationships is new.

From a consumer behaviour perspective, the easy availability of superficial sexual connection ‘depletes the value of the consumer item, which in this case is human relationship.’ Students are used to buying something, using it once, and throwing it away. Sargisson thinks that mindset informs relationships, too: people become disposable. ‘This is not a product you’re going to keep forever.’

Fear

Marta, an international business pre-master student from Poland, thinks that the consumer effect makes students too insecure to pursue the honest relationships they would like to be in. She says social media makes it easy to believe everyone else is ‘more interesting, more attractive, more talented, wealthier.’

The fear then, is that any potential partner will have unlimited access to better ‘products.’ Committing to an honest relationship would mean letting someone discover that you’re not as loveable as your Instagram feed implies. So why wouldn’t they move on to someone who is?

They would like to snap their fingers and have the perfect companion

Marta thinks most of her peers would rather maintain the status quo than risk having happiness and losing it. She says the status quo is lonely, but the trick is not to think about it. ‘Instead, we pass time with Netflix binges, homework, or superficial relationships.’ It’s living, but not really living, she says.

‘What people mean when they say they want a relationship is that they would like to snap their fingers and have the perfect companion who makes them feel secure and happy and who loves them in spite of their flaws. They just don’t want to go about the terrifying business of actually finding that person.’

Timing

But often the reason students avoid commitment is more practical than existential: the timing just isn’t right.

At the RUG, students are focused on their own personal, academic, and professional development. It would be hard to fold a partner into all of that, especially when the future is so uncertain. ‘For example, I’m thinking about pissing off to Zambia for eight months’, says Benjie, a 24-year-old from Britain. ‘I don’t want to owe anyone anything.’

Guys here run the other direction as fast as they can

Prioritising personal freedom might be lonely, he says, but it’s necessary. That’s why so far, he’s avoided relationships at any cost. Even says if he had met ‘the one’ along the way, he wouldn’t have committed. Which is pretty typical, says Valeska, a German master student. Once, a date told her she was the girl of his dreams. ‘He actually said I would make the perfect girlfriend, and that’s why he couldn’t see me anymore’, she laughs. ‘Most guys here? If they find someone they really like, they run the other direction as fast as they can.’

Alejandro would do the same thing. He just got out of his first serious relationship, which he says required more maturity than he was capable of. ‘I know now I need to be more realistic about what I can offer at this point in my life. I need to focus on myself. I can’t get too connected to anybody.’

He says he can’t go back to superficial relationships now that he’s had the real thing, but he can’t have the real thing either.

Cautious

Many RUG students say they are reluctant to rush into long-term commitments while they’re young. They know that early marriage is a major indicator for divorce, and that divorce can be a real shit-show. The Netherlands has one of the highest divorce-to-marriage ratios in the world; according to the statistics, probably over half of Dutch RUG students have parents who are divorced.

‘My parents are in the middle of a divorce right now’, one student confides. ‘It’s a mess. I’m not confident I know what a healthy, committed relationship is like. I want one, but I have no idea what that even means.’

Students are just more cautious then their parents

Ben, an AI student from Ireland, thinks RUG students are just being practical when they hold commitment at arm’s length. ‘Those glorified patterns of romance and marriage from the past shouldn’t always be held up to younger people as a standard.’ Students these days do want commitment and marriage, he says. They are just going to be way more cautious about it.

This could last

At the same time, not everyone at the RUG wants to play it safe. Marta is a month into a whirlwind romance, and she is giddy about it. She and her girlfriend recently decided to define their relationship. Marta worried, briefly, about what she might be giving up. ‘But then I asked myself: what are you really losing? With this person in my life, I don’t care about seeing other people.’

Marta would rather jump and fall than not jump at all, even if it means she might ‘feel like dying’ later. After all, she says, there is the hope that ‘this could go somewhere; this could last.’ She wants everything from love: commitment, marriage, the works. ‘Oh yes, please!’ she laughs, clapping her hands with glee. ‘I love the idea of being with one person for your whole life. It’s all so beautiful!’

When I showed my friends the ring, they thought my life was over

Wouter, a 23-year-old Dutch student, feels the same way. He also stopped to ask himself what freedom he would sacrifice by staying committed to his highschool girlfriend when entered the RUG. ‘But I couldn’t think of anything important I would be missing; all I could think was that this girl made me a better person.’ So he decided to marry her.

‘When I showed my friends the ring, they thought my life was over’, he says. ‘But there are different kinds of freedom. Am I free to care only about myself? No. But the freedom I’ve gained from building a life with a partner I trust, who has my back, who pushes me – it’s a meaningful kind of freedom. I can be myself, but better. I love everything about it.’

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