I was in tears, 190 miles away from home. My dad told me it was just puppy love.
“You’re gonna look back one day and you’re gonna go, ‘What in the hell was I thinking?’” He said.
I was a first-semester college student, and my high school relationship of three years was over. I couldn’t think straight or feel anything besides a sickening knot in my stomach and the crushing feeling of hopelessness. For heaven’s sake, I acted as if the sky was folding down around me and the ground was crumbling beneath my feet. And yet—I was just broken-hearted.
Here I am, one year later, asking myself, “What in the hell was I thinking?”
Given my own personal experience of the classic college breakup, I can relate to the oh-so-common high school sweetheart relationships gone sour in college. All I can offer to the freshman on campus is:
Welcome to college—where friendship, stress, hormones, partying and adulthood are taken to a different level. Where the academics and “experience” come first and our—now long-distance—high school sweeties, dragged onto a whole new playing field, almost always come second. Why is it that, in college, we watch so many of our friends dump, get dumped, cheat and get cheated on? How come we witness so many “most-likely-to-get-married” relationships dissolve, and the people become two separate strangers? Why do we find that people who we thought were “the one” vanish from our lives within the span of three months? And why does it almost always happen our freshman year in college?
To find out why these types of breakup occur so often, I conducted a survey on campus during a week and a half in early December. Students completed a confidential questionnaire and were offered the chance to do a follow-up interview with their anonymity preserved. Students were asked on the form to indicate their gender, year in college, whether or not they began college dating their high school girlfriend or boyfriend and whether or not they were still dating. If students were not still dating, they were to indicate the reason and time period in which they broke up, as well as how they coped afterward. Students still with their significant other were to list struggles they have faced and how they’ve overcome those struggles as a couple. The final question on the survey was what advice they would give to students coming into college in a previous relationship.
The participants were from an English 101 class, a Communications 101 class and a handful of random students on campus. In total 40 students responded, 25 of whom were male and 15 female. Almost 50 percent of each group began college in a relationship.
After almost a whole semester, only four out of the 13 males who began college in a relationship were still with their significant other; two of them were still first-semester freshman. On the female side, only two out of the eight “taken” women were still with their boyfriends and both were freshman.
In total, I found only 5 percent of high school relationships transitioning into college survived beyond freshman year.
I found that most relationships that do end during freshman year of college don’t make it past two or three months into the first semester. This is famously known as the “turkey dump.”
A study was done by British journalist David McCandless, which analyzed the time periods where breakup-related statuses were posted most often on Facebook. McCandless found a significant spike around the Thanksgiving holiday break.
As relationship columnist Dan Savage has said, “Thanksgiving break is kind of the last point at which a reasonable human being can drop a significant other until February, and many take advantage of the small window of time.”
This makes sense considering that during the first month of school, students usually tend to begin to settle in, stop missing home, make solid friendships and become distracted by their new college life. By the second and third month, trust becomes key and without it, the relationship is unstable. If communication is poor, fights begin and one person may realize the relationship isn’t worth fighting for—literally.
Students who had experienced this high school/college breakup were asked to indicate why the breakup occurred. The number one reason for breakups was long distance.
“Since we didn’t see each other at all, our feelings changed,” one sophomore wrote.
“We didn’t communicate and I was the only one that was putting effort into the relationship,” said a junior.
Tied for the second most common reason couples broke up was cheating and the development of trust issues.
One freshman wrote, “Trust issues. [He] wasn’t sure what I was doing and [was] always worried. Along with [me] not always telling him what I was doing.”
“She cheated. She changed in college and drank a lot,” said a sophomore.
The third most common reason was an overall disagreement on what they wanted from their “college experience.” Many students indicated that one person’s behavioral changes, such as drinking and partying, caused them to disagree in terms of lifestyle choices, which caused fights between them.
“[We] both just wanted to experience new things and enjoy school until we can think about seeing each other again,” said a freshman student, who recently decided mutually with his significant other to split up.
One sophomore, who broke it off before college, wrote that she and her boyfriend decided to split and experience college on their own. If at the end of the year they wanted to get back together, they would.
“We didn’t want to miss out on the full college experience,” said a junior.
A senior retold her freshman breakup and said, “When I got to school, I realized how immature our relationship was and that there are way better guys out there.”
So what about the slim 5 percent?
Again, on each survey, participants were given the option to remain anonymous or to share more details of their relationship story in an interview. One freshman, who has been dating her 23-year-old significant other for a year and seven months, shared the story of her not-so-ordinary relationship and the struggles they have faced since college has begun.
I asked, “After analyzing data found in the surveys, I found only 5 percent of high school relationships trying to work in college make it past freshman year. Do you think you fit into this five percent?” Without a second of hesitation, she responded yes.
I asked this first-year student how she would feel if something did happen and they broke up. She replied that she would be crushed after all of the hard work and effort they’ve put in to making their relationship work.
A second student and junior here at Albion College volunteered to be interviewed about his seven-year relationship. I asked him to tell me a little bit about his relationship with the girl he’d had a crush on since his seventh-grade math class.
I asked, “What have been the major struggles you have faced throughout your relationship?” He responded that mostly distance and not seeing each other as much as they’d like to makes it difficult.
But when relationships do more commonly fail, how do we cope? While everyone’s way to heal a broken heart may vary slightly, college students as a whole seem to be dealing with the heartache similarly. The most common way to cope, found through responses in the surveys, is to be constantly surrounded by friends and to be alone as little as possible.
So do it or don’t do it? That is the biggest question. On the last part of the survey, students were asked to give one piece of advice to students beginning college in their high school relationship.
Regardless of their current relationship status or whether they experienced a failed high school relationship, almost half of participants strongly advised these students not to carry their relationship into the college environment. However, many students also encouraged the idea.
“Realize that you are going to change and your significant other is as well. You may end up growing apart—and that’s okay,” a freshman said.
“College is about finding who you are, just as it is about academics. In doing so, a lot of changes may occur, possibly affecting your relationship. Learn to embrace change,” a sophomore said.
“Make sure you each know that you each have your own lives and won’t see each other all the time,” a sophomore said.
“Don’t give up on it because other people say you should,” a sophomore said.
“If your relationship is already unstable, it will only get worse,” a senior said.
“I would say to break up if you have any small sense of insecurity in your relationship because being in college and away from your significant other, will only create more insecurity and problems,” a junior said.
“Don’t do it. Enjoy college, don’t spend every weekend away from [them] worrying about keeping your relationship afloat. You’re missing out on the college experience and all it has to offer,” a sophomore said.
“Stay with them if they truly mean something to you,” a sophomore said.
But if you’ve followed the breakup trend already, if you didn’t quite squeeze into the 5 percent like you were sure you would, take consolation in knowing you are not alone.
Whether you’re single or in a relationship, dying to meet someone new or sulking away in the sorrows of your latest heartbreak, college is a great place for all of these things if you think of all the possibilities as ways to grow.
As my father said in his efforts to console me, “Time takes care of everything. Let the world take a spin or two, ya know? Rome wasn’t built in a day.”
No matter what the statistics theorize, what your parents say or how hard your friends try to convince you one way or another, we all have to learn on our own how relationships develop or, if they don’t, what (or who) comes next. There is no avoiding it. Its all part of the “college experience.”