• Clara Balon

University Dating: Spare Me the Lecture

What can you learn from your embarrassing student dating experiences? Apparently, a lot...

Being a student at Cambridge University has been one of the best and worst times of my life, and I am far from alone in this. The friends I have made, the events I’ve attended and meeting my current boyfriend have been real highs. But there have also been such lows, and mental health challenges I was scared would break me.

But where does dating fit into my university experience? I started university, like many girls, with very little experience, and it wasn’t long before I started losing hope of it ever going right. People of my parents’ generation had always told me how they met their husband or wife at university, how they dated only them (and perhaps one other person briefly) and how I was bound to have the same experience. I arrived at my college halls filled with naïve optimism. Would I meet ‘the one’ during freshers’ week? Would our eyes meet across the student cafe? At the freshers’ disco? On the walk to lectures?

I regret to say that none of the above took place. Instead, in clubs, at house parties and on Tinder, I met a series of distinctly average, uninspired and immature boys who thought that the height of romance was paying for my vodka Coke (before I evolved into liking the more sophisticated gin and tonic) at the pub. Too many of them thought this left them entitled to something. Needless to say, none of these boys were the one, but cliché though it is, through dating them, I learned so much more about myself. I learned to put my feelings into perspective, to understand what I truly want out of a relationship, but the lesson that was hardest to learn was to respect myself enough to walk away. I’ve always been the queen of making excuses, both for my romantic partners and my friends. Maybe they’re just too busy to reply? Maybe their phone is dead? Maybe they didn’t mean to plan a date and cancel 10 minutes before? What if something important came up?

But as instances such as this occurred over and over again, towards the end of my first year I began to think that the problem was me. I tackled this in the most self-destructive way possible - by bleaching my black hair blonde in order to reinvent myself and going for the most emotionally unavailable boys I could find. Note: they are definitely boys, and they have a long way to go before they can become men. Crunch time came in the form of a disastrous date that really pushed me over the edge.

I’d met up with the boy in question, whose identity I’ll protect by calling him Tom, several times. Things seemed to be going well - we talked all the time, had a great time together and I felt like he respected me. I began to get a little excited and told my friends about him. I genuinely thought I had met someone special. One time, this would have been our third or fourth date, he suggested we go to a pub I hadn’t been to before. I turned up, five minutes late as usual, to find the dingiest, dirtiest pub in Cambridge. It was a far cry from the other bars and pubs we’d been on dates to, all of which had been classic ‘date’ locations, with nice décor and overpriced drinks.

No one at this pub was under 40. My confusion over his choice was resolved when I realised that his mate worked behind the bar and the drinks were free. I thought to myself, ‘We can still salvage this. I’m a sucker for a free drink and we can laugh about the gross pub later.’ However, the ulterior purpose of the date was revealed when, within two minutes of my arrival, Tom turned away from me and spent the next two hours doing a pub quiz with his friend the bartender and some other ‘lads’. Now, I have nothing against a pub quiz in general, especially when there’s a good prize on the line. However, as I sat in the grimy pub drinking a warm vodka Coke, there were a million things I would rather have been doing than a quiz about 70s and 80s pop culture, especially as the boys were having a great time and had no interest in talking to me.

You might be wondering why I didn’t just walk out. Firstly, I was making excuses for him again. Maybe the quiz will end soon, and he’s got something else planned? (spoiler: it didn’t, and he hadn’t) and wanting Tom to like me at any cost, because I was so invested. I clearly didn’t understand or respect my own boundaries enough to question how he was treating me. I stayed in the pub that evening for three hours, having a miserable time, and spent about ten minutes of that time actually talking to Tom. When I got back to my room in college, I went to see my friends and complain about my awful evening and something inside me just clicked. As formative experiences go, it taught me a lot. If I were in that situation now, ten months later, I would articulate my unhappiness and discomfort and if that wasn’t acknowledged, I would walk out within the first ten minutes.

I have a lot to thank the old me for though. Her mistakes taught me so much, more than any stories from friends or advice from parents. My mum always told me: learn from other people’s mistakes so that you don’t have to make your own, and in a lot of instances, I believe that’s true. For instance, I don’t need to make the mistake of trying heroin to know that it ruins lives. But I did need to date the people I dated. I needed to learn to value myself more than those boys could ever value me. I strongly believe that this learning experience is what has led me to such happiness with my current boyfriend. Being with him feels different from being with anyone else and he is the first person to take the time to really want to get to know and understand me, rather than being content with knowing the surface image I project and just using me for sex. It’s a rare happiness that I really thought I wouldn’t find, and he has brought back a sense of contentment with myself that I had lost over the course of my years at university.


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