College does not lend itself to love — Perhaps to passion, to lust, to sleepless nights embracing wild youth, but not to love. For living now the halcyon days of self-expression and discovery, shouldn’t our eagerness to feel and understand everything around us wax romantic? It doesn’t; it never has, but it seems now, more than ever before, college students guard their hearts in fear — of each other.
There has never been anything cooler, more powerful, more demonstrative of worth than having admirers. In many ways, it’s how society has come to measure success: so long as people care about you while you don’t care about them, you’re important. Think back to high school and remember the “in” crowd — the kids that made such a show of ignoring so many people that the world was left with no option but to pay attention to them. Surely gaining their attention would mean something? To finally be noticed by a group of people who never gave the gift of their time away would mean something special; to indicate that you — yes, you — have been worth something all along.
Except that it doesn’t.
Those kids just learned the secret art of what it takes to be cool while they were young enough to use it in high school, the perfect testing environment. There’s nothing innately more meaningful about their attention or time than that of, say, your best friend’s. It’s an illusion they crafted though the laws of supply and demand: by making their attentions “rare,” they tricked everyone into believing, at least on a subconscious level, that their attention is 1) somehow more important than others and 2) that it ought to be earned if it is not already possessed.
This isn’t a new observation; it’s been noted by historical figures such as Benjamin Franklin and has been studied scientifically as the theory of “cognitive dissonance.” Franklin’s famous maxim on the topic goes as follows: “He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged.” It seems peculiar at first, but I’m sure you yourself could think of a few times wherein you’d behaved in a similar way. Being asked a favor seems to feed our egos a bit, and instill a sense of worth in us that is often able to equate to whatever work has been requested. From a cognitive standpoint, this is the mind trying align perceptions with recent behaviors; here, it’s aligning personal views with the action of having completed a favor. In the case of the “in” crowd, your mind is trying to resolve the scarcity of their attentions with “value.”
Apply the concept of cognitive dissonance to romance and you get what most of us call “playing hard to get.” The theory, anyway, is that the “chaser” will start to think that the more they endure for affection, the more that affection must mean to them. This model, though sometimes a bit ethically questionable, will often work for that very reason, provided there’s a balance in the roles. Having two “chasers” works as well for obvious reasons (unless they’re both awkward individuals. Then they’ll get there someday … just not nearly as quickly as they could have).
But here’s where things get a bit weird — what if both parties view themselves as the “avoiders,” the parties worthy of being chased? Admittedly, it’s a much safer role. The “avoider” needs not put their heart on the line for the attentions they wish to receive. In their mind, they only need to exist to garner admirers. They’re also considered cool by society for the same reasons as the “in” crowd: people care about them; they don’t care about people.
Having two parties playing hard to get isn’t a phenomenon new to the digital age. It’s happened before, though arguably not to the same magnitude. Modern “romance” has a new edge to it, a bitingly sharp side built around the age-old notion that whoever cares less has the most power in the relationship. Armed with Tinder, passive-aggressive read receipts and social media presences that are able to distort reality to fictional levels, the modern college student is more capable than ever before of not just sex without love, but relationships without emotion of any kind.
It’s worth noting that I don’t think everyone in college should be trying to find love. Not now, at least, when we’re all still so enamored with the changes and opportunities growing around us. But is there really nothing wrong with our world when it’s the norm to not only disregard past hookups, but actively belittle them? Somehow, the message we send has changed from “I’m not into you like that” to “I don’t like you,” from “last night was fun” to “last night didn’t mean anything to me.”
Step back for a moment and ask, “What have we done to each other?” How it is possible that, as much time as we spend tearing each other apart, we never really share anything that goes deeper than surface-level?
I’m not saying we should end hook-up culture, and I’m not saying we should all become hopeless romantics. But would the world end if rather than ignoring our hookups in public, we smiled and waved? What of our egos, which have become so inflated that having one of our late-night partners ask how we’re doing means we automatically assume they’re “just so into” us?
Cliche as it sounds, there’s a certain charm in genuinity. Even a drunken tryst is beautiful in its own right — spontaneous, wild and ephemeral. It may not have been love, but then, not everything has to be. Maybe college love isn’t about the person, but the experience: the nights wrapped in the arms of another, content to share body heat instead of secrets. And there’s no shame in that at all.