At the beginning of this year, my friends and I did the Buzzfeed purity test. Out of a score of 200, the quiz tells you how sexually pure you are, with a higher score indicating greater romantic history. One of my friends walked into the room, waving her phone excitedly.
“I did this test before I went on exchange and I wanted to retake it to see if my number had jumped, and it did!”
Like a quickly spreading contagion, we all got our phones out and embarked on the mega questionnaire.
Having never been on a date, and with relatively little sexual experience to speak of, I felt out of place doing the test. In our group of ten friends, only two of us have never been in a relationship. As each of them finished the test, they shouted their score across the room, and one friend started documenting our scores on a whiteboard. I stayed silent, customarily awkward on topics like these.
Being a ‘relationship virgin’ at this age is a bizarre experience. You’re young enough that nobody is shaming you; it doesn’t even feel that abnormal, especially when so many of your friends are also single. Friendships and casual hookups fill the space of a potential significant other, so you can’t really point to anything missing in your life. But you still try not to think about it too much, lest you develop unnecessary angst, or worse, spiral into desperation. These ideals of what a relationship can be, are something so tantalising for those lost amidst their degrees. You’re a mess of part-time jobs, assignments, neglected friendships, and quarter-life existential crisis, and a relationship can represent an escapist fantasy, just beyond your reach. Or perhaps just a few swipes away.
Every book you read and TV show you watch, growing up, includes a love story. Whether it’s human nature or maybe just Nora Ephron movies, society seems to value romantic, monogamous love above all else, socialising us to believe that we need to find someone to share our lives with in order to be complete. Part of the way we understand adulthood and maturity is finding love and entering into relationships. Research has shown that single people are consistently viewed as poorly adjusted and less mature than people in relationships.
We generally expect this chapter of our adult lives to begin at university. You’re meant to learn more about yourself in your 20s, and part of that is finding out what you’re like in a couple. And, for a lot of people, that’s how it happens. In a 2010 study of 19 US colleges, researchers found almost 70 per cent of heterosexual students had been in a relationship for at least six months by their fourth and final year.
“Society makes you think it’s very abnormal not to be in a relationship,” Michael* says. “The image of adulthood you have is all about family and parents and being together in a family unit. And if you don’t have a relationship, you’ll just be a loner.”
Michael and I met as fresh-faced first years, in 2014. He was studying economics, I was stupidly trying to transition into law. I’d just spent ten years at an all girls school, and had no male friends until university. Michael wasn’t out in high school, but by the time he got to USyd, he felt free to be who he was. Finding a partner wasn’t a priority for either of us. After all, making it an ‘aim’ just seemed forced. We went to house parties and dabbled in student politics, perhaps not the best place to meet a potential partner. But, like me, Michael assumed that he’d meet someone over the course of his degree, at one point or another.
“I had that expectation that, after high school, I’d go to uni and find a boyfriend, and I’d just be dating throughout uni,” he tells me. “I always imagined myself as having a relationship really easily.”
In third year, we went on exchange to different countries in Europe. Even though we knew that going overseas wouldn’t magically deliver us boyfriends, we hoped that a different environment would change things. We joined clubs at our new universities, hung out with international flatmates, and backpacked across the Continent.
Michael went to Paris, and felt like “there was this pressure or societal expectation that I’d meet this French boyfriend on exchange.”
“In reality, I didn’t date anybody on exchange…I wasn’t any more romantically involved than in Sydney.”
Now we’re in fifth year, set to finish our excruciatingly long degrees next year. Despite having friends in the same position, Michael feels like it’s “weird” to have been at university for so long without having been in a relationship.
“There’s an expectation that you’ll at least have one relationship in university,” he says. “I guess it was disappointing, initially, but it gradually faded.”
Similarly, I think I’ll leave USyd without having the quintessential early 20s experience of a college romance.
When your friends start getting into relationships and you’re still single, you start to wonder. What’s the problem with me? Is it the way I look? You’ve been told from an early age not to base your self-worth on on the sexual attention you receive. Your friends reassure you that you’re pretty. People think you’re attractive and just don’t act on it, they say, although the experiential evidence suggests otherwise. Is it your personality? You go to parties, you laugh a lot, and have a great group of friends. There’s no persuasive reason why no one has been interested. You push it to the back of your mind because you can’t be bothered to do anything about it. But that thought is always there, lingering.
“I just think no one will like me enough to want to date me,” Holly* says.
Graduating from a four-year media degree last year with no uni romance to speak of, Holly believes a sheltered upbringing played a role in forming insecurities around dating.
Her relationship history is as sparse as mine. At 23, she’s been on two Tinder dates in her life. Holly’s last crush was in Year 10.
For a while she thought she might be asexual; many people incorrectly conflate lack of experience with asexuality.
“Now I don’t really identify as asexual because I’m not sure if it’s because I haven’t had much experience or because I’m actually asexual,” she explains.
Holly says being single doesn’t dominate her thoughts, but it’s hard to not be demoralised.
“In the back of your mind, it’s ‘you’re not good enough’, or ‘I won’t bother because they won’t like me because of my race, or because of the way I look, or because my…characteristics or mannerisms aren’t very feminine’.”
In addition to a single-sex education, she also thinks her home life contributed to her awkwardness around the opposite sex. Many migrant families, like ours, barely ever speak about relationships. To even know the story of how her parents met, Holly says she really had to dig for information. An introvert, Holly is especially withdrawn in front of guys and new people.
“When you mix those two, I don’t even want to go there, because I’ve never had the experience or been exposed to that,” she sighs. “It sucks.
“I just think other people…they’re just more willing to put themselves at risk and they’re a bit more extraverted and fearless.”
Holly knows that she’s not alone—for one thing, a lot of the friends she graduated with have never been in relationships. Even so, you can’t help but feel defeated.
When friends have found partners “half of you thinks, ‘You shouldn’t care. Be independent and let it happen later,’’’ she says. “The other side of you thinks, ‘Is there something wrong with me? Why can’t I just try harder?’”
Though Holly would love to find someone “interesting enough to want to be in a relationship with”, she also seems resigned to a future of more of the same, at least in the short term.
“There’s a societal pressure to find someone and get with them…but what am I going to do about it?” Holly says. “Am I desperate enough to go on an app? Not really. I just want it to happen naturally, but then again, I don’t go out much partying so there’s not much opportunity to meet people.”
It seems dramatic to talk about being single forever at this age, but the thought has definitely crossed Holly’s mind. It’s the single person’s greatest fear: that the forever alone and cat lady memes of our teenage years will remain relevant through the decades.
If you’ve never been in a relationship, you most likely fall under one of two categories. Either you don’t date or ‘put yourself out there’, like me and Holly. Or you have a healthy dating life but haven’t met anyone you like or who likes you back.
Meeting up with strangers, trying to find a connection can be really exhausting and confusing.
For Michael, the pattern is usually going on two or three dates with people before withdrawing. If it feels like his date is showing too much affection or interest, Michael feels like it gets too serious and and finds it intimidating.
“Some people I’ve dated, I feel like they message me a lot, and it feels really overbearing. I feel like I’ll never be an independent person again and I feel scared about that,” he says.
Michael pauses and adds, “I also don’t think any of the people I’ve been on dates with have been that great either.”
Having put in all that effort, it’s almost more frustrating not to reap any of the promised rewards. Most of Michael’s romantic interests in the past were stuck in crush zone. None ever “progressed out of [his] imagination.”
“I guess you only have a crush on people who don’t like you. And people who like you, you don’t have a crush on,” he reflects.
Though plenty of university students have found love on Tinder, Michael has had no such luck. He says dating apps have made it harder to progress into relationships because of a paradox of choice.
“You can never stick to messaging just one person because there’s this sea of potential partners out there which will always make you feel like you can date people really easily.”
The bounty of choice makes people unhappier and makes a connection harder to form. Psychological research has shown that dating apps only exacerbate the idea of the grass always being greener elsewhere.
“I don’t know how people met in real life before Tinder. I actually don’t know how people get into relationships. It’s such a mythical concept,” Michael says. “They’re just in relationships, who knows how they got there.”
For many students, dating is more than hookups on sticky nightclub floors or summer flings. Instead, these young adults are more interested in searching for ‘the one’.
“I don’t picture myself entering a relationship for it to end, but I want it to further into the possibility of marrying a person,” says Rachel*, a fourth year Pharmacy student. “That’s the end goal and I try to see the end in the beginning.”
In our parents’ generation, most people were married by 25, and women were considered spinsters past that age. In the 2016 census, the average age for marriage had jumped to 32 for men and 30 for women, perhaps an indication that the age we begin our first relationships has also increased. Young people have a pragmatic understanding of marriage and divorce, but a fundamental desire to find someone to build a life with remains unchanged. We’re a generation of dreamers: 86% of us still expect our own marriages to last a lifetime, even though half of all marriages end in divorce, according to a US poll from Clark University.
Rachel, a Persian woman of the Baha’i faith, says her experience of dating was complicated by her parents’ preference that she marry within the faith.
“Our life goals and aims need to be one, which is to serve humanity under the name of the Baha’i faith,” she says. “That is my goal as well [as my parents’]. But that’s not to say that if I don’t marry a Baha’i those things won’t be the centre of our lives. It’s a case by case basis.”
It’s a common perception that people not in relationships have absurdly high standards. But often this assumption, and the stigma that accompanies it, is misplaced. All people really want is a connection, and that’s not too much to ask for.
This is especially true for Amelia*, a recent graduate of a four-year Arts degree.
“I wouldn’t say I have high standards, but I want that spark with someone and that’s a very subjective thing. If I don’t feel that after I meet them, I won’t pursue it.”
Students like Amelia are not willing to settle—they want the right person, not simply the experience of being coupled up.
“If I just wanted to be in a relationship, no matter who the other person was, of course I would be in a relationship by now…But there are things that I look for in a person that I don’t think I would compromise on,” says Amelia.
In the middle of her final year, Amelia met someone on Tinder who she felt she had a connection with. Finally, it seemed like the daunting process of finding a partner “wasn’t so daunting after all, because there was someone perfect right there”.
“Previously, I hadn’t had much romantic experience, and to find someone who I felt was so compatible with myself was really exciting,” Amelia says.
She let herself become invested, placing more weight on the relationship “than what it actually represented”. Wanting something more serious, Amelia eventually confessed how she felt. She was met with a response that only confused her more: “I like you, but I’m not ready for a relationship”.
Dating wasn’t really a priority for Amelia in her first few years at university. It wasn’t until losing a lot of weight, and becoming “more attractive and getting attention”, that relationships and dating became a focus.
“Ironically, when I was fat, I was much more comfortable being single. [Losing weight] gave me anxiety about getting into a relationship which is what led me to social media apps for dating.”
These days, post-graduation, Amelia says she has “large fluctuations” on how she feels about never having been in a relationship. “Some days I’m quite comfortable being single, dating is the last thing on my mind and I have a feeling where I don’t want to rush things. I want to find the perfect person,” he says.
“Then on other days, I get…I wouldn’t say I’m obsessed with being in a relationship. It’s more that I want to experience the comforts that being in a relationship provides—having the stability of a certain future, having the stability of a person you can depend on, who knows you better than you know yourself.”
Whether you’re comfortable casually seeing people, or dating freaks you out, there is a common anxiety that goes with having never been in a relationship. It’s the idea that this crucial time has passed; that you’ve missed the boat on messy teenage romance or a first love at college.
“It worries me that I’ll be in a relationship with somebody who’s had many boyfriends while they may be my first boyfriend,” says Michael. “It’s just…I wouldn’t know what to do with a relationship, how to act or what I should be doing. I’ll be worried I’d just be making a fool of myself.”
In some ways, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. The longer you go without ever being in a relationship, the more concerned you get—you become panicked, your confidence dips—and the harder it becomes to see potential on the horizon.
There’s an electric urgency to be on the same page with another person, to cross paths at just the right time, to share parts of yourself as you both grow. But ultimately, you try to remain realistic.
“There are many people I know who aren’t in relationships in their early 20s,” Michael adds, on a more upbeat note. “It’s a really unrealistic narrative. More people need to be confident about being single.”
“Are you confident about being single?” I ask.
“No. More people who aren’t me.”
A few weeks ago, the Buzzfeed quiz resurfaced in our group chat. Not again, I thought. Nine months later, the conversation was a reminder that my dating record is still blank. Notifications flew onto my screen as my friends retook the test, posting their fresh scores in the group chat. Like last time, I didn’t say anything.
Everyone experiences things differently, but from what I can see, it’s hard not to feel isolated from other people your age. I’ve been tempted to make up “some guy I’ve been seeing” the next time someone asks how my love life is going, to hide the fact that I’ve never been asked out or held someone’s hand. People assume a common level of dating history, and I cringe inwardly as I see them pause, crinkling their face a bit, before moving on to a safer topic when they realise I have nothing to share. It’s a frustrating situation to be in because it can be hard to find someone you click with—you can’t just will a relationship into being—but you also can’t be complacent and expect the perfect person to fall into your lap.
Who knows. It’ll happen one day, and if it doesn’t, I’ll just have to write another think piece in ten years’ time.
*Names have been changed.