University of Rochester


The Dating Game

dating story illustration
While campus romances bloom eternal, the notion of going on a “date” is, well, dated. By Jenny Leonard. Illustration by Michael Osadciw

In the fall of 1964, Dave Shafer ’65, who, by his own admission, was no ladies’ man, paddled his way into the heart of freshman Ellie Berman. With oak leaves floating like love notes on the Genesee River, the couple canoed in the crisp air and embarked on a romance that would last a lifetime.

“Maybe it was my canoeing technique or something in the air, but from then on we were an item,” remembers Shafer.

And while this was the couples’ third or fourth date—the years have tattered details—there would be several more dates to come before the two would share their first kiss.

“It’s just a lot more comfortable behind your computer being intimate with someone, disclosing information about yourself, learning about another person.”

—Joan Knihnicki ’03, former author of “Sex and the CT” column in the Campus Times

The molasses pace of Shafer and Berman’s relationship would most likely shock the sensibilities of today’s student couples. In fact, the informal tone of courtship among 20-somethings makes “the date”—nervous hand-holding in cinema light, toe-tingling good-night kiss under the stars, anxious anticipation of that next-day phone call—seem Capraesque if not cliché.

Instead, for many college students, scripted romantic concepts—boy-meets-girl, boy-pursues-girl, boy-marries-girl—have metamorphosed into relationships defined more by a nebulous, less goal-oriented “closeness” that ranges from one-nighters to monogamy (with very little, it seems, in between).

Ask Joan Knihnicki ’03, the self-professed “love goddess” and former author of “Sex and the CT,” a wink-wink, half-humorous, half-serious advice column in the Campus Times, if she and her former boyfriend ever went on a “date,” and the response, while somewhat of a semantics issue, does offer insight into how college courtship has changed.

“A date? Hmm. . . ,” Knihnicki ponders the word as if the concept were familiar yet totally uncool, like leg warmers or 8-tracks. “It sounds so formal. I don’t think my ex-boyfriend and I ever went on an official date until much later in the relationship, like an anniversary date, maybe. For us, the whole process was more subtle. We hung out as friends for awhile, and as time passed, our friendship just turned into romance.”

This casual approach has been the norm for years, says Asher Epstein ’97, who dated frequently as an undergraduate during the mid-1990s.

“There were exceptions, but for the most part, relationships and dating were very casual affairs when I was at school,” says Epstein. “People just hung out together, met up at parties, grabbed a cup of coffee, that type of thing. There was a fuzzy boundary between friendship and romance.”

Hanging out. Hooking up. Screen names. Texting.

For those far removed from today’s dating scene and from the 20-something age bracket, this may sound more like a course in conceptual art. But for college-age Generation Y’ers, this is the new vocabulary of courtship and the jargon of the modern and, of course, technologically savvy, dating scene.

While much sociocultural analysis ink has been spilled on the “hookup,” the 21st-century version of “free love” that can include anything from a night of dancing and drinking to, shall we say, heavy petting, many Rochester students (in an admittedly small sample of those willing to discuss their love lives), say just as common on campus is the philosophical inverse, the pseudomarriage: A couple trades in a comfortable friendship for a monogamous domestic partnership, sharing everything from deepest thoughts to Douglass Dining Hall meals to an unbearably small dorm room bed in Tiernan or Lovejoy.

And it’s this sort-of-living-together type of arrangement that most students say they relate to and one that typically incubates platonically; couples may meet each other through friends, in labs or study groups, or just get to know each other as hallmates. There is no formal script for how friendships become something more.

When asked, many students who’ve had relationships on campus say it just sort of happens—studying together turns into eating meals together turns into doing laundry together turns into spending nights together—and pretty soon the pair, for all practical purposes, are living together, at least as much as diminutive dorm rooms and busy class schedules will allow.

Harry Reis, professor of psychology at the University and a nationally recognized expert on intimacy and attachment in interpersonal relationships, says that while the formal rituals of the past are losing their relevancy for today’s young couples, the underlying psychology of courtship has remained relatively unchanged.

“I think there are still norms for courtship and there clearly is still a process going on,” says Reis. “The formality of the guy calling the girl on Tuesday night for a date on Friday is breaking down—where you put on nice clothes and go out, that kind of thing has changed. On the other hand, there are still an awful lot of norms that apply to the process—rituals about meeting each other’s friends, about spending time together, about sharing rooms. The psychology of it all hasn’t changed that much, but the details are different.”

Such details as the sweaty palms, awkward introductions, nervous, ask-her-out phone calls. Those relics have been replaced by a new lingo and new technology in the 24-hour world of e-mail and its fast-talking, caffeinated cousin, Instant Messaging. In the land of emoticons and abbreviated IM-speak, guys and gals say it’s much easier to be themselves.

“The psychology of [courtship] hasn’t changed that much, but the details are different.”

—Harry Reis, professor of psychology at the University and a nationally recognized expert on interpersonal relationships

“I know a lot of people at school who started off relationships through Instant Messenger,” says Knihnicki, who plans to pursue a Ph.D. in social psychology at Carnegie Mellon University. “It’s just a lot more comfortable behind your computer being intimate with someone, disclosing information about yourself, learning about another person.”

Instant Messaging has become a common meeting place for virtual dates as well as the communication meat and potatoes of college relationships.

Michael Reiter ’03, who is now attending graduate school at George Washington University and hoping to maintain a long-distance relationship with a Rochester junior he began dating his senior year, says that IM’ing is not only a great way to get to know people, but that in established relationships, the technology makes it much easier to stay connected on busy days.

“Instant Messaging is huge,” says Reiter. “It’s just common practice now to exchange screen names or e-mail addresses when you first meet someone. And it’s key for maintaining relationships. In my first serious relationship on campus, my girlfriend and I used IM all the time to touch base, chat, or coordinate schedules.”

Having so many ways to stay connected to each other, Reiter admits, can lead to conflicts in relationships. Demanding class schedules coupled with budgeting time for studying, extracurricular activities like clubs and sports, and other friends, can create tension, especially if one partner has unrealistic expectations for how much time the two can spend together.

“If your partner expects that you’ll see each other more often throughout the day, between classes or studying together, or that you’ll be in touch by cell phone or Instant Messaging all the time, it can be difficult to have your own space and to focus on your own goals,” adds Reiter.

Striking this balance between academic success and personal relationships can be tricky, says Dean of Students in the College Jody Asbury.

“Students share so many parts of their lives with each other, almost on a 24-7 basis,” Asbury says. “In today’s more informal culture, there are fewer rules and fewer boundaries, and couples have to think through carefully what is important to each other and set their own boundaries. That takes a lot of communication. And not surprisingly, some of that happens on the Internet rather than face to face, which is a real change.”

But amidst all the technology and informality, many students still say they have a traditional hankering to meet someone special during their undergrad years and make a commitment to another person, if perhaps not for a lifetime, at least beyond the single party or semester. And it’s that underlying psychology, that desire to commit to a monogamous relationship and achieve a level of intimacy, that the Class of 2004 still shares with the Class of 1964.

Your Dorm or Mine?

While the Office of Residential Life requires students to sign a housing contract that specifies guidelines for having overnight guests, director Logan Hazen says that as young adults, students have to be trusted to maneuver this territory for themselves.

“Rochester for decades has been way ahead of the curve regarding coed living spaces—Hill Court being one of the first dorms in the country to offer coed suites,” Hazen says. “Our approach has always been to respect students’ freedom as adults to make lifestyle decisions, while at the same time encouraging students to remain respectful of their roommates and mindful that their behavior does not negatively impact the community.

“For the most part, I find our students are very successful at negotiating boundaries and making concessions.”

“I think if you talked to alumni who dated here several decades ago, you wouldn’t see any real differences psychologically,” says Reis, who has been studying relationship patterns on the River Campus since 1975. “The superficial content would look very different—gender roles have changed, sex plays a much larger role—but the real meaningful stuff underneath would not look different. You’d still see students talking about having met someone who seemed to meet all their needs, who excited them, who seemed like their best friend, someone they could just talk to, they felt comfortable with. The couples from 40 years ago would look no different from the couples today on those kind of issues.”

A perfect example: the Shafers, who married in the summer of 1965. Dave Shafer started graduate school in the University’s optics program, and Ellie Berman Shafer, the third generation of women on her mother’s side to at the University—her daughter, Deborah ’91, is the fourth—postponed her college work to give birth to their first child the following year. Berman has since earned degrees from NYU and Columbia and is completing her Ph.D. in social work.

“Back then the rules were a bit clearer,” Shafer admits.

“If I wanted to ask Ellie out for a date I had to call the switchboard at the women’s dorm—there were no phones in the rooms, only in the hallway. And the only place to visit was in a very public downstairs lounge. The rule, for a couple, was at least three legs on the floor at all times.

“I know that this is far from the norm these days, and perhaps even shocking by today’s standards, but my wife of 38 years was the first and has been the only woman for me.”

While many young people do view marriage as an important life goal, new research on college dating trends suggests that many college-age singles don’t plan to tie the knot until much later in life. For them, the primary goal is graduate school or establishing a career. Marriage and family are about as relevant as retirement planning.

Sylvia Ann Hewlett, an economist and writer whose recent book Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children has been featured on Oprah, 60 Minutes, and the cover of Time, says that many college-age women should think strategically about how they will achieve all their goals related to career, family, and marriage.

At a conference last summer hosted by the Independent Women’s Forum, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group dedicated to research and education on women’s issues, Hewlett refuted the popular notion that it’s easy for women and men to “have it all” and suggested that societal pressure to put career before family can leave women feeling confused and frustrated.

It’s a dilemma that concerns Julia Vasiliauskas ’03, who throughout her senior year looked forward to Monday night dates with main squeeze Andrew (Andy) Thomas ’04. That’s when she and her boyfriend of almost three years would veg out together in his room snuggled together on a cozy love seat, watching Ally McBeal and Boston Public.

“It was our time to just chill,” says Vasiliauskas.

Vasiliauskas, who’s from Honeoye, New York, was a D’Lion in Anderson Hall, organizing social activities, when she met Thomas, a freshman from Portland, Oregon. They “clicked” instantly, she says. After being friends for awhile and gradually spending more and more time together, Vasiliauskas decided to kick things up a notch and made the first move, letting Thomas know she wanted to be more than just friends. After that the two were inseparable, at least until last fall when Vasiliauskas planned to take a job in Connecticut.

She says the whole idea of finding the perfect mate in college is more complicated now because most couples face the choice of breaking up after graduation or trying to maintain a long-distance relationship, which, Vasiliauskas says, is not realistic in most situations.

“There’s this idea about college that it’s a carefree time, the time when you’re supposed to meet the person you’ll spend the rest of your life with,” adds Vasiliauskas. “At the same time, you’re supposed to be focused on a career and landing the perfect job. I’m not sure how you fit it all together, how you have the marriage, family, and career.”

Reis says such issues are serious ones for college students.

“Dual career concerns are a far bigger issue now as well as negotiating ways to meet each person’s goals. And, unfortunately, the double standard still exists on that one. It’s very clear that when push comes to shove, women make the sacrifices to a greater extent than men do.”

For many students, both male and female, this emphasis on career can affect their level of commitment in college relationships as well as their desire to establish long-term commitments beyond the junior year.

Knihnicki, the love goddess herself, says she gave up on dating during her senior year and instead focused her energy on finding the right graduate school.

“I’m in a transition mode now,” says Knihnicki. “Why would I want to start up a new relationship when I know I’m going to be leaving soon for graduate school? That’s just the reality. While most of us still want marriage, it’s more delayed now. There’s not that rush for a lifemate yet. Instead, we’re all thinking about school, careers, jobs.

“Of course, we’re all nervous about that because we’re postponing having children, and we wonder if we’ll have time for everything. It’s funny how it seems like people my age have so much more freedom than our parents’ generation did, yet, in some ways, I can’t help feeling that we’ve lost some of the romance of being young.”

Even if Knihnicki is right—to borrow a phrase sung by the Mindbenders in 1966—perhaps every generation just has their own groovy kind of love.

Jenny Leonard profiled pioneering scientist Esther Conwell ’44 (Mas), professor of chemistry, in the Spring-Summer 2003 issue of Rochester Review.