Dating at Yale is like an elaborate game of musical chairs.
You have the reliable ones who are taken and the ones who like playing the field — also known as the ones who can’t, for their lives, decide on which seat to take. At the end of the game, all the chairs are taken, and you’re just left with your disappointed mother on the phone who asks about the “boyfriend” you made up months ago just to shut her up.
But think about the humble beginnings … when the music starts.
Initiation has always been an obstacle for the formation of relationships. Ridden with social anxiety and the crippling fear of rejection, the lack of an answer to the question: “What if they don’t like me back?” has long held individuals back from pursuing what might’ve, could’ve and probably would’ve been their “one true love.” You may think that the abundance of liquid courage flowing through campus would push more students to “shoot their shot,” but a study by Muehlenhard and Miller (1988) confirmed that only 3 percent of its participants would initiate in pursuit of a relationship with an attractive counterpart having no clue what their response might be.
Growing up in a culture that celebrates spontaneous airport chases and lovesick teenage boys holding boomboxes blasting “In Your Eyes” outside windows, we’re left with the impression that, during the process of initiation, we have nothing to lose. But what if they’re not interested? Contrary to popular belief, not only would the annoyingly cult-y suite living across the hall be gossiping about your fateful declaration of love at breakfast the morning after, news will spread, and before you know it you’re sitting at the back corner of the lecture hall, dressed in black sweats and sunglasses, incognito.
Margaret Clark, head of Trumbull College and professor of psychology, investigates this phenomenon extensively in her lab, which studies close relationships. Examining the ways in which various forms of personal expression, mindsets and social frameworks influence the maintenance of close relationships, the Clark Relationship Science Laboratory provides insight on an area Clark describes as a gap in the literature about love.
“We conceptualize love as a form of mutual noncontingent caring,” Clark explained.
Clark broke the process of relationship initiation down into three components: self-promotion, self-protection and partner evaluation. First, she stressed the prominence of self-promotion, in which individuals “strategically [present themselves] as a good communal relationship partner [in order] to win over the other person.” Clark went on to describe self-protection as a mechanism that prevents individuals from entering social situations and outlines the ways in which they, out of fear of rejection, protect themselves. Taking the first step, in Clark’s narrative, is crucial.
“We’re built to accept rejection as pain. Some things are just harder to do. If you’re willing to risk the pain of not being selected from a group, you have a better chance of forming a relationship. Someone has to take the first step,” Clark said.
Partner evaluation then presents itself as the final component of the process of initiation, where an assessment on the compatibility of the selected counterpart is made.
“I’m interested in who’s willing to take the risk and who isn’t,” Clark explained.
The music stops for the first time. You’ve found a seat. Now the question is: How do you keep it?
Xiaoying Zheng ’22 set the record straight. “Sadly, anything that happens after the hours of 10 or 11 on a Friday or Saturday night probably doesn’t mean much,” she said.
Describing what most call “hookup culture” at Yale, Zheng referred to the prevalence of driven, self-focused individuals on campus.
“Here at Yale, everyone is very focused on themselves and their goals. That’s not a bad thing per se, but I don’t think that is conducive to relationships. College seems sort of like the place where you find people you vibe with … but in reality no one actually wants to invest the emotional effort or time into it. I mean, I’m a Scorpio,” Zheng said, joking about her skepticism.
Reinforcing the prominence of self-promotion, self-protection and partner evaluation that Clark described, the imminent need to uphold a particular image on campus becomes an obstacle for individuals seeking more than just a hookup.
“At some point for a great relationship to exist you’ve gotta drop all three [components]. You’ve got to quit self-presenting and be authentic — hopefully with great fortune you really are a lovely person. You’ve got to quit self-protecting and be willing to reveal weaknesses because that’s what you need support on, and you’ve got to quit evaluating your partner because no one wants to be evaluated,” said Clark.
Though these three elements facilitate the type of “social penetration” that Clark, professor Lindsey A. Beck and Oriana R. Aragón describe in their paper “Relationship Initiation: Bridging the gap between initial attraction and well-functioning communal relationships,” they also prevent the development of a healthy relationship. Clark characterized the mutual fear of being vulnerable as one of the primary forces holding individuals back from initiating or pursuing a relationship.
“I feel as if we’re in an environment that just hates labels,” John Klingler ’22 said on romantic culture at Yale.
When talking about the sense of obligation and responsibility that comes with being in a committed relationship, Klingler offered an alternative take on this campus convention: “If you’re actually dating somebody for four months and you wouldn’t call it serious, then what are you doing?”
Adding onto Zheng’s perspective on the obsession with personal image at Yale, Klingler reaffirmed his belief in defining a relationship. “At least for me, open conversations about labels are never easy, but they’re so important because they’re not easy,” he said.
You’re comfortable in your seat, dreading the moment the music starts again. Maybe you won’t get up. Maybe you’ll stay in your seat. What is it like? Not having to run around frantically fighting off others playing the game?
“You only think about the short term, because thinking about the long term is too scary,” Harrison Smith ’22, explained, making reference to his long-distance relationship with his girlfriend of three years. “I take all the girls I go out with on the same first date. Dinner and a movie. It’s tactically the best — you have an initial conversation with this person, but if they’re boring, the film would just shut them up. I remember my date with my girlfriend the most out of all dates because I didn’t want to go to the movie.”
Offering a perspective that directly contrasts the culture of one-night stands and labelless “things,” Smith gave insight on what he believes is crucial to a sustainable, healthy, long-term relationship. Devoting a set amount of time each week to Skype calls, Smith addressed the aforementioned sense of self-sacrifice and mutual emotional effort Yalies often avoid when it comes to relationships: “Last year, I had this great car that I bought, and when I decided that I was going to try and have a long-distance relationship, I sold my car and used that money to pay for flights,” she said. “Maintaining a long-distance relationship is like taking three extra credits: it’s hard work.”
The Love Triangle
All this talk about grabbing a seat, but have we considered what types of chairs we want to sit in?
Jennifer Hirsch, a faculty affiliate at the Clark Relationship Science Lab and lecturer in psychology, has about six years of experience researching love and belonging at the Clark Lab. In the fall semester, she taught a popular undergraduate psychology course called Psyc 126: “Attraction and Relationships.” The course explores the theoretical and empirical research on the spark of attraction, as well as the inter- and intra-personal processes involved in the formation and maintenance of close relationships.
“The point of the ‘Attraction and Relationships’ course is to highlight that there are scientific ways of studying these questions about love and relationships and attraction,” Hirsch said. “Even though these are very abstract ideas and experiences that we all have in our day-to-day lives, we’re very social creatures and relationships are a very big part of the human experience, [and] there are still ways to use science and research to understand how we go about forming good relationships.”
Hirsch’s area of expertise, the sense of belonging in close relationships, brings together the processes of scientific research and the subjective realm of human emotion.
“People have a fundamental need to belong and constantly crave acceptance and appreciation from others, and building intimate close connections is the best way we can satisfy that need for belonging,” Hirsch explained.
“My work has to do with how relational context influences our emotional world,” Hirsch said. “What we find is a pretty simple point, but an important one, which is if we’re experiencing certain emotions, who do we want to express them to? We want to express [them] to people we think care about us.”
Hirsch employs several techniques established in the field of psychology to study couples and their interactions, in an attempt to find common threads that may shed light on what makes relationships work — or not work. From surveys and interviews to bringing in real couples into the lab and observing their activities, Hirsch has found that the three most prominent signs of initial attraction are two people’s similarity, familiarity and proximity.
“One of the main things I try to emphasize in my class is that the study of relationships is really not a self-help course. We’re not looking at individual relationships and figuring out the dynamics of how to make those things work,” Hirsch explained.
“While we all have experience with relationships, that cuts both ways when it comes to the psychology of relationships,” she added. “On one hand, it means that this information we’re learning in class is very applicable to your own lives, that it’s probably things that you’ve experienced and you can understand and relate to and are intrinsically interested in learning more about. But, it also means that in some ways you’re bounded by your own experiences, your own perceptions of the situation. What we as researchers try to do is look at how people in general, on average, are experiencing relationships.”
Hirsch is not the only love researcher in the Department of Psychology. Long before Peter Salovey was the president of Yale University, he was an acclaimed psychology professor. As a spring 2007 guest lecturer for “Introduction to Psychology,” Salovey gave a lecture on love titled “Evolution, Emotion, and Reason: Love.”
“Let’s start with a definition of love,” Salovey began. “[There is] a theory of love that argues that it’s made up of three components: intimacy, passion and commitment. These give rise to many different permutations, that when you break them down and start to look at them carefully, can be quite interesting.”
Again, love is described in seemingly foreign terms of science and math, broken into components and permutations instead of feelings and butterflies in the stomach. These various permutations of love include a whole range of different types of relationships, from strangers to soul mates. When the three central components of intimacy, passion and commitment come together they create complete, consummate love, but what about only one or two of the three?
Intimacy alone leads to liking, passion alone leads to infatuation and commitment alone leads to empty love. Furthermore, intimacy and passion without commitment is simply romantic love, intimacy and commitment without passion is companionate love and passion and commitment without intimacy is known as fatuous love. Having none of the three is simply nonlove. According to this theory, known as Sternberg’s Triangular Theory of Love, every single relationship you have with someone falls under one of these eight categories.
“So now you have a definition of love and you can now, as a homework assignment, sit down tonight and make a list of every person you know by the three elements of love, and just start putting the check marks in the boxes and tallying up your personal love box score,” Salovey joked. “And if you all survive this exercise you’ll be better for it. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. That’s the idea behind that exercise.”
In fact, let’s do the exercise together now! Applying the theory to relationships in your life can illustrate exactly how each one of these love permutations is embodied in real life. Nonlove is the easiest — consider each stranger you sit near in lecture, or the guy in front of you at Durfee’s who took the last pack of chicken tenders. Everyone has experienced having a middle school crush, an example of liking, and perhaps in college these crushes have developed into infatuation. Two out of three combinations are a bit more complex and harder to differentiate in real life. Romantic love is the overwhelming rush of excitement and newness in the honeymoon period of your relationship, companionate love is feeling comfort and connection with your best friendship and fatuous love is perhaps staying in a long-distance relationship just for the sake of it.
Shoot Your Shot
There are many — some might even say too many — different types of chairs at Yale: the uncomfortable wooden chairs at Bass punishing you for the hours of work you haven’t done, the unbelievably flexible rotating stools in the CTL mocking your left-handedness, and the big, comfortingly soft bean bags at the Good Life Center. Sometimes these options work for you, sometimes they don’t. What matters is giving it a go.
Whether it’s long-distance relationships, open relationships or even just a hopeless crush on your next-door neighbor, Yale is full of different kinds of love. While you have the classics: the first-year flings and winter clings, the “let’s just hang out for now” buddies and “we’re a thing but not a thing” couples still occupy a surprising portion of the population at Yale. Yes, it’s cold, and yes, turkey drop just happened and cuffing season is happening, but shoot your shot! Whether it be first-year formal, a lucky swipe on Tinder or WKND’s Blindest Date, there are limitless ways to spark a relationship on campus. Stealthily slide in an invitation to lunch midconversation and, for once, follow through.
“Love at Yale is just a bunch of 19-year-olds, 22-year-olds trying to figure out what love is,” Klingler, a self-proclaimed hopeless romantic, explained.
At the end of the day, if finding the right chair and staying in it were that easy, we’d all have back problems from sitting. We spend years trying different types of chairs and decades learning to commit to one. Goldilocks found hers. You can find yours.
Worst comes to worst, go to Ikea and build your own chair.
Tiffany Ng | firstname.lastname@example.org .
Ashley Fan | email@example.com