When Jonathan Chen is texting a girl he has a crush on, sometimes he omits the punctuation to sound more casual — and less emotionally invested.
“I don’t want to show them too much,” says the 20-year-old junior at Northeastern University. In person, he might ignore the crush altogether and talk to her best friend instead.
“Psychologically, they’re being left out, and they want to talk to you,” he explains.
It’s called the whoever-cares-less-wins dynamic, and experts studying human behavior say it’s rampant in college dating. Lisa Wade, a sociology professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles, says today’s students view romantic relationships as a distraction from preparing for their future careers. They think relationship sex is taxing, while casual sex is easy.
“Caring isn’t just absent, it’s off-script. It’s not allowed,” says Wade, who studied diary entries that were submitted weekly by 101 students for her book American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus.
In this competition to care less, Wade says, men have the advantage. They are able to embrace traditionally masculine traits, seeming disinterested and detached, while women can’t. And this notion doesn’t apply just to heterosexual relationships.
“We still see that kind of sexism where we value the masculine more than the feminine,” she says. “Even in queer communities, you absolutely see that still playing out.”
Part of the problem is that college relationships are rarely defined. My friend Ash Dunn, a recent graduate of Emerson College, describes hooking up with a fellow student one summer, drifting apart, and later reconnecting. The guy recently described her as his “ex,” she says.
“I never considered him my ex, because we never dated,” says the 21-year-old. Dunn admits that, at the time, she had wanted to be in a relationship with him, but she hid those feelings because she assumed they weren’t reciprocated.
Another Emerson student, Will D’Epagnier, 20, dated a Dutch guy one summer in Boston. They had picnics on the Esplanade, took long walks, and went to the beach together. When D’Epagnier later visited him in Amsterdam, the reunion was platonic and not much fun.
D’Epagnier says he confronted his former boo about the changed dynamic between them. “He was like, ‘Yeah, I thought we were just always friends.’”
While some parents might suggest to their children that hookups are the problem — that getting into a relationship will solve everything — that’s the wrong answer, according to Wade.
Instead, students should try to be honest with their partners, show care and respect, and demand the same in return, she says. And that’s a general rule they can apply to any relationship, whether it’s casual, serious, or somewhere in between.