An abundance of choice between the sheets

Why you wonder if you’re dating the right person

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Photos: Tara van den Broek. Models: Merel, Kamiel and Chiara

Suddenly, my roommate announces it as though she’s read about it in the Ikea catalogue: “I think I’m going to get myself a booty call.” It sounds like she’s finally realised what she’s been missing in her luxuriously-decorated student room. My other roommate raises her eyebrows: “Honey, are you sure?” But roommate #1 is no longer listening: she’s already opened the endless catalogue of potential booty calls, partners and one-night stands on her phone, and is swiping furiously.

From the safety of our childhood bed to a grimy student room

Sex, dating, relationships: topics you simply can’t avoid as a university student in Utrecht. The same holds true for my house, which leads to uncomfortable bathroom meetings, conversations about crushes at breakfast, and the continuous purchasing of more advanced earplugs. But we also have collective crying sessions on the couch and hidden heartaches in our bedrooms. I didn't have to look far for people with relevant experience for this article as my flatmates were already the perfect characters.

We, students, tend to spend a lot of time thinking about sex and relationships, which is unsurprising considering we roll from the safety of our childhood beds into grimy student rooms. There, we are suddenly faced with the choice of with whom, with how many, and in which ways we want to share our beds (while hoping that the bugs that cause scabies don’t invite themselves to our bedsheets as well).

Having that choice is new and exciting but it can also be overwhelming. It makes sense, therefore, that so many of our conversations are about sex and relationships. And, as roommate #3 indicates, our mood tends to be influenced by how well (or poorly) our relationships are going. Roommate #2: “I actually feel like it's the other way around for me: my mood usually influences how I feel in a relationship. It's like a tradeoff.”

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I feel pressured to be involved with someone

That’s fuel for my first question: when you're not feeling so great, what exactly are you struggling with? Roommate #1 (single): “I often feel pressured by others to be ‘involved’ with someone in some way. That’s because of all the perfect couples on social media but also because of my parents and the other students around me. Whenever I'm not seeing anybody, the first thing people do is ask me why not. As if it were weird not to be dating or in a relationship at our age.” 

Roommate #2, who is in a committed relationship, acknowledges that. She hasn't been getting nearly as many questions since she got a boyfriend. But she too feels pressured: “Many of my friends are experimenting. I hear so many stories about threesomes, polyamory, and one-night stands. So, if you’re in a stable, monogamous relationship, people can quickly dismiss you as a boring person.”  

Other students sometimes ask her if she’s not afraid to be missing out on adventures or if she thinks she's had enough time to figure herself out. “That gives me FOMO. I start doubting my relationship all of a sudden, even though I’m really happy with my boyfriend. The grass is always greener on the other side.”

Roommate #3 laughs.  “The fun thing about student life is that you can go and see whether that’s true or not.”

Roommate #2: “Fun or problematic?”

Be it fun or problematic, that’s exactly what roommate #3, who's recently single, is doing: casually dating, sleeping around, and trying things out. “Sex and relationships are important to me in terms of figuring out my identity. You wonder 'what kind of dating suits me best?'”

But that isn’t always easy: “I’ve often been in situations with people who wanted something different than I did. I was looking for a relationship at one point but I only came across people interested in casual sex, which made me very insecure.”

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My roommates show, therefore, that there’s a wide range of issues that students can encounter when it comes to sex and relationships. They do, however, get the same consequences whenever things don't go well: stress, insecurity, and concentration issues.

Roommate #2: “Those doubts about my boyfriend… They are pretty much in line with questions like: 'did I choose the right study?',  'Should I have tried to study something else?', 'Is my job at a restaurant good enough or should I find something that’s more related to what I'm studying?'"

Roommate #3: “Are my roommates fun enough?”

Roommate #2 laughs: “That’s a question I ask multiple times a day! But yeah, that’s what I mean. We’ve got so much freedom, so many options, that I feel pressured to find that one option that suits me perfectly.”

Roommate #3: “I’m familiar with that. Choice stress.”

Roommate #1, trembling: “FOMO.”

Roommate #3: “And then there’s the underlying question: 'who am I?' Students are trying to figure that out in terms of their studies, careers, and hobbies. But that question is just as important with regards to relationships.”

Roommate #1: “Yeah. And there are questions about gender identity and sexuality too.” She turns to Roommate #3: “How was it for you when you realised that you like girls too?”

Roommate #3: “In my circle of friends, it was nice and safe. This is something I could talk to them about. But I did think a lot about whether that would change anything. I haven’t told my parents yet — for no reason at all, really. Or perhaps because there is no reason at all: because I don’t think that says anything important about me as a person.”

What's wrong with sex that's good enough?

I noticed my roommates switching to topics related to students' mental health in general: questions of identity, perfectionism, and feeling pressed to choose the best option. So, I presented my findings to the pedagogue and sociologist Daphne van de Bongardt, who has been conducting research on sex, youth, and relationships for fourteen years. “One thing that strikes me is that many young adults are looking for the perfect partner. Until a few decades ago, relationships depended on your background, your income, and your father’s social circle. Now, we have the freedom to chase romantic love which makes the question of whether someone is the perfect match for us much more prominent.”

The Internet plays an important role in this scenario: “We come across countless images of perfect couples on social media. Dating apps also give you the idea that finding the ‘perfect’ sex partner or relationship is actually possible: if one person doesn’t meet all your requirements, the next potential partner is just a click away.”

Ah. So that explains my roommates' perfectionism and indecisiveness. But how do we handle this?

Daphne: “I think we should stop looking for perfection. We often forget that there is no such thing. Instead, we should be questioning ourselves: what’s wrong with a relationship that’s good enough, or with sex that’s good enough? By that, I don’t mean that you should be satisfied with too little but rather that, sometimes, a good relationship or good sex takes a little work.”

I share this advice with my roommates when I get home.

Roommate #2: “Yeah, that’s a good point. Perhaps I should stop trying to compare myself to oth..."

Roommate #1: “Oh my God! I have a match!”

Roommate #2 looks at the screen and plops down on the couch with a sigh. “I wish my boyfriend had eyes that pretty.”

Banner DUB Magazine 2022 cover

An entire magazine on students' mental health!

This article was originally published in our print magazine Vallen en Opstaan ("Falling and getting back up again", Ed) which you can get for free at several places in the entire university from October 19 onwards.

This special edition talks about why UU students often struggle with mental health issues. They have to deal with high expectations coming from others and themselves, not to mention they live in a time where there are many options to choose from, which can be overwhelming. Most of the articles were written by four UU students.

You can take a quiz to see how you fare in the "perfection meter", learn how students overcame obstacles, reflect on the suggestions made by wellbeing experts, and recognise yourself in the photo comic ThirdFloor.  

The magazine is in Dutch but all articles are available in English online. Just click here to read them all!