At Williams, we hook up. We talk about it during drowsy Sunday brunches. We laugh about it through excited whispers in Sawyer. We even write about it. A lot.
But how do we talk about long-term relationships that claim they are not actually relationships? Students may not know how to act appropriately in such casual circumstances. In the worst case, we may not demand respect from our partners because we are “without labels.” I made this mistake. And ultimately, my “kinda-sorta” relationship imprisoned me.
Like Williamstown, the spring semester of my senior year has had its heat waves and cold spells. I walked on hope’s green grass while planning for post-graduation, typing the thesis of my dreams and focusing (somewhat) in my final classes. I made phenomenal new friends and grew older with my old ones. But I also braved a cold, dense fog: my seven-month relationship.
We were casual. If anyone asked us, we explained that we were “friends.” My girlfriends wanted to know more, and I refused them. I thought that silence gave me power. If I did not speak about my relationship, it became sacred, untouchable, beyond words. No one had to understand it but my partner and me. I wanted my own bubble within the purple bubble, a sense of mystery on a small campus where curious eyes and ears seem omnipresent.
For a long time, my secrecy worked. But, as in any intimate relationship, it became harder to remain strictly casual. I broke the rules of “hooking up” and got “caught up” – and I liked it. My partner and I became an island, only sporadically venturing into the mainland of Williams life. We ritually squinted at our ancient laptops while bobbing our heads to Kendrick Lamar. We laughed until we cried. We shared each other’s favorite songs, slang and secrets. We were dope. You couldn’t tell us anything.
The problem, however, was that I also could not tell my partner certain things. An emotional power struggle began between us. I was not his girlfriend. He was not my boyfriend. But we liked each other. We were intimate strangers. I sighed while he openly pursued other love interests. We were off again. I begged for forgiveness in place of his apologies. We were on again. We reunited without resolving anything, only vaguely acknowledging our issues. I did not realize that my silence did not make me powerful. The cycle continued, and my spirit shrank.
Then the inevitable happened: People started talking. Hearing strangers critique my situation made me hollow. How did I feel about “this”? Was I okay with “that”? My friends and family helped me notice that the campus chatter was forcing me to confront my unhappiness. How could people respect me when I, by keeping quiet, made it seem like I did not care? I was so worried about intruding on my relationship that I blinded myself to how my partner and I communicated with one another. And, even worse, my stubborn silence had played a crucial role in my compromise.
The first time that I heard my partner describe our relationship to his friends, it was callous and dismissive. I was embarrassed, upset and heartbroken. But I needed to hear it. I had created the image that I was fine with no boundaries. I was weak, but I played my part in giving the power to be talked about – and treated – without accountability. Our relationship was a poker game, and it was time for me to fold my hand.
My carefree senior spring imparted my most valuable lesson. When it comes to emotional relationships, we can only have as much control over one another as we allow. This fact can be liberating or restraining. We are young, smart, expressive students and should not jeopardize our happiness and power for the sake of friendship (with or without benefits). In addition, a relationship without labels is not a fake one, and the falling out from failing to communicate with our partners on this premise can be grave.
At Williams, we know to talk about consent, but rarely does the conversation about mutual respect extend past the first physical hook-up. We learn how to protect our bodies from diseases, but in the process, we may disregard the vulnerability of the heart and mind. This may not be heroic or complement the mantras in seduction manuals or Cosmopolitan. Our emotions are an “inconvenient” but inevitable truth.
I knew I could no longer ignore my own emotions. When I finally spoke up about my discomfort, the relationship ended. In Williamstown, we experienced a heat wave. The birds sang. The bees swarmed. And during this spring awakening, I re-embarked on my final semester. I vowed to use my years of education as an Eph to inspire my collegiate courting. I would talk with the same conviction I used in seminars. I would make it clearer to myself what I wanted out of a relationship and drop it if, like that challenging class, it became too difficult to manage. With a pen in hand, and eyes on the purple hills, I began to write my story.
Kesi Augustine ’12 is an English major from Queens, N.Y. She lives in Sewall.