In the beginning, our relationship was strictly social. He was the president of a group I had just joined, a junior and 21 years old. I was a freshman girl enjoying my first few months of college, trying to figure out the Princeton social scene. He was rising in the ranks of his eating club; I was struggling to get passes.
Thus our arrangement evolved. He gave me passes and helped me buy alcohol; I was charming and friendly and made sure to flirt a little bit when I came to his club, just enough to make sure he realized I appreciated the help. He knew I liked to go out, and I knew that other members of our group had done the same for him freshman year. Most importantly, he had a girlfriend. I thought our relationship was just business.
It wasn’t. In the spring, we began spending hours and hours together working toward an event for our group. As we became better friends, I began falling for him. Already disillusioned with the hookup scene and ready for something more, I wished I could tell him, but he was still with his girlfriend.
But it turned out I wasn’t the only one feeling the natural chemistry, and his relationship was falling apart. Days after the event went off successfully, he broke up with her. We hooked up soon after but both quickly realized that we wanted more than just a hookup. We wanted to wait, both out of respect for his previous relationship and to make sure what we were feeling was real. We failed miserably. One week later, we were dating.
The first month was all butterflies and rainbows. He was my first serious boyfriend, and I was on cloud nine. Our lives were Small World coffee dates and walks on the golf course, holding hands on the way to class and spooning as best we could in our twin extra-long beds.
At the very beginning, everything was perfect. But then Princeton started to get in the way. “He’s two years older than me!” I’d tell my friends at home proudly. “That’s a really good age difference!” they’d tell me. And in the real world, it was. But at Princeton, those two years were the difference between being in an eating club and not, having independent work and not, knowing what you were doing with your life and not. And that mattered more than I thought it would.
Our friend groups were completely different. I felt awkward bringing him to hang out with mine, always worrying whether they would seem too immature to him, too “freshman.” But I felt equally awkward around his friends. When I went to Houseparties with him in May, some people were great, going out of their way to include me in conversation, but others ignored me outright. When he introduced me and they asked me what year I was, I started saying freshman in an apologetic tone, a wry half-smile on my lips, waiting for the inevitable joke or comment.
It didn’t help that his ex was his age, in his eating club and in his group of friends. I felt like I was already at a disadvantage, that his other friends would see me as that freshman slut who’d broken them up. Honestly, if I was in her place, I’m not entirely sure I wouldn’t feel the same way. Maybe I’d think I’d just been traded in for a newer model.
I’m sure some of it was in my head. But I’m not imagining the attitude I often got from others, which was that our relationship was somehow less legitimate because I was a freshman girl.
Our friends weren’t the only problem. I started treating him differently, too. He always picked where we went on dates because he knew the town better and where we would party because he knew the social scene better. I’d wait patiently at his eating club while he finished his game of beer pong so we could go home together, usually to his dorm, never to mine. I started caring less about what my friends thought of him and more about what his friends thought of me.
Right after we had sex for the first time and I was lying in his arms, processing the fact that I had just lost my virginity, he got a call from a friend. There was a situation at his eating club they needed help with. I resolutely told him he should go, but when he was gone, I lay back in his bed, sobbing.
That was the day I learned that freshman shouldn’t mean less important, socially or otherwise. I needed to be an equal, a partner in this relationship, or it wasn’t going to work. I called him soon after he had left and told him that I was not okay. He returned, we talked, and we made up.
I know the stereotype of the inverse relationship between a Princetonian girl’s age and her desirability. I’d taken full advantage of that the first few months of college. And I understand the logic that freshmen shouldn’t get into relationships too quickly after starting college because they might not know what they want. But I knew I wanted to be with him. We shared books and music, talked about politics, made each other laugh. Most importantly, I felt comfortable being myself around him. We were good together. It shouldn’t have mattered that I was an underclassman.
The summer came along at the perfect time. Both in the same area, we managed to see each other about once a week, and suddenly the age difference seemed not to matter anymore. Summers can often break up a relationship, but we only grew closer.
He’s a senior now, and I’m a sophomore. It’s still early in the year, but we’re already going through the usual dilemma — figuring out whether or not we want to sign ourselves up for a long distance relationship. I’m sure anyone who’s a senior or dating one can relate. But what’s hard is that I’m still figuring out the things that are going to define me at Princeton — my major, my extracurriculars, my eating club — whereas he’s on a completely different level, filling out applications and flying out for interviews. I have half my time here left. He has six months.
As he figures out where he wants to be next year, our relationship is necessarily a constraining factor. Whether or not he wants to make it an explicit part of his decision, it’ll always be in the back of his mind. And though not as critical, the fact that I’ve spent so much time at his eating club is a big influence on my decision of where to bicker. Though I’m trying not to let that sway my decision, so I can choose the club that’s really the best fit for me, we’ve spent so much time at his club together that it’s hard to view all of the clubs on equal footing.
Any relationship comes with its struggles. But the confines and constructs of Princeton only serve to emphasize the differences between the years, creating a unique challenge for those of us who choose to date outside our year. It’s hard. But it’s not impossible, as long as we remember that we’re doing it because they’re worth it.
He certainly is.