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Monday, Mar 4, 2024

Sarah Says: Everything I know about love

As I approach the end of my final fall semester at Middlebury, I have found myself grappling with the realization that, forgoing any eleventh-hour surprises, I will likely graduate without experiencing a romantic college relationship. That fact has forced me to admit that over the past couple of weeks, it’s not just the lack of light that’s been getting me a little down. Even as I remain grateful for the love of my friends, I am sad not to have experienced romantic love at Middlebury and sadder still to feel so trite. 

Today’s single, undergraduate woman is stuck between a rock and a hard place. In many ways, women are still taught their value revolves around attracting and keeping a man, but within our culture’s era of corporatized, #girlboss feminism, it’s seen as retroactive, intellectually weak and, most of all, deeply cringe to admit to wanting love. 

Over the summer, I read Dolly Alderton’s memoir “Everything I Know About Love,” which I liked so much that I stole its title for this article. The memoir begins in her adolescence and follows her university career and wild twenties in London. Laughing along as she rendered her life with humor and vulnerability, I still found myself thinking, “Ok. All these adventures in dating are fun, but when is she going to stop crying and get her happy ending?” This is the memoir’s great bait and switch, because (spoiler alert!), Alderton never gets the traditional happy ending. 

Instead of a grand romantic gesture, the memoir climaxes when she says “Because I am enough. My heart is enough. The stories and the sentences twisting around my mind are enough. I am fizzing and frothing and buzzing and exploding. I’m bubbling over and burning up.” It’s a lovely point in the book, one of those electrifying passages that I wish I could paste over my heart. 

After centuries of messaging that women are worth nothing without men, these alternatives are essential. But, as I contemplated my own romantic loneliness, it left me feeling like a double failure. Not only had I failed to catch a man, but I had also failed to properly self-actualize. If the sum total of what I needed was supposed to be inside of me all along, then why was I spending so many nights sad that I didn’t have a boyfriend? 

Was I really so shallow and boring? 

In many ways, my college life overflows with joy. I have a wide circle of amazing friends, enjoy poring over Shakespeare and poetry and get to call those glorious green mountains home. I don’t know if my life will ever be so rich and brilliant as it is now on my halcyon campus. Fittingly, so close to the holiday, I never run into trouble noting gratitude. 

Because, despite the requisite years of adolescent insecurity, I am finally in love with myself. I have fallen in love with the shape of my reflection in the panes of storefronts, with the sweep of my laugh that often rings like a cackle, with my mind that entertains me for hours and with my loud personality that is finally finished pretending to be anything less than who I am. Yes, like Aldteron, I am “bubbling over and burning up,” but I am also lonely and aching. 

Of course, my dissatisfaction isn’t that surprising. 

Middlebury, like most college campuses today, is not a prime environment for the pursuit of love. This generation’s declining rates of sex and relationships lead everyone from The Wall Street Journal to CNN to wring their hands, questioning “Is romance really dead?” Consider that alongside the advent of modern “hookup culture” which, contrary to claims of widespread women’s emancipation, I can say from personal, anecdotal and scientific consensus, broadly confines sexuality to the terrain of male heterosexual desire. 

Now, I’m not out to yuck anyone’s yum.

If you’ve found Middlebury a fruitful sexual or romantic environment, rock on, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the most celibate generation is also the loneliest. And last year’s Zeitgeist survey found 44% of respondents had been in a slightly monogamous “thing,” though only 26% selected it as their ideal relationship. 

One of the final conclusions of Alderton’s book comes when in conversation with a friend she admits to insecurity over never having a serious, long-term relationship and the friend responds “You can do long-term love. You’ve done it better than anyone I know… I’m talking about you and me.”

This conversation forms the crux of what Aldteron knows about love. 

If, on this campus, my flings with men have petered out over iMessage or Snapchat, then it is from my friends whom I, like Alderton, have learned love. My friends who let me crawl into their beds, who (literally) put my hair out when it’s on fire with their bare hands, who forgive me when I’m cranky, hold me when I’m sad and cheer me on when I win. 

My friends have taught me to recognize, own and apologize for my faults, and to understand that  even the best laid apologies aren’t enough to salvage a friendship. In the fall of my junior year, I had a falling out with one of my closest friends. Our “breakup’ was dramatic by any standards. We shifted to sitting on different sides of the classes we shared, exchanged awkward hellos and entertained long, circular talks about the issues that had led us to hurt and anger. 

When, nearly a year later, I reached out to ask her for a coffee, I told her that I missed her and my life was poorer without her in it. A little teary, she agreed, and slowly we began to knit our friendship back together. 

I think comparing the importance of friendship and romantic love creates a false and ultimately unhelpful binary. For one, I don’t want to make out with my friends. But I can say that when I lose them it doesn’t hurt any less, even if the shape of the hurt is a little different. 

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By writing this piece, I’ve had the opportunity to consider why admitting to wanting love seems so cringe. While I maintain this perception is related to basic misogyny, it’s also because owning up to things we want means acknowledging we might not get them. To be earnest and to resist cynicism is far braver. So, I’ve decided to own my open heart as much as I can. At the end of the day, it’s my greatest strength.

Sarah Miller

Sarah Miller '24 (she/her) is an Editor at Large.   

She previously served as Opinions Editor and Staff Writer. Miller is an English major on the Creative Writing track. She hails from Philadelphia and spent the spring studying English at Trinity College Dublin. She has interned for The New England Review and hosts a WRMC radio show where you can still listen to her many opinions.