This article originally appeared on VICE UK. Last week, I spent three days dribbling like an infant, rolling around on my floor to a blitzing crescendo of Sam Smith ballads. The breakup wasn't anything particularly new; my boyfriend and I seem to separate every time one of us forgets to buy milk from the store.
This storm of breakups and makeups is a common phenomenon. A recent study found that the average relationship for British 20-somethings lasts four years, but that those years are not always consecutive; 60 percent of 20-year-olds report experiencing at least one on again/off again relationship. Yes: It turns out that we spend the pertest years of our lives arguing with the same annoying person from college about whose turn it is to get out of bed and turn off the nightlight. How boringly destructive we are.
I asked psychologist Dr. Stéphanie Boisvert about her research into the impact of family and friends on romantic relationships, to see what else I could learn about dating in your 20s. As it turns out, our sexual legacies are decided for us long before we sprout our first fluffy armpit hairs. If you had poor peer relationships at school (looking at you, people who spoke nasally about the historical accuracy of film adaptations), chances are you're going to have fewer relationships, and the ones you do have will be shorter.
"Those who've had negative experiences with their peers growing up—social withdrawal and less peer likability—often moved into the romantic sphere much later," Boisvert explained. "This is a pattern we see repeated throughout adult life. They will have difficulty finding, and maintaining, sexual partners."
That's what the studies say—but do people in their 20s actually recognize those traits in themselves?
"Going to an all-boys school made communicating with women difficult; I never interacted with them, so they became this sort of exotic species," Daniel, 25, told me. "Lurking inside Warhammer with an oily forehead probably didn't help. Relationships were something rugby players did. Luckily, I had a great sister who taught me how to speak to women, and, eventually, I got a girlfriend while in college."
While Daniel managed to get it together, the news generally isn't so good for kids who went through school boyfriend or girlfriend-less; unsurprisingly, it's the popular kids who continue to have successful romantic relationships beyond graduation. "Those who have a number of intense romantic partners in early adolescence were found to have good experiences with their peers," Boisvert told me. "They were actually popular, and this pattern extends across into adulthood."
Boisvert also found that people who experience many long, committed romantic relationships got along with their family and friends. I spoke to 23-year-old Molly, who's been acting like a 1950s housewife since before her SATs. "Even in elementary school, I was dating a guy for all of fourth and fifth grade. He was about a foot shorter than me, and we had nothing in common except not liking PE. I realized the other day, I haven't been single for longer than two weeks since him, and these aren't flings—these are one and two-year committed relationships."
Rather than being the product of an idyllic parent-child relationship, Molly attributes her relationship stability to a fear of being alone. "When you're younger, you get so bored; your brain feels fuzzy and numb when you're not stimulated. For me, growing up, men were a buffer for that. I would only breakup with someone to upgrade to a better man prototype."
Although Boisvert's study didn't measure the specific ways in which parent/friend relations would impact LGBTQ relations, she postulated the results: "If the family is supportive of sexual orientation, queer relationships will presumably mirror what we see in long-term heterosexual relationships. But if a relationship is marred by social stigma, then the relationship could reflect the later-developing pattern, because external judgment might make the person introverted, and they'll wait to fit into romantic relationships that suit them."
So essentially, it's all our parents' fault, and life is one big extension of a mean school playground. But what exactly goes wrong in the relationships of unpopular, unloved people? Dr. Kale Monk, psychologist and expert in on/off again relationship cycles, attributes mutual sacrifice as the key to sustained relationships. This can encompass anything from pretending to enjoy that really horrible curry she makes to not going on that year-long study abroad program. This sacrifice breeds a more committed relationship. "Partners think of themselves as a collective 'we' versus an individualistic 'I'," explains Monk.
The problem is that women often sacrifice more. "In heterosexual relationships, it's often women who are disadvantaged, because research shows women engage in much more relationship work and household labor," says Monk. Egalitarianism and equity in relationships is often a stated goal of couples, but the division of work often doesn't shake out that way."
"When I was younger, I would do so much for boyfriends," says Meghan, who's had a series of sustained relationships with multiple men. "Every time I went out with a new guy, I'd morph into him. I'd copy his style; I changed myself from emo to punk to preppy and back. Everything he liked, I liked. I gave away my youth for boyfriends. I bought my boyfriend a fanny pack that said 'I love my girlfriend' when he went to Ibiza—I threw away my sense of self."
But this doesn't always mean people stay together; sacrifice only works if you're both doing it. "If you're always the one who's sacrificing, according to equity theory, you are under-benefiting in the relationship and you might become resentful," Monk tells me.
"Eventually, I realized how much more I was doing for my boyfriend," Meghan continues. "I saw him, and I was like—look at me; I'm a squishy nub of man-pleasing tactics. Now I'm in my 20s, and my relationships don't last long because I'm not willing to bend myself for someone else."
Still, even with all this heartbreak, four years is a pretty solid amount of time. Frankly, who would want a relationship longer than that? As Ellie suggests, "I have gone through a lot and I have broken up with so many people, but when I look at my friends who seem unbelievably stable, I am not jealous. A simmering hatred of your partner at all times seems healthy at this age. Otherwise, you will end up like those weird old couples who hold hands all the time."
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