I’m in a standard college relationship. He’s a guy; I’m a girl. We’re both white, middle class, early twenties.
We don’t live together and are nowhere close to marriage and kids. We fight; we make up. We get dinner every couple of weeks and get drunk every – well, more than every couple of weeks. Needless to say, we don’t get too many strange looks from simply walking hand-in-hand. In short, we’re “normal.” But I wonder: If we’re the garden-variety, who’s getting weeded out?
I sat down with four couples whose relationships are considered unconventional by societal (and student) standards and expected to uncover stories of controversy and hardship. The way I saw things, it couldn’t be any other way.
Interracial: Meet Allyson & Chad
He’s laid-back; she’s a self-proclaimed “type-A personality.” They’re about as similar as black and white, and in fact, he is black, and she is white. The couple met last year at Allyson’s first Students Associated for Latin America meeting. She caught Chad’s eye immediately.
“I said to my friend, ‘Who’s that white girl?’” Chad Vernon, who is a fourth-year history student, remembers.
“I noticed that people just sort of gravitated towards him,” Allyson Seitzer, a fourth-year visual communications student, says.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, less than 1% of married couples in 2007 were black-white interracial. I asked third-year English student Bre Davis why so many people in the South appear to be uncomfortable with interracial relationships.
“It’s just about what we grew up around, not necessarily what we believe,” she explains.
On the surface, I thought Allyson and Chad’s relationship was unique because of its rarity, but I slowly realized that their uniqueness stems from how few problems they’ve encountered. Because of Chad’s ability to curb arguments (“I usually just apologize; I’m wrong most of the time anyway”), the couple hasn’t seen too many stormy relationship days yet. And the most obvious issue, their racial difference, seems to be the least of their worries.
Chad grew up witnessing interracial relationships within his own family and has friends of every race and color. He knows other interracial and interreligious couples have experienced harassment or discrimination and have families who are not supportive. But as far as friends go, Chad maintains that consideration is key.
“Even if my friends didn’t approve of my relationship, they respect me, and they respect my decisions enough to keep their comments to themselves,” he reasons.
The interracial aspect of their relationship has not caused problems for them mainly because Chad has never felt like a personal victim of racism.
“I used to feel some pressure to be blacker because I always received good grades and never sagged my jeans or wore my cap backwards,” he says. “But I’ve realized I don’t want to be the best black lawyer; I want to be the best lawyer.”
Allyson admits that if Chad were ever to experience racial discrimination, she might not know how to handle it.
“I wouldn’t know what it feels like,” she says. “I would just try and make sure he knows that I’m not like that.”
Generally, Chad and Allyson acknowledge their relationship with humor.
“When we’re walking together and see tour groups on the Horseshoe, we always laugh and say that we’re the poster couple for USC,” Allyson says.
But the truth is, they consider themselves lucky that they each can look past (and even overlook) the other’s skin color and know the real person.
Recently, Allyson’s parents met Chad’s for the first time, and according to him, to say that they all got along great is an understatement.
“Now, we can just be like one big, happy family,” Allyson says. I can’t tell if she’s joking.
Gay: Meet Sam & Andy
They live together. They’re gay. They met in a chat room, “but not a shady chat room,” Andy clarifies.
The two began dating as USC undergrads. Andy Clifton graduated in 2007, and Sam Shoemaker is a second-year law student. Sam is Andy’s first boyfriend and the reason he came out to his friends. Sam was president of USC’s BGLSA (Bisexual Gay Lesbian Straight Alliance), and his parents were fully supportive when he told them he was gay.
It was much more difficult for Andy’s traditional, religious parents to accept. Brian, Andy’s twin brother, served as a mediator during this volatile time. Sam’s and Andy’s different stories complement one another, and today, their families get along well. Gamecock football serves as the great unifier.
“We all tailgate together!” Sam exclaims.
Andy and Sam share the same nonchalant attitude, but neither feels comfortable showing affection in public. I sense a hesitation in this couple that suggests they might not be telling me everything. Though Andy says he has no fear of being attacked, the FBI found that 17.8% of all hate crimes in 2008 were motivated by the victim’s sexual orientation. Johnny Robinson, a second-year political science student, believes that being in a gay relationship must be especially hard.
“At least it’s legal for blacks and whites to marry each other,” he says. “Gays will never have that acceptance.”
At present, only five states and Washington, D.C., permit gay marriage. Although it is not legal anywhere in the South, both Sam and Andy agree that USC does a better job providing a safe and tolerant environment for homosexuals than other southern schools.
True to their conservative upbringings, Andy and Sam do not publicize their relationship. But they don’t deny it either; they enjoy privacy, not secrecy. Andy’s previous discomfort with his sexuality was a trial for the couple at first. They spent a lot of time at home together, missing out on some of the usual first dates that new couples have. Now, they go out, though they avoid the gay bar and club scene, and they still receive odd looks when they’re seen together on Valentine’s Day.
During Sam’s second year, the two lived together in a dorm. Andy approached their suitemates and told them to feel free to change rooms with no hard feelings. Here, Sam quietly adds that this wasn’t necessary, but Andy counters that he just didn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable. I wonder if Andy’s willingness to tolerate being excluded by others in order to avoid confrontation ever bothers Sam.
In general, however, they seem to have the same issues and arguments as other couples. As Andy is older than Sam, it was rough when Sam wasn’t yet 21. They both wish they’d studied abroad and both have felt pressure from friends to experience the single social life. And just like every “normal” couple, they do need time apart.
“When you start fighting over putting mustard on a sandwich,” Sam jokes, “then it’s like we’re just around each other way too much.”
Married: Meet Paul and Kate
He studies journalism; she’s studying to be a nurse. They’re your average South Carolina born-and-bred college couple. Except that they’ve been together since middle school. Oh yeah, and they’re married.
Many students say getting married that young is irresponsible.
“People our age just aren’t ready. We still have a lot to learn and experience before we make that type of commitment,” says Colleen Ferris, a third-year visual communications student.
College changes most of us, but Paul and Kate Bowers grew up together and know each other better than anyone else.
As Kate puts it, “It was like we had been married all along.”
They tied the knot less than a year ago and are now among the 12.6% of married Americans under the age of 25 (2011 U.S. Census Bureau).
Chatting with Paul and Kate in their cozy, one-bedroom apartment is like yelling at an automated answering machine; nothing I say gets a rise out of them. Not that I aim to instigate, but every couple has issues, right?
Kate thinks the hardest part of marriage has been the wedding planning. When I ask for examples of newlywed disagreements, they stare, and after a silence, Paul mentions with a giggle that his wife thinks she should have a cat of her own since he has one named Paul Jr.
Kate slaps his leg playfully and scolds, “Paul! That is not the worst thing about marriage!”
It’s as if she knows how unconvincing they sound, and yet she can’t come up with a better answer.
Their parents and friends were fully supportive of their decision to get married while in school.
“I think they all recognized that I wasn’t going to find someone better, so I shouldn’t waste my time,” Paul says.
They believe they have the communication part of their relationship down, but Paul feels like he could work on his cooking skills and help Kate out more around the house.
I have to ask about money, the one thing that inevitably causes problems in relationships. Paul and Kate confront the issue openly. They acknowledge that financial security is important but maintain that it isn’t a problem for them, thanks to hard work and scholarships.
“We’re insufferable cheapskates,” Paul reveals. “Neither one of us is going to max out the credit card.”
At any rate, they aren’t blowing their cash on partying. They agree that without one another, their religious faith still would not have led them to the crazy college lifestyle many of us know too well. The marginally religious skeptic in me is reluctant to believe that this marriage, that any relationship, is this ideal. However, even I have to admit that the stability of their relationship is clearly founded in their selfless relationship with God.
And so, in a sad, final attempt to shake them up a bit, I resort to the subject of sex. When they show me their bedroom, which barely fits a bed for two, I ask how it was sleeping together for the first time.
“Perfect,” they agree.
Parents: Meet Lauren, Nick, Addison
Nick Kain and Lauren James, both in the Honors College, have a daughter – surprise! Her name is Addison, and she just turned 2. Nick and Lauren, now fourth-year students, realized they were going to have a child the summer after their first year. I had my doubts about these two; as an ambitious young woman, for me the phrase “teenage pregnancy” equals “life is over.”
“My best friend has a daughter,” Amber Daniels, a first-year public relations student, says. “It’s disappointing to other people because it’s like she had her whole life ahead of her.”
But Lauren tells her story with total self-awareness of her own disappointment.
“I never got into trouble,” Lauren says. “I wanted to go to med school. I had all these goals and all these things I was doing. It just flipped my world upside down.”
In fact, the U.S. Census data reveals that in 2007, there were over one million births to unmarried women under the age of 25.
Lauren and Nick exude a clear respect and love for one another, as well as for Addison, without any saccharine sentimentality.
The pregnancy caused plenty of family arguments, especially surrounding Lauren’s decision to be, in a way, a working mom. Some friends and family members thought it was selfish of her to return to school when she had a daughter to raise. But whether to finish college or not was never a question. Because of grants and financial aid for students in their situation, the couple could afford to stay at USC. Their parents pressured them to go elsewhere, but they refused.
“The reason I’m continuing my education is not just for me. It’s for Addison; it’s so we can provide a better life for her,” Lauren says.
The couple first decided to postpone marriage; Nick understood that they might not work out, and Lauren didn’t want to marry for pregnancy instead of love. But recently, Nick proposed to Lauren, and they and their families are happy they waited.
“It’s not like you take a test when you turn 25 or 30 that says you’re okay to be a parent,” Nick says, making a point that I’ve never considered. Actually, in 2007, over 60% of all births to unmarried women were to those under the age of 25.
“If Addison throws a tantrum, people look at us and assume it’s because we’re too young to be parents. But really, she’d throw a tantrum no matter how old we were,” he says.
The only time the couple comes close to gushing is when they discuss the joy that Addison has brought to their lives. For a moment, I think Lauren is tearing up, but she quickly regains the steadiness in her voice in order to tell me how lucky she feels to have the family she does.
“I know that so many people, not necessarily my age, but that so many people out there would just love to have what we have,” Lauren says. After a quick pause, “But, I don’t recommend—,” and for the first time, Nick finishes her sentence, “taking our route.”
Their maturity and humor is remarkable, and it hits me that these people aren’t losers preordained to fail; they are successful college students who simply made a mistake.
Right before I stop recording, Lauren leans into the microphone and jokes, “And we love each other, and we’ve never had a fight and we just stare at each other all day.”