When one of my friends got into her top-choice medical school—The University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), ranked number three in the country—she cried, but not because she was happy. After the email popped up on her phone, she made an excuse to stop talking to her roommates, ran to her bedroom, and burrowed under her comforter. She wondered whether she could delete the email and pretend it never happened.
She had been expecting to go to George Washington Medical School in D.C., ranked number 63. It was one of the best schools she got into, and her boyfriend lived in D.C. She’d been telling everyone that she wanted to go to a top medical school, but was secretly thrilled that she didn’t have to. They’d been dating for two years, and she wanted to stay with him.
“Getting into George Washington was the perfect thing for how I wanted my life to go,” she said to me in a text message. “I cry every time I think about going to California.”
I didn’t ask the obvious question—“Could you just not go?”—because I knew the answer. She had to go to UCSF—not because she wanted to, or even because she thought it would be the best decision, but because her environment only presented her with one option. After graduating from Princeton in 2014, the two of us moved to Washington, D.C., joining a throng of young professionals with strong resumes and Ivy League degrees. In our world, if a young woman factors her boyfriend into a major decision, like which medical school to go to, she isn’t taking her career seriously. Prioritizing a relationship is shameful—something to hide.
Millennials are waiting longer than any other generation to commit to a romantic partner. Today, the average age of first marriage is 27 for women and 29 for men. And we’re not just moving in with long-term partners instead of marrying them. A 2015 Gallup poll found that the number of 18- to 29-year-olds who are single and not living with a partner rose from 52 percent in 2004 to 64 percent in 2014. To explain these numbers, most recent reporting on millennials and relationships has cast us as “commitment-phobes,” self-absorbed and interested only in the instant sexual gratification offered by dating apps like Tinder and Hinge.
But there is an alternate explanation: Many millennials—particularly millennial women—want committed relationships, but are afraid of being judged for them. To sustain a serious relationship in your early-mid twenties, when members of your cohort change jobs an average of once every 16 months, you have to be willing to make sacrifices.
My book, Post Grad: Five Women and Their First Year Out of College, follows four women in my class at Princeton for one year after graduation, jumping back and forth between their stories and my own. While researching, I found that men in my age group were generally applauded for following their girlfriends after graduation, while women were condemned for it. When I made the decision to move to D.C. to be with my boyfriend, my friends looked concerned: “Caroline, are you sure that’s what you want to do?” After a while, I started telling people I was moving to D.C. just because I liked the city.
This stigma against committing to a romantic relationship begins while we are in college. Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton, sociologists at the University of Michigan and the University of California, Merced, interviewed 46 women at a Midwestern university over the course of their four years in college (PDF). Overwhelmingly, these women thought committed, romantic relationships should “take a back seat to self-development.” At this point in their lives, they thought they should be prioritizing other things—classes, friendships, networking opportunities—over a significant other.
I’ve proudly called myself a feminist since I was 16. In college, I earned a certificate in Gender and Sexuality Studies. But as graduation neared, I started to ask myself, can I be a feminist and commit to a lifelong partner at age 22? At a book talk, I heard Anne-Marie Slaughter characterize the early-mid twenties as a time for unencumbered striving—a chance to excel professionally by working long hours and moving around. Many of my friends talked about this period in a similar way: Relationships hold you back, it’s our time to focus on ourselves. I started to see my relationship as an anti-feminist weakness. Many of my other friends with long-term partners feel the same way.
The problem with this idea is that, sometimes, it’s worth prioritizing a partner in your early twenties. It’s a turbulent time, and a committed relationship can often help ground us. Immediately after graduation, the women in Post Grad (myself included) started missing the community we had in college—and that school had brought to our lives since kindergarten. We were lonelier than we’d ever been before, which led all of us to either begin a new romantic relationship, or deepen one that we already had.
But these romantic relationships left us deeply conflicted. At one point or another, every woman in the book felt ashamed of her relationship, and tried to distance herself from it. We didn’t want to look weak, so we moved away, even if that wasn’t really what we wanted.
There is a reason that work-life balance has been a subject of so many books and magazine articles: There is no one-size-fits-all answer, even before we get married and have kids. I’m still with my college boyfriend. We live together, and spend most of our free time in our apartment, reading or watching TV with our two cats. I love the life we’ve created for ourselves in D.C., but I also have no idea what I’ve given up by choosing to commit to a serious relationship at 21. Maybe a lot.
My friend spent her first few months at UCSF thinking about transferring to GW. She was miserable—missing her boyfriend and drowning in work. But almost a year in, things have gotten better. Every couple of weeks, she flies to D.C. or her boyfriend flies to San Francisco. It’s not easy—she worries about how much money she spends on flights, and how much she’s missing by leaving campus all the time. With three more years to go, she has already started to agonize over her next big change—from medical school to residency—and who will have to compromise.