Love in the university of life

Your girlfriend means it when she says she doesn't want a Valentine? Like hell she does...
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The Independent Culture
Taking your relationship from college out into the real world can be a shock. How can you ease the transition? By Annabelle Thorpe.

The last eight months have not been easy for Claire and Jason. Not only have they had to deal with the upheaval of leaving university and settling into a totally new way of life, but they have also had to deal with the effect the change in their circumstances has had on their relationship.

"It's been incredibly difficult," admits Claire. "Although we didn't live together at college, we only lived a couple of roads away from each other and could pop round whenever we wanted to. When we left, Jason moved straight to London as he had a job sorted, but I had to go back to my parents in Kent. We could only see each other on weekends and I found it incredibly difficult, imagining him starting this new glamorous life in the big city without me."

The first year out of college can be a hard enough time even without the added complications of a relationship. "Many people don't expect the transition to be so difficult," says Alison Kane, a relationship counsellor. "They may be looking forward to getting out in the real world and earning money. But there are many other changes that often aren't thought about - suddenly friends are miles away, there's a new enforced structure to life and there are real responsibilities to worry about - mortgages, careers, loans to pay off."

"It normally takes up to six months to adjust," she says, "but there are added complications when you're in a relationship. Suddenly you have to learn to co-exist in a completely different world where there are new issues all the time. Differences may become apparent that couples simply weren't aware of at college - work ambitions, the importance of money, the desire to travel or to settle down. Some people see the end of college as the beginning of responsibility and adulthood and want to make a change. Others want to continue with a freer life."

Diana, who left university two and a half years ago, knows all too well the problems - and sometimes the impossibility - of changing a college relationship to a partnership in the real world. She split up with her partner, David, a year ago. "When we were at college we were idyllically happy - and the first few months in London were great. But then David got a job in a TV production company - just as a runner - but the hours were ridiculously long, and gradually his life began to change."

Before long, David had moved up to being a researcher and Diane felt she was being left behind. "He was beginning to lead a very glamorous life and I realised how ambitious he was. I was just temping - I wanted us to travel - and I started to feel really inadequate. He'd ring me up and tell me about all these famous people he'd met and all that happened in my day was that the photocopier had broken or I'd gone for a drink at lunchtime."

Although they both fought it, they eventually split up - unable to bridge the gap between them. "I didn't like the people that worked in TV and David was becoming one of them. What was worse was that he loved the whole set-up. In the end it was a mutual decision - we still loved each other, but life was taking us in opposite directions."

A common problem, according to Alison Kane. "In many ways, college is a very regimented environment - everyone lives in the same way and there are few outside pressures. It is perfectly possible for a college relationship to succeed in the real world, but couples have to be aware that there will constantly be new choices and opportunities. The key to succeeding is, as always, to talk - to be honest about what is wanted from the future and how to compromise to ensure that both people are happy."

Claire is determined that she and Jason will survive the change. "I have recently moved to London and I think things are made easier by the fact that we both work in the City. The fact we understand each other's job means we can share problems. I want to get to know the people he works with and vice versa," she says, "so that hopefully we can get a crowd of friends like we had at college.

"I'm not trying to re-create the experience," she says. "College was brilliant but it's a very particular time. Life is very different now but hopefully we can take some of the best aspects of college and fit them into our new life. That way, we can have the best of both worlds."

Last Valentine's Day drew a big zero in the end of the flat I shared with Katie. She got the most beautiful bunch of claret-coloured flowers, wrapped in brown paper, tied up with raffia in a huge bow. My friend Sara had something equally glamorous delivered to her office, and although I wasn't there I can imagine how she felt, basking in the glorious feeling of being truly adored.

While she cooed over her bouquet d'amour, my vases stood empty, my mantelpiece a card-free zone. But this is not the sad sorrowing of a singleton. Quite the opposite. This was my first Valentine's Day with my New Bloke, supposedly a chance for a really romantic gesture.

New Bloke, however, had made clear his aversion to Valentine's Day. And I, being desperate to appear as cool, as unconventional, as unpersuaded by the glut of the pink and fluffy as he was, expressed complete disinterest in the whole thing. Valentine, schmalentine, I scoffed. No hearts and flowers for me. The whole business was cliched and I was far too cool to be interested.

But he would know, of course, that I didn't mean it. He understood that although rationally I knew the whole red foil-wrapped, indulgent, sickly sweet day was just one huge marketing exercise, my girly side would still be expecting flowers or undies or something more delicious.

But Valentine's Day came and slowly slipped away and by five o'clock I was the only woman in the world without a bunch of sodding flowers. Every woman I worked with or walked past from Chanel-suited Patsys to Waynetta Slobs was clutching some kind of cellophane-wrapped affair. By the evening, as commuters laid their precious bundles on bag racks, New Bloke and I were peppering a street corner with a particularly unpink and unfluffy row.

The moral of this story, boys, is get your flowers ordered now. Ignore her if she says she isn't interested in Valentine's Day, if she doesn't believe in it, thinks it's immoral, or materialistic. Nod sagely whilst waving your Visa card at the nearest florist. And New Bloke, although not so new now, this means you too...