It's 10 years on from college and all around you cosy student couples are parting ways. Emma Cook investigates graduate break-up
EVERYONE remembers Mr-and-Mrs-Smug-Couple at university. They were the ones who met in their second term, probably in lectures, spent all their time in each other's room and by the second year were an item welded at the waist. Come finals, these two would be helping each other out with their essays, exchanging revision notes and planning where to study for teacher training when they graduated. At times their cosiness could be quite nauseating.

The rest of the student population were embarking on the doubtful delights of "casual relationships", being chatted up by pimply morons in student discos and waking up, joy of joys, to find them sharing your toothbrush the next morning. Mr-and-Mrs-Smug were clearly above all that. With ruthless efficiency, they'd managed to meet their ideal partners and miss out on the protracted and messy courtship rituals that usually come before.

Ben Elton even based a sketch around them. In shared "digs", their shelf of the fridge looked like a Fulham deli window display. They'd always have real Parmesan and fresh herbs while their shambolic flatmates stretched to a can of Stella and some cheddar slices welded to the inside of the fridge door. Such organised domesticity so early on seemed alien; even prissily adult. Yet this pair were enviably insulated - able to move smoothly into the world of work together and continue cosily into "middle youth" and beyond. Or so it seemed at the time.

Look around now, though, say seven or eight years down the line, and that snug coupling has in many cases been sabotaged from within. There could be many reasons why relationships formed at college frequently flounder when the people involved hit the age 30 barrier. The most obvious explanation is that two people will change inestimably more between the ages of 20 and 30 than 30 and 40.

Katy, 30 and a designer, met her boyfriend while studying history of art at Norwich. They separated almost a year ago. "I don't think it's to do with being young; it's about your expectations because you've been a student. If I hadn't been to university, my life might have been settled from an earlier stage." As it was, Katy was trying to freelance in London while her boyfriend wanted to lecture at a provincial university. Eventually they moved in with each other and stayed together for the next eight years. "It did give us a continuity after college. Going out into the big wide world wasn't such a big thing - it prolonged student life in some ways. In the end, we just weren't going in the same direction and it became more and more difficult." Jenny, 28 and a market researcher, found herself in a similar scenario two years ago. She too settled with her college partner in London after three years spent studying English at Bristol. They got engaged and planned to get a mortgage. "We both carried on with this very studenty lifestyle. Going out drinking every night, never paying bills, always spending money faster than we earned it. In fact, I ended up paying most of the bills." When they were twenty-six, they decided to buy a flat together. "I began to see that he was completely hopeless with money. He couldn't plan or budget. I discovered how incompatible we were." She realised that as long as they lived like debauched students, neither of them had to face up to the reality of change. "Student life was just completely unreal. Then real life started to encroach on that. The difference is he stayed a student." And she moved on.

In the transition from cossetted student life to reality, it's very likely that you'll have less in common. Sadly, time has a funny habit of transforming what can initially be so attractive in a partner into a major bugbear. This can be even more marked if you met at university. Maybe your student lover's commitment to conservation and adopting whales seemed irresistible when you were twenty but self-righteous and earnest six years later. "I used to love the fact he was so moralistic and ethical," says Annie, 29, who finished her college relationship last year and works as an advertising copywriter. "Then he got downright patronising, saying he didn't know how I could live with myself because I worked on a cosmetics account that tested products on animals."

What's more puzzling is why many graduate partners stick it out for so long. Julia Cole of Relate believes, "What drew you together at college may have seemed desperately important - your political beliefs, for instance. It may be that that aspect has died, but there's a fear about admitting it to a partner." Also, in a student environment there's less chance you're going to know the truth about your partner's thoughts and feelings. There's too much at stake on both sides.

Interestingly, author of The Good Relationship Guide and psychologist Maryon Tysoe cites a recent American survey carried out among campus students who had been in relationships for twenty-one months. Twenty-two percent wouldn't raise topics that would show they were different from each other and, significantly, seventeen percent wouldn't disclose anything about themselves that might damage their image. Like, for instance, the male student who shouts loudly about equality but, once working, expects his partner to iron shirts. As Tysoe says, "In a student house, maybe there's more pressure to stick rotas up on the fridge or espouse views if it makes them look trendy. It's a moot point if they'll keep to them."

Another drawback is that student relationships often start out as pretty casual arrangements. Living with each other at 21 isn't loaded with questions like "Will this person make a good parent for my children?" in the way it is when the couple are in their late twenties. As Katy says, "You don't sit down and talk about where it's going. You're not thinking why you're in that relationship. It's just what people do." Ben, 31 and a retail manager, puts it another way: "I wanted to live with her but I didn't want to start discussing living arrangements for the future." Ben also admits the combined attractions of central heating and a washing machine did play a part. "We got on really well. lt just so happened her flat was far more comfortable than mine. She always used to say, 'Do you want to move in with me. Or is it just for a convenience?' It seemed like a logical step and being with her all the time was an attraction. Afterwards I did feel, though, that it was more for convenience." Ben lived with her for a further seven years but became increasingly aware it was out of habit rather than choice. "lt became comfortable to stay together. All our friends lived nearby and it was easier to go out with her than be single. That's why we were with each other for so long."

You may think that after a long stretch in a sometimes staid relationship, estranged partners would be keen to catch up on the sexual "adventures" they missed out on in their early twenties. On the contrary, in many cases one half of the couple often settles down insultingly quickly. Jenny married within months and Ben discovered his future partner within a matter of weeks. Julia Cole suggests it's part of a learning curve that starts with admitting you've both changed. "It frees them and makes them realise what they don't want, which means they settle down quite quickly after that." In this sense, long-term attachments formed at college shouldn't be viewed as doomed affairs. Many do succeed and those that don't probably teach you how to get it right next time.