This summer, my boyfriend and I introduced ourselves to a couple seated next to us at a baseball game. They asked us how long we’d been dating, and we messed up the routine. “Three years,” I said, almost at the same time he said, “Four, I think.”
Caught in our white lie, we confessed; we’d actually been dating since we were 15. We made the usual caveats for our inconsistent answers: We split up for a full year shortly after high school, and another time for a few months.
“Oh, that’s so sweet, you’re high school sweethearts!” the couple exclaimed with unnecessary fawning. Both of us tried very hard not to roll our eyes.
There’s an assumption that the lives of high school sweethearts are akin to fairy tales. That we’re destined to a “happily ever after” of marriage and a white-picket fence earlier in life than other young adults. But that certainly hasn’t been the reality for me and my boyfriend — and plenty of other young couples I’ve spoken to. The title evokes images of romance more akin to our grandparents’ generation than our own.
Pairing off used to be a hyper-local pursuit. In 1932, for example, sociologist James Bossard studied the geographic proximity of 5,000 couples who married in Philadelphia that year. One-third of the couples lived within five blocks of each other before marrying. Less than 20 percent were from different cities.
Now, however, there are so many ways to meet people that ending up with someone from your home town is far more rare. It is considered either a massive achievement or a massive mistake to stay with the first person you’ve loved.
Labeling a couple “high school sweethearts” can also imply the members of the couple haven’t changed since high school. Tim Sweeney of Philadelphia has been with his partner, Cristabel York, for seven years. They met at the beginning of high school but didn’t get together until York invited Sweeney to junior prom. Sweeney thinks the term “high school sweethearts” sounds like something out of a bad John Mellencamp song. “We’re totally not the same people we were in high school,” he says.
One couple I spoke to, who preferred to remain anonymous, have changed a lot since they were teens: She and her boyfriend are transsexual, and both have transitioned since they met in high school. “It’s a cute title,” she says of high school sweethearts, “but in the past I’ve seen some people put a lot of weight on it as well and stick in bad relationships because of it.”
I have a similar impulse to disown the label, to explain all the things I’ve done since I met my partner. I traveled and studied internationally for months at a time while each of us pursued our degrees, and we occasionally dated others. We both learned to be whole people, while together and while apart. Our respective personalities, always very different, have mellowed. We now complement, rather than oppose, each other. Our experiences have clarified who we are and what we want.
The term high school sweethearts implies a sweet, easy relationship leading to an early marriage, even though the average age of Americans’ first marriage is 27 for women and 29 for men. Sweeney says that, as soon as he graduated from college, “more and more people are asking when we’re going to get married.”
I’m only 25, and my relatives ask me when, and not if, my partner and I will marry. I’ve learned to avoid conversations about children. While these queries are well-intended, they feel wildly off the mark, primarily because we’ve enjoying our time together, making rent and cooking dinner but aren’t thinking much about the future. We’re both aware of how much we’ve changed in the 10 years since we met at 15. Why would the next 10 years be any different?
Being together since your teenage years can brand you with a kind of relationship FOMO. As in: Other people think you’re missing out. Especially now that one in five adults ages 25 to 34 have dated online, it’s as if not exploring your options is where the online-dating stigma of 20 years ago has gone.
Michelle Shaw Bettencourt of Salem, Mass., has been married for two years to Keith Bettencourt, whom she began dating her senior year of high school. She says that when people call her and her husband high school sweethearts, it’s said in a way “like there was some great adventure in being a single adult that we never took part of.”
“It sounds like those years were our highlight,” Bettencourt says, “when I feel we’ve only just begun to hit our prime and have so much to look forward to.”