When Lovers Overlap

by Maddie Brown and Maggie Shields | 4/16/15 6:09pm

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Sociology professor Katheryn Lively discussed the distinction between polyamory and shared hookups.

Thou shalt not commit tripcest. Thou shalt not commit floorcest. Thou shalt not commit Writing 5-cest.

The College, as many of us discover shortly into our time here, is a small school. It can often be nearly impossible to avoid seeing someone for too long, and while there’s no small number of diverse social circles, there’s bound to be some overlap. With everyone seeming to know almost everyone else, this list of prohibitions can go on and on: Thou shalt not commit teamcest. Thou shalt not hook up with your friend’s ex. Thou shalt not canoodle with your TA...

But why the taboos? Are they really about protecting ourselves from awkward situations or are they there to protect our community’s delicate group dynamics?

Despite the warnings we receive from trip leaders, friends and upperclassmen having a love interest or intimate encounter with someone in the same social circle is nearly inevitable.

Scientists agree. Tierra Lynch ’16 — pre-med, EMT and biology expert — described how biological instincts can lead to sharing hookups within groups.

“People are more inclined to date and hookup in their friend groups and social circles because that’s where they spend the majority of time, and they are surrounded by people with similar interests,” she said. “You are attracted to people who are similar to you, who you connect with.”

Lynch’s theory seems logical, as the people who we spend the most time with are likely the ones we’re also squeezing into a twin bed with. With such a small pool of people to choose from, though, some students also mentioned the situations in which they’ve shared their bed with the same person as their friends.

“Oh god. Everyone of my friends and I are eskimo sisters,” Penelope Williams ’16 said. “It just seems kind of inevitable to me.”

Situations in which we’re sharing our romantic lives with our closest friends can easily introduce some hostility, jealousy or simple awkwardness into the relationship. The dynamics, Alex Marsh ’17 said, depend on the situation.

“I think it can either be positive or negative,” he said. “It can either build or destroy relationships — it’s a small school and we see a lot of the same people everyday.”

Because students often interact with the same people, the sense of anonymity in hookups can be lost.

Zachary Schnell ’18 explained how students often know some of the more intimate details of others’ lives, including who they may have been involved with in the past. He said that a friend of his was once considering whether or not to go out with a man whom she didn’t know well, but she was dissuaded by other friends who didn’t approve of him.

“It’s just such a small community and you see so many people everywhere and you overlap with everyone in some context,” he said.

For LGBTQ students, the College’s dating pool can be particularly limited. With a fewer number of potential partners, it can become much easier for these interwoven connection to arise and be publicly known.

Akash Kar ’16 said that he feels this phenomenon has hurt that campus community.

“I think one of the difficulties is that it becomes so toxic because it is such a small community,” he said. “I think it starts to create a bit of distrust, and I think when that becomes so commonplace you kind of lose aspects of the community. That’s one of the difficulties of it.”

Natalie Mueller ’18 agrees that the College’s limited size makes it more difficult to avoid your past.

“At Dartmouth, if you have a one night stand or something like that, you are definitely going to see them at some point, whereas at others schools you are not very likely to,” she said.

Sociology professor Kathryn Lively distinguished hooking up that crosses group lines from polyamory. For Lively, polyamory implies that people have multiple “relationships” at once — which implies an emotional bond that she does not see in casual flings here.

“I’m not sure if [polyamory] is what’s happening here because its almost like you’re having sex with people but not the relationship that goes along with it,” she said.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Abigail Rohman ’16 says that she feels closer to her friends when they compare notes on a hook-up they shared.

“It’s kind of like a story we can share,” she said.

Williams agreed that friends are often lighthearted about sharing this aspect of their love lives. While we interviewed her, she and her friend discovered they had hooked up with the same guy and high fived each other.

“If it’s not something that’s serious — if it’s not a long-running relationship — then it’s definitely a high-five sort of culture,” she said.

She noted that the reaction might seem “shallow,” but that one wouldn’t expect anything different — after all, there isn’t much emotional investment.

When social webs become tangled, though, individuals, friends and entire groups can face the repercussions.

Williams explained how a love triangle within one of her social circles made her feel awkward — even though she was neither the base nor the hypotenuse of the triangle.

“It’s weird for me because I don’t feel like I have a greater loyalty to one or the other because I’m friends with them both,” she said. “Because emotions are involved in this case, it’s definitely a little bit awkward for me because I feel like I can’t be talking to one or the other if the other friend is present.”

On sports teams, where success rides on strong team dynamics, shared hookups can create awkward situations.

This shared awkwardness, however, can also strengthen the team dynamics. Clare Detrick-Yee ’16, who plays women’s field hockey, explained how this can become a fun thing for the team to joke about.

“It doesn’t make practice awkward, but there are awkward locker room conversations after,” she said. “But in the end it becomes a team joke.”

Lively explained that sharing a hookup may help friends bond, but overlap in lovers does not necessarily strengthen the entire community.

“At the same time, you’re creating an us-against-them scenario,” she said.

By contrast, polyamory — and its emphasis on communication — “actually really bring[s] communities together,” she said. Polyamory, she noted, requires a certain honesty and thoughtfulness.

In fact she thinks the College’s version of shared dating can be harmful. Women, she said, can be met with different “social consequences” for hooking up than men, which can damage community ties.

Of course, there’s a little more to student life than sports teams and clubs — namely, there’s the classroom. When students share amorous connections, the classroom dynamic can shift — people might feel more comfortable sharing, but sultry scandals can also render students more self-conscious or likely to sit in the last seat of the last row for quick escape.

Rohman ’16 agreed that hooking up with a student in her class created an awkward situation.

“It certainly wasn’t beneficial,” she said.

We know that it is not uncommon for students within the same social circles to be entangled in love triangles, squares, hexagons and webs. A sweltering tryst might bring group bonding or awkwardness alike — and while we should expect shared hookups to remain fixtures of the campus landscape, we can also hope that conscientious hookups might reduce the cumbersome interactions that follow.