"I know that I’m a touchy-feely person who sometimes needs words of affirmation"Illustration by Jess Beaumont for Varsity

The biggest shock of acclimatising to Cambridge life is the sheer amount of time that work can take up, if you let it. Even balancing a part-time job with my A Levels wasn’t as intense as managing my workload here has sometimes been. It stands to reason, then, that having less time equates to having a lower capacity for time-wasting – although I maintain that Netflix binges and naps aren’t a waste of time. This translates into personal relationships, where limited time and energy correlates to minimal desire to deal with drama and nonsense. As I reflect on my time at Cambridge, I realise that one of the main ways in which I’ve changed is realising the importance of saying what you mean and asking for what you need, particularly in relationships.

The biggest turn-off ever is asking someone what they like, only for them to say ‘oh, you know, um…’

Honesty and direct communication are particularly important given that we all convey our feelings in different ways. The concept of ‘love languages’ might sound like something invented by a multiple divorcé to explain why their marriages keep failing, but I think there’s some truth in the notion that we express affection and love in different ways. So, if you communicate affection through acts of service like cooking or doing the washing up, but your partner’s love language is physical touch, of course you might hit a dead end and be confused when they don’t meet your expectations of what it means to show affection.

I know that I’m a touchy-feely person who sometimes needs words of affirmation, and it used to really stress me out when even casual partners didn’t want to cuddle during the night – very minor, I admit. Newnham has really spoiled me this year with a double bed – all it takes is a short ‘hey, I really need some quality sleep tonight because I’m getting up at 6am for rowing, do you mind staying on your side?’ to mitigate my touch-talking mind’s understanding of non-clingy sleeping situations. I would also argue that food has been entirely overlooked as a distinct category of love language. Pasta, risotto, breakfast fry-ups, even a really nice cup of tea: as love languages go, food says volumes if you both understand what it means. Finding out through verbal conversations how partners ‘speak’ and learning how to navigate my own internal language has been really useful to avoid miscommunication.

The topic that gets me spinning like a broken record is the importance of communication to sex. The biggest turn-off ever is asking someone what they like, only for them to say ‘oh, you know, um…’ with no specific follow-up. Admittedly, it can be hard to have those conversations, and some partners are more open to having them than others. In many ways, we’re more prudish than we might perhaps admit. But nonetheless, no one has time for bad sex, and it will always be better if you have some direction. If that means cutting out comfortable euphemisms – do it. If that means asking for something that you feel shy about – go for it. God forbid, it might even be sexy.

Every person that we meet in this place teaches us something and shades our perspective in a new way

I can’t tell what came first, my affinity for English or my tendency to overthink and overanalyse words and actions, but I’ve learned that – surprise, surprise – the best way to avoid treating conversations like live-action Practical Criticism exercises was to come straight out with what I felt, or thought, or wanted to know. When I worked on the telephone campaign at Newnham, I was told that, in business, you should never ask a question that you don’t want to know the answer to. For relationships, I think the best attitude is to especially ask the questions that you don’t really want to be answered. I once drunkenly asked someone where she saw our relationship going; her silence at the time was all the answer I needed to warn me about the break-up that came a few days later. It stung, but I was grateful for the honesty, which ultimately made being dumped less painful. On another occasion, I had the same question asked of me, and really valued the bravery of a prompt to address something unavoidable where the outcome was unpredictable. Having an answer is better than lingering in uncertainty, even if it’s not necessarily what you want to hear.


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If saying what you mean and asking for what you need matters during relationships, it’s also important afterwards. Navigating the choppy waters of a breakup can feel like attempting an Atlantic crossing in a dinghy: it’s difficult enough already without wondering whether someone is being straightforward, and it’s still important to communicate boundaries and intentions when you’re no longer romantically involved with someone. That might be telling them straight up that you need time away from the situation, or it might mean speaking honestly about exactly how you’d like to remain present in their life – if at all. In my experience, a complete silence in communication is extremely helpful; after a few weeks, I like to meet my exes for coffee in neutral spaces like the UL tea-room or a café that we didn’t previously frequent, so that our most recent memories of each other don’t include tears or tension. These are things that I need for closure, and I think that the ethos of honesty and self-awareness works beyond romantic relationships, through breakups, and translates into other platonic and familial connections you might have.

The most rewarding part of being a finalist is being able to look back at who you were when you first donned a gown to matriculate and comparing that to the being with deep eyebags that you’ve become. Every person that we meet in this place teaches us something and shades our perspective in a new way, regardless of the capacity in which we spend time with them. For me, the lesson that slowly emerged over dating in Cambridge is one of the most valuable for its ability to translate across every aspect of my life. Being brave enough to speak the truth and bold enough to ask for what you need is the best evidence of the wisdom and maturity that you’re supposed to gain by osmosis alongside your university education.

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