Bye, Bye Love

Breakups are hard enough. But when the relationship was born in Middlebury, the uncoupling can be that much more difficult.

When my boyfriend of eight years broke up with me, four years after our Middlebury graduation, I went to Disney World.

It was an odd destination: I was 27, childless, generally wary of crowds. But I needed a fantasy, so I dragged along a close friend, Emily Lackey ’06, who was reeling from her own romantic upset. We sobbed as we rode the Carousel of Progress over and over again, watching the animatronic nuclear family jet into their great, big, beautiful tomorrow. When I came home, my ex had moved all of his belongings out of the apartment.

I remembered only later that my father had once referred to Middlebury as the Disney World of colleges. It was, for those of us lucky enough to fully buy in, something of a dream: a hyperreal and cloistered place, with rules and a language known only to its intimates. And much like the dream of Prince Charming, I believed I had found my epic romance. We had our first date at Taste of India; shared our first kiss at a social house party; had our first blowout argument in the basement of Davis Family Library. I imagined that on our wedding day, we’d trade Cinderella’s Castle for the more modest, but more meaningful, backdrop of Mead Chapel.

Instead, he took up with his best friend’s girlfriend, and I haven’t spoken to him in almost five years.

I wandered, dazed, around the first campus wedding I attended post-breakup, thinking, This was supposed to be mine. This was all supposed to be mine. I would flip to the Class Acts section of the magazine and feel what I can most closely identify as rage. Breakups are, at the best of times, an amicable division of assets, friends, memories. At worst, they are a wrenching apart of some fundamental truth you believed about yourself and the world at large: this is who I am, and this is how I locate myself, and this is the story I tell about my life. Every romance has an element of mythmaking, but Middlebury romances seem particularly susceptible. I was a Midd Kid; I would marry another Midd Kid; together we would raise our children as Midd Kids. It was an identity forged in those moments of young adulthood in which so much is both laid bare and made clear, and it seemed as real, as immovable, as portended, as anything else I knew to be true about myself. Saying good-bye to that identity was almost as difficult—and in moments, more so—as saying good-bye to him.

***

Like so many others at Middlebury, I first heard the statistic on my college tour: “You know, something like 60 percent of Middlebury students marry other Middlebury students!” said my tour guide, chipper and promising, guileless. Recent examinations of Middlebury love stories have focused on the proliferation of “hookup culture”—in her summer 2015 story “Modern Love,” Leah Fessler ’15 painted a heady, promiscuous world in which roughly 81 percent of students participated in “noncommittal sexual engagements”—but that Middlebury feels radically different than mine (kids these days!), and bears no relationship to Middlebury’s “marriage” mythology.

Even the New York Times weighed in on the myth, in a 1992 piece entitled “Marriage Talk as an Intramural Sport.” “More Middlebury alumni marry each other than do graduates of any other college, former students recall being told by at least two college presidents at freshman orientation,” they wrote. “Some graduates remember hearing a different, more dramatic version: ‘Look to your left, look to your right: Two out of three of you will marry a Middlebury graduate.’”

Let’s correct this notion right away: According to Kim Ehritt, Middlebury’s director of constituent records, the real figure is closer to 16 percent. “That marriage stat is one I’ve tried to debunk so many times over the past 30-plus years,” she writes, claiming she gets asked about the myth every few years by press or an overzealous econ student. “Looking at individual classes, the highest percentage falls in the 25–28 percent range. There’s a jump in the post-WWII/Korean War classes, when many of the men on campus were older veterans. There’s another spike in the classes of the late 1960s (I think in part due to second marriages).”

It’s a salve to my wound: in failing to secure a Middlebury spouse, at least I’m still in the majority. But why does the myth refuse to die?

For starters, Middlebury couples are absurdly strong ambassadors for their kind. A quick glance at the most recent issues of Middlebury Magazine reveals nearly half of the couples captured in the wedding roundup consist of two Midd alums. And the Midd couples I know—and I know many—have built stable, warm unions, and are almost innocent in their views on relationships and romance, having never passed a night at the bar wearily swiping left, left, left.

One half of one such couple, Julia Proctor ’06.5, also remembers hearing the Midd marriage stat during her campus tour. Still, she says, she was under no illusions that she’d meet her husband at college. When Phil Aroneanu ’06.5 asked her to dance at their Feb orientation (“He wasn’t very good”), she didn’t imagine that 10 years later they’d wed on top of a mountain in Maine, surrounded by a host of Midd classmates and friends.

They moved to Burlington after college before relocating to Washington, D.C., and finally New York City, always surrounded by a strong Middlebury contingent. As Phil was one of the founders of 350.org (two of the other founders were a Middlebury couple, since separated), their relationship was, in many ways, an extension of college; as such, Middlebury has played and continues to play a large role in their lives. They can easily rattle off a dozen other Middlebury couples they’d still consider good friends. They’ve held these connections tightly and are now part of a network whose bonds and connections have only deepened since college.

“We love Vermont and think about moving back all the time,” says Phil.

“And our friend groups,” Julia adds, “are still largely Midd Kids.”

“And our professors,” says Phil. “We’re still connected to them.”

“If I compare my summer camp experience with Middlebury, which were both such formative experiences,” says Julia, “I have camp as my own thing, which Phil doesn’t really understand, and I can see how different that is to our connection to Middlebury.”

***

Of my Middlebury friends who are married, the majority are married to other Middlebury students: if it’s not something in the water that created and cemented these relationships, maybe it’s an issue of timing. These couples knew and loved each other in college; the rest of us are still catching up. One of the starkest reminders of this in my post-breakup life was simply that it was very, very difficult to find someone who shared even a modicum of my interests, curiosities, or passions. In the years after my breakup, I floated—hopeful, alert— through many alumni events. I was willing to toss most of my dating criteria out the window. “Let him just be from Middlebury,” I’d think.

In its geographic isolation, too, Middlebury enforces a sense of solidarity that makes it hard to imagine life without the long lunches in Proctor lounge, the icy trek to Bi Hall in the frigid cold. To fully invest in that world is to forget that anything exists outside of it. It becomes, then, all too easy to roll the carpet of that fantasy further into the future, to the wedding at Mead, the homecomings, the babies in Panther onesies.

For the children of Middlebury couples, that reality is even more potent. In fact, Ehritt speculates that one of the reasons the myth persists is that as older alumni (who heard the statistic from former President Olin Robison, the apparent original mythmaker) graduate, marry, and have children, they pass the romance of their origin story on to their kids. Sarah Little Turner ’06 is the daughter of two Middlebury alumni, Greg ’76 and Ann Downey Little ’77. She entered college under the specter of her parents’ relationship.

“It’s not that there was pressure, but I think, in my 18-year-old brain, there was an expectation or a hope it would happen,” she says. “Before arriving at Midd, it was like, There are all these incredible men who are the perfect match for me, and how will I ever pick one?” That particular fantasy, she said, was crushed not long after she arrived. “But, you know, this is still reality.”

Mine is not, of course, the only Middlebury relationship that ended. Rachel Dunlap ’06 met Lucas Kavner ’06.5 their first shared semester. They became close, and started dating senior year. After graduation, they moved to New York City and took the relationship—and college—with them.

When they did break up, the loss of the relationship was deepened by the perceived loss of Middlebury. “On top of dealing with the regular loss of a breakup, you’re mourning the loss of having that shared experience, all those common friends, and you lose that Middlebury story of having met your partner at Middlebury, becoming a Middlebury family,” Rachel says.

Like me, she subsequently struggled with dating. “When you leave the Midd bubble, you realize how special everyone there is. It’s hard to find that in the real world.” Thankfully, she’s now in a new relationship, and still close to her ex. “I appreciate our friendship even more because it connects me back to all those memories.”  

By sheer numbers, more Middlebury students will break up than marry. Yet somehow, it still feels jarring. Says Phil Aroneanu, “We know a Middlebury couple that got divorced. They were together for all of college, then got married in Vermont, and they were such the epitome of a Middlebury couple.”

“That shattered me,” echoes Julia. “I think we expect those relationships to last—maybe that’s part of the mystique. You see Middlebury couples as these healthy relationships between two strong individuals who know what they want.”

And that, of course, is part of the problem. The Middlebury myth allows us to craft a narrative around the perfect love story. It’s a narrative that—at least in my case—gives us license to mask other issues. As Rachel says: “I think it’s possible that our Middlebury community and closeness might have kept me and Lucas together longer than we would have been otherwise.” It’s comforting, in other words, to stay in the bubble, to resist, if only for a little longer, joining the real world.

Which is not to say that all Middlebury couples inhabit that idyll. Middlebury’s problematic lack of diversity can make romance (among many other facets) difficult. Emiko and Mateal Lovaas Ishihara, both Class of 2006.5, met in passing their first semester; by a stroke of luck, they ended up the only two people in a six-person suite in Ross. “We’ve basically lived together since we were 19,” says Emiko. They became close friends, but didn’t start dating until after college. Neither felt entirely at home at Midd.

“My personal experience was more negative than most,” Emiko says. “I was soul searching. Middlebury can be such an awesome experience, but it wasn’t that for me.” For her part, Mateal cherished the quintessential experiences—cheering on the quidditch team, lunching at the language tables—but ultimately found herself constrained and frustrated. While they’re grateful for the shared memories of their formative years, it was only after they graduated and married that they really came to treasure Middlebury.

“Middlebury had and still has such a small LGBTQ community, and that’s why I think our relationship was meant to be,” says Emiko. They took their infant daughter, Rumi, back to Middlebury this summer. “We took photos in front of Old Chapel,” says Emiko. “It was kind of a pilgrimage, to go back. It was a closed circle, in a way, because that’s how we met. We kept saying to her, ‘This is where you were made!’”

***

It was through all these conversations that I realized something about what I was really mourning: what I yearned for most was being able to think about Middlebury with unbridled joy. Much as other parting couples suffer the loss of a favorite restaurant, or hear a beloved song turn wrong, I had lost access to Middlebury as sanctuary. I can see now how much of my relationship functioned as a way to prop up that identity, to give me grounding when I lost it: to remind me that I came from a place that was meaningful. That I had a home.

And so for all of that, there is a part of me that wants the myth to continue. College is a time to believe in big things: big dreams, big goals, big change. The myth wanted us to believe in love, and so we did; after all, it was easy to believe at Middlebury, where the aurora borealis once licked the wide sky an eerie green and gold the winter of my sophomore year. Anything was possible, we were told, and so I believed it was possible I’d met my soul mate over warm beer in a dorm room on the third floor of Stewart Hall my second week of college. I think—I know—that I stayed with him longer than I might have if I couldn’t remember the way he looked striding across the lawn in front of Twilight to meet me after class.

In my new partnership—one in which I feel more deeply understood, supported, and cared for than ever before—we are starting from scratch. We have 30-plus years of experiences to unfold for each other. I am ever trying and failing to describe to him the deep, sensory memory of walking back to my dorm from rehearsal late at night across Battell Beach, the profound quiet draping campus, the sharp bite of my boots on snow.

It’s difficult, and exciting, and endless, and someday I will take him to the place I love so much, and try to help him see it through my eyes.

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  1. Loved this story! I did not marry a fellow Midd alum, but completely understand the power of shared experiences that bind us together – particularly at such a deeply formative time of our lives. One thing you experienced hit home for me: “…the deep, sensory memory of walking back to my dorm from rehearsal late at night across Battell Beach, the profound quiet draping campus, the sharp bite of my boots on snow.” To this day I find myself haunted, and yet comforted, by that same memory…of the blanketing stillness and a deep sense of peace I’ve never quite recaptured.

  2. How true Meghan Nesmith’s descriptions of a Midd experience rang–and with over 30 years between our campus residences!

    I didn’t consider myself particularly sociable, but cherish those Midd. Alumni get togethers in Paris and Seattle, often playing hookey by ducking out of business dinners or flying over from London to make them happen.

    And I married my wife Suzanne ’82 some years after graduating and meeting her at a summer party at Weybridge House, organized by my brother Charles ’79. We hope our son James, now 14, will keep up the good work so that he may have a bite of the Midd. Apple!

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