Twenty-something women are so over Valentine’s Day … right? If we are to believe popular portrayals of twenty-somethings, they’re checking hookup apps rather than their mailboxes for Valentine cards. If so, my research suggests that the turn to casual sex, for young women at least, is not because they’re masters of their own destiny but because they face a new taboo. It’s not about sex or money or power. This taboo curtails the traditional province of women: relationships.
Take Hannah, the protagonist of HBO’s Girls and the current arbiter of all things twenty-something. She worried that loving a man, as opposed to having a friend with benefits, would compromise her art. When her casual sex partner expressed his interest in committing, she jumped ship. But like many of the women I interviewed, Hannah’s is not a free choice. Instead it’s one constrained by the mandate to invest in experience, but not in relationships.
To get at real desires and how they are constrained by societal taboos, the key is to get below the surface. In conducting multiple interviews with the same women, as I did in my book on sexual freedom and twenty-something women, I did not find wholehearted endorsement of casual sex over love. Instead I found intense ambivalence, mixed feelings, and sometimes shame for desiring (heterosexual) love. Time and again, I heard a sentiment, expressed by one of my interviewees: “Why do I, a young and highly educated woman in the twenty-first century, value relationships with men so highly?” This ambitious young woman expressed what many others whom I interviewed also conveyed: to value a relationship is to betray oneself, one’s education, and achievement.
Katie, a 25-year-old woman I spoke with as part of my research, confided shortly in our conversations that she worried that her single-minded pursuit of a graduate degree might limit her ability to meet a man with whom she could build a life. This realization—that she might want to prioritize a relationship over a career—felt shocking to Katie, and she did not admit to it easily. In fact, she felt deeply ashamed by such thoughts, worried that they signaled weakness and dependence, qualities she did not admire. To put such a high premium on relationships was frightening to Katie. She worried that it meant she wasn’t liberated and was still defined by traditional expectations of women.
I have heard Katie’s dilemma from countless young women. Many feel a taboo on being too relationship-oriented in their twenties. Parents warn, “Do you really want to settle down so early? We just don’t want to see you miss out on any opportunities.” Friends intone, “How will you know what you like and want if you don’t play the field? You’re only young once. Now’s the time to explore.”
With women delaying marriage—the average age at first marriage for college-educated women is now 27—there is now ample time for young women to focus on self- and career-development in their twenties. Laura Hamilton and Elizabeth Armstrong, sociologists at U.C. Merced and the University of Michigan, found in their research on relationship patterns among female college students that relational commitments were supposed to take a backseat to self-development among the upper middle class college students they interviewed. And that young women often found relationships to be “greedy,” demanding excessive amounts of time and energy that detracted from the main tasks of college – educational achievements and meeting people. Hamilton and Armstrong found that young women often sought protection from relationships that could “derail their ambition.”
Like Hamilton and Armstrong’s respondents, many young and aspiring women with whom I spoke felt as though it were counterproductive to their development to prioritize a relationship with a man. This is a new phenomenon that goes against the grain of centuries of female socialization. Historically, women have been encouraged to value relationships, often at the expense of their own aspirations. Today’s young women are part of a new generation of highly educated women who are, of course, still socialized differently than are men, but who feel they ought to focus on their career goals in their twenties, potentially at the expense of developing a relationship. All the women I interviewed felt this encouragement, and many expressed anxiety over their desire to prioritize a relationship.
Anxiety is difficult to tolerate, and rather than experience it, many of the young women I interviewed and work with in my psychotherapy practice split their desire for a relationship off from their professional and self-development desires. Confused about freedom and desire, young women often split their social and psychological options—independence, strength, safety, control, and career versus connection, vulnerability, need, desire, and relationships—into mutually exclusive possibilities in life. Relationships then often become new taboos for young women—something to be avoided and denigrated rather than embraced.
It’s no wonder that splitting is often young women’s preferred method to make sense of the dizzying array of freedoms before them. A group of people trying to be autonomous and successful at work, and to have love and sex lives in which they express their vulnerability, need, and desire, is groundbreaking and historically unprecedented. Splitting may serve to ease their anxiety temporarily, but only until the desire for a relationship becomes impossible to ignore.
Of course there are some young women who feel no such prohibition or taboo on valuing romantic relationships. And others who genuinely have no desire for a relationship. Furthermore, relationships can indeed be greedy and time consuming, particularly for young women who don’t have a strong sense of self. But the solution is not to split off the desire for a relationship.
There are good reasons to feel frightened of relationships. We make ourselves vulnerable when we want something uncertain and over which we don’t have total control—a relationship. This is a seldom mentioned fact in all of our discussion about desire and empowerment—it’s vulnerable to want. Relationships are inherently risky, but that does not mean we ought to avoid them.
I would certainly never advocate that women return to the stereotype of pining for romance on Valentine’s Day. But I do advocate that young women who are taking risks in so many other important areas of life also pursue experiences that may, on their face, seem to be at odds with independence and progress. The successful woman who is in a relationship is not the same as the pining woman. She’s the one who is acknowledging the full range of her desires.