Every Sunday, The New York Times runs a column called “Modern Love” featuring readers’ stories about their romantic lives. As a sex therapist, I feel obliged to look at these every week. But I find them hard to read. There are so few happy ones.
Most of the people whose stories appear in Modern Love seem somewhat adrift. They’re all looking for love, and occasionally they find it. But they’re rarely able to hold on to it.
Is it simply in the nature of love to be so fleeting? I don’t think so. Instead, most of these stories of lost love seem to reflect the fragmentation of modern life. We have many more choices than our parents and grandparents had, but this hasn’t made it any more likely that couples will find fulfillment together. In many ways, it’s made it less likely.
Several months ago, I read a Modern Love piece that I found particularly upsetting—“After a First Time, Many Second Thoughts,” by Arla Knudsen. It was the story of how the author, a junior in college, had lost her virginity.
She’d been raised in a religious community where young people were expected not to have sex until they were married. Then mid-way through her teenage years, she realized she no longer believed in her religion. In place of her old religious ideals, she set herself a new ideal: to be a modern woman, “powerful, independent and sexually liberated.” She writes, “I thought that once I was no longer a virgin, I would finally be free. I wanted to claim a new sense of identity.”
She didn’t intend to fall in love. She wasn’t looking for a relationship. She just didn’t want to be a virgin anymore. She found a young man and told him she wanted him to be her first. After they had sex, she felt a sense of freedom and empowerment.
In the video that accompanies the Times piece she recalls feeling, “I’d done what I wanted to do. And now I could do anything.”
She’d asked him to promise that as her first sex partner he’d stay a part of her life, and he’d agreed. But when she tried to contact him, it was clear he wasn’t interested in seeing her again.
She was surprised at how rejected she felt. She thought if she planned everything well enough, she'd be able to stay more emotionally in control.
Reading the article, I felt angry over the things that young people are told these days. When it comes to relationships, the prevailing culture says, “You make it happen. You can do anything. You're the one in control." All highly questionable ideas.
The truth is that very few of us are self-made. Relationships are fruit on the tree of community. But we moderns are told this big lie that we can have all the fruit we want without tending to the tree.
Yes, communities can be stifling. But they also serve to guide and protect. Unfortunately, when someone is lost to their community of origin, there is often nothing to replace it.
At the end of her account, the young woman who lost her virginity decides to make the most of her alienation. She states she’s learned that she can’t control other people’s emotions, or her own. “There’s a strange freedom in that knowledge,” she writes.
To me, this “freedom” seems like a shabby consolation. If I were her, I’d have been angry at having been fed all this stuff about having to be so powerful and independent.
This week’s piece, "A Romance That's Extra Zesty" by Yale junior Sophie Dillon, is one of the few Modern Love articles with a traditional happy ending. It’s the story of how Dillon and her partner Kam make their way haltingly over time from being hook-up companions to being a committed romantic couple. Slowly and with great uncertainty, they each decide to give up a little of their freedom and independence for something more satisfying.
A few decades ago, two college students who liked each other and had good sex might have become a couple rather quickly. But now there are many other options. There's “friends with benefits,” “hookup buddies,” “cuddle buddies,” “exclusively hooking up,” “dating,” and finally (gasp!) “in a relationship.”
Reading the Times piece this weekend, as Dillon and Kam try endlessly to define what kind of arrangement they feel most comfortable with, I found myself wanting to smack them both over the head and say, “Just be a couple! It’s not that hard!” I was relieved to find at the end that eventually the two of them came to the same conclusion.
It was refreshing to see a Modern Love couple actually make it to the end of the piece without breaking up. Yes, I know it’s still early in the game for these two. They haven’t been together very long. But still it gave me hope for couplehood in their generation.
I was also impressed that the author correctly identified what made love relationships on campus so elusive. The problem, she writes, is choice. Give a couple lots of options to choose from between being single and being in a couple, and those choices will most likely just confuse them.
There’s a downside to choice—just as there’s a downside to freedom. For thousands of years, we lived in small communities that tended to promote couplehood. For most New York Times readers, such communities no longer exist. Now we’re free to come and go as we please, with no one watching over us. But without the support that communities used to provide, couples sometimes lack guidance and inspiration.
Couplehood in a traditional community wasn’t perfect. For some people, it could be stifling and oppressive. But it didn’t overwhelm people with too many choices. And it did provide a modicum of structure and support for young people trying to find their way together.
Let’s stop giving young people the message that they have to be so powerful and independent. It’s a false idea, and in many ways an unhealthy one.
Most of us are built for couplehood, just as most of us are built for community. Just because couplehood and community are harder to find these days, that doesn’t mean we need these things any less.
© Stephen Snyder MD New York, NY 2015