Losing Our Confidence in Love

The Washington Post today printed a revealing excerpt from Laura Sessions Stepp’s forthcoming book, Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both. Her research suggests that though many young women are sexually active and empowered, they’ve given up on the idea of true love. Women are separating sex from intimacy for many reasons: fear of rejection, career ambitions that leave no time to work on a relationship, or a concept of feminism as incompatible with emotional vulnerability and dependence on a partner.

A national survey of 18-to-29-year-olds by the Pew Research Center reported that almost 60 percent were not in committed relationships and the majority of those were not interested in being committed. Young women even have phrases for couples, frequently spoken with a touch of derision: They’re “joined at the hip,” or “married.”

Absent old-fashioned dating, which has virtually disappeared, the alternative for these young women is hooking up, which can happen in any semi-private place and includes anything from kissing to intercourse. The beauty of hooking up is that it carries no commitment, and this is huge, for being emotionally dependent on a lover is what scares these young women the most.

To tell a man “I need you” is like saying “I’m incomplete without you.” A young man might say that and sound affectionate. But to an ambitious young woman, who has been taught to define power on her terms and defend it against all comers, need signals weakness.

Stepp contends that the decline of traditional dating will have unintended consequences for women’s ability to find and maintain lasting relationships.

“In traditional boyfriend-girlfriend relationships, you begin to understand how someone else thinks about things,” says Robert Blum, who chairs the Department of Population, Family and Reproductive Health at Johns Hopkins University. “You learn to compromise, and not to say the first thing on your mind. You learn how to say you’re sorry and accept other people’s apologies.”

These things are essential to being happily married and raising children, both of which young women say they want someday. They are best learned within a romantic relationship, in Blum’s view, because the young person is motivated by the romance to learn them.

Lloyd Kolbe, a health education professor at Indiana University-Bloomington, agrees. He still remembers his first love in high school, how he worked at being honest, decent and caring — in short, worthy of her.

“Hooking up is purposely uncaring,” he says. “If they turn off the emotional spigot when they’re young, what will happen to them as older adults?”

Women’s reluctance to invest in romantic partnerships, says Stepp, also has to do with a lack of role models, both in their own lives and in the media. They’re not being shown how intimacy builds and personal growth occurs during a long-term relationship, nor how successful couples learn to interact in a healthy way.

Some have lived through the divorce of their parents. Or they witness disputes between Mom and Dad yet are not privy to the negotiations their parents undertake to resolve these differences. Although Mom and Dad may say they love each other, young women report that they rarely see their parents hug, hold hands, act playfully or do other things that sustain love.

They have the same complaints about the way love is portrayed in the movies or on television. A college junior says, “We never see anything positive about Hollywood relationships. It’s beginning to seem normal to get married on flings and then get divorced and have random babies.” Evie Lalangas wonders, “Have you ever noticed how romantic comedies are all about falling in love or breaking up? I want to say, ‘Show me the rest of your life!’ “

What if, after hesitating, young women enter into a relationship? What does that look like? How do they make it last? Since they haven’t dated much, if at all, it’s difficult for them to know.

Order the book here.    

3 comments on “Losing Our Confidence in Love

  1. I’m not sure I entirely agree with this. I never dated that much. In fact, before I got together with my husband I had one date in ten years, and I’ve only been in one other long term relationship. I learned how to compromise, apologize, and have relationships with my close friends. My husband and I were friends for almost eight years before we started dating, so we already knew how to read each other, compromise, etc.

    I don’t agree with the hook up culture, but dating relationships are not the only relationships you learn relationship skills in.

  2. Jendi Reiter says:

    Good point. The impression I got from the article was that too many young women are either not making the time to learn relationship skills at all, or not seeing these as important in the context of their sex lives. My experience was similar to yours — I didn’t date anyone seriously till I met my husband, so I did most of that “work” with friends and family. Still, as we found, it’s a whole new level when you have to learn to live with someone and show him your true self on a daily basis. I’d imagine that the hookup habit makes that kind of soul-baring honesty and unselfishness more difficult, because one is used to shielding one’s emotions during physical intimacy.

  3. Xantara says:

    You’re a real deep thinker. Thanks for sahinrg.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.