A woman of the 21st century smashes and dashes. This is the calling of modern femininity, or so it has always seemed to me as I snuck re-runs of “Sex and the City” past my parents’ watchful supervision. In my fantasies of adulthood, I’ve always been the Carrie Bradshaw of my own cosmopolitan narration, and because I was the type to attend summer camps and conferences meant to “empower young women,” I internalized the aesthetics of high-powered boomer ladies glibly advising a banquet hall of teenage girls to plan out their marriages on an Excel spreadsheet. “Everyone will tell you to prioritize your career, but no one reminds you to get married and have kids,” I remember the senior partner of a D.C. law firm saying. “Turns out you can’t have it all.”
Every ideal of romantic success growing up told us that love is either a checkbox on a 10-year plan or unachievable like the elusive Mr. Big. We grew up in the shadow of millennial pink romance, Lean In feminism glamorized to mean that the cool girl doesn’t have time to stay the night. She will pick her socks up off the floor of a gentleman suitor’s room, fasten the buttons on her Urban Outfitters denims and brave the bitter winds of New Haven’s winter all the way back to her own suite. What a girl really wants in 2020 is to make it in time for her 9 a.m. lecture with a fresh coat of mascara and a large cup of Blue State Coffee.
When I got to college I began swiping on dating apps, showed up too drunk to entryways and Chapel West apartments, cutting my losses on earrings and ruffle socks left behind in corners and on bedside tables. The first boy who asked me (offered, insisted, even!) to stay the night — I drunkenly laughed in his face and started getting dressed. The easiest way to avoid falling in love is to leave before the regret settles, to create an illusion of control under the guise of non-committal one-night stands. This weekend, as some of you will be celebrating your n-th year Valentine’s Day with a college sweetheart, I’m sitting down to ask the rest of us, “Are you ready to settle down?”
The Millennial Marriage Problem
According to Pew Research data, marriage in American society has been steadily declining since 1960. Young couples are waiting longer than ever before to say “I do.” Millennials are 10 to 20 percent less likely to have wed in their 20s than their parents, and the median age at first marriage is now the highest in modern history: 29 for men and 27 for women.
Despite being the most educated generation of young adults ever, seven out of 10 millennials believe they face harsher economic challenges than previous generations, and the avocado-toast-loving snowflakes may be right. They carry higher levels of student loan debt, poverty and unemployment into adulthood than the generations before them. Although 69 percent of millennials say that they want to get married, getting hitched in 2020 isn’t cheap. Economic barriers to marriage rear their ugly heads in the marital discrepancy between classes. Wealthy millennials are getting married at a higher rate than their poorer counterparts, when in the past, adults of all socioeconomic groups married at roughly equal rates.
While generational cutoffs aren’t an exact science, the oldest college students today are either or both the youngest millennials and oldest Gen Z. I’m sorry to break it to those of you proudly sporting your thrifted ’90s windbreakers, but most of us at Yale College just missed the cutoff. Straddling this cultural boundary can be a difficult demographic position, but embracing the uncertainty of generational forerunning can be as liberating as it may seem confusing. Millennials are delaying marriage. Will we, Gen Z, follow in their footsteps?
Searching for Love at the Bottom of my Tinder Deck
When Tinder launched in 2012, the test sites of swipe-based mobile dating were college campuses. Today, 57 million people use the app around the world, and 4.1 million pay for premium services, reported Match Group, Tinder’s parent company. In the United States, 35 percent of those users are college students ages 18 to 24.
“I’ve heard a joke on campus that goes something like this: ‘First base is hooking up, second base is talking, third base is going on a date and fourth base is dating.’ Granted, this may be a product of college hook-up culture — especially that of Yale’s — but I still believe it reflects on our generation’s attitude on relationships,” said Patrick Yang ’23.
Despite being more connected than ever before with a booty call at the tap of a finger, young people are lonely. A 2014 study about loneliness in the journal “Computers in Human Behavior” shows that “excessive and unhealthy internet use” actually increases loneliness over time. That mindless feeling of swiping through Tinder at 2 a.m. on a Tuesday morning? Connected to screen time. The psychology of marketing may call this decision fatigue when an abundance of choices enables irrational purchases.
A list of first messages I have received on Tinder: “Sick fidget spinner … I left mine on the roof of Bingham :(”; “So I’ll trade you the story of how my former roommate in Silliman once ate human flesh for contemporary Yale stories over a meal sometimes if you’re game”; “I have no fucking clue about the etymology of Lolita but Nabokov’s Pale Fire can get it so let’s talk”; “You strike me as the kind of girl with nipple piercings x”.
“Our generation experiences dating and relationships differently because we are the first to grow up on social media from a very young age,” said Anthony Orr BK ’21. “We have a wider potential choice of partners compared to previous generations.”
Ironically, the rampant popularity of tools intended to help us find our OTP (one true pairing; get with it, boomer) is correlated with a general decline in dating and sexual activity. Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University and the author of iGen, a study of the first generation to come of age in the era of smartphones (us), reported that today’s teenagers don’t date like their parents used to. Only 56 percent of high school seniors in 2015 had been on dates, compared to 85 percent of boomers and Gen X. If you’ve ever wondered whether your parents still get it on, they do and at a much higher rate than you do. The Washington Post reported that nearly 1 in 4 young adults spent 2018 in celibacy, whereas only nine to 13 percent of our parents reported a year of no sex.
All this research got me thinking: the celibate quarter percentile may be onto something. What am I really looking for at the bottom of my Tinder deck? I pinned a New Year’s resolution to my pastel mood board: “Stop Hooking Up with Strangers.” I know that’s not the risqué spill-all you want to hear over Valentine’s Day weekend, but as Carrie Bradshaw would say, “Maybe you have to let go of who you were to become who you will be.”
“Attraction and Relationships”: Looking for Love in Lecture
This year, 400 students showed up to the first day of PSYC 126: “Attraction and Relationships,” 300 more than Dr. Jennifer Hirsch, lecturer in psychology, had been ready to accept. The syllabus explains that the class focuses on the theory and research of attraction, “including all of the intimacy, interdependency, relationship maintenance and stresses and strains” that come with intimate relationships. If you were lucky enough to make it into the capped lecture, you will know that PSYC 126 is anything but a self-help course. Dr. Hirsch introduces students to the rigorous science of romance through the research and methodology of social and personality psychology.
“I decided to take the class because of its science-based approach on relationships,” Yang said. “I feel like relationships today are harder to navigate and understand than ever, not at all helped by those Buzzfeed or Cosmopolitan articles telling me to ‘TRY THESE 10 THINGS TO FIND YOUR SOULMATE.’ I felt this class would provide me with a better understanding of relationships from a more concrete point of view.”
But how detached can we really be from the science of attraction? For Dr. Julia Titus, senior lector of Russian Slavic languages and literature, the high interest in enrollment seems to indicate larger social trends. She finds her students’ digital courtship rituals incomprehensible — if you like someone, why not just ask them out? She is auditing “Attraction and Relationships” to gain a better understanding of American cultural norms surrounding love and relationships.
“The fact that [Hirsch] had four times as many shoppers than she expected shows that there must be a great need for this kind of class,” Dr. Titus said. “People are not happy. They don’t want to date online. They want to understand how to do it in person.”
Dr. Titus, of course, is not the traditional student of undergraduate psychology classes. Most PSYC 126 students are trying to overcome the afternoon drowse of a 1 p.m. lecture, sneaking glances at the cute girl across Sudler Hall, hoping to match with her on Tinder so that they can safely score another midnight hookup come next Wednesday at Toad’s. It’s not difficult to imagine why so many students might be interested in a syllabus about the “normal, healthy functioning of relationships.” When the vodka wears off and the sun starts creeping in through the Y-shaped cracks of your bedroom window, you realize you’ve been kept awake by the roof-raising snore of some girl who sometimes sits in front of you during PSYC 126, who you now have to spend the next two years of Yale avoiding around campus.
In her introductory Russian language classes, Dr. Titus teaches through an educational video series titled “Live from Russia!” The series follows an American named Kevin on his adventures in Moscow, including an encounter with a beautiful Russian woman named Tanya. Yale’s Russian language students are shocked when Tanya’s boyfriend Mikhail showers her with gifts.
“In the videos, Mikhail shows just a little token of attention, and my American students are baffled by that. It’s not a cultural norm here. They say gift-giving creates an obligation,” Dr. Titus said.
What rubs us the wrong way about asking the cute boy from class out for coffee, or our partners buying us the occasional trinket as a sign of affection? What are we hoping to gain from a class like “Attraction and Relationships?”
“We have grown up in a world of efficiency and optimization, so people seek quick rewards with minimal effort in relationships,” said T Scarborough DC ’23, a student enrolled in PSYC 126. “People seek rapid and intense gratification (such as sexual contact) rather than savoring something long term (that would possibly yield a stable marriage).”
I find myself constantly wondering whether my gestures of love, big and small, will be accepted for what they are. I turn to sex as a transient experience to manufacture a connection until it no longer feels like shared intimacy. In our culture of radical individualism, every Tinder profile becomes a photoshopped consumer product, every match a transaction of validation, and each drunken hookup a way to cope, to forget, to remind ourselves what it feels like to be held under conditions we are desperate to control.
“I can’t say for sure why young people are delaying marriage or how Gen Z students are different in their approach to relationships compared to prior generations, but just like any relationship, there are at least two people involved,” wrote Dr. Hirsch, the instructor of PSYC 127, in an email to the News. “That means multiple people’s goals, expectations, assumptions, insecurities, desires and so on. We could try and answer ‘why are young people delaying marriage/settling down,’ but a different equally valid framing of the question is, ‘what is it that young people are prioritizing over marriage/settling down?’ It may be powerful to shift the narrative away from why folks aren’t doing something and towards why folks are doing something.”
My Online Date and His Balding Head
Last week, a 34-year-old Swiss banker I went on two Tinder dates with invited me to Paris. He’s there on business Monday through Wednesday, and he wondered if I might join him for the weekend before he suits up for his meetings. This is after our first date at a respectable but risk-free mid-tier surf-and-turf restaurant and our ritzy second date at a rooftop dim sum joint overlooking the London financial district.
Now that I’ve fully exposed my debauched college life to my unsuspecting parents, subtweeted a few hookups from first semester of freshman year, and provided anecdotal evidence of the things that keep me up at night, I want to make a case for the contrarians among us. Despite what public data may suggest about commitment-phobic young people, I am ready to settle down. In the last two months of 2019, I went on a dozen Tinder dates with men in their 30s, not with any specific intentions — although being wined and dined through central London’s finest by mid-career business men was a thought-provoking courtship experiment — but because, as I realize now, my two-decade search for love may have reached a tipping point. I was acting out in my last hurrah to exhaust the swipe deck, hoping to ask these questions to people I assumed might have answers.
In “The All-or-Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work,” psychologist and columnist Eli Finkel outlines a theory of marriage into three historical models, each distinct phase satisfying a higher purpose in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. From the nation’s founding to the industrial revolution, marriage was “institutional,” essential for day-to-day survival, reproduction and social acceptance. With industrialization and the increased fulfillment of basic physiological needs, marriage became “compassionate,” shifting the function of marriage from the service of material necessities to that of love and personal happiness. We are now living through the era of “self-expressive” marriages, a product of the 1960s and a revolt against the social norms constricting partnership through legality. Marriage became a stepping stone in the project of individual authenticity as we began to expect from our long-term partners a profound understanding of ourselves that propels us towards personal growth.
The paradox of expecting transcendental self-realization from our partners is that as expectations climb, more marriages are bound to fail. As the old adage goes, “50 percent of marriages end in divorce.” While American divorce rates doubled between 1960 and 1980, according to Finkel, if you manage to find the one, your relationship will be significantly more fulfilling than those of the past. He writes in a 2014 New York Times op-ed: “The average marriage today is weaker than the average marriage of yore, in terms of both satisfaction and divorce rate, but the best marriages today are much stronger, in terms of both satisfaction and personal well-being, than the best marriages of yore.”
All hope is not lost. There may be a person out there who will bring out the best in you and you, the best in them.
I realized halfway through my last relationship, the longest and most serious of my burgeoning career as a monogamist, that something was off about my approach to intimacy. I kept asking my boyfriend, “Why are you so nice to me?” To which he blithely replied, “I don’t know why you are asking me that. We’re dating, and I made us breakfast in my own house.”
At a certain point, my desire and stamina for random hookups started dwindling, and more importantly, I began to understand that meeting up with strangers only to ghost them the morning after was textbook toxic behavior. At first, I left without staying the night thinking that was the only way to protect myself from rejection and vulnerability. Next, I expected to stay thinking that the least I deserved was to save on Uber surge pricing at 3 a.m. on a club night. Then it occurred to me, lying in a Park Street apartment counting the bumps on a stranger’s ceiling: I want someone to understand me. Being held is nice, but I want to stare into my partner’s eyes without it being a performance of soft-dating. I want to read aloud my journal entries to someone who will listen and pay attention to another person who feels uncertain about adulthood. I want to peel vegetables over the sink while my partner rinses the rice, be in the shower washing my hair while they are using the toilet, arrange my shoes at the door next to a row of someone else’s, give a back hug to a loved one who is least expecting it. I’m describing all the mundane things that I imagine make up the process of “settling down,” and whether or not it involves marriage is an unnecessary concern.
The 34-year-old banker I told you about? I sat in his living room well past his bedtime sipping a mean cup of tea. As it turns out, he is just as confused about love as I had been. Another decade of life and a receding hairline doesn’t expel the anxiety of being left on read.
Did I follow him to Paris? Well he was no Mr. Big, and I’m writing to you now from the comfort of my dorm room. Maybe tomorrow I’ll ask that nice boy from lecture if he’s down for a midday cup of coffee.
Kyung Mi Lee | firstname.lastname@example.org