it's complicated

Why Dating in Your 20s Is Terrible

Photo: Laia Arqueros Claramunt

Welcome to “It’s Complicated,” a week of stories on the sometimes frustrating, sometimes confusing, always engrossing subject of modern relationships.

As her number one reason “why relationships in your 20s just don’t work,” Leigh Taveroff writes for the website Today’s Lifestyle, “These years are extremely important: you’re meant to be finding out who you are and building a foundation for the rest of your life. You don’t want to get too caught up in someone else’s problems, triumphs and failures, and forget to be experiencing your own. At the end of the day, your 20s are the years where YOU DO YOU. Be selfish, have fun and explore the world.”

It’s not hard to find young people who echo Taveroff’s sentiment that self-exploration is the purpose of one’s twenties — a notion that many 25-year-olds as recently as the 1990s might have found odd. By that age, most Boomers and GenX’ers were married, and many had children. That’s not to say that one way is right and the other isn’t, but they are very different viewpoints on the best way to spend the high-energy years of your life.

I’m a researcher studying generational differences, and lately, my focus has been on the rising generation, those born between 1995 and 2012. It’s the subject of my latest book, iGen, a name I started calling this generation because of the large, abrupt shifts I started seeing in teens’ behaviors and emotional states around 2012 — exactly when the majority of Americans started to use smartphones. The data show a trend toward individualism in this generation, as well as evidence that iGen teens are taking longer to grow up than previous generations did.

One of the ways this shows up in their behavior is dating — or not: In large, national surveys, only about half as many iGen high school seniors (vs. Boomers and GenX’ers at the same age) say they ever go out on dates. In the early 1990s, nearly three out of four 10th graders sometimes dated, but by the 2010s only about half did. (The teens I interviewed assured me they still called it “dating.”) This trend away from dating and relationships continues into early adulthood, with Gallup finding that fewer 18- to 29-year-olds lived with a romantic partner (married or not) in 2015 compared to 2000.

“It’s way too early,” says Ivan, 20, when I ask him if most people in their early twenties are ready for a committed relationship such as living together or getting married. “We are still young and learning about our lives, having fun and enjoying our freedom. Being committed shuts that down very fast. We will often just leave our partner because we are too young to commit.”

In general, relationships conflict with the individualistic notion that “you don’t need someone else to make you happy — you should make yourself happy.” That is the message iGen’ers grew up hearing, the received wisdom whispered in their ears by the cultural milieu. In just the eighteen years between 1990 and 2008, the use of the phrase “Make yourself happy” more than tripled in American books in the Google Books database. The phrase “Don’t need anyone” barely existed in American books before the 1970s and then quadrupled between 1970 and 2008. The relationship-unfriendly phrase “Never compromise” doubled between 1990 and 2008. And what other phrase has increased? “I love me.”

“I question the assumption that love is always worth the risk. There are other ways to live a meaningful life, and in college especially, a romantic relationship can bring us farther from rather than closer to that goal,” wrote Columbia University sophomore Flannery James in the campus newspaper. In iGen’ers’ view, they have lots of things to do on their own first, and relationships could keep them from doing them. Many young iGen’ers also fear losing their identity through relationships or being too influenced by someone else at a critical time. “There’s this idea now that identity is built independent of relationships, not within them,” says the psychologist Leslie Bell. “So only once you’re ‘complete’ as an adult can you be in a relationship.”

Twenty-year-old Georgia college student James feels that way. “Another person could easily have a large effect on me right now, and I don’t know if that’s necessarily something that I want,” he says. “I just feel like that period in college from twenty to twenty-five is such a learning experience in and of itself. It’s difficult to try to learn about yourself when you’re with someone else.”

Even if they go well, relationships are stressful, iGen’ers say. “When you’re in a relationship, their problem is your problem, too,” says Mark, 20, who lives in Texas. “So not only do you have your set of problems, but if they’re having a bad day, they’re kind of taking it out on you. The stress alone is ridiculous.” Dealing with people, iGen’ers seem to say, is exhausting. College hookups, says James, are a way “to find instant gratification” without the trouble of taking on someone else’s baggage. “That way you don’t have to deal with a person as a whole. You just get to enjoy someone in the moment,” he says.

Social media may play a role in the superficial, emotionless ideal of iGen sex. Early on, teens (especially girls) learn that sexy pictures get likes. You’re noticed for how your butt looks in a “sink selfie” (in which a girl sits on a bathroom sink and takes a selfie over her shoulder Kim Kardashian style), not for your sparkling personality or your kindness. Social media and dating apps also make cheating extremely easy. “Like your boyfriend could have been talking to somebody for months behind your back and you’ll never find out,” 15-year-old Madeline from the Bronx said in the social media expose American Girls. “Love is just a word, it has no meaning,” she said. “It’s very rare you will ever find someone who really likes you for who you are — for yourself, your originality… . Rarely, if ever, do you find someone who really cares.”

There’s another reason iGen’ers are uncertain about relationships: you might get hurt, and you might find yourself dependent on someone else—reasons that intertwine with iGen’s individualism and focus on safety.

“People who are so heavily reliant on relationships for their whole source of emotional security don’t know how to cope when that’s taken away from them,” says Haley, 18, who attends community college in San Diego. “A relationship is impermanent, everything in life is impermanent, so if that’s taken away and then you can’t find another girlfriend or another boyfriend, then what are you going to do? You haven’t learned the skills to cope on your own, be happy on your own, so what are you going to do, are you just going to suffer through it until you can find someone else who will take you?” Haley’s view is the famous couplet “Better to have loved and lost/Than never to have loved at all” turned on its head: to her, it’s better not to have loved, because what if you lose it?

This fear of intimacy, of really showing yourself, is one reason why hookups nearly always occur when both parties are drunk. Two recent books on college hookup culture both concluded that alcohol is considered nearly mandatory before having sex with someone for the first time. The college women Peggy Orenstein interviewed for Girls & Sex believed that hooking up sober would be “awkward.” “Being sober makes it seem like you want to be in a relationship,” one college freshman told her. “It’s really uncomfortable.”

One study found that the average college hookup involves the woman having had four drinks and the men six. As sociologist Lisa Wade reports in her book American Hookup, one college woman told her that the first step in hooking up is to get “shitfaced.” “When [you’re] drunk, you can kind of just do it because it’s fun and then be able to laugh about it and have it not be awkward or not mean anything,” another college woman explained. Wade concluded that alcohol allows students to pretend that sex doesn’t mean anything — after all, you were both drunk.

The fear of relationships has spawned several intriguing slang terms used by iGen’ers and young Millennials, such as “catching feelings.” That’s what they call developing an emotional attachment to someone else — an evocative term with its implication that love is a disease one would rather not have.

One website offered “32 Signs You’re Catching Feelings for Your F*ck Buddy” such as “You guys have started cuddling after sex” and “You realize that you actually give a shit about their life and want to know more.” Another website for college students offered advice on “How to Avoid Catching Feelings for Someone” because “college is a time of experimentation, of being young and wild and free and all that crap, the last thing you need is to end up tied down after the first semester.” Tips include “Go into it with the attitude that you’re not going to develop feelings towards this person” and “Don’t tell them your life story.” It ends with “Don’t cuddle. For the love of God, this is a must. Whether it’s while watching a film, or after a steamy session in the bedroom, do not go in for the hugs and snuggles. Getting close to them literally is going to mean getting close to them emotionally, and that’s exactly what you don’t want. Don’t indulge in those cuddle cravings, and if needed make a barrier of pillows between you. Hey, desperate times call for desperate measures.”

Maybe I’m just a GenX’er, but this sounds like someone frantically fighting against any kind of actual human connection because he has some idealized idea about being “wild and free.” Humans are hardwired to want emotional connections to other people, yet the very concept of “catching feelings” promotes the idea that this is a shameful thing, akin to being sick. As Lisa Wade found when she interviewed iGen college students, “The worst thing you can get called on a college campus these days isn’t what it used to be, ‘slut,’ and it isn’t even the more hookup-culture-consistent ‘prude.’ It’s ‘desperate.’ Being clingy — acting as if you need someone — is considered pathetic.”

Many Millennials and iGen’ers have ended up someplace in the middle, not merely hooking up but also not settling into a committed relationship. As Kate Hakala wrote on, there’s a new status called “dating partner” that’s somewhere between a hookup and a boyfriend. Dating partners have emotionally deep conversations but don’t move in together or meet each other’s parents. Hakala calls it “the signature relationship status of a generation” and explains, “It might all come down to soup. If you have a cold, a fuck buddy isn’t going to bring you soup. And a boyfriend is going to make you homemade soup. A dating partner? They’re totally going to drop off a can of soup. But only if they don’t already have any plans.”

Here’s the irony: most iGen’ers still say they want a relationship, not just a hookup. Two recent surveys found that three out of four college students said they’d like to be in a committed, loving relationship in the next year —but about the same number believed that their classmates only wanted hookups.

So the average iGen college student thinks he is the only one who wants a relationship, when most of his fellow students actually do, too. As Wade says, “There’s this disconnect between brave narratives about what they think they should want and should be doing and what, in a way, they do want.” Or as a 19-year-old put it in American Girls, “Everyone wants love. And no one wants to admit it.”

Copyright © 2017 by Jean M. Twenge, Ph.D, from iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy–and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood–and What That Means for the Rest of Us. Extracted by permission of Atria Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission.

Why Dating in Your 20s Is Terrible