washingtonpost.com
Love's Labor's Lost
What Young Women Are Saying About Their Aversion to Emotional Ties

By Laura Sessions Stepp
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Today on Valentine's Day, high school hallways and college courtyards will be scattered with flowers. Young women at work will peek at the personal ads online, and dish about who got what.

They may confess to having a crush on their chemistry partner, or confide to a friend that the guy in the cubicle next to them is "really hot." What they probably won't say is "I love him" or anything close to it. Because while they may enjoy the trappings of love, many young women believe that being in love, at least right now, is impractical, foolish, a sign of weakness or even unattainable.

Evie Lalangas, a communications specialist at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, is talking about this over lattes on a Sunday afternoon with several friends in their early 20s.

"Love is constant effort," she sighs, settling herself into a couch at Tryst, a coffeehouse in Adams Morgan.

"It's so annoying," Carolyn McGee agrees.

"A waste of time," Alyx Ackerfield says.

Heather Schell, an assistant professor of writing, picked up similar attitudes when she taught a course called "Love, American Style" at George Washington University. Her female students loved to discuss the chick-lit book "Bridget Jones's Diary" and the sexual follies of Jones and her boss, Daniel Cleaver. But they were not enthralled with Edward Rochester's lengthy courtship in "Jane Eyre." Quick flings, or hookups, were okay, "but love was rarely mentioned in class discussions," Schell says.

Their favorite assigned reading? A poetry anthology called "The Hell With Love."

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.

An instant-message conversation between two female college students, printed out and shared with a reporter, was telling:

Student 1: and we layed [sic] in bed and talked for like four hours and like had sex during the whole thing; it was really like a moment; like he held me sooo tight for the rest of the night; i woke up like really close to him; and i felt something . . . .

Student 2: that's incredible intimacy . . . do you love him?

Student 1: i am scared of loving him.

Student 2 because of what being in love will do to you

Student 1: because of what does that say about me . . . i'm just a weepy girl who relies on someone . . . i want to be independent and i think that it is important for women of our generation but by saying i love someone and need him it's like contradictory . . . hypocritical . . . but i also don't want to give into love because i am scared he won't call me . . . and i will be heartbroken and then feel like a stupid girl that should have known better."

(Several young women asked not to be named in this report when discussing their private lives.)

There are costs, of course, to keeping love at bay. Where's the feeling of being adored, for example?

"I need to know a guy's thinking of me all the time," Ackerfeld says.

Is this likely to happen after a hookup?

"Well, no," she admits.

And what about the skills one learns when dating?

"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?"

The Decline of Love

In some ways young women are riding a to-hell-with-love wave that started building more than a lifetime ago. By the 1930s, following more than a century of discourse on the concepts of passion, courtship and romantic marriages, scientists were declaring love the stuff of childhood fantasies and sentimental women. Psychotherapist Alfred Adler was one, arguing in Esquire magazine for rational, cooperative marriages that aimed for companionship rather than emotional connectedness.

Later, feminists like Marilyn French wrote that women couldn't love deeply and live independent, meaningful lives. (A character in French's popular 1977 novel "The Women's Room" called love a lie to keep women happy in the kitchen.) Many young women at the time found themselves agreeing with French, at least partly. This didn't stop them from dating and getting married. But they did so with a cautious attitude toward love that is even more evident in their daughters, especially those in college.

A college senior from Dallas with deep brown eyes and thick hair to match was describing a man she had hooked up with a couple of times. Despite her best efforts, she said, she was falling for him and that worried her.

"It will suck if it's bad," she said, "but it will suck even more if it's good."

She explained: Her number-one goal, for as long as she could remember, was to excel in school so that she might someday land a great job that would make her financially independent. In high school, she maintained an A average, played volleyball and rowed crew, edited the digital yearbook and played on a church basketball team that won the state championship. Her pace in college was similarly brisk, and she didn't see how, even in her senior year, she could afford to invest time, energy and emotion in a loving relationship.

At her 21st birthday party she talked about this with a girlfriend who understood. As the friend said, over the recorded sounds of rapper Jay-Z, "I don't have time or energy to worry about a 'we.' "

College is about many things: learning to read Chinese, write poetry, solve complicated physics problems. It's also about learning how to build relationships with others: how to be a "we" with a roommate you can't stand at first, a classmate whose political persuasion is different, and, significantly, with an intimate partner or two.

It would not have occurred to many mothers of this generation that when they were in college, they couldn't have it all including romance. But their daughters wonder.

Their reluctance is not irrational.

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.

Steps Toward Intimacy

Romantic love occasionally insists on making its presence known even to the most cavalier of young women. This happened to a young woman who spent much of her college time hooking up and then, two months into her junior year, fell in love with a senior who loved her back.

From the moment they decided to be a couple, they knew their relationship probably wouldn't last after he graduated and moved away. But they decided to try to make it work as long as they could. Midway through their eight months together, she wrote in her diary: "We had some long talks about us and it's nice to know we are more or less on the same page, even though it is a hard page to be on. One thing I became very certain of is that if I changed any of my plans or dreams for him, I would resent him and it would eventually ruin whatever relationship we might have. . . . I'm glad to have him in my life right now. . . . We push each other to become our dreams/goals/passions. . . .

"My generation -- actually, our society -- is into taking shortcuts. . . . Hookups are like the shortcut to intimacy, while dating is the long way around, the scenic route. We want to get there, wherever 'there' is, as quickly as possible, and I think we've lost the ability to enjoy the journey."

Adapted from "Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both" (Riverhead Books), by Laura Sessions Stepp.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company