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Opinion The U.S. is in a crisis of love

(Washington Post staff illustration; iStock photos)

In 1774, Europe was infected with what was known as Werther Fever. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe had published his novel “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” about a young man hopelessly in love with a woman engaged to another man. So intense is his suffering at being apart from her that he kills himself.

The book was an overnight sensation among young people gripped by the hyper-romantic “Sturm und Drang” period in German culture. “The Sorrows of Young Werther” became an international bestseller, and bootleg copies began to circulate. Young men began to dress like Werther. Most alarming, the novel was said to have stimulated copycat suicides among brokenhearted lovers. The authorities in several cities and countries responded by banning the book. In Leipzig, it was even illegal to wear Werther’s costume of a blue tailcoat, yellow waistcoat, trousers and tall boots.

What is the opposite of Werther Fever? Whatever it is, we’re suffering from it in the United States today. Particularly among young people, there is an increasing absence of romantic love.

Don’t look to an app or a relationship expert for advice on love this Valentine's Day, listen to people who have been married for decades. (Video: The Washington Post)

Consider the evidence. Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, has found a precipitous decline in romantic interest among young people in what she calls “iGen,” the post-millennial generation growing up since just before the turn of the century. She notes in her research that while 85 percent of Generation X and baby boomers went on dates as high school seniors, the percentage of high school seniors who went on dates in 2015 had fallen to 56 percent. I asked my son, a junior in college, if this matched his experience. His matter-of-fact reply: “No one dates.”

It’s not just iGen; millennials are living more loveless lives as well. According to the General Social Survey, from 1989 to 2016, the percentage of married people in their 20s fell from 32 percent to 19 percent. And lest you think they are forgoing marriage but not sex, note that the percentage of 20-somethings who had no sex in the past year rose by half over the same period, from 12 percent to 18 percent.

Not surprisingly, Valentine’s Day celebrations reflect the change. According to a 2015 survey from the pet health company VetIQ, 69 percent of American pet owners reported planning to give their pets a Valentine’s Day gift. In contrast, only 61 percent planned to give a gift to a spouse or significant other. I’m sure your ferret will appreciate those chocolates, you incurable romantic.

What explains the epidemic of Reverse Wertherism? Twenge places a great deal of the blame on a dystopian social media culture, where virtual interactions substitute for face-to-face human relationships. It is not a shock to see research emerging that links heavy social media use with loneliness and depression.

But there are other explanations as well. One is the current culture of contempt, which often reduces conflict to declarations of the other side’s worthlessness — not just in today’s ghastly political battles but also in increasingly hostile relationships between men and women. The rancor between the sexes is impossible to miss, from the putrid misogyny washing over the Internet to the argument in this newspaper by a respected academic that it is justified for women to hate men. “I hate you” doesn’t exactly set romantic hearts afire.

For my money, however, the greatest culprit for the United States’ increasingly romanceless culture is fear. Many religious traditions, including Buddhism and Christianity, have argued that fear is the fundamental negative emotion; as such, it is fear (not hatred) that is the true opposite of love. A fear-based culture among young people will make romantic love impossible to cultivate. And mounting evidence suggests that this is exactly the culture being created by today’s hyper-protective approach to life.

In the best-selling 2018 book “The Coddling of the American Mind,” Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt note that young people are increasingly protected from all types of danger, physical and psychic. Children are discouraged from venturing alone out of the house by their parents, who also adjudicate their disputes with other children. The protection culture often deepens in college, with the proliferation of “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” to allow avoidance of hurtful ideas. As a result, many young adults enter their 20s with little experience in conflict and rejection — with the social equivalent of a peanut allergy. It is no surprise that love and dating would seem scary and foreign to so many.

How ironic it is that we have a generation of young people who know all about commercial entrepreneurship but are baffled by the enterprise of love. They have any number of ideas for start-up companies but cannot conjure a start-up romantic relationship. A true entrepreneur should be willing to take risks to create explosive value in all areas of life.

A couple of years ago, I offhandedly made this point in a speech to a group of young people in the District. Two weeks later, a young man approached me on an airplane, saying he had seen the speech and hadn’t been able to get my life-entrepreneurship point out of his head. He was on his way at that moment to declare his love for a woman he had known for a long time but hadn’t had the courage to pursue. He wanted to be a true entrepreneur. I mumbled something like “This isn’t an exact science, you know.”

I ran into to him a few months later at a party and asked him how it went. “She shot me down,” he said. I was, of course, contrite for having inadvertently led him to being rejected. But he wasn’t angry; rather, he thanked me. “I would have wondered about that my whole life,” he said. “Now I know. And you know what? I’m not afraid anymore.” It occurred to me that this is exactly how a good entrepreneur thinks: Failure is likely — so face it, learn from it and get stronger for next time.

The United States is in a crisis of love. We don’t need a bout of Werther Fever. But we do need more life entrepreneurs who are willing to take a risk with their hearts.

Twitter: @arthurbrooks

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