Millennials: love and emotional vulnerability

Millennials, love and emotional vulnerability:
a New York Times Op-Ed by Andrew Reiner. 2/10/14

I RECENTLY OVERHEARD two students talking in a dining hall at the university where I teach. “Yeah, I might get married, too,” one confided. “But not until I’m at least 30 and have a career.” Then she grinned. “Until then? I’m going to party it up. This young woman was practically following a script. An increasing number of studies show that many millennials want to marry … someday.

Generation Y is postponing marriage until, on average, age 29 for men and 27 for women. College-educated millennials in particular view it as a “capstone” to their lives rather than as a “cornerstone,” according to a report whose sponsors include the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia.

Yet for all of their future designs on marriage, many of them may not get there. Their romance operandi — hooking up and hanging out — flouts the golden rule of what makes marriages and love work: emotional vulnerability. “Staying vulnerable is a risk we have to take if we want to experience connection,” writes Brené Brown, a University of Houston researcher whose work focuses on the need for vulnerability and what happens when we desensitize ourselves to it.

Given the way members of Generation Y have been conditioned, their seemingly blithe attitude about marriage, perhaps even about love, may become less of a boon and more of a bust.

It’s no wonder, really, that many millennials are in this predicament, often at no fault of their own. Their lifelong associations with love are a familiar soundtrack: Since early childhood their ears have been subjected to thumping messages in the popular culture that sex confers social cachet and, more than anything else, belongs front and center in their identities. (Helloooo, Sex Week!)

Then there’s the familiar lyrics from their parents — rants about why grades, internships and anything else that makes their résumés appear more extraordinary trump romantic relationships. And the constant bass line of social media, which, let’s face it, trivializes the complexity of romantic relationships. (One study out of the University of Missouri found that people in romantic relationships of three years or less who use Facebook more than once an hour are more likely to experience relational corrosion, including infidelity.)

But wait a minute. Don’t we naturally become more emotionally mature by the time we’re ready to settle down in our 30s? Not as much anymore. Research led by the social psychologist Sara H. Konrath at the University of Michigan has shown that college students’ self-described levels of empathy have declined since 1980, especially so in the past 10 years, as quantifiable levels of self-esteem and narcissism have skyrocketed. Add to this the hypercompetitive reflex that hooking up triggers (the peer pressure to take part in the hookup culture and then to be first to unhook) and the noncommittal mind-set that hanging out breeds. The result is a generation that’s terrified of and clueless about the A B C’s of romantic intimacy.

In The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture Is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About Intimacy, Donna Freitas chronicles the ways in which this trend is creating the first generation in history that has no idea how to court a potential partner, let alone find the language to do so.

If this fear of vulnerability began and ended with mere bumbling attempts at courtship, then all of this might seem harmless, charming even. But so much more is at stake. During class discussions, my students often admit to hoping that relationships will simply unfold through hooking up. “After all,” one student recently said, “nobody wants to have The Talk,” the dreaded confrontation that clarifies romantic hopes and expectations. “You come off as too needy.”

This fear sets up the dicey precedent Dr. Brown warns us about: Dodging vulnerability cheats us of the chance to not just create intimacy but also to make relationships work.

Then there’s the emotional fallout of hooking up. This kind of sexual intimacy inevitably leads to becoming “emotionally empty,” writes Dr. Freitas. “In gearing themselves up for sex, they must at the same time drain themselves of feeling.”

This dynamic is about more than simply quelling nerves with “liquid courage” at college parties or clubs. It’s about swallowing back emotions that are perceived as annoying obstacles. And this can start a dangerous cycle.

“We cannot selectively numb emotions,” writes Dr. Brown. “When we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.”

We further desensitize ourselves to love when we stifle the bonding feelings that spring forth from oxytocin. This “love” hormone is released during orgasm, but it also floods the body and brain after hugging or affectionate touching. Yet we deny such molecular reactions at great peril, according to Dr. Dean Ornish, founder of the nonprofit Preventive Medicine Research Institute and author of Love and Survival: The Scientific Basis for the Healing Power of Intimacy.

“I am not aware of any other factor in medicine that has a greater impact on our survival than the healing power of love and intimacy,” Dr. Ornish writes. “Not diet, not smoking, not exercise, not stress, not genetics, not drugs, not surgery.”

So, the question that has never needed asking before now looms large: How do we teach a generation how to love?

As many of my own students have professed, they aren’t exactly seeing their ideal of love modeled at home or among friends. Some campus counseling centers have picked up on this curiosity and frustration, offering workshops on related topics, such as the one at the University of Kentucky on healthy dating or at Duke University on How to Be in Love. Duke’s original series featured four sessions, including surviving breakups, recognizing toxic romance and discerning between love and infatuation. A spinoff seminar will focus on relationship issues for women of color.

The time has arrived for such programs, says Theresa Benson, assistant director of the counseling center at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Dr. Benson oversees a staff of 20 undergraduates who develop and lead the workshops. One, College Dating: Uncovering the Dating Scene, helps students learn essentials like how to ask someone out, what to do on a date and the many faces of relationships, including polyamory.

When Dr. Benson says that “students may not be learning the interpersonal skills to communicate face to face,” she may be couching this trend a bit too tentatively. That there is even a need for these workshops speaks volumes: The most elemental skills of romantic intimacy are going the way of cursive handwriting.

Perhaps this is where college classrooms can step in. For this résumé-driven generation, schools would do well to add a grade-based seminar about love. The course could cross many academic disciplines: the biology of intimacy; the multicultural history of courtship; the psychology and sociology of vulnerability.

Such a proposal may sound far-fetched. But this is an opportunity for colleges to walk the talk of their marketing messages, which tout developing not just the minds of students but the whole person. It’s time for students to feel the love.

Andrew Reiner teaches writing in the Honors College and English department at Towson University.