Are relations between young men and women really more distant and hostile than those of previous generations? The sexual insecurity of young men-along with their anxiety about ever being able to demonstrate their value to the world-is hardly new. Exploring this psychic terrain with groups of young men, I recognized a familiar, though thankfully ancient, dread. When I was their age-younger, actually-I was also taking my first tentative steps onto a career path, doubtful I'd make it to the first turn without screwing up or being sabotaged by a jealous overseer. Broke, socially retarded, poorly clothed, with no life skills or experience and little confidence, I felt thoroughly unattractive to women. Insecure and lonely, I married my college girlfriend Predictably, the marriage failed, although it produced a terrific daughter.
Feeling weak, I sought refuge in marriage, while today's young men run from it. I jumped in at twenty-one, as did my wife, with the same result. Had we not made these early, impulsive choices, we never would have met, never would have fallen in love a decade later, never would have put together our dynamic and large family, home, careers-our "corporation," as we call it. The wrong choice, for us, led to our eventual happiness.
Does that mean getting married when we were still kids was the right thing to do? Certainly our children didn't think so when we divorced their other parents. Nor, it's safe to say, were all the other children of marriages that imploded during the divorce boom of the seventies and eighties happy to see their parents split. GenXers avoid personal commitment not just because they want to get marriage right, unlike their parents, but because they're afraid of getting it wrong-just like their parents.
Still, their romantic aspirations seem unusually fraught. As the average age at which men marry continues to climb steadily (it's now above twenty-seven), a fifth of all men between ages twenty-five and thirty-four still live with their parents, and 11 percent between ages twenty-five and forty-four live alone. Despite this apparent flight from kinship, a higher proportion of today's college students and recent graduates say they want to get married and have a family than that of any previous generation. So why are half the men and 40 percent of the women under thirty' still single? According to Arthur Levine, the president of Teachers College in New York and director of a recent survey of college students, "Their short-term behavior doesn't coincide in any fashion with their long-term goals."
Based on nine thousand interviews, focus groups on thirty campuses, and surveys of three hundred chief student affairs officers, Levine's study found that young men and women are hooking up more, but making fewer forward-looking commitments to see each other-what was once quaintly referred to as dating-than any previous generation. "They have extremely high hopes and aspirations for a successful, happy marriage," Levine says, "but they're doing nothing to work toward that goal."
The contradictions and shifts in young adults' attitudes about sex and romance have been documented elsewhere as well. A National Opinion Research Center poll found that people in their twenties are now the most sexually conservative group in America-regarding their views of adultery, that is. As defined by the youngest-copulating and oldest-marrying generation ever recorded, though, adultery is less a sin of the flesh-a hookup doesn't count-than an affair of the mind and heart. The sacred, inviolable component of the new marriage is no longer sexual fidelity' but intimacy: as the bitchfesters testify, it's a rare and precious thing indeed, within or without marriage. That may explain another of the poll's findings: unlike their mothers, who are much less likely to have had an affair than men of the same age, married women in their twenties are more likely to stray than their husbands. If they can't find intimacy in their marriage, they'll look for it elsewhere.
Many of the students in Levine's survey said their parents' divorce was the most shattering event in their life-and the most life-shaping. Viewing all relationships as undependable, they instead mate hyper-actively, rejecting socially prescribed activities-once called "courtship"-that might result in a more lasting union. Ferrety predators, young men seem to see all women in the short term as equally good, and so are at once casual and carefree, pessimistic and humorless about getting along with them. The young men I talked to found the concept of an "ideal mate" laughable-a fairy-tale notion that no GenXer worth his cynicism believes in. That skepticism has managed to creep into some unlikely venues-like the wedding announcement pages of The New York Times. Every Sunday the paper provides details of a zany local wedding in a section titled "Vows," which itself suggests something ironic, tenuous, and slightly less than serious about the marriage covenant.
Understandably, the children of divorce say they plan to delay marriage because it's vital that they choose well. They're loathe to have their own children repeat their painful experience But how long are they willing to wait? What you can't know at twenty-five but learn, unhappily, by thirty-five is that, like the brief but critical period during which a mother and infant can form a deep, mammalian attachment, the life stage during which it's possible to adjust to the foibles and weird habits of someone who may want to sleep in your bed for the rest of her life may not last long, either At thirty-five, according to some oftcited research, a woman has a 5 percent chance of marrying; a man who is still a bachelor at forty should be avoided at any cost. Desperate, lonely, under pressure to produce some grandchildren for the folks but perhaps a little too set in their ways, couples who many late may be setting themselves up for failure-just like those of us who married too young.
Tags: Personal Growth