So much that has been written about hookup culture and 20-something women would suggest that successful young women don’t care anymore about love and relationships. That they’re not waiting for romance, but assessing their next sexual conquest. As a sociologist who’s interviewed several 20-something women on their sexual development, I’ve found straight young women aren’t necessarily embracing hooking up because they’re masters of their own destiny, as suggested by Hanna Rosin but because they face a new taboo and it’s not about sex or money or power. Instead, it’s a taboo about that traditional province of women: relationships. Ambitious young women in their 20s feel they shouldn’t want relationships with men at this phase in their lives.
Hannah, the protagonist of HBO’s Girls, worried during the show’s first season that being in an actual relationship with a man, as opposed to friends with benefits, would compromise her art. When her casual sex partner expressed his interest in committing, she jumped ship. She’s living her life in accordance with the new taboo, investing in experience but not in relationships.
When I talk to real women, as I did in researching my book on sexual freedom and 20-something women, I hear young women’s mixed feelings about relationships. Some young women deeply desire meaningful relationships with men, even as they feel guilty about those desires. Many express the same sentiment again and again: “Why do I, a young and highly educated woman in the 21st century, value relationships with men so highly?” To do so feels like a betrayal of themselves, of their education, and of their achievements.
Katie, a 25-year-old woman I spoke with as part of my research, confided that she worried her single-minded pursuit of a graduate degree might limit her ability to meet a man with whom she could build a life. This realization—that she might want to prioritize a relationship over a career—felt shocking to Katie, and she did not admit to it easily. She felt deeply ashamed by such thoughts, worried that they signaled weakness and dependence, qualities she did not admire. To put such a high premium on relationships was frightening to Katie. She worried that it meant she wasn’t liberated and was still defined by traditional expectations of women.
I have heard Katie’s dilemma from countless young women. Many feel ashamed about being too relationship-oriented in their 20s. Parents warn, “Do you really want to settle down so early? We just don’t want to see you miss out on any opportunities.” Friends intone, “How will you know what you like and want if you don’t play the field? You’re only young once. Now’s the time to explore.”
With women delaying marriage—the average age at first marriage for college-educated women is now 27—there is ample time for young women to focus on self- and career-development in their 20s. Laura Hamilton and Elizabeth Armstrong, sociologists at University of California, Merced and the University of Michigan studied relationship patterns among upper-middle-class female college students, and they discovered that these women believed relational commitments were supposed to take a backseat to self-development. And that young women often found relationships to be “greedy,” demanding excessive amounts of time and energy that detracted from the main tasks of college—educational achievements and meeting people. Hamilton and Armstrong found that young women often sought protection from relationships that could “derail their ambition.”
Like Hamilton and Armstrong’s respondents, many young and aspiring women with whom I spoke felt as though it were counterproductive to their development to prioritize a relationship with a man. This is a new phenomenon that goes against the grain of centuries of female socialization. Historically, women have been encouraged to value relationships, often at the expense of their own aspirations. Today’s young women are part of a new generation of highly educated women who are, of course, still socialized differently than are men, but who feel they ought to focus on their career goals in their 20s, potentially at the expense of developing a relationship. All the women I interviewed felt this pressure, and many expressed anxiety over their desire to prioritize a relationship.
Anxiety is difficult to tolerate, and rather than experience it, many of the young women I interviewed and work with in my psychotherapy practice split their desire for a relationship off from their professional and self-development desires. Confused about freedom and desire, young women often split their social and psychological options—independence, strength, safety, control, and career versus connection, vulnerability, need, desire, and relationships—into mutually exclusive possibilities in life. Romantic relationships then often become something to be avoided and denigrated rather than embraced.
It’s no wonder that splitting is often young women’s preferred method to make sense of the dizzying array of freedoms before them. A group of people trying to be autonomous and successful at work, and to have love and sex lives in which they express their vulnerability, need, and desire, is groundbreaking and historically unprecedented. Splitting may serve to ease their anxiety temporarily, but only until the desire for a relationship becomes impossible to ignore.
Of course there are some young women who feel no such prohibition on valuing romantic relationships. And others who genuinely have no desire for a relationship. Furthermore, relationships can indeed be greedy and time-consuming, particularly for young women who don’t have a strong sense of self. But the solution is not to split off the desire for a relationship.
I would never advocate that women return to the stereotype of the single woman pining for romance. But I do believe that young women who are taking risks in so many other important areas of life should also pursue experiences that may, on their face, seem to be at odds with independence and progress. The successful woman who is in a relationship is not the same as the pining woman. She’s the one who is acknowledging the full range of her desires.
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This article was first published in The Atlantic
Leslie C. Bell is a sociologist and psychotherapist who specializes in women’s development and sexuality. She maintains a private practice in Berkeley, California. Bell earned a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California, Berkeley, a Master of Social Work from Smith College School for Social Work, and a B.A. from Swarthmore College.An award-winning lecturer, Bell has taught courses on women’s development, gender inequality, and sexuality at U.C. Berkeley and the Women’s Therapy Center in Berkeley. She currently supervises graduate students at the Women’s Therapy Center in Berkeley. Bell has served as a fellow for the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, the Social Science Research Council, the American Psychoanalytic Association, and the Robert Stoller Foundation. She lives in Oakland, California with her family.
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