Young People Who Sacrifice Romance for 'Unencumbered Striving'

A skeptical look at a subculture where late marriage makes it seem rational to substitute hookups for dating.

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After interviewing 60 women at the University of Pennsylvania over the course of a year, Kate Taylor of the New York Times posits that "hookup culture" isn't just driven by young men. It's also "a functional strategy for today's hard-charging and ambitious young women, allowing them to have enjoyable sex lives while focusing most of their energy on academic and professional goals."

The article begins with one woman's story.

"I positioned myself in college in such a way that I can't have a meaningful romantic relationship, because I'm always busy," she reflected. "...there are so many other things going on in my life that I find so important that I just, like, can't make time, and I don't want to make time."

The approach is reportedly common among women at the school who aspire to be doctors, lawyers, politicians, bankers, or corporate executives. "Keenly attuned to what might give them a competitive edge, especially in a time of unsure job prospects and a shaky economy, many of them approach college as a race to acquire credentials: top grades, leadership positions in student organizations, sought-after internships. Their time out of class is filled with club meetings, sports practice and community-service projects," the newspaper reports. 

"They saw building their résumés, not finding boyfriends (never mind husbands), as their main job at Penn. They envisioned their 20s as a period of unencumbered striving, when they might work at a bank in Hong Kong one year, then go to business school, then move to a corporate job in New York. The idea of lugging a relationship through all those transitions was hard for many to imagine. Almost universally, the women said they did not plan to marry until their late 20s or early 30s." 

Presumably, many of their male classmates feel this way, too: hookups through most or all of one's 20s, then more serious dating, and eventually, perhaps, a serious relationship or marriage. (In the article and in real life, there are lots of college students with very different perspectives, but the "hook up to maximize striving" subculture is the one that I want to focus on discussing.)

My experience at a highly ranked college was far more laid back than what's described by these women, so I won't presume that the experiences of my peers and me offer perfect parallels. But I'm struck by an assumption that seems buried in the approach that they're articulating. As they see it, ages 18 to 28 are high achievement years where credentials, job-seeking, and establishing oneself in a profession are the focuses. So no-strings hookups are preferable for most of those years. Presumably, there's a period of more serious, at least marginally more traditional dating that starts at 25 or 26 or 27. There's a greater investment of time and emotional energy. A desirable life partner is eventually located, culminating in marriage at age 28 or 30.

You've heard the standard critiques of this approach. One holds that hookup culture is immoral, or damaging, or emotionally unsatisfying. Another warns these women that they're gambling by leaving such a small temporal window to find a husband, get married, and have a family. Let's sidestep those debates. I'd like to put forth an unrelated misgiving grounded in my own experiences.

During the decade that began when I turned 18, I had stretches when I dated seriously and stretches where I was single. In my 20s, I lived abroad and moved around the country for my career.

I married at 32.

Perhaps if I'd never dated anyone before my wife, I could've poured that much more time into my career. It isn't a tradeoff I'd make; I had great times dating wonderful people who remain friends, and it surprises me that young people would sacrifice romance for a marginal career edge. And surely there's a limit to how much college resume-building changes one's life trajectory.

More importantly for our purposes, every serious girlfriend I had in the years before I met my wife taught me so much about what I wanted and needed in a relationship and how to give others what they want and need. I always tried to be good to people; and because I was invested in them and loved them, my successes and failures impacted me powerfully, leaving indelible marks. Even looking back, I'm proud of the times when I was a good boyfriend, and regretful or even ashamed of the times when I fell short; and I learned from times when girlfriends made me happy and the times they didn't. Experience, self-knowledge, and wisdom like that can't be gleaned from years of "unencumbered striving." I'm glad that I spent long stretches single, too. Doing so teaches its own sort of independence. But I'd have been so much dumber at 28 if, till then, I'd only had no-strings hookups. I think that most people would be.

One small example of something I learned from dating:

Once in college, I got in a phone argument with a girlfriend who attended a nearby university. When we hung up, I thought of some more things I wanted to say, and sent her an email while still angry. I didn't write anything awful, but it upset her, and reading it back, the tone certainly read more angry than I intended. Soon enough, we made up, no big deal. But she knew me well, and I'll always remember what she told me: When you argue with someone in person or on the phone, the conversation ends and it's over; an email is there to upset someone as many times as they read it, and the words never fade, which is especially perilous if you're someone who can express yourself in writing more powerfully than most. It's a lesson I wouldn't have gotten to hear if she hadn't known me well, cared about me, and been invested in me; it's a lesson that wouldn't have made an impact on me, at 19, if she hadn't have been someone I cared about, trusted, respected, felt awful about upsetting, and wanted to make happy. 

Like I said, a small example. But these lessons accumulate the longer you spend dating people in whom you're willing to invest love, emotion, time, and effort. Invest less, and the returns shrink. (It seems so strange to have to give the advice, "At least hook up with people you actually like!")

Thinking back on conversations about dating I've had over the years, I can think of so many lessons that friends of mine learned from early relationships: that contrary to their expectations, religion really is (or isn't) a dealbreaker for them; that a partner's clinical depression doesn't mean they're a failure for being unable to cheer him or her up; that he or she really won't change. They've drawn on some of the lessons in their serious relationships and marriages; other lessons weren't applicable. You never know which is which until you meet your significant other. And most people don't learn any of these or other lessons except through hard experience. No matter how graspable they seem in abstract, every generation relearns them.

Other lessons are delights, like learning that you're a dog person, or figuring out that your whole notion of how well you deserve to be treated was artificially low and isn't that way anymore. I'm sure years of maintaining functional, no-strings hookups offers its own lessons -- perhaps they even take less time and energy to glean (I have my doubts). I strongly suspect they're not particularly applicable to long-term relationships or marriages, if that's what you eventually want.

How much does this stuff matter? I don't know.

People used to marry much younger, and didn't have years of dating to glean lessons of the sort I'm discussing. But they lived in an era where societal expectations and marital roles were more defined. Today, young people benefit less from tradition. 

Today, young people are figuring out their own sexual identity and values, what they expect out of a relationship, whether they want to marry at all, the things they want and need from their husband or wife -- "whatever works best for you and your partner" is the ethos of our era, and in many ways, that's wonderful. But finding what works for you arguably takes more self-knowledge than ever before; it is arguably harder than ever before to figure out what the person you're dating or marrying needs and wants. Often it takes getting it wrong a lot to get it right.

Plus, some of what everyone needs is a partner who understands how to balance selfishness and selflessness; how to juggle career and personal life; how to be fully invested in a relationship and also fulfill individual needs. Some people are naturally better at this than others. Perhaps women are, on average, better at this than men, and require less practice. But everyone makes and learns from mistakes. At what age is it ideal to start that effort? If your plan is to marry at 27 or 28 or 29, it seems counterintuitive to think the answer is 25 or 26 or 27, and that a shift from "no-strings" to dating to marriage is going to unfold without any major hitches.

Then again, I've never tried it, so perhaps I'm wrong.

The subhed of the New York Times article states that "for many, building a résumé, not finding a boyfriend (never mind a husband), is their main job on campus." Again, I assume there are men who would fully agree with that account of their priorities. I certainly wouldn't suggest that hunting for someone to date, or to marry, ought to be "the main job" of any college student, or a "job" at all, for that matter. But pursuing crushes and even falling in love, at least every once in a while -- rather than satisfying one's sex drive and need for intimacy via late-night-text-message-and-hookup with someone that, per the article, you don't even like talking to outside of the bedroom? I'd merely posit that, if the fun, diversion, love, and fulfillment of romance doesn't appear to be worth it based on the "life goals" cost-benefit analysis that's disconcertingly ubiquitous these days; and if one of the life goals is, in fact, marriage; then perhaps young men and women underestimate the benefits of pairing love and lust before 26, 27 or 28. I know of no tougher or more fulfilling course material; and I'm grateful that, for once, I wasn't cramming for the test.