Young luv in the digital age

by Anya Jaremko-Greenwold

Valentine’s Day was easy in elementary school. Most of us have pleasant memories of the holiday from a youthful perspective; carefully selecting cards at the drugstore, full of puns about love from Spongebob Squarepants or The Little Mermaid; handing them out to classmates; the precarious decision of which card to give your crush (it couldn’t be too obvious, but it had to hint at something).

As an adult, Valentine’s Day is fraught with expectations and potential ways to screw it up. Because there’s a high premium placed on “showing that you care” on such a fateful date, most people have at least one horror story involving being dumped, or receiving the crappiest present in the world, or their significant other forgetting a gift entirely. V-Day can be a fun way for couples to express their affections – but it can also get expensive and disappointing. The holiday is more widely mocked than ever in our digital age of cynicism and well-informed consumers, who recognize how materialistic the occasion has become. Of course, people still participate; human beings cling to rituals and traditions. “On a cultural level, the idea of romantic love and connection is something people are drawn to and long for,” said Keri Brandt, professor of Gender/Women’s Studies and Social Theory at Fort Lewis College. “But it’s interesting to look at romantic love in the context of capitalism; you buy commodities for others, to show them you love them.”

Evolving gender rolesMen might bear the brunt of Valentine’s expectancy, as women traditionally put more precedence on grand romantic gestures. “It’s more of a holiday where the female is anticipating the male will take her out to dinner, buy her chocolates, some little gift or at the very least a card,” said Nicole Fuller, a Durango psychotherapist and couple’s counselor. “On the other hand, the man might expect his lady to go all out in the bedroom. He has some expectations that she’s going to wear an outfit, or it’s gonna be more steamy than normal.” Indeed, pop culture has conjured up a charming alternative holiday for men on March 14, informally known as “Steak and Blowjob Day” (it’s on Urban Dictionary). This is supposed to reward men for their patience and gift-giving in February. Either way, Valentine’s is a conventionally heteronormative celebration, geared toward the male-female, monogamous, committed relationship. “It would be interesting to know how the dynamics shift in a same-sex context, but I don’t think there’s been much research on that,” said Brandt. “Do more lesbians celebrate Valentine’s Day than gay men?”

Eliminate misunderstandings before the date arrives, and you’ll be better off, advises Fuller from a counseling perspective. It’s best to know your particular partner’s taste; do they think V-Day is B.S., or do they want to be showered with cuddly teddy bears? Are you mutually contemptuous of corporate Hallmark festivities, or do you both enjoy getting dolled up and showing your appreciation for each other? An article in Psychology Today titled “How Millennials Do Valentine’s Day” provides some recent survey numbers: 44 percent of 24- to 35-year-olds are planning an experience together to celebrate the holiday, and more than 51 percent say a shared experience is what they’d most like to receive; meaning they’re giving the gift of time together, rather than material goods.

Changing attitudes on marriageSurprisingly, although the statistic “50 percent of marriages end in divorce” is habitually tossed around as hard fact, America’s divorce rates have been dropping. A piece in the New York Times’ data blog Upshot suggests that although divorce rates peaked in the ’70s and ’80s, they’ve been on the steady decline ever since. There are plenty of reasons for the drop: the Times attributes later marriages, birth control and the rise of “so-called love marriages.” Gender roles are shifting rapidly, and with the growing acceptance of feminism, women aren’t expected to get married and stay married with the same rigidity of old. College-educated couples actually have a much lower divorce rate, maybe because working-class families “often have more traditional notions about male breadwinners.”

In the ’50s and ’60s, marriage was mostly about role-playing; the breadwinning husband and homemaker wife. Once women entered the workforce and began to earn money in earnest, both genders were more able to choose a partner based on shared interests, respect and mutual regard (rather than on necessity or societal constraints). Divorce used to be a bigger deal: “We now live in a day and age where you can design your marriage, relationship and breakup any way you want,” said Fuller. “There are no rules. Marriages today are not cookie-cutter; they are completely personal, and so are divorces.”

Hookup culture and disconnectionThe concept of love in the digital age is constantly evolving. It’s wonderful that women now have more autonomy and options than before. But there’s a worrying trend among millennials conflating dating with detachment. “Casualness seems to be the organizing principle,” said Brandt. She often discusses modern-day relationships with students in class, and is shocked to discover how different things are from 20 years ago. “They’re dating in the context of a ‘hookup culture,’” said Brandt. “There’s a desire to put one’s career first and their relationship second. Young people aren’t looking for their one and only.”

These young people seem to find normalcy in vague, ambiguous entanglements (“It’s complicated”); but within these ill-defined connections, it can be difficult to determine where you fit in, what your purpose in the life of another person is. “I hear my students say they might want to text somebody after a hookup and write, ‘That was great, I can’t wait to see you again,’” said Brandt. “Yet that’s forbidden. Some scholars call it the ‘principle of least interest’; the one who shows the least interest wins. Sociologically, that’s very disturbing – human beings need each other! They need to be connected in order to be healthy and well. This culture is promoting a deep disconnection.”

Playing the numbersOne in five adults aged 25-34 have tried online dating. Five percent of Americans who are in a marriage or committed relationship say they met their significant other online. The problem? When faced with endless possibilities, as you are online, human beings become conflicted and confused. “When the number of options increases, we become maximizers – unsatisfied with those options, and wanting more,” writes Leah Reich in a Times piece called “Playing the Numbers in Digital Dating.” With the advent of online dating and Tinder, many people are inclined to keep looking, always hoping to stumble upon someone better. With Tinder, you’re swiping right or left as though flipping through a catalog. “The new iPhone is going to come out, so maybe I shouldn’t get this one – the next will be a better version,” said Brandt, an apt analogy. “They’ve taken that view of commodities and transposed it onto each other. ‘What if some other great guy comes along, and I’m stuck with this one?’”

There’s an inherent inequality in hookup culture, too. “They’re doing research on orgasms in hookups, and men report high rates, whereas women report low ones,” said Brandt. “The women say ‘it wasn’t that great.’ Someone is getting more pleasure out of it. And women are taught their job is to please men, anyway.” Another double standard exists in attempts at separating sex from love; men are culturally approved to do so, while women who do it are “sluts.”

Maybe young people are more cynical about love simply because this generation is highly educated, more aware that starry-eyed notions of a romance that lasts forever are unrealistic. Millennials have largely been raised to put themselves first, taught the importance of individualism and independence, told they don’t need a partner to be happy. Brandt claims her students still believe wholeheartedly in the idea of romantic love – but they’re suspicious of commitment to long-term partnership at a young age, and wary of the institution of marriage. Kids want to take their time: sleep around, have friends with benefits or live with their partners first before heading to the altar. In a way, they are displaying mindfulness in place of reckless abandon: spending time getting to know each other before jumping into a life together is probably a good thing.


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