Sunday’s New York Times ran an interesting article about the end of traditional dating in the so-called millennial generation. It confirmed what I’ve been hearing from my younger clients for some time now — that men and women in their early twenties tend to socialize in groups and engage in a lot of casual sex. In my youth, we used to talk about the “three-date rule”: to wait before having sex in a budding relationship promotes respect and raises the odds that it will lead to something long-term. In the current generation, according to this article, dating itself has become obsolete.
The authors offer several explanations. Primary blame goes to the “hookup culture,” where spontaneous, commitment-free sex is common. Many millennials have never been on a real date and have little idea how traditional courtship works. Another obstacle is the financial commitment involved in dinner-and-a-movie: during an economic downturn when good jobs are scarce, young men don’t want to invest limited funds on someone they don’t know. The article goes on to discuss the emotional risks involved:
“Traditional courtship — picking up the telephone and asking someone on a date — required courage, strategic planning and a considerable investment of ego (by telephone, rejection stings). Not so with texting, e-mail, Twitter or other forms of ‘asynchronous communication,’ as techies call it. In the context of dating, it removes much of the need for charm; it’s more like dropping a line in the water and hoping for a nibble.”
In other words, the current hookup culture and socializing in groups allows young people, especially men, to avoid the experience of rejection. They rarely express authentic interest or desire. Rather than a direct invitation, these young men will text or send a Twitter message such as “Is anything fun going on tonight?” Even less expressive are the terse, last-minute messages “Hey” or “‘Sup?” When I recall the agony of asking girls out on dates — shaky voice as I practiced my invitation, sweaty palm on the telephone while I mustered the courage — I can certainly understand why young men would prefer expressions of casual indifference to putting their ego on the line. The prospect of rejection threatens to arouse shame and a sense of unworthiness.
In recent months as I’ve refined my thoughts about shame for my next book, I’ve come to believe that the experience of “unrequited love” lies at the heart of it. What I refer to as basic or core shame takes root in the early mother-infant relationship. We come into this world pre-wired for relationships: through complex vocal and facial interactions, babies seek to engage their mothers, to elicit their interest and affection, ultimately to love them and feel loved in return. In my view, expressions of love and interest that meet with indifference produce feelings of shame. Here’s the quote from Anna Karenina that finally crystallized it for me: “Kitty looked into his face, which was so close to her own, and long afterwards — for several years after — that look, full of love, to which he made no response, cut her to the heart with an agony of shame.”
By socializing in groups and rarely expressing direct, unequivocal interest, young men can avoid the experience of shame. By defusing desire within a group context, lack of response from one particular person matters little. If having sex tends to be a spontaneous event, you invest little of yourself in longing for it, run no risk of disappointment. The young man from this NYT story who casually texted a girl each Thursday night — “hey babe, what are you up to this weekend?” — made sure he never felt the shame of desire-meets-indifference.
These days, so much of our behavior strikes me as “shame management.” My young male clients often appear indifferent, or possibly supercilious, when beneath the surface, they’re guarding themselves against the possibility of shame. It extends beyond dating to the realm of friendship: if not reciprocated, an expression of interest or desire for contact might also lead to shame. It’s not just the men, either. My young female clients also long for “affiliation,” feel shame when the group messaging before a social event leaves them out, or respond with (defensive) rage if they feel rejected. Maybe it’s because I’m looking for it, but shame seems to be everywhere.
So I read this article and see a generation that makes defensive use of modern technology to avoid shame experiences, with the result that emotional contact of any depth is increasingly rare. We all long for connection: our genetic inheritance primes us for relationships where we can know and be known, love and be loved. Engaging in those relationships involves risk; it means opening ourselves to the possibility of unrequited love and the prospect of shame. But If our social life is geered toward shame-avoidance, if we play it safe and take refuge in casual sex or indifference, how will we ever develop emotional relationships of any depth or meaning? For all the humor in this article, the social life it portrays feels very lonely to me.