Is the secret to lasting love to take it slow? As in really, really slow?
The millennial generation is putting that theory to the test, opting for what the biological anthropologist Helen Fisher calls “slow love”. Studies show that millennials are dating less, having less sex and marrying much later than any generation before them, and a younger generation appears to be following in their footsteps.
These changes have prompted hand-wringing among some experts who speculate that hookup culture, anxiety, screen time, social media and helicopter parents have left us with a generation incapable of intimacy and commitment. (The Atlantic recently declared we are in the midst of a “sex recession”.)
But Fisher takes a more generous view, and suggests that we could all learn a thing or two from millennials about the benefits of slow love. It’s not that millennials are wrecking marriage, she says. It may be that they value it more.
“It seems everyone is swept up in a very myopic understanding of sex, love and romance,” said Fisher, a senior research fellow at the Kinsey Institute. “I would like people to understand that while millennials are not marrying yet, and they are not having as much sex as my generation, the reasons for this are good.”
The millennial cohort is roughly defined as those who were born in the 1980s to the early 2000s – although there is some debate about the boundaries. Millennials, due in part to their digital savvy, already are credited with significant changes in how we live, work and interact.
But what is particularly striking is how quickly the cohort has rewritten the rules for courtship, sex and marriage. In 2018, the median age of first marriage was approaching 30 (29.8 for men and 27.8 for women). That’s more than a five-year delay in marriage compared to 1980, when the median age was 24.7 for men and 22 for women.
A 2017 study in the Archives of Sexual Behaviour found that many younger millennials in their early 20s aren’t having sex, and are more than twice as likely to be sexually inactive than the previous generation. Another study found that American couples aged 25 to 34 spend an average of six and a half years together before marrying, compared with an average of five years for all other age groups.
Critics say digital saturation has made millennials more socially isolated, restless and entitled, which could explain why they are having less sex than earlier generations. And when millennials do have sex, it’s often viewed as less meaningful because they engage in “hookups” or sexual relationships described as “friends with benefits".
Fisher, author of Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray, has devoted her career to studying love and relationships. Most recently she has collected data on more than 30,000 people related to current courtship and marriage trends. Fisher believes that instead of criticising and judging millennials, perhaps we should be paying more attention. It’s possible, she said, that today’s singles are carving a more successful path to lasting love than previous generations.
“We can all learn from people who don’t want to waste a lot of time doing things that are going nowhere,” said Fisher, the co-author of a chapter on “slow love” in the 2018 anthology The New Psychology of Love, published by Cambridge University Press.
She notes that people who date three years or more before marrying are 39 per cent less likely to divorce than people who rush into marriage. “This is a real extended period of the pre-commitment stage,” said Fisher. “With slow love, maybe by the time people walk down the aisle they know who they’ve got, and they think they can keep who they’ve got.”
Ask millennials and they will tell you that there is nothing casual about their approach to sex, dating and romance.
“Hooking up with someone doesn’t mean that millennials now don’t value marriage,” says Anne Kat Alexander, who at 23 is in the second wave of the millennial generation. “If anything, they value marriage more because they are putting a lot more forward thinking into that decision.”
Fisher says her research suggests today’s singles seek to learn as much as possible about a potential partner before they spend time, energy and money on courtship. As a result, the path to romance has changed significantly. Whereas a “first date” used to represent the getting-to-know you phase of a courtship, now going on an official date with someone comes later in the relationship.
And for some singles, sex has become the getting-to-know-you phase of courtship. In a study conducted for Match.com, Fisher found that among a representative sample, 34 per cent of singles had sex with somebody before the first date. She calls it “the sex interview”.
“In my day you went out on a first date with someone you didn’t know very well, and you went to dinner or mini-golf,” she said. “The first date has changed – it’s time consuming and expensive. Now they have a sex interview with a person to see if they want to invest in a first date.”
Alexander, who lives in Princeton and identifies as bisexual, said she and her partner want to finish their education, start their careers and be on solid financial footing before marriage.“To be successful in a marriage you have to be compatible in a lot of different ways,” she says. “Sex is one of those vectors of compatibility where I feel like millennials want to make sure they’re also compatible.”
For millennials, financial issues also loom large in their decisions about relationships. They talk about the burden of student debt, and their desire to find meaningful work in an increasingly impersonal job market. Many say their lives were deeply affected by the 2008 financial crisis as they watched their parents lose businesses, struggle with debt and even go through divorces.
“When I first met my fiance, I asked, ‘What’s your credit score?’” said Lucy Murray, 24. “In the long run, if we’re talking about marriage, buying a place together, having joint bank accounts and putting cars in each others’ names, those are big financial decisions that will be linked permanently for both of us. That’s why I ask right away.”
Financial issues continue to influence the couple’s relationship. They recently moved to Syracuse from New York City because housing prices are lower. They also cancelled wedding plans, and may eventually elope. “Weddings are expensive,” said Murray.
The trends set by the millennials appear to be continuing into the next generation, often called Generation Z. “It’s the first generation to spend their entire adolescence in the age of the smartphone,” said Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University and author of the book iGen, which describes young people today as less rebellious, but also less happy and unprepared for adulthood. “They spend less time with each other face-to-face, which may be connected with why they are less likely to have sex with each other.”
But Fisher believes today’s singles are setting a good example for future generations by having a more thoughtful view of marriage and commitment. “Love is fickle,” said Fisher. “The more stability you can bring to this, the more likely you are going to find something that really works, and works long term.”
By Tara Parker-Pope © The New York Times