Last week the New York Times ran a column by a Towson University professor who believes Gen Y has lost the ability to love. Andrew Reiner begins by quoting a study that seems to contradict his thesis: A majority of millennials, 61 percent, intend to marry someday. “Yet for all of their future designs,” Reiner frets, “many of them may not get there. Their romance operandi—hooking up and hanging out—flouts the golden rule of what makes marriages and love work: emotional vulnerability.”
What evidence does he present that millennial relationships entail less vulnerability than the older models? Ha, evidence. Please. What we have are unsubstantiated phrases: a “blithe attitude about marriage, perhaps even about love”; “a generation that’s terrified of and clueless about the A B C’s of romantic intimacy,” the “most elemental skills” of which “are going the way of cursive handwriting.” Reiner makes the obligatory nods to social media—Facebook “trivializes the complexity of romantic relationships,” he says—and to drinking and to hookup culture. Oh, and he notes that self-esteem levels are on the rise, which somehow correlates to emotional immaturity, which means romance is doomed because only perfectly emotionally mature people fall in love.
Behold the anomic millennial, alienated from her feelings, captivated and benumbed by illusions on screens, blah blah narcissism, blah hookup culture blah. As proof of his social media claim, Reiner cites a study finding that “individuals who use Facebook excessively are far more likely to experience Facebook-related conflict with their romantic partners, which then may cause negative relationship outcomes.” (I’m not a scientist, but I’d bet doing anything “excessively”—even doting on your SO—is likely to detract from your relationship. Plus, couples that go skeet shooting a lot are probably more likely to experience skeet shooting–related conflicts, and so on.) And the self-esteem and narcissism research Reiner quotes is far from definitive: Studies he doesn’t cite have found that millennials show more civic-mindedness and selflessness than their parents did. As for hookup culture, the entire narrative may be a myth, and media coverage of said myth may leave college students feeling left out of some condom-strewn fairytale. But otherwise, NYT, persuasive case!
Reiner insists that nonexistent hookup culture encourages Gen Y kids to dodge vulnerability and, in the words of one expert, “to drain themselves of feeling.” We “desensitize ourselves to love when we stifle the bonding feelings that spring forth from oxytocin,” he writes (blah blah oxytocin blah). “This ‘love’ hormone is released during orgasm, but it also floods the body and brain after hugging or affectionate touching.” I must have missed the seminar where millennials were collectively taught to turn off the oxytocin spigot. (Maybe Thought Catalog ran a how-to?) But anecdotally, none of my friends in relationships long-term or casual seem particularly estranged from their emotions, starved for intimacy, or withholding of themselves—at least, no more than anyone else is.
The subtext of Reiner’s piece, though, is more complicated than contemporary relationships stink. It’s a comparison of then and now, an elegy for the supposed age of human feeling that flourished before Facebook killed romance. And that is where it grates the most. Because when Reiner talks about kids needing to rediscover “emotional vulnerability,” he is really referring to women. College guys have always played the field, sloughed off attachment, spread their seed; what’s changed in the past 50 years or so is that women have begun to treat relationships with the same casualness as their male peers. So what is the solution to the (possibly imaginary) epidemic of affective irresponsibility? Should we retreat from our moment of declining domestic violence rates and female breadwinners? Should we aspire to the open, painful vulnerability of the prefeminism years, where women couldn’t afford to take their dating lives lightly, because their entire futures hung in the balance? Maybe, as Reiner suggests, we should offer college courses on love, wherein a wise professor trains the youth in the secrets of intimacy. Because if anything can get kids’ hearts beating again, it is clueless adults waxing nostalgic about the good old days.