Our 20s Matter
Part 2: Love
2020-11-21 16:05:00 -0600

All right. Just in case you don’t remember our initial bullet points from our last blog post, let’s look at them once more:

When people think of their 20s, what do they think of? I know what I used to think of:

  • fun
  • getting a decent job in a bustling city, maybe around age 26–28
  • falling in love and having a rollercoaster romance
  • more fun

At this point, we’ve done a deep dive into our second bullet point. So, now let’s talk about our third bullet point: “falling in love and having a rollercoaster romance”. The truth is that relationships and marriages are almost more confusing than careers. The world has tons of resources to help you when it comes to your career. There’s classes, courses, books, inspirational talks, etc. But there’s not as much when it comes to relationships. There may be lots of blog posts, but they’re generalized, and not specific to each individual person and their circumstances. So how are young adults supposed to learn?

This blog post will cover the following topics, based on Meg Jay’s The Defining Decade:

 

Let’s Get Picky

When I was a little kid, I watched a fair amount of Disney princess movies. I loved the idea of having a Prince Charming who loved everything about me. I’d be beautiful and a great singer, and my future husband would just know from one look that I was the one. All throughout middle school and high school, as I watched my classmates begin to “date” (by that, I just mean they went to movies together and held hands), and I was always single. I hated being single. I once asked my mother “Why do no boys want to date me?” All I wanted was to be loved.

But as I got into college, the narrative started to change. Of course, I had some deep-rooted self-esteem issues that kept me wanting to find romantic love (as I think, many young adults have). However, I started to be flooded with images and stories of young adults that were happy being single. Suddenly, being single, flirty, and free was the new thing. Adults got to focus on their careers, friendships, and learning about themselves, all without worrying about having to be there for a significant other or thinking about marriages or kids.

The story I was told, this ideal of being free, single, and having no obligations or responsibility when it comes to relationships, is not unique. According to The Defining Decade, this narrative is quite common.

Today’s twentysomethings spend more time single than any generation in history. Most will spend years on their own, somewhere between their childhood homes and families of their own. This time gives many people a chance to live it up before they settle down, and to have fun with friends and lovers while the options are open. […] Some are serial monogamists while others pair with as many people as they can. Pundits and parents worry that marriage is dead, dating is in demise, and hooking up is the new relational medium.

What Jay writes on page 70 is true. I’ve watched my friends date serially, never having more than two weeks single. I’ve watched other friends jump from one night stand to one night stand, but never seeing somebody for more than a month. And I’ve watched other friends stay single for years, just enjoying being themselves, not paying for extra dinners and drinks, and just having a good time with friends. None of these approaches are wrong; we each get to live our lives how we desire. However, Jay believes it’s important to know why you’re making the decisions you’re making, and what it can mean for you later on.

What Jay writes is this: “[Behind] closed doors, I hear a different story. I have yet to meet a twentysomething who doesn’t want to get married or at least find a committed relationship” (page 71). I know I fell into this category. I didn’t want to seem desperate, or “easy”, but I wanted love. I wanted somebody to love me (in fact, I still want unconditional love).

However, people tend to think that relationships aren’t something you can plan. Maybe you can plan your career. You can plan to interview for new jobs. You can plan to save money to move closer into the city. But you can’t plan love. But the truth is, if there’s anything you should try to plan, it’s a good relationship and marriage.

If you take a job you thought you’d like, but you don’t, it’s probably not going to ruin your life. You’ll question your career for a few months, and then hopefully, you’ll switch directions, and this time around, you’ll know more about yourself and your options. Hopefully you’ll also have some more identity capital to share as well. But if you get into a bad marriage, a lot is at stake. Worst case scenario, you marry somebody who ends up being abusive, steals your money, belittles you, or kills you. Best case scenario, you get into a divorce which ends well; both parties want to be respectful and courteous, but yet, you still lost half your household income and only one person can keep the dog.

My point isn’t that all relationships are destined to fail or end in divorce or nasty breakups… in fact, statistically, about 39% are. My point is that if there’s a 39% chance that your long-term relationship won’t work, then wouldn’t you want to do everything you can to make sure you end up in the other 61%?

So what we can do to try to ensure that we end up in that 61% where the marriage works? Well, it’s not cookie-cutter simple. Neither me nor Jay can tell you what you need to do. All we can do is inform you of some interesting tidbits about relationships.

First, many young adults in their 20s believe that by putting off marriage until they’re in their 30s will mean they’re more mature and ready for settling down, hence protecting them more against divorce. But the truth is that this only holds true until about age 25. While older spouses may be more mature, there’s new challenges to overcome. “Rather than growing together while their twentysomething selves are still forming, partners who marry older may be more set in their ways. And a series of low-commitment, possibly destructive relationships can create bad habits and erode faith in love. And even though searching may help you find a better partner, the pool of available singles shallows over time, perhaps in more ways than one” (page 74).

Secondly, is the idea of the “Age Thirty Deadline”. Now this is not a real thing. Let me repeat, this is not a real thing. However, even I have thought about it (perhaps it’s something that was written in some popular movie in the 80s and it just stuck with American teenagers). The idea is this: 20 year olds believe that marriage and settling down is something of the future; it’s not something to think about until you’re in your 30s. But then, the young adult (oftentimes female), turns 30, and suddenly, they feel this rush to be married. A day ago, they were 29, and everything was fine. But now they’re 30, and they’re running out of time. “Marriage goes from being something we’ll worry about at thirty to being something we want at thirty” (page 75). The conundrum here is that they skipped from think about at thirty, to want right away… with no space in the middle for making it happen. This can result in young adults that (sort of) settle; they grab the closest person nearby and just say “that’s good enough.”

So where am I going with this? Be picky. I was told as a kid, that being picky wasn’t a good thing. Try more foods, try new activities, don’t be scared, etc. However, what Jay has found is that being picky about who you date, even in your 20s, actually sets you up well. Sure, maybe you’re not jumping from one night stand to one night stand. But you’re not losing valuable time (that you could spend trying to find a better long-term partner) with people you already know you won’t be with long-term. If you know you want to settle down long-term and marry somebody, then have some fun, sure, but also think for the future. This way, you’re helping to make sure you don’t end up being the next person to fall victim to the Age Thirty Deadline. As Jay’s supervisor once told her, “the best time to work on a marriage is before you have one” (page 80).

 

You Finally Get to Pick Your Family

Just in case my family ever ends up reading this, I want them to know this: I love my family. You can ask my partner; I am very family-oriented, I’m always wishing I could be closer to my extended family, and my mom is my best friend. However, that exact sentence implies what my family is lacking. I wish I had a huge extended family with lots of generations.

Most kids grow up in some version of a crazy family. Families that are shattered from divorce, families that have helicopter parents, families that have removed parents that couldn’t care less about their kids, families riddled with addiction and alcoholism, families that are so big that parents forget their kids’ names, and families that are so small that Thanksgiving dinner feels just like normal dinner, except with cranberry sauce. And even the luckiest of us, the ones that have kind, loving, involved, and boundary-respecting families wish there was something different (the grass is always greener on the other side, right?).

Well, when you’re choosing your future spouse, you’re picking your family. Sure, of course there’s the “I have to like the person, they have to like me, blah blah blah”. But the truth is, for the first time maybe ever, you get to choose your family. On page 85, Jay writes “[often] the clients with the toughest family backgrounds know the least about how to get what they want in love. But these are the clients who need to be the most careful. They are the very clients who need to partner well.”

I’m not saying that you can’t have happy couples who joke about the in-laws. I’m not saying that you can’t marry somebody, yet barely make it through the holidays. I’m not saying that you should break up with somebody just because you don’t like their mom. But what I am saying is that your future partner’s family is going to become your family. And if what you dream of is having a big, loving family (as I do), then it would break my heart to be with somebody who didn’t want that, too.

 

Deciding, Not Sliding

How many young couples believe that living together before marriage is a good test of a relationship? The answer… probably about 8,000,000 unmarried couples. According to Jay, “[about] half of twentysomethings will live with a romantic partner at least once during their twentysomething years” (page 91). This isn’t a bad thing, for sure. Couples can save money, plan their finances better, waste less food, save commuting and visiting time, and it’s just plain old efficient. In fact, I don’t think I’d marry somebody who I never lived with either. However, what Jay has found is that the idea that cohabitation is a test for marriage is actually a common misperception.

Studies have found that couples who “live together first” are actually less satisfied and more likely to divorce than couples who do not. This sounds counter-intuitive. It did for me, too. However, what Jay (and research) has found is that these findings, what is now called the cohabitation effect, is all about the cohabitation itself.

The question to ask a couple is why they moved in together. Was it because they needed to save money on rent? Was it because this way they didn’t have to pack bags every weekend and then forget something at someone else’s place? Was it because they were already sleeping over all the time? These are common reasons. But, this is what’s known as sliding. This is when two people make the decision because “it just makes sense”. But what actually happens is that people move in together with less commitment (and that’s oftentimes the point), making them subconsciously water down the level of commitment needed in an actual long-term relationship. As Jay writes on page 94–95:

Couples who live together before marriage but after becoming engaged, who combine their lives after making a clear and public commitment, are not any more likely to have distressed or dissolved marriages than couples who do not cohabitate before marriage. They do not suffer from the cohabitation effect. It is the couples who live together before being clearly and mutually committed to each other who are more likely to experience poorer communication, lower levels of commitment to the relationship, and greater marital instability down the road.

Unfortunately, this is especially true for men (not to sound stereotypical). If a couple is willing to move in together without being on the same page, what else are they willing to jump into without being on the same page? I’m not saying that any of these actions are wrong to do, but it’s just good to make sure that everybody is in agreement on what each action means. If people have expectations that aren’t being met, it’s just going to result in eventual disappointment.

Now, what about the people that move in with somebody just to have fun, ignoring the fact that they’re perfectly aware they’re not going to marry the person they move in with. Well, they tend to fall into what’s called lock-in. When it comes to cohabitation, it’s a similar story to an economic lock-in. From an official-sounding standpoint: “Lock-in is the decreased likelihood to search for other options, or change to another option, once an investment in something has been made” (page 96). This is why stores and companies put in a bigger setup cost… it makes it harder for people to switch if they become unhappy. And this happens in relationships, too.

The idea is people move in together easily. The move is fairly simple, the cohabitators get a rush of endorphines and excitement, half of one person’s stuff is already at the other apartment, and suddenly things are great. But the longer the cohabitation goes on, the harder it gets to leave if needed or wanted. Those setup costs get harder and harder to leave behind.

When I told my parents that my partner and I were going to move in together, one of the first things my dad asked me was “if you break up and split, who keeps the furniture?” At that moment, my answer was “Uhhhhh, I don’t know. We’d probably do some sort of buy out where one of us would care more for the piece of furniture than the other, so one person would buy out the other’s half.” Logical, I know.

But what if it wasn’t that simple? What if it wasn’t furniture? What if it was pets, and a house that nobody could afford on their own? What if it was a car, or a kid? The truth is, lock-in is the reason why it can take divorcing couples a long time to move out. And oftentimes, adults in their 20s either don’t think about lock-in, think they’re immune and smarter than that, or they don’t know it exists. But I’m here to tell you, lock-in does exist, it is real, and nobody is immune.

So, if nobody’s immune, what can be done? Well, there’s a few things:

  1. Make sure everybody is clear on each persons’ commitment level before moving in.
  2. View cohabitation as a step towards marriage, not just something to do because “it’s convenient”.
  3. Test your relationship in other ways besides moving in together before moving in (aka not just casual dates and sex). Try spending extended weekends together. Try visiting each others’ families during holiday season. Plan a vacation together, do it, and share all expenses as if you shared bank accounts. Have tough conversations about futures and kids. Do all that stuff now, before lock-in really sets in.
  4. If you’re ever unhappy in a relationship and want to get out, remember that leaving now may be painful and hard, but it’s bound to be less painful than leaving in three years.
  5. Claim your love, claim it loud, and claim it proud. Consciously choose your mate. Choose to love them every single day, and don’t get lazy, lose commitment, or take it for granted.
 

Opposites Attract… Or Do They?

I once told my partner that I felt like he was my best friend. He immediately was concerned. He didn’t want to be my best friend. He thought of best friends as plutonic and casual. He wanted to be my romantic partner… passionate and intense. Until I described what I meant. I thought of best friends as the person that I trust, 100%. My best friend is somebody who I tell everything to, and somebody who I want by my side through thick and thin. When he understood what I meant by best friend, he changed his tune, and agreed with me. He wanted to be my best friend, too.

The truth is, for the longevity of long-term relationships, it’s important that the two people like each other. It helps if they’re alike in personality and hobbies, and it’s usually a good idea if they can stand each other. We all see these crazy passionate romances where one minute the two people hate each other, and the next they’re having passionate make-up sex or something. And there may be a part of us that’s excited about that. That sudden wave of new emotions that makes us feel like we’re riding a rollercoaster of love. But the truth is that this kind of relationship is more likely to be stressful long-term than anything else.

We sometimes hear that opposites attract, and maybe they do for a hookup. More often, similarity is the essence of compatibility. Studies have repeatedly found that couples who are similar in areas such as socioeconomic status, education, age, ethnicity, religion, attractiveness, attitudes, values, and intelligence are more likely to be satisfied with their relationships and are less likely to seek divorce.

These facts, which Jay brings up on page 115–116, can help people weed out the types of people they’d be interested in dating. They’re deal breakers. For example, I don’t know if I could date somebody who was over 6’2”. That’s personal preference… I’m short. Other people might not want to date somebody who isn’t religious, or who doesn’t share their political beliefs. However, others might not care about religious or political preference, but may refuse to date a smoker. Every person’s deal breakers are individualized, and help people figure out who to date.

But even the couple that has the most in common on paper, doesn’t necessarily work out. These are called match makers (versus deal breakers). One of the biggest match makers is personality. My partner is an introvert, and I am an extrovert. We both can easily feel this difference in our relationship dynamic. At gatherings and parties, he gets tired out faster than I do. I relax and get energy, even when we’re in the same room together. He needs more space and time, and sometimes I forget that when he asks me to leave him alone, it doesn’t mean that he doesn’t love me, just that he needs some more personal time. And so, we need to compromise. At the gathering, he always tells me he’s ready to leave, and I always get 20 more minutes. He stays 20 minutes longer than he’d like, and I leave 30 minutes earlier than I’d like. Neither one of us is the happiest we could ever be, but we’re both relatively happy knowing that the other person is also relatively happy. And therefore, we get to go to bed without a fight.

Couples that have similar personalities have a higher likelihood of getting along together. If one person loves sports, it’d be awesome if the other person did, too. If one person liked cuddling up with a good book on Friday, it may not work out as well if the other person can’t imagine sitting in one place over the weekend. But the truth is that couples don’t always match personalities, and they don’t need to in order to be happy. What matters is how the couples combat their differences. “Personality tells us something about how you and your partner will go about the good and bad days together” (page 121).

And this brings me to the last point of this blog post. Be picky about what matters… but don’t sweat the small stuff. Be picky about things like core values, visions for the future, huge differences in personality, or which way they put the toilet paper on the dispenser (I’m joking about that one). But it’s probably not worth worrying about the small stuff. My partner never makes the bed, unless he wants to be really nice to me. He’s always messing up the sheets, and he sleeps in the middle of the bed, even if I’m there. But at the end of the day, that’s all small stuff. If he doesn’t give me enough room, I crawl over him and take his side of the bed. If he messes up the sheets, I take the two minutes it takes to make the bed again. “There will always be differences of some kind, but […] that’s not what will kill a relationship. It’s what you do with the differences” (page 127).