Despite what pretty much every rom-com ever made would lead us to believe, not all of us want love. Actually, a lot of us are perfectly chill with being single — so much so that 72% of Gen Z-ers have made a conscious decision to be single for a period of time, according to a 2018 Tinder survey.
But that doesn’t mean that some of us aren’t looking for love with a capital L. Sixty-three percent of millennials are seeking romantic love, and at certain points, so are Gen Z-ers, 70% of whom say they want long-term relationships.
If that sounds counterintuitive — how can 72% of people decide to be single and nearly the same amount be seeking a serious relationship? — well, you’ve hit the nail on the head. In addition to the obstacles we’ve likely run into at some point or another — say, the person we like is afraid of commitment or has a deal-breaking trait — we’re also making things difficult for ourselves with our contradictory wants, needs, and feelings.
We want serious relationships, but we’re not sure we can handle them.
While many of us claim to be looking for something serious, nearly as many — 58% of women and 52% of men 18-39 — doubt they can handle one.
Andre, 19, says his experience pursuing serious monogamous relationships has left him skeptical of his ability to actually be in one. “I’ve been through so many situations where it’s not enough to just like the person,” he says. “Most of the time [the other person asks] you to alter your life in a stronger way [than you’re willing to. At that point], I personally tend to let it go.”
Andre’s right that liking another person typically isn’t enough to make a serious relationship last. Relationships require maturity, an ability to manage conflict, and a willingness to stand by your partner in hard times, says psychiatrist Susan Edelman, M.D. While these skills were always necessary to develop a lasting relationship, couples therapist Gary Brown, Ph.D., says that they may seem more daunting for millennials and Gen Z-ers. Throughout his 30 years of observing couples, he’s noticed that, when it comes to their love lives, young people today feel a stronger need to play it safe than those in generations before them. Building and maintaining a strong relationship involves emotional risks that we’re simply too afraid to take.
We have checklists for the perfect person, but we don’t like the people who fit the bill.
When Andrea, now 27, was 22, she met a guy who she says checked every box for her ideal match. They had physical chemistry, he was driven, and she loved his friends. “I, however, couldn’t commit,” Andrea admits. “At the end of the day, I didn’t like his laugh. That’s the worst I could come up with. So I ended things.” Despite the fact that he was perfect on paper, Andrea says “an inexplicable intuition at the time said to leave it be.”
Checklists, like Andrea’s, have always been a thing, but Brown believes they’ve become more problematic because of what he refers to as the “unrealistic expectation of automatic fulfillment.” Think about it this way: You could be craving a vegan, Whole30 chicken tikka masala that still tastes like the real deal and have it delivered to your front door in less than an hour. So why not expect that you can have the same sorts of specifications and instant gratification when it comes to a mate? “We are now so used to getting anything we want with a few clicks that we believe the same should hold true when looking for a relationship,” Brown explains.
On a practical level though, we know that finding a great mate isn’t exactly as simple as choosing a great show on Netflix. “There is a lot more to chemistry than a checklist [reveals],” says Edelman. Checklists are fine in principle, but when they close ourselves off to falling for someone who doesn’t meet our exact specifications, we have a problem.
We believe love takes time, but we’re not willing to put in the time.
While 59% of singles are afraid of wasting time looking for love, 73% also believe that love takes time to develop. Hm, see the disconnect there? Take Krunal, 20, for example. Although he gets the importance of investing in budding relationships, he admits that it’s nearly impossible to make that time with his overwhelming work schedule. “I’m an entrepreneur trying to build multiple businesses and hustling to ‘make it,’ so it gets extremely difficult to put in the time and effort,” he says.
A busy schedule isn’t always the reason people are hesitant to invest their time into building a relationship. “Maybe they are impatient or they feel like they’ve waited too long for the right person already,” says Edelman. I know that I felt this way when I was single. After investing so much time and energy into casual relationships that never amounted to anything serious, I eventually found myself burnt out on dating. I logically knew that a good relationship would take time to develop, but I was too exhausted from my past dating experiences to listen to my own voice of reason.
“Love does take time to develop,” says Edelman. And refusing to put in the time has consequences. “You might end up with a toxic relationship because you didn’t take the time to find out if your partner wants the same kind of relationship you want or is capable of a healthy relationship.” That being said, according to Brown, when someone we see a future with comes along, most of us can’t help but make the time. “If you are really attracted to someone and want to be with them, you’ll find the time,” says Brown. When I look back on my own experience, I see what he means. Before meeting my current boyfriend, I had zero desire to put any energy into a new relationship. Then I met Brian, and, even though it took months for us to actually decide to become official, spending time with him came oddly naturally.
We want to become official, but we won’t have the talk.
Ah, the dreaded talk. I’ve spent way too many hours, months, and maybe even years of my life fretting about this trivial conversation within the context of different almost-relationships. And I’m not the only one. When trying to initiate the talk for “maybe the 36th time” with a guy she had been seriously seeing for nine months, 21-year-old Jenna says she “legit had to leave to go throw up” because she was “that nervous.” In the end, Jenna opted to avoid the conversation altogether. “I guess I decided it was better to just keep doing what we were doing instead of having the talk and him possibly shooting me down and leaving,” she explains.
It’s true that putting yourself out there doesn’t always feel like the safest option. “Many people want to play it cool because they don’t want to feel vulnerable or to get rejected,” says Edelman.
Sure, you could just assume the two of you are official when things start to feel more serious. But that could leave you in the midst of an incredibly awkward and hurtful misunderstanding. If you actually like the person you’re seeing and want to be exclusive with them, you have to muster up the courage to be honest about how you feel. “Accept the fact that you are nervous and that it’s probably a good sign,” Brown says. “Anxiety in this situation — actually what we call anticipatory anxiety — simply means that you likely already have feelings for this person and are interested enough to contemplate a future with them. You may feel rejected if you don’t hear what you want to hear, but that is simply part of courtship.”
We believe our intuition will tell us when we’ve met the right person, but we doubt ourselves.
Last summer, 23-year-old Henry* felt as though he’d met The One. Despite the fact that his gut was screaming that his boyfriend was his soulmate, he freaked out and ended things “as soon as the honeymoon phase wore off.” Looking back, he thinks he was afraid of how perfect their relationship was. Matt, 25, has had the same experience several times. Whenever he meets someone he really likes, “for some reason, it scares me as it starts to feel real, or I can imagine us actually being together so I start to disengage and kind of sabotage it,” he says.
With more options and ways to connect with potential partners than ever before, Brown says it’s becoming increasingly difficult to “trust our intuition when it comes to how we feel about a potential partner.” In order to get back in touch with what you really want, he recommends developing a realistic vision for what you’re looking for in a relationship. Unlike a checklist, which consists of the exact specifications you’re looking for in a person, this is a loose idea of the sort of relationship you’d be happy in. If the relationship with the person you’re currently seeing even looks 80% like the one you envisioned, you know you’re on the right track.
The common thread that ties all of these counterintuitive ideologies together is fear. Falling in love requires courage and, like most things that require courage, it’s inherently scary, says Brown. So yes, we’re going to get a little afraid and confused along the way, but that’s just a testament to how badly we want it.