Saturday 19 April 2014

David Quinn: Personal freedom and commitment are rarely comfortable bedfellows

Most 30-somethings say they want a lasting relationship

THE average person in their 30s has had eight sexual partners in their lives to date, according to a survey of people in that age group which the Irish Independent and Today FM have been publicising this week.

That figure of eight hides as much as it reveals. How many of the eight were one-night stands? How many were long-term partners?

How many people regretted ever having anything to do with a previous sexual partner? How many regretted the ending of one of those relationships?

What were the differing experiences of men and women? Did the respondents who listed only a couple of sexual partners have long-term relationships with those partners, whereas the reverse was true of those with multiple sexual partners? How did they feel about that?

A study came out in America a couple of years ago called 'Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood'. It is based on in-depth interviews with hundreds of young adults aged 18-23.

It found that the 'dark side' of young adulthood falls into five categories, namely: excessively materialistic life goals; a fuzzy sense of right and wrong; a lack of civic and political engagement; frequent intoxication; and, finally, regrettable sexual experiences.

This last is experienced mostly by women, or at least they're the ones mostly admitting to it.

The survey of people in their 30s is, as much as anything else, a survey of what the respondents did in their 20s.

People in their 20s now have a very definite 'life-script' and almost everyone in that age group conforms to it, namely that young adulthood is all about freedom, about not 'getting tied down', about exploring all sorts of different possibilities before finally settling down sometime in your 30s.

It's also about getting educated, especially if you're middle-class.

In US universities there is now a well-known phenomenon called the 'hook-up' culture. Romantic relationships are no longer on the cards, but sex is. So is drink and the two are often connected.

One young woman the 'New York Times' interviewed for a feature last year on the hook-up culture described how she arrived in her university a virgin and wanted to lose her virginity after she fell in love.

She soon discovered no one was interested in romance, so she was faced with a choice. She could lose her virginity with someone she fancied while sober and lessen her chances of regretting it afterwards, or else she could get drunk and have sex with someone she wouldn't be caught dead with sober and definitely regret it afterwards.

She went with the first choice and her friends were jealous because many of them did regret their first time – and several other times after that as well.

Is this really liberation? Not in a million years, but modern sexual mores are forcing people to make these kinds of choices.

It is unlikely to be very much different in Irish universities, or elsewhere.

This is the weird part of it. Choice is probably the number-one thing we value in our 20s, and often in later life as well, but when that girl interviewed by the 'New York Times' arrived in university she found she couldn't exercise her choice of losing her virginity to someone she loved and so was forced to opt for the next best thing in case drink really took away her choices.

As this week's survey makes clear, the vast majority of 30-somethings are interested in "having a lasting relationship".

HOWEVER, just 60pc of those surveyed said they were happy with their love lives. Again, you'd like to delve much deeper and find out why. Are they in a relationship they don't much care for? Or are they not in a relationship but want to be?

You'd think after all that experimentation in their 20s – when they're finding out what they like and don't like – that by the time they reach their 30s, the experimenting would be bearing fruit. But for 40pc of people, the answer is no, in their love lives at least.

So what in the world is going on? A big part of the difficulty is probably financial. They simply can't afford to settle down.

But you also have to wonder if the problem that girl interviewed by the 'New York Times' experienced in university (and to judge from various studies there are lots of people in her shoes) carries on into later life as well.

That is, the philosophy of not wanting to get tied down, of not wanting to commit, is carried over from the 20s into the 30s, despite all the talk of wanting to be in a lasting relationship.

Putting personal freedom first is disastrous for relationships because it's disastrous for commitment. Putting our own freedom first has to explain some of the decrease in our marriage rate – which is now lower than Britain's – and a lot of the increase in the number of broken marriages in Ireland, which is up from 20,000 in 1986 to 125,000 in 2011.

In terms of our relationships, what the Irish Independent/Today FM survey hints at is the tension that exists between the very high value we place on our freedom and therefore singlehood on the one hand, and love and commitment on the other.

The fact that only 60pc of people in their 30s are happy with their personal lives reveals a whole lot of dissatisfaction out there.

We're going to need a follow-up survey to find out why so many people are unhappy with their love lives at exactly the point when most of them want to settle down.

Irish Independent

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