The yearning for a stable relationship is big, but the expectations for today's young adults are even bigger. And in the Internet age, the options always seem endless.
BERLIN — If you focus solely on yourself, you'll miss true love. This is the driving message of Michael Nast's book Generation Beziehungsunfähig ("A Generation Unable to Commit"), which has become a bestseller in Germany.
The generation in question — the so-called Millennials, or Generation Y, born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s — is plagued by that constant feeling that there's something better out there somewhere. And now, Nast's book seems to have hit a nerve. "A lot of people think they aren't capable of having a healthy relationship," he says.
Still, this concept of unconquerable self-absorption may be overstated. Scientists have shown that there is universal desire for a classic, stable partnership. Only the expectations, and the idea of what it should represent, have changed dramatically over generations.
Its purpose and place in life have changed too. People aren't in relationships anymore because it's comfortable. These days, it must have some added value. A partnership is something people invest in only if it's really worth it. Today's romantic relationships also suffer from a general mania about "optimization."
What do people want? The perfect partner. And the possibilities have become more than vast, thanks to the Internet. So in a world where the desire for partnership is unaltered, isn't it wrong to speak of an "inability to commit"?
Franz Never, head of the institute of Psychology at Germany's Friedrich-Schiller-University in Jena, is skeptical. "People certainly are not incapable of committing," he says. "Everyone needs, and is looking for, an emotional anchor, someone they can hold on to, trust, someone who shares the good and the bad with them."
Statistics also undermine the notion of commitment troubles. For years, singles have comprised a minority of the population, between 20% and 25%. Even the incidence of divorce is falling. In 2005 the divorce rate was about 52%, but by 2014 it had dropped to 43%. Moreover, marriages generally last about three years longer than they did 20 years ago.
Still, some of the more recent data are not so rosy. The number of weddings has declined over the last 10 years, and the number of couples divorcing after their silver wedding anniversary has doubled over 20 years.
What's the true story behind this supposed "inability to commit"? Benigna Gerisch, a professor of clinical psychology and psychoanalysis, has studied the phenomenon. What has changed is what Gerisch calls the "Susie principle." She has treated many women in the past who suffered from miserable lives as mistresses, depending on men who weren't available, often married — and who certainly didn't plan to change anything.
These loving, waiting, unhappy women are very rare today, Gerisch says. Today's Susie do become mistresses, if they want to. But the moment these women change their goals, they also change their strategy.
Among Gerisch's patients today are depressed men who have been ditched by their mistresses because they found other available men, probably also better-looking and wealthier.
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It's not you, it's us ... — Photo: Bart Booms
Eli Finkel's team of scientists from Northwestern University analyzed this evolution in their latest publication. They use Maslow's hierarchy of needs to explain human needs, in what order they have to be satisfied and where relationships fit into the mix.
The most fundamental needs are physiological ones like hunger. Once satisfied, people can move on to the next step — security. Economic security but also the need to live in a controllable and predictable world. Next are love and belonging, the wish to be loved and to be part of a group. Then there are more individual needs like the desire for prestige, respect, success. Atop Maslow's pyramid are self-actualization, personal growth, autonomy. Historically, the last two needs developed much later than the first ones — only once everything else was covered. Today it's a natural claim to satisfy those needs.
The consequence of such a perception of entitlement is that relationships have adopted an "all-or-nothing" status. That's especially true because the rise of the Internet and online dating have multiplied the number of potential candidates. Even if a partner satisfies all the current needs, there is another candidate at every corner, who is probably even more perfect.
"No matter if you want that or not, the pressure for efficiency and optimization is part of our everyday private and professional lives and we have to deal with it," Finkel says. "Many have adopted and internalized this cultural norm because it seems logical. Why wouldn't you want to improve and make progress?"
Psychologist Caryl Rusbult has developed a model of investment that helps predict whether a relationship will keep its non-binding character. It says that commitment depends on three factors: how happy someone is with his or her relationship, existence and availability of potential alternative partners, and readiness to integrate the partner into one's life. In the age of the Internet, says Rusbult's model, all three factors are influenced in a way that makes satisfying relationships much harder to build.
If you're in a relationship today and count on remaining there, you really have to want it. In general, people do want stable relationships. But there's a huge difference between what people say they want, and what they really want.
Michael Nast doesn't want to be eternally single. But right now he's so busy. There's the book tour, photo shoots. His job is his self-realization. His ex-girlfriend, on the other hand, says that everything that makes him good at his job was just deadly for their relationship.