Once upon a time, there was a very fickle and egotistical King named Henry VIII, who wished to leave his wife Catherine, in order to marry his mistress. After many years of attempts taking her past the age of child-bearing, Catherine had failed to give the king a male heir, so Henry felt he needed an “upgrade.” However, there was a slight problem with his plan: it was the 16th century and the Catholic Church strictly forbade divorce. So Henry decided that he would start his own church.
As the “Supreme Head” of the new Church of England, Henry was now free to make any rules that he desired and his first marriage was decreed to be null and void. But this new freedom would prove to be more than Henry could handle, as he eventually went on to have six different wives: one was too bold, one was too unattractive, another was unfaithful. What had once been an irreversible decision had now become a product of whim, and he always seemed to find something to make him dissatisfied with his choice and a reason to cut and run.
In America today, this once exclusively royal prerogative has now become democratized, and we all believe that anything is possible. We can be anything we want, live anywhere we want, date whomever we want—the possibilities have become endless, limited only by one’s imagination. No longer bound by tradition or how the previous generations did things, we’re free to live and to love however we want. (This of course is much truer in theory than in practice, but ideas have consequences, too.)
A lot of ink has been spilt in the last few years wondering what the deal is with 20-somethings. Why are we such commitment-phobes? Why is it taking us so much longer to grow up? Is 30 the new 20? What’s the deal with Hook-Up Culture? Is searching better than finding? New sociological categories have even been created in order to deal with this phenomenon: Emerging Adulthood and Post Adolescence. But how much truth is there really to these new propositions?
20-somethings today do spend more time single than any other generation in history, very few of us go on actual “dates,” and surely none of us have ever “courted” anyone. But as Dr. Meg Jay — a clinical psychologist who specializes in adult development — reveals in her new book, The Defining Decade: Why your twenties matter, while “popular magazines portray a 20-something culture dominated by singles who are almost obsessed with avoiding commitment…behind closed doors, I have yet to meet a 20-something who doesn’t want to get married or at least find a committed relationship.” Maybe, despite all this rhetoric about freedom and choice, we really just want what people have always wanted: love and friendship.
Your 20s is the time in your life when you really “become who you are,” and emerge (or not) as an adult to take up responsibility for yourself and the world around you. While social constructs may change, biology does not. “Our personalities change more during the 20-something years than at any other time before or after,” and Dr. Jay warns “there is a big difference between having a life in your 30s and starting a life in your 30s.”
So is 30 really not the new 20, then? Is this rhetoric of unrestricted freedom really just a liberating fantasy that creates bad habits and erodes our faith in others? Is messing around in our 20s in a series of low-commitment liaisons and drunken debaucheries creating irreversible life patterns, while we tread water in ever shallowing dating pools?
But it does seem logical that if we really do “become who we are” during our 20s, then the experiences that we have and the choices that we make during this time period are much more important than how they are portrayed in our media today. Good relationships, and the skills and habits that create the foundations for them, won’t just magically appear whenever we decide we are ready for them. The ability to compromise, to have open and honest conversations, and empathy, compassion, concern, care and love, all require not only hard work, but a willingness to grow out of the selfishness of adolescence and into the responsibility that adulthood and freedom necessarily entail.
This newfound freedom and choice that we now have is absolutely a good thing, but as with all human things, it is a bit of a mixed blessing, as well. And like Henry before us, it has begun to take a toll on our relationships, making our ability to commit to others, not only much more problematic, but also requiring much more of us. With the timeline of life extending and the social stigma of divorce dissolving, the only things binding us to our commitments anymore are our will and our word — I sure hope we’re ready for this.