The XX Factor

Should Young Women Feel Ashamed for Wanting a Boyfriend?

Is it totally retrograde to dream of a serious relationship in your 20s?

Photo by ROLAND MAGUNIA/AFP/Getty Images

On Tuesday, the Atlantic ran an article suggesting that driven young women are starting to feel self-conscious about their desires for a serious relationship. Below, the ladies of Double X reflect on that claim: Are committed twentysomethings missing out? Do success at work and boyfriend have to be mutually exclusive?

Jennifer Lai: Seems like a lot of twentysomething women, including me, have felt bad? strange? uncomfortable? guilty? childish? about wanting a boyfriend—but we hardly talk about it. When I passed along that Atlantic piece to a few friends yesterday, many of them admitted to me privately (and somewhat sheepishly) that they’ve felt that anxiety before. And despite being  so close to many of them, it was the first time I’d heard about it. Why is it so embarrassing for some twentysomethings to admit to each other that they want a committed relationship? For me, part of it is it seems so dumb to talk about “wanting a boyfriend” when there are so many other things that we’re focusing on—our ambitions, professional careers, personal development, creative projects. But then again, what’s wrong with wanting the comfort and stability that we have been looking for since we were cave people?

Aisha Harris: I think there’s a difference between wanting some reliable comfort from time to time and wanting an actual relationship. How can you want a relationship if you have no prospects? Unless you’re actually casually dating someone (or have a secret crush on someone you interact with regularly), actively “wanting” a boyfriend seems rather silly to me.

Ellen Tarlin: I disagree. I think it’s almost unavoidable. Relationships are so romanticized and overvalued in our society! We are plagued by images of them. On the other side, being in a good relationship is a wonderful thing. I don’t see why anyone wouldn’t want that. It’s no different from, say, wishing you had a best friend or a really great group of friends or something.

Amanda Marcotte: My feeling is that it’s counterproductive. I could tell if I went on a date with a guy if he just wanted a girlfriend and I was being auditioned. Those guys never got a second date. I wanted to be wanted for me, not because he had an opening for the girlfriend role. I imagine guys feel the same. It may not be rational, but that’s how people are. They want to feel special.

Laura Helmuth: I don’t mean to be unsympathetic, but I am kind of thrilled that this is considered embarrassing among smart young women.Having a boyfriend and/or being well on the way to marriage used to be the default for twentysomethings. It’s fascinating that the social stigma has reversed so dramatically.

Hanna Rosin: I like Laura am amazed at how the stigma has reversed. When I was in my 20s in the ‘90s, we were somewhere in between. We weren’t like Sylvia Plath characters standing around the office coffee machine batting our eyelids or anything. But we certainly felt no SHAME about wanting a boyfriend. Of course you wanted a boyfriend? Who didn’t? 

I feel like this moment we’re in now of shame about the boyfriend is great and necessary for progress and all that but will recalibrate and settle down. It’s like gay sex in the ‘70s. It’s a moment in time, but it doesn’t stay that way forever. A few years later gay couples were filling out marriage registries at Crate and Barrel, too.

Rachel Larimore: I was in my 20s along with Hanna, and I think she is spot on. And I have to say, it seems like a blissfully stress-free golden age in comparison. I had friends who had boyfriends, and I had friends who didn’t, and we had zero existential hand-wringing over whether one was “right” or “wrong.” Were my single friends looking for guys? Sure, but no more so than anything else in life. They also wanted nice apartments or cool cars or that really awesome leather coat. (It was the ‘90s, remember.)

Ellen Tarlin: Well, I was in my 20s BEFORE Hanna and Rachael. And I still had relatives asking me, “Do you have a boyfriend?” “When are you going to get married?” and the famous, “How are you going to find a husband at NYU?”

I was also of that generation in which girls’ self-esteem was gutted once we hit the double digits. I think in college we just wanted to know that we were going to end up with someone someday—that we were worthy (I know this sounds mortifying to you post-feminists)—then that would free us up to have fun in the present.

Emma Roller: On the other side of this, I feel a lot of guilt for having a wonderful, stable relationship with my boyfriend of two-plus years. I’m  anxious about missing out on what the zeitgeist says the 20s lifestyle “should” be (playing the field, etc.), but what if I’m happy where I’m at?

Juliana Jimenez: I hear you. I sometimes get a bit anxious over that as well—that I’m missing my 20s and I’m really living a 30s kind of life with my stable boyfriend and what not.

Bryan Lowder: There’s nothing that says once you’re in a relationship you have to hibernate or move to a house in the suburbs (metaphorically speaking). And if you’re worried about missing out on the growth-potential of sex/flirtation/lover-having, there are all kinds of open relationship arrangements that allow for that—Dan Savage says so, and now it’s in House of Cards! I guess my point is that the culturally loaded dichotomy of “relationship” and “single” just doesn’t seem that real to me—or at least, the line is only as stark as we make it out to be.

Meg Wiegand: I guess I’m the minority here: I’m in my late 20s, perpetually single, and very much worried about not finding someone. I know I’m absolutely fine on my own, and like Aisha, I’ve rarely met anyone I would ever want to consider being ”attached” to. But I continue to bounce on and off online dating sites and go on dates with friends of friends (mostly just ending up with great cocktail fodder) in hopes of finding someone who could be a partner.

Part of me is embarrassed by this—that I’ve escaped small-town Ohio and lived abroad and have a master’s degree but can’t find a partner. The other part feels that society already tells me that I should be ashamed of my body fat and short legs and hair that isn’t straight and blond, so why should I take this any more seriously? And why is this any different than feeling lonely because my family members and close friends are a plane ride away?

Alyssa Rosenberg: What strikes me as weird about this conversation, and why this shift in priorities doesn’t seem like a complete feminist victory, is that it discounts the idea that a relationship can be an incredible source of support for career and life goals. Having someone who, say, helps with chores to give you more time to study or work, or who encourages you when you’re discouraged, or works in a similar field and helps you with ideas, who backs you publicly, etc? All this stuff can make it much easier to work harder and in a more productive way or to work through difficult challenges. I’m not sure we should get psyched by the idea that young women don’t want relationships but rather by the idea that women want more from their relationships or that we view relationships as part of a larger matrix of things that can work well together.

Jennifer Lai: It seems that twentysomethings feel that relationships take more away (are more work, energy, time, etc.) than they give …

Alyssa Rosenberg: Right, but what I’m interested in is the question of why people believe that? And whether that attitude is an interim step toward rethinking what it is we get out of relationships?

Jennifer Grose: I 100 percent agree with Alyssa. I never really felt like I was missing out on my 20s even though my husband and I met when I was 23. I think that’s because in a healthy relationship you will support each other’s goals. I never understood the idea that I couldn’t both have a relationship and go go go at my career. In fact, I probably saved a lot of time in some ways because I didn’t have to go out on the hunt.

Ellen Tarlin: Because twentysomething men are selfish! (Joke. Sort of.) No, I’d say because these ideas about what women should be or do die hard. Your boyfriend or husband may support the ideals of feminism, but when he gets home, maybe he’d just really like it if you would make dinner, too. (Who wouldn’t?)