The Defining Decade: Why your 20s matter and how to do best out of it

Part 2

Chapt 1: An Upmarket Conversation

Today’s twentysomethings spend more time single than any generation in history. Most will spend years on their own, somewhere between their childhood homes and families of their own. This time gives many people a chance to live it up before they settle down, and to have fun with friends and lovers while the options are open. Some people find each other through friends while others connect online or around town. Some are serial monogamists while others pair with as many people as they can. Pundits and parents worry that marriage is dead, dating is in demise, and hooking up is the new relational medium.

It seems too conventional, or at least politically incorrect, to be strategic about such things. Even clients who desperately want to be married seem embarrassed, or even superstitious, about staking claim to any particular relational dream. We seem to believe that relationships are completely out of our control.

Career, on the other hand, is what we can plan for.As we build a career, it seems there is a book, class, degree, consultant, or service available at every turn.
Maybe that’s as it should be, because careers are important. But along the way, because of these very choice points, there is so much room for revision that developing your career in no way compares to choosing a partner or spouse.

Marriage is one of our most defining moments because so much is wrapped up in it. If building a career is like spending twelve hours at the blackjack table—seeing the cards as you make your decisions, playing each hand with current winnings in mind, having a new opportunity to take a chance or play it safe with every card dealt—then choosing a mate is like walking over to the roulette wheel and putting all your chips on red 32. With one decision you choose your partner in all adult things. Money, work, lifestyle, family, health, leisure, retirement, and even death become a three-legged race. Almost every aspect of your life will be intertwined with almost every aspect of your partner’s life. And let’s face it, if things don’t work out, a marriage cannot just be left off a résumé like a failed job. Even as a divorced couple, you may be forever tied, financially and logistically, as you pay for schools and meet every other weekend in the driveway to exchange the kids.

Older spouses may be more mature, but later marriage has its own challenges. Rather than growing together while their twentysomething selves are still forming, partners who marry older may be more set in their ways. And a series of low-commitment, possibly destructive relationships can create bad habits and erode faith in love. And even though searching may help you find a better partner, the pool of available singles shallows over time, perhaps in more ways than one.


Chap 2: Picking your family

as Aristotle said, “beauty is a greater recommendation than any letter of introduction.”

Often the clients with the toughest family backgrounds know the least about how to get what they want in love. But these are the clients who need to be the most careful. They are the very clients who need to partner well.

There is something scary about picking your family. It’s not romantic. It means you aren’t just waiting for your soulmate to arrive. It means you know you are making decisions that will affect the rest of your life. It means you are thinking about the fact that your relationship needs to work not only in the here and now but also in the there and then.

Twentysomethings who aren’t at least a little scared about their relationships are often the ones who are being the least thoughtful. I wasn’t exactly glad Emma was scared, but I knew her fear was useful. It meant she was taking love as seriously as she had always taken work.

Today, we see marriage as a commitment between two individuals. Western culture is generally individualistic, prizing independence and self-fulfillment in almost all areas. We emphasize rights over duties and choice over obligation. This extends especially to marriage. With some notable exceptions, there has never been more freedom to decide whether, when, and how to partner, and with whom. There is no question that this has led to countless happy unions, as well as the experience of owning one of the most important decisions of our lives. At the same time, the foregrounding of the individual in relationships has caused us to forget about one of our greatest twentysomething opportunities: picking and creating our families.

Clients like Emma feel destined for unhappiness because of broken families. They grew up believing that family was beyond their control, or something other people got to have. The only solution they have ever known has been to turn to friends or therapists or boyfriends for moments of solace, or to swear off family altogether. What no one tells twentysomethings like Emma is that finally, and suddenly, they can pick their own families—they can create their own families—and these are the families that life will be about. These are the families that will define the decades ahead.


Chap 3: The Cohabitation effect

Making the best of things is a damn poor way of dealing with them. My life has been a series of escapes from that quicksand.

In psychotherapy, there’s a saying that “the slower you go, the faster you get there.” Sometimes the best way to help people is to slow them down long enough to examine their own thinking. Everyone has gaps in their reasoning. If you stop and shine a light on these mental ellipses, you find assumptions that drive behavior without our being aware of them.

Living together is a good test for marriage. This is a common misperception.

More than half of all marriages will be preceded by cohabitation. This shift has largely been attributed to the sexual revolution and the availability of birth control, and certainly the economics of young adulthood play a role. But when you talk to twentysomethings themselves, you hear about something else: cohabitation as prophylaxis.

In a representative nationwide survey, nearly half of twentysomethings agreed with the statement “You would only marry someone if he or she agreed to live together with you first, so that you could find out whether you really got along.” About two-thirds of twentysomethings believe that moving in together before marriage is a good way to avoid divorce.

Jennifer was in this group. She imagined that, unlike her own divorced parents who married young and fast, she would be more successful if she waited to get married and if she lived with her partner first. But couples who “live together first” are actually less satisfied with their marriages and more likely to divorce than couples who do not. This is what sociologists call the cohabitation effect.

The cohabitation effect has baffled many marital researchers. Some have fallen back on the explanation that those who cohabitate may be less conventional and more open to divorce in the first place. But research shows that the cohabitation effect is not fully explained by individual characteristics such as religion, education, or politics. Similarly, in my private practice it is not the case that liberals cohabitate and conservatives do not. In fact, the trend toward cohabitation is continuing in both red and blue states—just as it has in every other Western nation.

So what accounts for the cohabitation effect? Why are couples who cohabitate more likely to wind up divorced? The latest research suggests it is something about cohabitation itself.


Chap 4: On Dating Down

She never chose her boyfriends or sex partners; she let them choose her. She became involved with almost any man who showed interest. She sometimes had unprotected sex. She often responded to the two-a.m. booty text, accepting even the thinnest excuses about why the person did not text earlier. Her attitude about any man who came along was “This could work.”

“I tell different people tiny bits and pieces. I think the full story would be too much for any one person,” she said. “The only completely honest conversations I have are with music.”

One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned as a psychotherapist:
The most difficult thing to cure is the patient’s attempt at self-cure. Very few lives are perfect and, because young people are generally resilient, many bounce back from difficulties with their own solutions in place. They may be outdated, imperfect solutions, but they are solutions nonetheless—ones that usually resist dismantling.

A self-cure may seem harmless or subtle, such as the way Cathy soothed herself with music and men. Or it may be obviously troubling, like cutting or bingeing or getting high to numb out. Usually sometime during the twentysomething years, life changes and the old solutions seem cumbersome and out of place. The things that once helped us feel better now get in our way. It’s not OK to go to work with scars on our arms, and live-in girlfriends get tired of seeing us stoned. But we feel like we can’t stop listening to the same music or hooking up for a fleeting moment of attention. A self-cure can take on a life of its own.

There is a stereotype that psychologists are only interested in childhood memories. Childhood is important, but more and more I am curious about what went on in high school. High school and our twenties are not only the time when we have our most self-defining experiences, study after study shows they are also the time when we have our most self-defining memories.

Adolescence is a time of many firsts, including our first attempt to form life stories. As we become capable of—and interested in—abstract thought, we start to put together stories about who we are and why. As our social networks expand across our teens and twenties, we repeat these stories to others and to ourselves. We use them to feel a sense of coherence as we move from place to place.

The stories we tell about ourselves become facets of our identity. They reveal our unique complexity. All at once, they say something about friends, family, and culture. They say something about why we live as we do from year to year.

The power of these untold personal stories is that, like for Cathy, they can loop silently in our minds without anyone, sometimes even ourselves, knowing about them. The stories are often found hiding, as Cathy said, in the gaps between what we plan to do and what we actually do, or between what happens and what we tell people about what happens.

Yet these stories are the bits of identity with perhaps the greatest potential for change. Later, we will hear about how personality can change in our twenties—and it can. But it cannot change as quickly, or as dramatically, as the stories we tell about ourselves. Life stories with themes of ruin can trap us. Life stories that are triumphant can transform us. So, part of what I do with clients like Cathy is help them tell their stories. Then we change them.

Twentysomething women and men who are dating down—or working down, for that matter—usually have untold, or at least unedited, stories. These stories originated in old conversations and experiences and, so, they change only through new conversations and new experiences.

I told Cathy I saw her as a person who had been made to feel “too much” and “less-than” all at the same time. I told her I was concerned that if she kept dating whoever came along, she might just marry whoever came along at thirty-one or thirty-four. We spent many months talking about who she was now: a twentysomething who’d survived years of teenage rejection and emerged as an enthusiastic and beloved teacher, a budding writer, a beautiful and desirable young woman, a Korean American with special knowledge of what it means not to be seen.


Chap 5: Being in Like

What counts in making a happy marriage is not so much how compatible you are, but how you deal with incompatibility.

Eli and his girlfriend were not a particularly good match, but this was not clear to them. They were both good-looking. They were both Jewish and Democrats. They had the same friends and good sex, and the rest they worked around. Both were kindhearted people who wanted to be in a relationship, and they avoided conflict to keep each other happy. Meanwhile, his faithfulness verged on obedience, and her steadiness could be seen as doggedness.

By this I mean two things: being alike in ways that matter and genuinely liking who the other person is. Often these go hand in hand. That is because the more similar two people are, the more they are able to understand each other. Each appreciates how the other acts and how he or she goes about the day, and this forestalls an incredible amount of friction. Two people who are similar are going to have the same reactions to a rainy day, a new car, a long vacation, an anniversary, a Sunday morning, and a big party.

We sometimes hear that opposites attract, and maybe they do for a hookup. More often, similarity is the essence of compatibility. Studies have repeatedly found that couples who are similar in areas such as socioeconomic status, education, age, ethnicity, religion, attractiveness, attitudes, values, and intelligence are more likely to be satisfied with their relationships and are less likely to seek divorce.

The problem is, while people are good at matching themselves and others on relatively obvious criteria, such as age and education, it turns out that these qualities are what researchers call “deal breakers, not match makers.”
They may bring us together, but they don’t necessarily make us happy.

One match maker to consider is personality. Some research tells us that, especially in young couples, the more similar two people’s personalities are, the more likely they are to be satisfied with their relationship. Yet personality is how dating, and even married, couples tend to be least alike. The likely reason for this is, unlike deal breakers, personality is less obvious and not as easy to categorize. Personality is not about what we have done or even about what we like. It is about how we are in the world, and this infuses everything we do. Personality is the part of ourselves that we take everywhere, even to Nicaragua, so it is worth knowing something about.


Link to all three parts of the series:

Part 1: part 1

Part 2: part 2

Part 3: part 3

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