Is dating dead? That’s the popular question from those seeking to understand hookup culture and the technologically-driven, casual romantic meet-up. Young adults are taking their time to commit to long-term relationships (LTRs), a phenomenon characteristic of the new developmental period of emerging adulthood. This extended period allows for individuals to explore relationship preferences and enjoy sex without the pressure to commit to a LTR. The intentional planning of serious dates is exchanged for ambiguous, casual encounters.
A hookup, defined by Garcia and colleagues, is an “uncommitted sexual encounter.” Hookup culture, as Dr. Lisa Wade describes in her new book—American Hookup—is the perception that everyone is having fun hooking up, and you should be to. Whether someone calls it a hookup or casual sex, there are unspoken norms about how to behave, with a strong emphasis on the non-committal aspect of the hookup. Wade shares that to stress that a hookup did not mean anything, individuals may avoid caring actions such as hand-holding, eye contact, general kindness, and texting back. Some avoid hooking up with people they actually like. Communication is passive and inauthentic, often through text message; a direct sharing of emotions and relational needs is rare.
Based on Wade’s research and the current research on love and attachment, the relational behaviors of the casual hookup run counter to biological processes driving love and attachment. The very strategies used to avoid connection are ones needed to create connection. Dr. Helen Fisher, who uses MRI scanning to observe the brain in love, reports that love and sex create a wash of neurotransmitters and hormones in the brain which allow us to focus our energy on being with one person (and creating offspring). Eye contact or not, emotionless sex is a myth; individuals can feel stuck between the message to keep it casual and the powerful emotions and sensations inherent to sexual activity.
In blogs, news articles, and think pieces, young adults have communicated differing opinions about the new norm: some love it, some hate it, and some just want to get a text back. Trying not to care, some young adults eventually burn out from casual encounters, often feeling hurt and cynical. What seems to be most common is that individuals enjoy the freedom of hooking up for a time, but can find it overwhelming to bridge the gap into LTRs—which come with a different set of patterns of behavior necessary for cultivating and sustaining love.
Avoidance and indirect expression of emotion prevents emotional attunement—an essential ingredient of a successful LTR—with another. Partners in committed relationships are seeking assurance that their partners are available, emotionally responsive, and dependable. Verbal and nonverbal responses that are direct, honest, and caring, are the foundation for love and trust. This requires individuals to take a higher risk—compared to the low-risk in uncommitted sexual encounters—in authentically expressing themselves, in hopes of establishing a stronger connection in a relationship.
Young adults have more time to choose a partner, and there are more resources available than ever to help people love and connect with another person. Even if emerging adults are not ready to commit to an LTR, there are ways for this season of freedom to be more intentional, effective, and peaceful:
- Maintain awareness of cultural pressures to disconnect. Culture has a powerful influence on behavior. Consider whether the urge not to text back is based on what you want verses what you feel you should do.
- Explore your willingness to be vulnerable, take emotional risks, and engage the discomfort of potential rejection. If discomfort and fear of vulnerability are barriers to life you want, consider talking to a counselor.
- Seek out information about the connection between the brain, body, and emotions. Understanding the neurological and biological power of love and sex can help you make informed decisions and untangle confusing emotions.
- Practice kindness and authenticity in casual encounters. You may not be ready to commit, but you can engage in caring behaviors that create a foundation for future interactions that could lead to an LTR. To “meet authentic,” you need to be open and honest about what you want. This also creates opportunities to learn how potential partners may respond to your invitations to connect.
- Rather than avoid people you like, pursue them. With people who share similarities in personality and values, you may find the collective strength to bridge the gap from hooking up to finding love.
We recommend these resources to learn more about your attachment style, effective communication, vulnerability and authenticity, and relationship building strategies:
Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find—And Keep—Love by Amir Levine, M.D. and Rachel S. F. Heller, M. A.
Hooked by Joe S. McIlhaney, Jr., MD and Freda McKissic Busch, MD
Love Sense by Dr. Sue Johnson
What Makes Love Last? by John Gottman, Ph.D., and Nan Silver
Daring Greatly by Brene Brown, Ph.D., LCSW