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OPINION: A loving relationship is great, but so are autonomy and individuality

Posted by Alex Pearlman  March 14, 2012 09:20 AM

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self-love and autonomy love and be loved.jpgBy Megan Riesz

“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return” -- ah, the wisdom of Moulin Rouge. These words, which struck Cupid’s arrow into hearts across America, are reminiscent of a time when giving and receiving love from a partner was fundamental to social survival.

But is anyone listening to those words in 2012, in this age of individuality and casual sex (the estranged descendants of plurality and monogamy)? Today, it seems, there are other means of social survival, and they revolve around something far more basic: Sex that need not involve bestowment of love or emotion any more than it need be monogamous.

Enter any college party and witness tens, maybe hundreds, of young adults fighting for their social lives. Some crane their necks over the crowd, searching for potential partners, long-term or otherwise. Others hit the bar for liquid courage. Everyone is united in one common goal: hooking up or having a story to tell in the morning (the two usually go hand in hand).

This sort of exhibitionism is now expected and applauded, especially if it’s noncommittal. The prevailing ideology is that everyone should tend to his or her free spirit, regardless of the consequences. “Late adolescents and college students love themselves more today than ever before,” Dr. Nathan DeWall, a psychologist at the University of Kentucky, told The New York Times; critics are often right when they say that this is the “Me Generation.” But the sad truth is, while personal and sexual freedom are awesome, few of us are as free as we might believe.

My own decision to remain single for the last few years, to enjoy college life as I thought it should be enjoyed -- with no strings attached -- wasn’t a decision I made by myself. Like most others, I’ve watched movies and television shows. I’ve also listened to other people talk. I was pretty easily convinced: Who could say no to anything resembling the free love movement?

But now, I wonder if I’ve been gypped. Have I become so individualized, so autonomous, that I’ve forgotten what it’s like to love and be loved back? “[This generation believes that] nobody has any natural or general responsibility or obligation to help other people,” writes Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith in Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults. “Most of those interviewed said that it is nice if people help others, but that nobody has to. Taking care of other people in need is an individual’s choice. If you want to do it, good. If not, that’s up to you.”

There are benefits to being romantically self-concerned -- choosing singlehood means not having to answer to anyone, for example -- but that liberation has its consequences, one of which has been the hook-up culture that has wrecked the importance of compassion.  People quite often view their potential partners as means to an end, whether that end is sexual satisfaction or mere bragging rights. It’s rare that sex is the means to a meaningful connection or relationship.

But if we could go back in time, what could we change without wreaking some other form of havoc? Hook-up culture is a result of the sexual revolution, a movement that afforded American women the personal freedom that so many other women don’t have. Yes, the outcome might mean things are murkier, but wrangling with the aftermath of a positive societal transformation is better than not having to at all.

So is the greatest thing, in fact, to love and be loved in return? It’s one of the greatest things. But for some, freedom and self-indulgence is, too. As for now, it’s all subjective.

Do you prefer a mutually loving relationship or the freedom of singledom? Is there a way to find a balance?

Photo by honor the gift (Flickr)

About Megan -- Megan Riesz is a junior at Boston University studying news-editorial journalism and women's studies. Her passions are women's and social issues, as well as U.S. politics. On the weekends, you can find her re-watching "Game of Thrones" episodes or playing the latest installment of "Assassin's Creed." Or enjoying a nice brew.

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