If the media is to be believed, when it comes to love and relationships, millennials are in a state of catastrophe. Hookup culture has replaced genuine connection; courtship is dead. Common courtesies like break-ups? There’s an app for that. And even though the heavily-cited scare stat that 50% of all marriages end in divorce has been debunked for years now, it’s hard to muster up faith in a generation that would put their chance at finding someone to build a future with into an app that will let them right-swipe down the path of least resistance.
While we’ve started to realize that most of these headlines are bombastic, how do you reconcile that with real statistics showing that young people are getting married significantly later in life? Or that the percentage of women having children in their 20s has dropped decade over decade? The problem may just be in how we’re looking at those numbers.
For example, the percentage of women having children in their 20s has dropped not due to values, but to increasing gender equality in the workplace. That high divorce rate? Not necessarily just a sign of marital failure; from another lens, it’s proof that female earning potential and gender equality has come leaps and bounds from where it was before. In fact, even as statistics change, traditional values seem to hold: the number of millennials who want to get married is almost as high as it was in decades past: currently hovering around a robust 70%. The number who want to have kids is even higher, at 74%.
While our goalposts are indeed moving for what love and relationships looks like, there’s no reason to believe they’re moving backwards. In fact, the strongest relationships now are more deeper and nuanced than their generational predecessors. As psychologist Eli Finkel, who studies relationship dynamics, noted, “The average marriage today is weaker than the average marriage of yore, in terms of both satisfaction and divorce rate, but the best marriages today are much stronger, in terms of both satisfaction and personal well-being.” Millennials views on relationships have changed, but on the whole, researchers are finding that these relationships are changing for the better. They’re more independent, they’re flexible, and their bedrocks are personal growth, partnership, and mutual success. And perhaps most importantly, they work. These Generation Y relationships have tangible physical and mental health benefits, that strongly impact millennials’ personal and professional lives.
As Finkel observed, relationship commitment has gone through a few iterations. From the founding of the country until about 1850, marriages were largely institutional; focused mainly on shelter, food, and protection from violence, as well as, of course, procreation. Love was present, but often secondary to survival. As industrialization became the norm, for over a century, the institutional marriage gave way to the companionate marriage: relationships were centered on the need to love and be loved. Because men were spending more time in offices, while women maintained homes - and as Americans became wealthier and had the time to pursue things, like casual dating - these separate social spheres built a need to carve out time to look for relationships. But, as Finkel notes, around 1965, the self-expressive marriage became the new normal: the idea that marriage isn’t a necessary essential, but is a way to feel fulfilled. Says Finkel, “Americans now look to marriage increasingly for self-discovery, self-esteem and personal growth.”
A simpler way of putting it? Pairing off isn’t enough. Millennials have more gender equality than any previous generation. Marriage isn’t a woman’s only ticket to consistently having food on the table. Relationships, especially good relationships, are now part of a path to finding and being one’s best self - just a change in the journey, rather than the destination itself. As sociologist Robert Bellah puts it, love is now “the mutual exploration of infinitely rich, complex and exciting selves.” And the payoffs of that kind of love can be astronomic.
A University of Missouri analysis of 14 studies conducted between 1979 and 2002 found that higher marital quality is strongly correlated with a higher level of personal well-being - a concurrence that is no small observation, given how much contradictory data usually exists in the field of relationship science. A 2012 study by the National Marriage Project found that couples who spent “time alone with each other talking, or sharing an activity” were three and a half times more likely to be very happy with their marriage, compared to their counterparts who set less time aside. A separate study found that couples with a larger collection of shared friends and activities spent more time together, which in turn also led to stronger marriages.
Self-expression in relationships isn’t just about marriage, though. In fact, modern millennial relationships tend to be more flexible than ever - largely aided by dating apps like Tinder that have lowered the barrier to finding a partner, short or long term. But don’t call it hookup culture. It’s merely an expression of another core millennial value: independence, which is just as much about finding one’s individual path to happiness as it is to getting it on repeatedly and often. As Rolling Stone reported, the number of young people opting for non-monogamous relationships is on the rise. Even open relationships, once seen as a bygone concept of a free love era, have a new, grounded in reality take. The “new monogamy,” a term coined by medical journal Psychotherapy Networker to describe modern open relationships, isn’t about sleeping around guilt free. Instead, it’s “a type of polyamory in which the goal is to have one long-standing relationship and a willingness to openly acknowledge that the long-standing relationship might not meet each partner’s emotional and sexual needs for all time.”
Whether modern millennial relationships mean multiple partners, or they lead down the traditional aisle towards marriage and children, there’s no denying that their formation and execution is more purposeful than Generation X thinks. Perhaps most importantly, if and when millennials enter into relationships, they do so more and more with long-term goals; goals that have tangible impacts on their work, their health, and their pursuit of happiness. What’s more, they’re entering into relationships because they want to do better by all those metrics. Which is to say: when millennials enter relationships, they’ve weighed the costs and benefits, and are largely doing so in ways that makes both people (or, for our non-monogamous peers, all the people) better for it.
Infographic by Goldman Sachs
Strong relationships mean more than money. As the BBC found, a doubling of pay led to a happiness rise of just 0.2 points overall, while being with a partner made individual well-being shoot up to 0.6. Comparatively, a Harvard study found that a lack of strong relationships puts a person at a 50% higher risk for premature death - the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes per day. The quality of relationships matters as well: women who reported being in highly satisfying relationships were found to have significantly lower risks for cardiovascular disease, about 5% lower than their less satisfied counterparts. Men and women in strong relationships also live longer. The social support that relationships can bring has such a strong impact on physical and mental health that one study even found noticeably reduced immunity amongst couples prone to explosive fights.
That’s not to say that strong relationships come easy. Strong relationships take a heavy investment of time to build. After all, if the happiest of couples talk five hours more per week on average, but your socioeconomic status requires both partners to be working 16 hour days, where do those extra hours to invest in relationships come from? As Finkel observed, divorce rates were largely constant across demographics through the 1960s and 1970s. It was only around the 1980s, when globalization led to mass commercialization in America, that divorce rates began to increase exponentially for minorities, compared to their white peers - a trend largely attributed to the fact that the time and energy needed to “work” on one’s relationship was a privilege not as easily afforded to those who had to work longer hours for far less money.
Yet regardless of time spent, the expectations for strong relationships have raised significantly. As the authors of the Missouri paper found, “Americans today have elevated their expectations of marriage and can in fact achieve an unprecedentedly high level of marital quality — but only if they are able to invest a great deal of time and energy in their partnership. If they are not able to do so, their marriage will likely fall short of these new expectations. Indeed, it will fall further short of people’s expectations than at any time in the past.”
How can millennials bridge the gap between expectation and reality? By seeking out strong social support. If the crux of relationships that lead to health benefits is the level of social support partners provide each other - defined by the Harvard researchers as “a range of activities...from offers of help or advice to expressions of affection” - then they need to receive that same social support from external institutions. The divergence of the divorce rate between minorities and whites is directly correlated, for example, to workplace policies. Minimum-wage jobs tend to have less flexible family policies for employees, such as maternal and paternal leave, child care, even personal days. But by seeking out workplaces that prioritize employees’ well-being, millennials have more time to focus on their personal life and relationships to find what fits them best.
While there’s no shortage of tips and statistics to try to measure up to in pursuit of the perfect, progressive millennial relationship, the Michelangelo phenomenon can sum up successful millennial relationships best. Defined by researchers at Northwestern, the phenomenon goes “when close partners affirm and support each other's ideal selves, they and the relationship benefit greatly.” Millennials may be finding their way down the proverbial aisle far differently than they have in the past - and in far more permutations than just straight, married coupledom - but there’s no data to suggest that they’re doing so without a care in the world. Judging by the mental, physical, and spiritual benefits these millennials are looking for in their everyday lives, they seem to be taking their partnerships far more seriously - and finding them infinitely more fulfilling - than any generation past.