Young people aren’t connecting. Here’s why that’s a bigger problem than you think
I have never understood people who claim they’re not relationship people.
What does that mean, exactly? Sure, one could assume that they’re referring to romantic relationships, but from what I’ve seen, such people pride themselves on a lack of any attachment.
Such a statement might evoke images of a lone wolf, bravely weathering life’s storms without companionship. But I’ve always pictured the classic bouncing DVD screensaver: aimless. Untethered. Presumably sad. Incredibly bored and wholly unsatisfied, never hitting the coveted, comforting corner.
As Sari Cooper, couples counselor and AASECT certified sex therapist, director of Center for Love and Sex in New York City, told me, people (especially young folks) tend to romanticize these unattached, lone wolf types.
“I think American society has always glorified the rugged individual who succeeds on their own. The underdog who becomes a billionaire, the immigrant who succeeds in winning some great prize in their field,” said Cooper in an email. “Some younger people tend to mistakenly believe that to ‘make it’ you shouldn’t express vulnerability or get ‘tied down’ with one person as your partner.”
Americans have always idealized independence. But not only can this indicate to young folks that yes, they can achieve success — a completely worthy pursuit in itself — but that they should isolate themselves to do so. Success, society seems to believe, is best received, and perhaps most achievable, alone.
“Even these terms are enlarged cartoon-like versions of how allowing oneself to be vulnerable and relying on others and being accepting of others’ leaning on you, can actually increase one’s resilience when things don’t go your way in life,” Cooper continued.
Research seems to support what Cooper has observed. Social psychologist Sara Konrath conducted a study exploring attachment styles among college adults over time. The study, according to The Atlantic, “yielded some disturbing results.”
Konrath and her team found a 56% increase in dismissive attachment styles. There was an 18% uptick in fearful or anxious attachment styles. According to The Atlantic, both attachment types are “associated with lack of trust and self-isolation.”
As a certified young person, I found this unsurprising. I’ve spent many nights with friends, full of vulnerable revelations and heart-to-hearts, confessing and dissecting our attachment styles. All were either dismissive or anxious.
This shift in attachment styles among the young makes sense — especially if young people associate success with independence as Cooper theorized.
It was what researchers revealed in their meta-review that I found the most disturbing: “Compared with college students in the late 1980s, a larger proportion of students today agree that they are ‘comfortable without close emotional relationships.’”
Why can’t people connect emotionally?
According to a 2019 study, entitled The Friendship Report, 1 in 10 people don’t have a best friend. One in five are completely uninterested in having friends at all.
As Miriam Kirmayer, therapist and doctoral candidate in psychology specializing in interpersonal relationships, said in The Friendship Report, it can be easy to convince yourself that you don’t need connections.
“It can be so difficult to sit with the discomfort, loneliness and shame that comes with feeling like we don’t have enough friends or social connections,” Kirmayer said. “For some people, instead of tolerating this discomfort or using it as motivation to seek out new connections and strengthen existing ones, they react by putting up walls and convincing themselves that they don’t need friends.”
This behavior, according to Kirmayer, “invalidates our universal need for genuine human connection.” It’s also often associated with insecure attachment styles.
In The Friendship Report, Wolfgang Kruger, German psychotherapist and author of “The Difficult Luck of Friendship,” said that those with few friends suffer mentally, emotionally and physically. “People who have very few or zero friends tend to suffer from anxiety, depression, and are sick more often. Long-term studies have shown that their life span is decreased by 20%.”
“These people are less happy because happiness is mainly based on the steady foundation of friendship,” Kruger concluded.
People have less time
As The Friendship Report noted, many young people don’t form strong connections because they’ve convinced themselves they don’t need them. Another factor fueling isolation is a lack of time.
A 2019 study found that “good friendships” can form by spending 120 to 160 hours together over the course of three weeks. But it takes 200 or more hours, over six weeks, to create a close friendship.
But Americans only spend 41 minutes on average socializing a day — which is a third of the time they spend watching TV or commuting.
“Given significant constraints on free time, especially among working adults and parents,” researchers wrote in their study, “How many hours does it take to make a friend?”, “individuals must budget their time wisely to make time for friends.”
As Kate Leaver, journalist and author of “The Friendship Cure,” said in The Friendship Report, friendship requires “investment in time and emotional energy.”
People are less trusting
What’s more, people have become less trusting. In a 2011 study, researchers found that Americans trust no more than 20 people. And that number might be shrinking — another study found that our personal networks are getting smaller.
The number of those who said that “there is no one with whom they discuss important matters” almost tripled from 1985 to 2004. Meanwhile, the number of confidants Americans have “decreased by about a third” between 1985 and 2004.
The extensive time it takes to create close friendships, plus the level of trust required to cultivate emotional closeness, makes friendship feel like an investment — and a potential risk. Is it any wonder that more young people have insecure attachment styles?
Younger people lack relationship practice
In Cooper’s opinion, younger people’s perception of close relationships, and lack thereof, comes from a “lack of practice.”
Because young people have had only a few long-term relationships, they’re simply “less practiced in the expectations and reactions to the interplay of (emotional attachment),” she said.
According to Cooper this hesitation comes down to, perhaps unsurprisingly, anxiety — commonly found in insecure attachment styles.
“I would guess that today’s college students’ higher anxiety levels contribute to their hesitance to get too emotionally close to others,” Cooper said.
This hesitancy ends up hurting young people, according to Tianna Soto, a lifestyle journalist specializing in psychology.
“As humans, we’re wired for connection. We’re designed to be in connection with other people,” Soto told me. “And we all have this innate desire to be loved and seen and affirmed. Why are we pulling that back, if it should be something that should be celebrated?”
What are attachment styles?
It’s time that we fully address a concept that has come up multiple times in connection research: attachment styles. It feels like, as of late, attachment styles have been looming over our collective heads. Menacingly.
Attachment styles were developed by John Bowlby in the 1950s, per The Attachment Project, but discovering one’s attachment style has only recently become cool, especially among the young. Countless quizzes are dedicated to discovering one’s attachment style. Only a lucky few will find themselves securely attached.
As The Atlantic recently proclaimed, “America is in its insecure-attachment era.”
What are the four attachment styles?
Our attachment style arises from “emotional bond(s)” from “early childhood,” per The Attachment Project. Think of it as the lens we wear to navigate our relationships, the filter through which we sift our interactions.
There are four attachment styles, according to The Attachment Project:
Anxious, also known as preoccupied
According to The Attachment Project, “People with this attachment style value their relationships highly, but are often anxious and worried that their loved one is not as invested in the relationship as they are.”
Those with an anxious attachment style often have a fear of abandonment and perceive the attention and care they receive from their partner as the “remedy” for their anxiety.
Avoidant, also known as dismissive
According to The Attachment Project, those with avoidant attachment styles see themselves as “lone wolves.” They often have high self-esteem and, per The Attachment Project, don’t “want to depend on others, have others depend on them, or seek support and approval in social bonds.”
Adults with an avoidant attachment style often actively avoid close relationships.
Disorganized, also known as fearful-avoidant
The Attachment Project describes those with disorganized attachment as displaying “unstable and ambiguous behaviors in their social bonds.”
According to Cooper, “Their style of attachment is a mixture of a longing for closeness, but when one gets the intimacy one craves, then becoming frightened and withdrawing in an avoidant fashion to protect their sense of vulnerability.”
While the past three attachments were insecure, a secure attachment style “implies that a person is comfortable expressing emotions openly,” per The Attachment Project. Those with secure attachment styles “thrive in their relationships, but also don’t fear being on their own.”
How do you deal with attachment insecurity?
Most young people today have insecure attachment styles. So what can they do?
Luckily for those young folks, there is a path to healing, according to the experts. Here’s how to follow it:
1. Understand your attachment style
The first step to dealing with your insecure attachment style is understanding your insecure attachment style. There are a few ways to do this: you can take The Attachment Style’s quiz, dig into Bowlby’s attachment theory or even read “Attached,” which analyzes adult attachment, according to Greater Good Magazine.
According to BetterHelp, “By learning more about yourself and why you are who you are in a relationship, you can take control of your destiny.”
2. Go to therapy
Often, when it comes to insecure attachment styles, you can’t heal on your own. That’s why it’s best to seek out an experienced professional who understands, and has had experience with, insecure attachment styles.
Greater Good Magazine recommends asking any prospective therapists “if they’ve ever had a patient or client who they’ve seen make the leap from insecure to secure attachment.” Once you find a good fit, your therapist can guide you to better relationship and attachment health.
3. Build your self-esteem
Most insecure attachments, except for avoidant, both rely on their partners or friends and generate anxiety from their relationships. The best way to combat this, says Soto, is to build your sense of self.
“I find that building your sense of self and your independence, or your own self esteem separate of what your partner’s actions are, can be huge,” Soto said, adding that there are “many ways to do that.”
According to BetterHelp, you can do the following to increase self-love:
Care for yourself: This includes investing “your money and time into making yourself happy.”
“Practice gratitude towards yourself”: BetterHelp recommends that you remember that “you are a valid and worthy soul with much to give.”
Set boundaries: According to BetterHelp, a good measure of someone’s self esteem “is found in the way they allow others to treat them.” Make sure to set boundaries with those around you.
4. Put yourself elsewhere
If you find yourself with an anxious or disorganized attachment, Soto recommends putting your anxieties and emotions into a particular hobby or activity.
“I find that sometimes it helps to find a place to put that care and that energy, that’s not just one person. So for me, it’s writing, music, art, even consuming things that will allow you to feel,” Soto said. “Because if you’re trying to have it all exist in this vacuum of your relationship, in this container, it can just be too much to handle.”
“No one person, I think, can feed all the emotions that we have,” Soto concluded.
Is there any hope?
Research might paint a bleak portrait of relationships among young people today, but there’s still cause for hope. Those with insecure attachment styles can change — as therapist Michael Hilgers told The Atlantic, “he’s helped many of them do it.”
And while younger generations seem to be more comfortable without close relationships, those who do have close relationships depend on them for love.
As The Friendship Report puts it, “Younger generations are increasingly relying on friendships for happiness and love.” It noted that after socializing with their friends either in person or online, people reported feeling “loved,” “supported” and “happy” the most.
An article in The New York Times touches on platonic love in a way we don’t often discuss: deep, enveloping and extraordinary. It’s that type of love, I suspect, that’s quietly waiting for young folks — if they’re willing to wade through the waters of insecure attachment and emerge on the other side.
While musing about friendship for The Atlantic, writer Katherine Smyth discovered the words of Emily Dickinson in a letter she wrote to a friend. The quote, Smyth concluded, “spoke of the sense of fulfillment that I sometimes suspect our friendships alone can provide.”
“My only sketch, profile, of Heaven, is a large, blue sky,” Dickinson wrote, “bluer and larger than the biggest I have seen in June, and in it are my friends — all of them — every one of them.”