Around the time that Jewish writer Jillian Straus turned 30, she noticed a lot of her friends complaining to her about their relationship troubles for hours over the phone.
Like her friends, Straus says she, too, didn’t have a clue how to find love, despite her parents’ 40-plus years of being happily married. She felt that her busy career and social life entertained her for much of the time, and yet she felt lonely. “The girls on “Sex and the City” would sneer at me if they knew,” she writes in her book. “The feminist in me did not want to let myself fall prey to the specious belief that I couldn’t be happy without a man in my life.”
Straus began pondering why her generation (Generation X) was encountering so many obstacles in its search for love and commitment, in contrast to her parents’ Baby Boomer generation. For instance, a third of men and nearly one-fourth of women between the ages of 30 and 34 have never been married, nearly four times the rate of the same demographic during the 1970s, according to Straus’s research.
So Straus—a Los Angeles native who relocated to Chicago for 12 years, where she attended Northwestern University and worked on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and then finally settled in New York—traveled around the country looking for answers. She interviewed 100 Gen Xers, men and women between the ages of 25 and 39, in metropolises around the country, specifically Los Angeles, Chicago, Minneapolis, Dallas, and New York, about their quest to find love and commitment.
In her research, she observed a variety of types of people, but most with a shared attitude that made them part of the “Unhooked Generation,” a generation so “hooked up” in terms of instantaneous communication and technology, yet distant—“unhooked”—emotionally from one another. She compiled her interviews and research into her 2006 book called “Unhooked Generation,” (Hyperion books).
While writing the book, Straus met her future husband. “It was a very New York story,” says Straus. She was out dining with her girlfriend one night at a small Manhattan restaurant, the tables crowded close together. She and her friend were exclaiming how they couldn’t eat another bite of their meal when a man, who turned out to be her future husband, leaned over and struck up a conversation with them about the food. “A lot of people think they have to go online or put all this effort into dating, but I learned from my experience that you can meet someone anywhere,” she explains. The couple married three years ago and Straus gave birth to their daughter over the summer.
Straus worries that her generation is trying to “meet” their soul mates instantly, rather than “make” a soul mate with someone they’ve gotten to know and dated for a while. She writes in her book, “Ultimately, I learned that true love is not a chemical reaction, or a wish list. True love is a daily practice—the daily practice of being open to it.”
Oy! recently sat down for a phone interview with Straus about the “Unhooked Generation,” the added challenges that Jewish Gen Xers face in their search for love, and how Gen Xers differ from Baby Boomers in their approach to finding love.
Oy!Chicago: What inspired you to write the book?
Jillian Straus: I was single, like many of my male and female friends, who were young professionals, who had good jobs and active social lives. They were attractive people, who weren’t necessarily at a loss for dates. The common denominator was that we were all having trouble finding the one… It seemed like there was something larger [going on], a generational thing.
You refer in the book to certain influences that often create obstacles in one’s search for true love. Tell me about some of these influences and some of the trends you found among the Gen Xers you interviewed.
I thought I was going to see a trend among men and a trend among women. I thought the men would be commitment-phobic and the women would want marriage. I was surprised to find that there were just as many women with commitment issues as men, and there were just as many men as women who were really longing for a long-term relationship.
Divorce was a common theme. Either people would say, “I don’t want to have what my parents have because they are divorced” or “I do want to have what my parents have because they’re still married and they seem like such an exception.”
Being very career-minded and independent was a very common theme.
And what I call a “Multiple Choice Culture” was a very common theme that I heard come up with so many people. Why should I choose just one person when there are so many people out there? Or, I would like to settle down with one person but everyone I date seems to have their options open and don’t want to settle down with one person.
There’s also “The Inadvertent Effects of Feminism,” where the women are all about, yes I have a job, I have a career, I make my own money, but I still want a guy who makes a good living. And then the men feel very intimidated because maybe they’re not earning more than the woman or maybe they don’t know what to do on a date. They don’t know whether they should open the door or be the one to call.
All of these factors definitely undermine dating. It was a lot simpler for our parents.
What do you feel is the downside to internet dating?
Many people have found the love of their life on the internet, but for a lot of other people, it creates this idea of endless possibilities and I’m going to keep searching. I’m going to keep looking for someone better, someone taller, someone richer. You can’t order the perfect mate online the way you order your Starbucks coffee with a million specifications—love, chemistry, common values. You only know those kinds of things after you’ve experienced them over time. Everybody doesn’t come in the perfect package. With online dating, you have to meet certain criteria in order for that person to find you, which may rule out the possibility of true love.
In the book, you say that people are trying to find their soul mate rather than make their soul mate once they’ve gotten to know the person they’re dating. Can you expand on that?
You don’t just find your soul mate online. You didn’t find your best friend online. You become friends with someone, you had a connection, you got to know them in a deeper context, you experienced things together, you grew closer, and now you call that person your best friend. If that person applied to be your best friend, you might not ever link up because you might not meet the same criteria in an online profile, yet you could have completely common values and share the things that are really important.
Did you interview many Jewish people for your book, and what are the added challenges that Jews of this generation face in the search for love and commitment?
I Interviewed a lot of Jewish people, more than the statistical sample of Jewish people in the population. It makes it that much harder for Jewish people because they’re often only looking for someone who is Jewish, in addition to all the other generational factors. One of the big points I make in the book is that you shouldn’t be looking for someone based on a checklist or formal criteria. You should be looking at shared values. So if you have values specific to Judaism, then of course you need to marry someone Jewish. But if your values are not necessarily related to being Jewish and you’re using Jewish as yet another [reason to reject people], then you might be limiting yourself.
You discuss your parents’ long and happy 47 years of marriage in the book. What did you learn from your parents about love and marriage and how has the institution of marriage changed over the years?
My generation is really looking to be in love, and one of the things that seems to be most important in my parents’ marriage is respect. I think they are in love, but I think it comes from a deeper place. My generation is a little bit immature in terms of the way we want to be in love—myself included. We want butterflies, we want to be swept off our feet, we want that kind of image of falling in love, which is probably created very much by Hollywood. We think that romance is the glue that holds us together because we no longer need marriage, the institution. It’s perfectly acceptable to be divorced… We don’t need marriage because women can pay their own bills. We want it more for companionship. We don’t need it to start a family because we can go to a sperm bank. There’s no “need” for marriage; it’s more looked at as a “choice”… My parents valued the commitment of marriage more than we do. They valued that they have a family together and we don’t want to break that up, and their love grew over time. We’re so impatient in this generation that we don’t take the time to develop the deep love and respect that my parents have.
What are your biggest pieces of advice to single people searching for love?
In my parents’ generation, they were expecting that there would be challenges and the goal would be to go through them together. These days, when there’s a bump in the road involving your spouse, people think, “Wow, maybe if I was with someone else, I wouldn’t be going through these challenges.”
Also, burn the checklist. Happy couples drop their expectations so that they’re open to love when it comes into their lives.
Finally, slow down. This idea of having stars and lightning bolts on the first date and expecting love to happen over night is unrealistic. Love can grow over time. People don’t want anything hard or challenging in the relationship, but going through those hard times together brings us closer. I think our parents’ generation knew that much better than we do.