Love among young people: sure, but let me take care of number one!

Is love subject to social change in the same way as work is? At the turn of the 19th century, society was increasingly defined by individualization, and love was no exception to this evolution. Hence, constructing a couple by young people is no longer done only around the “we”, since the “I” has proved to take more and more room in the conjugal bed. Tough break for romantic love!

Personal fulfillment has been a growing preoccupation since the 1960s and married love is no exception to this phenomenon. Such growing individualization is felt in the ways couples relate to each other. The “I” is more prominent within the couple, thereby weakening “love forever”, “the one and only” model.

In particular, young people are looking to fulfill their personal desires and ambitions and finding a partner who is in sync with their own plans. A recent sociological study looked at under 35 years of age young couples who have been together for less than five years. The findings are based on 41 bibliographic interviews with these young lovers.


  • Santelli E., 2020. Faire couple aujourd’hui chez les jeunes: Vers un renouvellement des conceptions de l’amour, Faire couple, une entreprise incertaine: Tensions et paradoxes du couple moderne, Érès, Toulouse, pp. 163-191.

    Loïse Pierre is a member of the Labex SMS network of Masters programs, University of Toulouse – Jean Jaurès: loise.pierre@etu.univ-tlse2.fr


The new ideal spouse?

During the first five years, young heterosexual couples’ partners begin by testing each other. That way, they measure the amount of autonomy they will be able to keep within their couple. Indeed, it is no longer just a case of being satisfied with being together; young partners are looking to fulfil a twofold aspiration: continue to be themselves and achieve self-fulfillment.

For the new generations, the “ideal” spouse is no longer the same as for earlier ones. Today, it is essential they can give their partners the opportunity for personal fulfillment. Young people are looking for a partner they feel comfortable with, while feeling autonomous. We are witnessing an evolution of the couple towards an individualistic love where the “we” is no longer the only ingredient in the relationship.

Even though “being a couple” can take very different forms, undeniably, young people in general live their conjugal relationship in a more individualistic way than formerly. In their quest for “the” person to share their daily life with, being able to fulfill oneself within the relationship has turned essential. Indeed, once this aspiration has been met, they experience the feeling of having found the “right person”. This person will allow them to realize their individual potential in addition to meeting the couple’s other expectations.

Commonly, three components used to define a couple: friendship (corresponding to solace and complicity); passion (often present in the couple’s early stages); and desire (particularly seeking physical contact). In view of the couple’s evolution, it would not be incoherent to introduce a fourth component, the “fulfillment” component corresponding to self-fulfillment within the relationship.

Feminist action within the couple

The way they “make a couple” marks a major change in comparison with previous generations and women are all the more attuned to this change. Indeed, in previous generations’ couples, women’s share of autonomy and individualization was relatively small. Today, women are particularly concerned with measuring their ability to express their autonomy in their relationship with their partner.

Until recently, women were very much focused on family life; today they are seeking to break away from this single role. Yet, this new vision of the couple does not mean absence of desire for family life. Young women in a couple aspire to personal projects, capable of being carried out independently.

The stakes in the evolution of ways of “being a couple” are not the same according to gender. Men simply want to continue to fulfill themselves as individuals, while women – who also want to keep that possibility open – make it a condition for being a couple. They no longer want to forget the “I” element in their couple: “as I see it, being in a couple is not becoming Us, but it is being… […] He and I and We.” (Paloma, student, 22 years old).

In new couples, both partners’ quest for equality between them could be likened to a form of feminist struggle within the marital sphere. Spouses love each other because in the relationship they see the chance to fulfill themselves, to be in line with their personal aspirations and to maintain their autonomy within the couple. Without this component, the couple would be less satisfying for each individual, who would then start hunting for another partner.

Love or friendship?

From their relationship as a couple, partners expect sharing, complicity, common interests and laughter. The friendship component is very important for the individual’s blossoming inside the couple who cares about the other: they please, console or help the other.

Nevertheless, partners expect reciprocity; what could be more normal than to expect they are being listened to and understood, as well as pampered in return for the efforts made. This component is much stronger and more present than desire and passion, which are a love relationship’ s two other components.

Within the couple, well-being is essential, and is based on three ingredients. The first is the symmetry principle which, as the name suggests, is based on the feeling of individual well-being – but shared with the other. Each member of the couple must sense this feeling in a symmetrical way.

The second essential element is that the two partners understand each other and have the common feeling of being both understood and reassured. Togetherness is also understood in a lighter sense, involving complicity, laughter and relaxation times. The last component is the feeling possible achievement. The couple must be a space for personal fulfillment, a place that caters for each individual’s aspirations and interests.

This last principle refers to the new vision of the couple and of individualistic love, which used to be missing. The two other components, desire and passion, are not considered very important by these couples, passion only being really felt at the beginning of the relationship and desire taking second place only. The topic of sexual relations is discussed, for sure, but most overlook the notion of sexual desire for the other’s body – perhaps for reasons of social modesty. In the course of the survey, only couples who had recently formed mentioned the desire principle.

This friendship variable is therefore much more important for the couple to function well than passion and desire, which are nevertheless not to be neglected but stronger in the relationship’s early stages. Young people feel satisfied provided they get comfort and solace, well-being and autonomy in their relationship. The contradiction of the modern couple is based on the addition of the “fulfilling” variable but also on the maintenance of “traditional” expectations. Basically, the traditional satisfaction criteria in a couple are no longer sufficient for the fulfillment of young partners, whose criterion of self-actualization (a new expectation) has become essential.

Self-realization in, with and… without the couple

A couple can refer to several figures: the first is the couple, the second is both individuals and a couple, and the third is defined by each of the two individuals only.

The first couple category concerns individuals belonging to a very young age bracket, on average 20.5 years old when they first met. For them, being in a couple consists in fulfilling themselves together, which may correspond to the process of entering adult life, the passage from living with their parents to independence. We can observe in them the logic of establishing a lasting relationship very quickly. In this type of couple, partners generally do not have a great deal of sexual and love experience.

No social class is overrepresented, but (sex, household chores…) behaviors are heavily gendered and religious standards count within these couples. The notion of “fusional couple” is appropriate for this type of relationship, where partners do most of their “stuff” together. There is no particular desire or even value for time for oneself, but sharing everything still requires concessions and negotiations within the couple. These couples still have a very intense social life, though.

In the second category of couples, the average age when they met was 26.5 years. Partners generally have had a lot of sexual and love experience and they sometimes even cohabit. That way, they have acquired some insights and know what they want and don’t want in a relationship. They have had a good time and are beginning to feel the need to “settle down” and start a family.

This segment is predominantly middle-class. Couples of this type are less often married or in a civil union than is the first one, but would not mind doing so. The couple is the family project first stage. Partners have acquired autonomy and do not want to “lose themselves in the couple”. The couple, a security and complementarity space, proves to be more of a springboard for self-fulfillment. Roles here are less gendered and both individuals invest in a professional career, even if women often reduce their working hours when children become part of the picture.

Partners in the third category of couples meet on average at 22 years of age. They have already had many love and sex experiences and are eager to enjoy their youth. The couple is not a priority for them, their professional future is yet to be built, which reflects a rather self-centered attitude. This category is composed mainly of students or young professionals who have more individualistic behaviors than the other two. The couple represents one sphere among others (friends, family) and each of them has their own passions and activities. Concern for sharing is less central to these lovers’ aspirations and partners’ respective autonomy is paramount.

These couples have a gender equality perspective and their roles within the couple are not very gendered. The couple’s well-being and security become a springboard for confidence, acting as a driving force for the individual. Sexuality also has an important place in the relationship, it is a source of fulfillment for both partners.

In short, the modern couple bestows great importance on the achievement and friendship components. Behavioral individualization within the couple does not supplant romanticism, but it weakens or modifies the conventional attitudes linked to this notion. It is a new “couplehood” way, young lovers are ready to commit themselves but only if the “I” can prevail in the “we”.


Illustration by Adèle Huguet for Mondes Sociaux : all rights reserved Adèle Huguet.
To find more drawings by her, https://adelehuguet.wordpress.com/

Picture credits in CC: Freepik

 

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Citer ce billet
Loïse Pierre (2023, 3 juillet). Love among young people: sure, but let me take care of number one! Mondes Sociaux. Consulté le 25 avril 2024, à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/u9n3

Loïse Pierre

Réseau des masters du Labex SMS, université Toulouse – Jean Jaurès ( loise.pierre@etu.univ-tlse2.fr)

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