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  • Lisa Blair

Love on the Rocks: The Uncertain Fate of Emotional Intimacy in Postnormal Times

Updated: Nov 17

Lisa Blair Transformative Studies, California Institute of Integral Studies, San Francisco, U.S.A.

CONTACT: lisablair@me.com


This is an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis in World Futures on November 3, 2022, available at: https://doi.org/10.1080/02604027.2022.2138072


ABSTRACT

These are postnormal times, a transitional period in human history characterized by global problems that manifest with an overwhelming sense of complexity, chaos, and contradictions including within our intimate love relationships. Utilizing an integrative transdisciplinary approach, this article provides an overview of recent literature, polling data, and current developments on a variety of themes around emotional intimacy in romantic partnership including: the digital age and online intimacy; dating during the coronavirus pandemic; and generational shifts in norms and values around marriage and cohabitation, gender identity, sexual identity, sex and pornography, and gender roles.


KEYWORDS: emotional intimacy, postnormal times, romantic partnership, online intimacy, pandemic dating, generational shifts



Introduction

If there were any remaining denial about the fact that life is not what it used to be, then British-Pakistani writer, cultural critic, and public intellectual Ziauddin Sardar (2010, 2015b, 2019) awakens us to this startling reality. What was once taken for granted as guaranteed, safe, or normal is no longer. We have entered a transitional time in our global history, an “in-between period where old orthodoxies are dying, new ones have yet to be born, very few things seem to make sense” (Sardar, 2010, p. 435). There are no clear-cut answers that lead towards a sustainable, let alone desirable, future.

In the spirit of a prophet-scholar, Sardar (2010) wrote:

Welcome to postnormal times. It’s a time when little out there can be trusted or gives us confidence… In our time it is possible to dream all dreams of visionary futures but almost impossible to believe we have the capability or commitment to make any of them a reality [emphasis added]. (p. 435)
 

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Sardar’s words conjure up the magnificent dreams many have for closeness and connection when entering a romantic partnership. However, his words also evoke doubt about whether partners have the capability or commitment to make those dreams a lasting reality. Even with all researchers have learned about relationships and intimacy, especially over the last fifty years, couples continue to face dire odds in remaining together over the long term. Data from the United States estimated marriage breakdown resulting in a divorce between 43% and 46% in 2000 (Schoen & Canudas‐Romo, 2006). Despite these bleak odds, the quest for emotional intimacy remains at the forefront of the discourse on what makes for a loving romantic relationship (Shumway, 2003). Esther Perel (2006) concurred, “Mating today is a free-choice enterprise, and commitments are built on love. Intimacy shifted from being a by-product of a long-term relationship to being a mandate for one” (pp. 39–40).

As our global community “dreams all dreams of visionary futures” is not understanding emotional intimacy of utmost importance for our collective wellbeing in this increasingly chaotic and disturbing postnormal world (Sardar, 2010, p. 435)? When pondering this question, one would be remiss to not consider the unique challenges that postnormal times bring to the realm of romantic relationships.


Emotional Intimacy Defined

Before proceeding, it is necessary to offer a definition of emotional intimacy. While much of the research defines emotional intimacy in behavioral terms, namely that partners engage in a mutual exchange of self-disclosure of their innermost feelings (Bagarozzi, 2001; Cutrona et al., 2007; Lewis, 1978; Mitchell et al., 2008; Perlman & Fehr, 1987; Waring & Chelune, 1983), for the purposes of this article, I apply a broader definition to emotional intimacy to mean “feelings of closeness, connectedness, and bondedness in loving relationships” (Sternberg, 1997, p. 315). In addition, I use the terms romantic partnerships, romantic relationships, and love relationships interchangeably.


Understanding Postnormal Times: Complexity, Chaos, and Contradictions

Postnormal times are marked by three c’s: complexity, chaos, and contradictions (Sardar, 2010). The first, com plexity, is based on the fundamental assumption that the

 

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world is made up of living systems, not machines with machine-like parts (Montuori, 2013). So, too, love relationships are not simply a collection of two or more isolated individuals, but rather they are each complex systems operating within complex systems replete with context and connection (Lotto, June 28, 2017; Montuori, 2011). These systems are interconnected and interdependent and are fraught with uncertainty and unpredictability (Montuori, 2013; Morin, 1999). Thus, complexity reveals that there are no simple solutions to the problems of our time (Sardar, 2010). The global crises we face are so multi-layered that to attempt to address one aspect of a problem instantaneously intersects with another aspect of the problem, affecting a new group of stakeholders, a completely different sector of society, or even another country altogether. Postnormal problems are like one massive Jenga puzzle. As globalization of industries have developed over time, the world has built systems upon systems unavoidably entangled with one another, and so, when we attempt to pull out one single part of that interconnected, highly complex system in hopes of fixing it, the entire structure can come crashing down. A prime example of this is the devastating consequences of the current COVID-19 pandemic that swept across the globe at breakneck speed (Jones et al., 2021; Jordan, 2021; Sardar, 2010) killing over six million people worldwide and over one million Americans at the time of writing this (Worldometer, April 9, 2022). Jones, Serra del Pino, and Mayo (2021) called the COVID-19 pandemic the “Perfect Postnormal Storm” (2021, p. 71). There is no way to focus exclusively on one country’s pandemic response without considering the effects on the entire global population given the interconnectedness of our world through travel, economics, global supply chains, physical and mental health care, education, and so forth.

Complexity is a necessary precursor to the second ‘c’ chaos, a condition characterized by increasing acceleration, unpredictability, and chain reactions that begin small but balloon big in no time flat (Sardar, 2010). A quintessential example of this is the global domino effect that resulted from the failure of banks back in September of 2008 rapidly transforming the global economy over a single weekend (Sardar, 2010). This collapse was marked by unbelievable speed, scale, scope, and simultaneity—additional characteristics of postnormal times phenomena (Jones et al., 2021; Sardar, 2019).[1]

Contradictions are the third ‘c’ of postnormal times. Contradictions occur in a complex, chaotic, interconnected world since what is beneficial to one group or individual may be detrimental to another given the plurality and diversity of needs and

 

[1] While I will not be exploring the four ‘Ss’ in detail in this article, they are worth mentioning as additional intrinsic qualities of postnormal times phenomena and are inherent in my later discussion of intimate relationships in this article.

 

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experiences. The rate of change and an increase in knowledge often add to the contradictions of our times (Sardar, 2010). Changes and increases in knowledge are happening so rapidly now that whether it comes to the global implications of a new COVID-19 vaccine or the inclusion of trans people in public restrooms, boardrooms, sports, and the military, determining how to respond to societal, cultural, and global shifts efficaciously and quickly and in a way that considers the needs and diverse experiences of all stakeholders is daunting to say the least.

If one hasn’t lost all hope yet, in the midst of these and countless more extremely complex challenges is “climate change” or “climate destruction” depending on what term one chooses (Makower, May 21, 2019) and what appears to be an inevitable sixth mass extinction (the Anthropocene)—the mammoth of all crises, the consequences of which naturally supersede all other phenomena (Sardar, 2015a, 2019). It goes without saying that the bar for immediate action for any of these crises is unfathomably high, the stakes even higher, and all-the-while, the clock continues ticking. While overwhelming, understanding postnormal times in terms of the ever-increasingly unsolvable, urgent, and multi-faceted problems of our times is at least patently obvious. Trying to digest the implications that postnormal times have on our most private, intimate lives, however, is a whole ’nother story.

After considering the devastating list of current global threats and crises, one might conclude that problems within the realm of emotional intimacy in our love relationships could not possibly make a list of the top 50, let alone the top 10 of humanity’s greatest current dilemmas. However, an argument stands to be made that relationships and partners’ lived experience of closeness and connection comprise the backbone of the Western world, and yet they are suffering from a kind of postnormal malaise themselves. If left unexamined, partners could continue to face a downward spiral of increased isolation, loneliness, anxiety, and grief that could render them paralyzed, incapable of addressing the multitude of larger-scale crises staring them in the face (Keeter, March 16, 2021; Pinsker, May 1, 2020; Weissbourd et al., February 2021). Critical questions arise including: How do researchers tackle the myriad challenges inherent in the field of emotional intimacy in romantic partnership while simultaneously considering all the rapidly expanding diverse experiences and perspectives among individuals and generations, infinitely increased digital connectivity, and the “multiple ways of knowing, being and doing” that impact people’s love lives (Sardar, 2019, p. 15)? Furthermore, in this fast-changing world, how do romantic partners make heads or tails out of achieving any reliable or sustained sense of closeness and connection with the ones they share their hearts, minds, and bodies with? Before these questions can be answered, however, the

 

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first question must be: What might it look like to understand emotional intimacy in romantic relationships through a postnormal lens?


An Integrative Transdisciplinary Approach

Given the intertwining, complex, and systemic nature of postnormal phenomena, it is imperative to employ an integrative transdisciplinary approach to examining emotional intimacy in postnormal times. Integrative transdisciplinarity is a complexity-based, and inquiry-based approach to research focused on real world events and experiences (Montuori, 2018). Moreover, Montuori (2018) defines it as a meaningful approach to research when the volume and location of the research pertaining to one’s inquiry is “meta-paradigmatic” meaning it spreads across multiple disciplines and sub-disciplines and is so complex in nature that it cannot be contained within one discipline (p. 412). Scholarship becomes an act of “weaving together” systems perspectives with the inquirer’s own lived experience and reflexivity while always staying close to the thread of the inquiry itself, resulting in a rich tapestry of new knowledge (Montuori, 2018, p. 412). The five dimensions of integrative transdisciplinarity are defined as: being inquiry-driven vs. discipline-driven, being trans-paradigmatic vs. intra-paradigmatic, utilizing systems theory and complexity vs. reductive-disjunctive thinking, integrating the inquirer, and practicing creative inquiry (Montuori, 2012). Thus, in my examination of emotional intimacy in postnormal times, I will be exploring how the digital age and online intimacy, dating during the coronavirus pandemic, and generational shifts in norms and values around marriage and cohabitation, gender and sexual identity, sex and pornography, and gender roles impact intimacy in romantic partnership.


An Overview of Love Relationships in Postnormal Times

Without an adequate understanding of the complexity, chaos, and contradictions that love relationships are fraught with, our collective ability to rise to the peculiar challenges that we face in postnormal times is dangerously thwarted. The fact is emotional intimacy, relationships, and love have always been fraught with dangers, risk, and insecurity. This is the inherent contradiction within intimacy-making: safety is required for an experience that is ultimately unsafe (Bauman, 2003). Add dysfunctional family dynamics, personal, generational, and historical trauma, and a widespread lack of modeling healthy relationship skills and any sane person would be silly not to wonder why on Earth anyone would decide to enter a romantic relationship at all, let alone the long-term “till death us do part” kind (Bauman, 2003).

 

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To fully examine love relationships in light of postnormal times, however, particular challenges within our present world of relationships must be explored. Relationships and emotional intimacy have become more complex, chaotic, and contradictory than ever due to a variety of contemporary influences. The digital age ushered in the Internet including the prevalence of online dating, ready access to pornography, and increased social media engagement (Brooks, 2020; Jordan, 2021; Lomanowska & Guitton, 2016; Orenstein, 2021) along with the advent of smartphones and texting (Bauman, 2003; Sardar, 2010; Vogels & Anderson, May 8, 2020). This new kind of access and exposure raises all sorts of paradoxical questions including: Do the Internet, smartphones, and social media afford us more intimacy or less? Are we more connected than we were prior to the digital age or are we farther apart than we have ever been (Lomanowska & Guitton, 2016)? Sardar (2019) wrote, “Social media, which like much else in postnormal times, has an inherent contradiction: it connects and disconnects simultaneously” (p. 10).

Postnormal times also brings to light generational shifts around the norms and values around marriage, cohabitation, dating, and sexual rituals and practices (Barroso, February 14, 2020; Brooks, 2020; Frank et al., 2013; Geiger & Livingston, February 13, 2019; Horowitz et al., November 6, 2019; Lisitza, November 17, 2021; Parker & Igielnik, May 14, 2020) as well as evolving notions of non-binary gender identity and fluidity and new perspectives on sexual identity (Geiger & Graf, September 5, 2019; Jordan, 2021; Parker et al., January 17, 2019). Rather than seeing marriage, or even cohabitation, as the goal for long-term romantic partnership or the male/female gender binary as the only choice for gender identity, or one’s sexual identity as a choice between only straight, gay/lesbian, and bisexual, the postnormal perspective exposes how society’s norms, values, and practices are rapidly evolving and more complex than they once appeared. Indeed, the complexity of our times is “expressed as social inequality, competing demands and outright conflicts between countless competing interests and diverse communities with their own outlooks, ideologies, designs and desires, pulling society in multiple directions” (Sardar, 2019, p. 8). For example, delaying marriage, opting for cohabitation, forgoing marriage altogether in place of platonic partnerships (Lisitza, November 17, 2021), or electing for more “liquid” and “flexible” relationships have opened up new doorways in the world of love and relationships (Bauman, 2003, pp. xiii, 36). Similarly, gender-neutrality and transgender identities have become more widely accepted forms of the now-outdated traditional binary choice of either cis-gendered male or female (Geiger & Graf, September 5, 2019; Jordan, 2021). Jordan (2021) put it succinctly when he reported on the graffiti on the walls of the formerly-known-as-“Men’s” toilet room, “Everyone is bisexual, gender is a construct” (p. 2). All these developments in relationships, sexuality, and gender identity call into question many long-held assumptions and expectations around romantic relationships creating a much more complex territory than ever before.

 

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Additionally, the current coronavirus pandemic and its amplification of isolation and loneliness for individuals has brought about chaos in relationships and intimacy in the likes that many have never before experienced (Aridi, September 15, 2021; Bauman, 2003; Jones et al., 2021; Jordan, 2021; Lang, October 28, 2021; Sigalos, May 25, 2020). Social distancing and lockdowns have forced many to ask themselves if dating face-to-face is worth the risk. Even more eye-opening is the legal quagmire that American courts found themselves in when they were forced to decide how they would prosecute lovers who broke quarantine in order to have sex (Jordan, 2021). And what about the challenges faced by cohabitating couples during the pandemic, many of whom were locked down together in their homes 24/7 for months or years, often with kids, trying desperately to navigate the waters of emotional and sexual intimacy within tight quarters and with short fuses? Now that the broad terrain of emotional intimacy in romantic relationships has been surveyed as a postnormal times phenomenon, it is time to take a deeper dive into the details.


A Closer Look: Online Intimacy in Romantic Partnerships

There are a variety of online technologies relevant to online intimacy that have been shown to have both positive effects and downsides to the psychosocial well-being of individual users. These include social networking sites (e.g., Facebook, Instagram), asynchronous communication (e.g., email, text messaging), synchronous communication (e.g., Zoom, Skype), online multi-user virtual reality worlds or role-playing games (e.g. Second Life, The Sims), online multiuser gaming apps (e.g., Psych!, Scrabble Go), Internet and mobile applications that facilitate social contact and dating between strangers (e.g., eHarmony, Tinder), and online support groups (Lomanowska & Guitton, 2016).

In their expansive review of the literature on online intimacy and well-being in the digital age, Lomanowska and Guitton (2016) came to a few essential conclusions. First, the research indicates that intimate relationships can be formed and developed through online interaction with a similar experience of meaning, intimacy, and stability as face-to-face (F2F) relationships. Second, online contact can enrich existing F2F relationships and, third, there is evidence that shows “positive psychosocial effects associated with online interactions [for individuals] … characterized by key components of intimacy, self-disclosure and social support” (p. 142). However, there is still both conflicting and contradictory research about the benefits versus the downsides of online connections as well as little research on how online intimacy affects one’s overall health and well-being. And while there is more research on the effects of online intimacy on individuals in a

 

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general sense, there is considerably less research on how it specifically affects intimacy in already established F2F romantic relationships in terms of interpersonal and/or relationship satisfaction.

Lomanowska and Guitton (2016) identified two central aspects of what constitutes an intimate interaction to make sense of how online intimacy affects users: self-disclosure and social support. They defined self-disclosure as a practice of confiding in another (i.e., sharing one’s feelings through talking or writing) and social support as pertaining to one’s perceived availability of emotional and informational support. Social support also includes when one person discloses their personal feelings and the other responds with understanding and reassurance (Lomanowska & Guitton, 2016; Reis & Franks, 1994; Ryff & Singer, 2000).

To consider how the digital age directly affects emotional intimacy in romantic partnerships, I will focus on two particular sectors: (1) the Internet and social media networking sites such as Facebook and Instagram, and (2) advanced technology in the form of smartphones, texting, and dating apps. While these aspects of digital technology may appear distinct from one another, there is considerable overlap between the two in terms of user experience since smartphone users scroll through social media sites on their desktop and laptop computers as well as on their smartphones. Texting can also be performed via both venues, thus in a discussion of the findings, it is often impossible to parse out distinctions between Internet use in general versus cell phone use, already revealing a kind of inherent complexity. Similarly noteworthy is the fact that while the research indicates that these elements of the digital age increase complexity, chaos, and contradictions within the lived experience of individuals in romantic partnerships, there are also inherent conflicts and contradictions in the research about the benefits versus the downsides of both smartphone use and online connections (Lomanowska & Guitton, 2016; Pew Research Center, February 20, 2014). Thus, while one can conclude that these sectors of the digital age indeed have a significant impact on intimacy, whether that impact is considered beneficial or detrimental to intimacy-making in romantic partnerships is still open for debate.


Internet and Smartphone Use Among Married and Partnered Adults

Several Pew Research Center studies address these contradictions (Pew Research Center, February 20, 2014; Vogels & Anderson, May 8, 2020). A 2014 Pew Research Center study (Pew Research Center, February 20, 2014) found that 27% of online couples (married or in committed relationships) report that the Internet has had an impact on their relationships and the majority of them say that the impact has been positive. For

 

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example, 21% of married or partnered adults report feeling closer to their partner due to online or text messages shared together. However, the use of cell phones specifically points to a clear contradiction around intimacy. While 9% of married or partnered adults report having resolved an argument with their partner online or via text message that they were having difficulty resolving in person, 25% of married or partnered cell phone owners say that their partner was distracted by their cell phone when they were together (Pew Research Center, February 20, 2014). By 2019, that percentage had risen to 51% along with 40% of partnered adults (married, cohabiting, or in a committed relationship) saying they are often or sometimes bothered by the amount of time their partner spends on their cell phone (Vogels & Anderson, May 8, 2020).

That same 2014 Pew study showed that young adults between the ages of 18–29 years old report the most significant impact of both the Internet and smartphones on their romantic relationships (Pew Research Center, February 20, 2014). While 41% of online 18-29-year-olds in serious relationships felt closer to their partner based on online or text conversations, 42% of the same age group of the same demographic say that their partner has been distracted by their mobile phone while they were together. Overall, young couples are more likely than older couples to report that the Internet has had an impact on their relationship, both positively and negatively.

I can attest to both experiences being true in my own long-term romantic relationship in the sense that my partner and I have had on numerous occasions shared an exchange of text messages that were at least as heartfelt, connecting, and emotionally intimate as our F2F interactions related to the text exchange and at times even more so. However, in other moments, I have found myself annoyed by how much my partner looks at his phone when we are in the middle of a conversation and likely that thought has crossed his mind, too. Taken together, they are examples of the kind of contradictions specific to postnormal times. “Technology makes itself felt in many ways in relationships—in how couples communicate, grow closer, plan, fight and make up” (Pew Research Center, February 20, 2014, para. 3) and “As technology becomes more deeply integrated into people’s lives, couples are feeling both the positive and negative effects of digital communication tools in their relationships” (Pew Research Center, February 20, 2014, para. 1).


Social Media Self-Disclosure in Relationships

Self-disclosure that is specifically about one’s relationship takes on a whole new meaning when it comes to social media. A Pew Research Center study performed in 2019

 

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discussed its extensive findings about dating and relationships in the digital age (Vogels & Anderson, May 8, 2020). Roughly 81% of American social media users say they at least sometimes see others posting about their relationships, 46% say they see this often. However, only a minority (28%) of American social media users report sharing or discussing things about their relationship or dating life on social media. About 39% of cohabitating partners and 48% of those who are in a committed relationship say they have ever posted about their relationship on social media. Married adults are less likely to report having posted about their relationship (24%). In general, about 33% of partnered (married, cohabitating, or in a committed relationship) who use social media say that these sites are at least somewhat important in showing how much they care about their partner (33%) or keeping up with what is going on in their partner’s life (28%). Clearly, in postnormal times, social media is an important and valuable component to romantic relationships.

At the same time, however, the presence of social media brings uncertainty and increased contradiction to romantic relationships. The same Pew Research Center study (Vogels & Anderson, May 8, 2020) showed that overall, 23% of American partnered adults who are social media users report feeling jealous or unsure about their relationship because of the way their spouse or partner interacts with other people on social media. This share is highest in 18-29-year-olds (34%), less in 30-49-year-olds (26%), and lesser still in 50-64-year-olds (19%). Women are more likely than men to express displeasure with how their partner interacts with others on social media (29% vs. 17%). Additionally, those who are either cohabitating with their partner (38%) or in a committed relationship (36%) report more jealousy and uncertainty about their partner’s social media use than married partners (17%).

Clearly, the digital age continues to have considerable impact on partners’ experiences of intimacy, however, contradictions rule the day. While aspects of online intimacy are at once positive and desirable, other aspects are simultaneously negative and undesirable for intimacy-making, leaving partners no easy answers as to how to navigate this complex territory together.


A Closer Look: Dating in the Coronavirus Pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has been called both a “full blown postnormal event” (Jordan, 2021, p. 3) and “the perfect postnormal storm” (Jones et al., 2021, p. 71). The news media abounds with stories of how “the pandemic has changed dating forever” (Aridi, September 15, 2021; Lang, October 28, 2021; Sigalos, May 25, 2020). Without a doubt, if

budding romances were not already drenched in enough complexity, chaos, and

 

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contradictions to keep lovers barely able to tread water, the coronavirus pandemic threw them in the deep end of the pool.

I recall working with a couple in my private psychotherapy practice about six months into the pandemic. I’ll call them Karine and Ryan. Karine and Ryan met in New York City only a few short months before the first outbreak in the United States in March 2020. What began as a typical flirtatious encounter and some intentionally slow-moving first dates between two healthy Millennials turned quite suddenly into a serious relationship when they both contracted COVID-19 landing Karine in the hospital for a brief time. Given the imperative to enter quarantine, the two budding lovers had little choice but to move in together overnight. It seemed like the wisest thing to do so that they would not infect their families or friends and so that they could continue to develop their relationship. It was either that or break up immediately and resort to living in separate cities hundreds of miles apart from one another. I recall them telling me with exhaustion and a tone of this-isn’t-fair in their voices, “What would normally feel like a new, fresh, exciting six-month relationship feels more like we’ve been at this for six years.”

They were right. This couple, like so many others, were forced to get serious much more quickly than they would have opted to simply because of the pandemic. They were having to address issues in their relationship around emotional intimacy most couples don’t face until years into a long-term romantic partnership. It felt to them like both a blessing and a curse. Certainly, it made their relationship more complex, chaotic, and filled with contradiction than it would have if they had met even one year before. While this couple was faced with both diving into their relationship head-first while simultaneously navigating through the healthcare industry and their bodies’ intense responses to the virus at a time in the pandemic when very little was known about how to treat the symptoms, other couples were in less dire circumstances, but ones that were nonetheless novel to dating and intimacy.

In October of 2021, TIME magazine ran a story about Zach Mazerov and Blake Crist who were both eagerly anticipating a summer of flirtations and flings in New York City after having been in lockdown and observing social distancing for over a year (Lang, October 28, 2021). However, upon meeting and both feeling a strong connection to one another, they intentionally decided to forgo their casual dating plans and instead become an exclusive couple. The idea of barhopping and hooking up with the coronavirus still on the lose especially in crowded indoor public spaces just didn’t carry the same thrill that it promised in a pandemic-free world. Mazerov and Crist decided that the potential consequences to their health was not worth the risk. While their story is likely more common than the couple I worked with, in both cases, the allure of casual dating

 

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encounters has lost a lot of the mystique it once had as a direct result of the chaos and complexity of the pandemic. And while new lovers have always had to navigate around the threat of STDs including HIV, and, in the case of straight lovers, potential pregnancy, the notion of casual sex has become a whole new health hazard in light of the virus. New York City’s health department even put out a public service announcement that read, “Sex and the coronavirus disease. You are your safest sex partner” (Sigalos, May 25, 2020). The threat of losing one’s life in a matter of weeks or months from a casual hookup certainly could take the wind out of anyone’s sails. Talk about contradictions. Where’s the fun in that?

As a result, many eager daters turned to either virtual dates on Zoom, outdoor socially distanced dates in the park, or dating apps to prescreen potential lovers, but the impact on these forms of dating were fraught with their own pitfalls. Biological anthropologist, Helen Fisher, explained that while dopamine—the neurotransmitter responsible for that giddy feeling one gets when one falls in love—can still get triggered in a virtual setting, there is no possibility of accessing one’s olfactory channel, which is to say plainly, daters cannot smell each other (Sigalos, May 25, 2020). Fisher explained that women in particular utilize smell as an important factor in determining compatibility. Similarly, oxytocin—the neurochemical dubbed the “love hormone”—is activated by touch (Sigalos, May 25, 2020). Virtual dating and social distancing during the pandemic meant that potential lovers were being deprived of this key element of intimacy and human bonding. This is why solitary confinement is so detrimental to human beings. When deprived of the release of oxytocin from touch, people aren’t just lonely, their physical and mental health pay a price (Keeter, March 16, 2021; Pinsker, May 1, 2020; Sigalos, May 25, 2020; Weissbourd et al., February 2021).

Other individuals looking for love resorted to outdoor dates at the park, but complained that they were left feeling as if they were dating back in the 1800s, filled with an awkwardness uncharacteristic of their usual dates at bars, restaurants, or friends’ parties (Aridi, September 15, 2021). However, while in-person socially distanced dating may have felt awkward and casual sex proved less enticing, the use of dating apps during the pandemic bloomed. Before the pandemic, the top 15 dating apps were showing a decrease in downloads, however, during the pandemic multiple online dating services showed an increase in usage with Dating.com reporting an 82% surge in online dating, Bumble showing a 26% increase in messages sent on its platform, Tinder seeing a 10–30% rise in the length of conversations on their app, and Inner Circle reporting a whopping 116% increase in messaging (Sigalos, May 25, 2020).

Two interesting trends around self-disclosure have emerged during the pandemic common across multiple online dating platforms. In May 2021, Tinder users were given the option of adding a brightly colored badge on their user photo reading “I’m vaccinated”

 

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(Lang, October 28, 2021). Hinge and OKCupid followed suit with the latter reporting 15% more likes and 14% more matches for those whose users said they had been vaccinated or were planning to (Lang, October 28, 2021). Of course, revealing one’s vaccination status means entering complex territory. There is a fierce polarity within the United States around the question of “to vaccinate or not to vaccinate” leading to heated debates and political conflicts. The dating app vaccination status option serves to eliminate some of the potential trepidation and uncertainty ripe around the subject of vaccination status, allowing potential daters to skip the conflict and resume flirtation. Along the same lines, Tinder also reported that its users have become generally more transparent and truthful beyond simply their vaccination status and anticipates this trend to continue (Aridi, September 15, 2021). Since the pandemic, users say they are being more thoughtful about dating and more seriously considering what they want in a relationship (Lang, October 28, 2021)prioritizing different kinds of qualities they are looking for in a potential partner including a sense of humor or an interest in personal growth (Aridi, September 15, 2021).

In all the increased chaos, complexity, contradictions—and loneliness—of dating during a pandemic that many bemoan, dating apps have revealed one small but optimistic contribution to emotional intimacy that may prove to outlast the virus. Dating in a pandemic has changed the face of self-disclosure, a critical component of what it means to be emotionally intimate. With people becoming more truthful and transparent on dating apps and being more intentional about intimacy-making in their love relationships, the impact of the pandemic on the future of romantic relationships may have shifted society towards greater intimacy as opposed to less. A bright spot in an otherwise postnormal storm.


A Closer Look: Generational Shifts in Relationships and Emotional Intimacy

Marriage and Cohabitation

The final theme I will explore involves a variety of generational shifts in norms and values around marriage and cohabitation, gender identity and sexual identity, sex and pornography, and finally, gender roles to better understand how postnormal times have impacted emotional intimacy in romantic partnerships. What has been regarded as “normal” for generations has slowly been changing from the Silent Generation (born between 1928–1945) to the Baby Boomers (born between 1946–1964) to Generation X (born between 1965–1980) (Dimock, January 17, 2019). However, perspectives on these and other subjects have changed more significantly in polls of Millennials (born between

 

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1981–1996) and Generation Z (born between 1997–2012) compared to the three previous generations and these changes significantly impact romantic relationships in postnormal times (Dimock, January 17, 2019; Parker & Igielnik, May 14, 2020).

What is considered “normal” exactly when we are talking about long-term romantic partnership, marriage, and cohabitation? Normal is not what is comfortable or acceptable for everyone or what is practiced by everyone. In fact, normal can serve to shame, stigmatize, marginalize, and oppress a person depending on how far on the continuum they live from the values, beliefs, and practices of the mainstream society. It is therefore important to define what normal means in this context. To this point, Sardar (2015b) wrote:

In postnormal analysis, we take normal to be that which is frequently encountered: what is accepted as the dominant way of being, doing and knowing, conventionally seen as the standard, dictated by convention and tradition, backed by disciplinary structures and scholarship and what we are able to predict and control. (p. 27)

What was once considered normal in marriage in America is no longer the case. To begin with, members of Generation Z (Gen Zers) are more racially and ethnically diverse than any previous generation as shown in a polls by Pew Research Center conducted between 2018–2019 (Parker & Igielnik, May 14, 2020). Only 52% of Gen Zers are non-Hispanic Whites as of 2019 (as compared to 61% of Millennials in 2003, 70% of Gen Xers as of 1987, and 82% of Early Boomers as of 1969). That’s a radical racial and ethnic shift. One-in-four Gen Zers are Hispanic and 22% of Gen Zers have at least one immigrant parent (compared to only 14% of Millennials). As new immigrants enter the United States, Gen Z is projected to become majority non-White by 2026 (Parker & Igielnik, May 14, 2020). Concurrent with this racial shift among members of Gen Z is a value shift in the realm of interracial marriage: Among Gen Zers and Millennials, 53% say that people of different races marrying each other is a good thing for society as compared to only 41% of Gen Xers, 30% of Baby Boomers, and a meager 20% of those in the Silent Generation (Geiger & Livingston, February 13, 2019). While some may agree that interracial marriage is a good thing for society and others may not, the fact is these views are shifting. Thus, in postnormal times, the norm of marriage and long-term romantic partnership as being between two people of the same racial and ethnic background is changing, allowing the potential for increased complexity for those who are navigating diverse cultural and ethnic realities within their relationships.

Similarly, Gen Zers and Millennials share markedly different views on same-sex marriage from older generations. Roughly half of all Gen Zers and Millennials (48% and 47% respectively) say that gay and lesbian couples being allowed to marry is also a good

 

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thing for society (compared to only 33% of Gen Xers, 27% of Boomers, and 18% of the Silent Generation) (Geiger & Livingston, February 13, 2019; Parker & Igielnik, May 14, 2020). Thus, as these newer generations more wholeheartedly embrace same-sex marriage, society’s norms and values around the institution of marriage as being defined by a union between a man and a woman are shifting.

In this same vein, the values and priorities of Americans of all ages are shifting away from previously tightly held beliefs on marriage and cohabitation. As of the summer of 2019, fewer than one-in-five U.S. adults say being married is essential for a man or a woman to live a fulfilling life (Barroso, February 14, 2020; Horowitz et al., November 6, 2019). Those polled by Pew reported that marriage was “important but not essential for a woman or a man” to live a fulling life (54% for each). In the same spirit, those polled said that it was more essential to have a job or career they enjoy (true for men at 57% and true for women at 46%). This is a far cry from stereotypical American families in the 1950s where the husband was the primary breadwinner while the wife stayed at home raising the kids and caring for the home. Now both sexes value a fulfilling job or career as much or more than marriage.

Perhaps the most telling shift around the value of marriage versus cohabitation is the poll that reported that it was more important to be in a committed romantic relationship rather than a marriage (30% committed romantic relationship essential for a woman vs. 17% marriage; 26% committed romantic relationship essential for a man vs. 16% marriage) (Barroso, February 14, 2020). There is now wide acceptance of cohabitation per an analysis of multiple surveys conducted by Pew Research Center from 2002, 2013–2017 and 2019. A remarkable 69% of adults say that it is acceptable for an unmarried couple to live together even if they don’t plan to get married (Horowitz et al., November 6, 2019). In addition, Pew reported that while the share of U.S. adults who are currently cohabitating remains far smaller than the share who are married (7% cohabitating in 2019 vs. 53% married in 2019), the share of adults ages 18 to 44 who have ever lived with an unmarried partner (59%) has now surpassed the share who has ever been married (50%) (Graf, November 6, 2019; Horowitz et al., November 6, 2019). Even still, age and/or generational differences are present: About eight-in-ten adults younger than age 30 (78%) say that cohabitation is acceptable even if the couple doesn’t plan to marry, compared with 71% of those ages 30 to 49, 65% of those 50 to 64 and 63% of those 65 and older (Graf, November 6, 2019).

In general, the following patterns are telling when it comes to generational shifts and emerging trends in American norms and values about marriage and cohabitation: marriage rates are at historic lows, the age one first gets married has risen, the divorce rate and the cohabitation rate are both up, and the number of those re-marrying is also

 

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up (Brooks, 2020; Geiger & Livingston, February 13, 2019; Graf, November 6, 2019; Horowitz et al., November 6, 2019; Stepler, 2017). All these factors point to a shift away from “traditional values” of marriage being the cornerstone of American society. Specifically, the number of Americans who have never been married has increased steadily in recent decades (in 2017, 50% of Americans ages 18 or older were married, down from 58% in 1990); people are staying single longer (median age of a first marriage reached its highest point on record: 30 years old for men and 28 years old for women in 2018), divorce rates have roughly doubled since the 1990s among Americans ages 50 or older in what is dubbed the “gray divorce,” and, the number of Americans living with an unmarried partner rose 29% between 2007 and 2016 (Geiger & Livingston, February 13, 2019; Stepler, 2017). Among Gen Zers, about 29% live in a household with an unmarried parent, while 66% live with two married parents (similar to Millennials at 69%, but smaller than Gen Xers had at 72% and Boomers had at 85%) (Geiger & Livingston, February 13, 2019).

Weeks (2000) offered a reflection that encapsulates much of the research and polling around intimacy above: “One of the key issues of the 1990s has been precisely the attempt to move from recognition to normalization of diversity” (Weeks, 2000, p. 173). The presence of “alternative families” (Weeks, 2000, p. 212) in terms of class, ethnicity, race, and single parenthood status became more widely accepted.

Speaking of diversity, it is not just marriage itself that is less often chosen by today’s adults as the primary form for long-term romantic partnership. Monogamy with one partner over the course of one’s adult life is also no longer the assumption for partners in long-term romantic partnership that it once was for those in the Silent Generation and still for many Baby Boomers. Serial monogamy (engaging in a succession of monogamous relationships over time) and polyamory (the practice of engaging in multiple romantic and/or sexual relationships, with the consent of all the people involved) are becoming more common as alternative approaches to long-term romantic partnership. Others choose a semi-attached relationship in which twosomes “share time and space when they feel like it—but not when they don’t” (Bauman, 2003, pp. xiii, 36). And yet still others separate their romantic and sexual lives from their desire for long-term committed partnership and opt for a platonic partnership in which they marry a close friend who also wishes to benefit from the countless privileges that marriage offers individuals including pooling together financial resources, sharing responsibilities, and enjoying companionship through life’s challenges (Lisitza, November 17, 2021). These partners can enjoy the same level of emotional intimacy and bonding shared by romantic and sexual partners without being physically intimate. All in all, there are now a variety of forms that romantic relationships take with monogamous marriage between one man

 

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and one woman being only one of the options with more and more partners choosing alternative ways to spend their lives together.


Gender Identity and Sexual Identity

As norms and values around marriage and cohabitation shift, so, too, do those around gender identity and sexual identity. As previously noted, roughly half of all Gen Zers and Millennials (48% and 47% respectively) say that gay and lesbian couples being allowed to marry is also a good thing for society (compared to only 33% of Gen Xers, 27% of Boomers, and 18% of the Silent Generation) (Geiger & Livingston, February 13, 2019; Parker & Igielnik, May 14, 2020). In a similar spirit of inclusivity, flexibility, and fluidity, notions of gender identity and the assumption of binary gender (male vs. female) are also rapidly changing in the U.S. and Gen Z is once again, leading the way. According to Pew Research Center, Gen Zers (35%) are much more likely to say they personally know someone who prefers to go by gender-neutral pronouns such as “they/them/theirs” rather than “she/her/hers” or “he/him/his” (as compared to Millennials (25%), Gen Xers (16%), Boomers (12%), and Silents (7%)) (Geiger & Graf, September 5, 2019; Parker & Igielnik, May 14, 2020). The same poll shows that Gen Zers (59%) are also far more likely to say that when a form or online profile asks about a person’s gender, it should include options other than “man” or “woman” (vs. Millennials at 50%, Gen Xers at 40%, Boomers at 37%, and Silents at 32%).

Proponents of non-binary gender language often express that gender itself is a construct (much like race) (Jordan, 2021) or note that many people experience themselves as not limited to one fixed internal identity such as a “man” or “woman” or as “masculine” or “feminine,” but rather they experience more fluidity on a spectrum of gender from one moment to the next, one day to the next, or over the course of their life (Rupp & Taylor, 2013). Additionally, being gender fluid does not equate to identifying as transgender or “trans” (one whose sense of personal identity and gender does not correspond with their birth sex and who may or may not decide to surgically alter their body or take hormones). Thus, gender today can take a variety of forms depending on the person’s lived experience.

Though most are aware of this nowadays, it is worth noting that one’s gender identity is distinct from one’s sexual identity (or sexual orientation as it has been traditionally called) and that one’s sexual identity may also feel fluid rather than fixed to terms like “straight,” “gay,” “lesbian,” “bisexual,” or even “queer.” In previous generations, of course, being gay or lesbian was referred to as “homosexual” a term now outdated and often considered offensive due to the history of violence and discrimination against those

 

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who identify as gay, lesbian, and bisexual and the entire queer community (Sexual Orientation, June 2021). Later, the term “queer” came into being as an alternative to previous labels, however, new perspectives and terminology on sexual identity are rapidly emerging. Now terms such as “fluid,” “polysexual,” and “pansexual” (also called “multisexual” and “omnisexual”) are being used as some individuals do not resonate with the overarching term “queer.”

Many young people find the university hook-up culture to be an especially hospitable ground for those who fall outside of the traditional hard lines of binary gender and sexual labels. The hook-up scene across American college and university campuses allows students to explore new identities and intimacies because “hooking up” has become the dominant structure for sexual interaction. Without the traditional rules at play, gender and sexual fluidity become more acceptable. In their analysis of queer girls on campus, Rupp and Taylor (2013) explained, “If sex without commitment is by no means new, the fact that the hook-up culture is widely acknowledged as the dominant scene on campus represents a new development from the earlier pattern of dating and forming relationships” (p. 85).

Gender and sexual identity and fluidity and their impact on emotional intimacy in romantic partnerships is an important, complex, and nuanced issue. While it is beyond the scope of this article to explore these topics in depth, it is nevertheless important to point out these larger shifts and frame them in light of postnormal times. As with the other themes explored in this article, there is no doubt that these new conceptualizations of gender and sexuality have increased complexity in the current world of relationships. For some, these expanded norms and values offer possibilities of freedom of self-expression, a depth of love and connection within intimate relationships previously not afforded, and an experience of themselves romantically and sexually un-shamed. For others, the multitude of possible identities and sexual perspectives leads to increased dizziness and confusion around intimate encounters, feeling unmoored by previously held labels and definitions, even potentially feeling threatened by what this new openness may mean for their existing romantic partnership. However, as is true for most postnormal times phenomena, the question of ultimate benefit or detriment or some combination thereof is left to be evaluated by each individual and their intimate relationships.


Sex and Porn

A more complete discussion of sexuality in intimate postnormal love relationships is not limited to gender identity or sexual identity. In postnormal times, the rise and prevalence of pornography must absolutely be included. As a Generation X kid growing up in 70s,

 

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80s, and early 90s America, the only pornography that was readily available were what we called “dirty magazines” such as Playboy, Penthouse, and Hustler. I remember the first time I ever saw one. My brother and I unknowingly stumbled across a stack of Penthouse while staying at the home of our babysitter and her husband. I was 8 years old; my brother was 11. We sat there in complete silence, each of us gazing out our own copies, slowly peeling through the pages. I remember feeling intrigued, turned on, and ashamed seeing all the naked bodies. My brother and I carefully put the magazines away before our babysitter returned home and never said a single word about it.

By the time I was in college, my then-boyfriend seemed to always have pornographic magazines stashed away under his bed or in his closet, much to my distress and jealousy. Guys in my social house packed into rooms watching VHS tapes of porn hooting and hollering at the screen. It was the mid-90s and in some states one could buy VHS tapes at small video stores, opening up a whole new avenue for eager viewers to get their hands on pornography, still considered a secret taboo in most circles. By 1998, one year after graduating from college, I bought a subscription dial-up service from Earthlink for my Tandy 486 computer, which gave me my first email address and allowed me to access the Internet for the first time in my life.

Needless to say, times have changed. It is startling how easily accessible free pornography is today for anyone with an Internet connection. According to Peggy Orenstein’s eye-opening book Boys & Sex (2021), online porn is not only commonplace in the lives of most teenage boys, but the most graphic, degrading, and even violent acts are widely available in the world of online porn which she captured in the chapter title, “If It Exists, There Is Porn of It.” As a result, the formative years of Millennials and Gen Zers are radically different than the world of romantic and sexual relationships I grew up in. Even though girls nowadays are more educated to be feminists, to care for their own dignity, and to give (or withhold) consent, boys are not similarly educated, causing a rift between the genders (Orenstein, 2021). Even with these advancements in our education of girls, I think I would have fared worse as a teenage girl in today’s postnormal world. Sex and relationships seem more complicated, chaotic, and contradictory than ever.

Orenstein (2021) did however confirm one thing that remains as true today as it was in my youth: No one talks to kids about sex. They don’t talk to girls about sex and even more so, they don’t talk to boys about sex. She explained, “Despite their apparent mortification, boys do want their parents to talk to them about physical intimacy, for someone to go beyond the classic don’ts: don’t have sex, don’t get anyone pregnant, don’t get a disease, don’t be disrespectful” (p. 181). A 2017 national survey by the Making

 

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Caring Common Project reflected this lack of guidance for boys when it reported that the large majority of boys had never had a conversation with their parents about “being a caring and respectful sexual partner” which includes making sure their sexual partner wants to and is comfortable having sex (Orenstein, 2021, p. 181). With boys, no one talks about what sex is—not just vaginal intercourse for straight boys or anal sex for gay boys—or about how to pleasure another and the importance of doing so. Especially in the case of straight boys, no one talks to boys about what feels good for girls or making sure they orgasm, too, (not just boys), about consent (how to ask for it, when to ask for it, how to know when it’s been given and when it’s not been given) and how to give consent themselves. In addition, no one talks to boys about porn (what it is and what it’s not), about respecting your partner, and about feelings or emotional intimacy. A teenage boy Orenstein (2021) interviewed named Liam said it simply but poignantly:

I love my parents. They have taught me a lot of things. But when it comes to sex, they haven’t. … Honestly, I just wish they had told me anything, because I was sort of thrown into this place where I knew literally nothing except [from] a couple of classes in school and watching porn. (p. 180)

This issue exemplifies the first major contradiction we see in today’s postnormal world of teens and sex: While we want our boys to grow up to be so-called good men and to treat women well, porn doesn’t teach them how to do that, except no one else wants the job. Because no one talks to boys about sex and porn, they are continuously faced with complexity, chaos, and contradictions in their sexual and emotionally intimate relationships with girls (if they are straight) or boys (if they are gay). Trans boys and gay boys face even more unique challenges in the formation of their identities and sexuality and are also largely alone in navigating this complex terrain (Orenstein, 2021). For sake of brevity, I will limit my discussion here to cis-gendered, straight boys and girls.

Boys want to know what to do sexually; they want to know how to perform well or else they at least want to appear to “know what they’re doing” (though without much, if any, regard for female pleasure). They are looking for ways to explore their sexuality, get turned on, and find a release. However, with no one to talk to about sex and few other resources to learn from, they turn to the one thing that is readily available: porn. We can argue about how good a teacher porn is or is not, but it is a primary teacher for boys and for many girls whether we like it or not. It shows them both what to do, how to do it, how to look like they’re enjoying it, how to act, what to say and not say, and how to master the conquest (Orenstein, 2021).

 

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This adds layers of complexity, chaos, and contradiction to the sexual and emotional relationships between boys and girls. The psychological and emotional consequences to watching porn are especially significant because there is little alternative for teens to turn anywhere else for their sexual, emotional, and relational education. For example, Orenstein (2021) noted:

Both boys and girls who consume porn at younger ages are more likely to become sexually active sooner than their peers … to have more partners, to have higher rates of pregnancy, to view sexual aggression more positively and women more negatively, and to engage in the riskier and more atypical behaviors porn depicts. (p. 48)

A study of straight women who watched the same levels of porn showed that sexual submissiveness and compliance correlated with the age at which they first started viewing porn suggesting that women who start watching porn at younger ages are more likely to imitate the behavior they see in porn because they think that’s what guys want, whether they themselves like it or not, rather than have an overt negative reaction to not going along with behavior that offends them or turns them off (Orenstein, 2021).

In a similar vein, porn teaches boys how to treat women sexually. It depicts women as submissive and irrelevant, as numbers and conquest. It gives boys the message that women are both “sex-hungry” and objects for their gratification, but it has failed to teach them that women might feel hesitant, might say “no,” might need emotional connection during sex, and deserve their own pleasure just as much as boys do (Orenstein, 2021).

Boys also learn what sex looks like, and doesn’t look like, from watching porn, with no nuance, subtlety, emotion, mutual exploration, or connection. Boys learn that sex is only about body parts “getting off”—meaning, sex is vaginal intercourse, anal intercourse, and oral sex (on men) for men’s pleasure and dominance. The complexity deepens when girls watch porn. It shows them how they should behave during sex including what sexual acts they should be performing to please a boy. It does not teach them how to please themselves, how to make boundaries, or how to express a lack of consent. Thus, girls are often colluding in their own dehumanization, objectification, and lack of affirmative consent—an unbearable contradiction that no one should have to face. They may go along with sexual experiences that they might otherwise say “no” to only because they feel pressure to be like the girls they see in porn. This includes acting like they are enjoying sex to the point of faking their orgasms so the boy can feel like they performed well, while the girl may not be enjoying themselves at all (Orenstein, 2021). For example,

 

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many girls “go down” on guys in hookups because they don’t want to be called a “bitch” and fear appearing impolite if they directly say “no” (Orenstein, 2021, p. 189). In previous generations, girls who chose to abstain from sex were typically thought of as the “good girls” however in today’s world, these girls are often shamed and labeled “virgins” (a derogatory term) or “prudes” (Orenstein, 2016, p. 3). However, between the contradictory choices of “slut” (for sexually active girls) and “virgin” (for sexually abstaining girls), what is a girl supposed to do? And yet, another contradiction occurs when girls are shamed as “sluts” for being sexually active while boys are revered as “players” for the same (Orenstein, 2016, p. 3).

Of course, talking about sex is not just about anatomy, “how to,” and performance, or about disease and pregnancy prevention. No discussion with boys (or girls) about sex is complete without talking about feelings and emotional intimacy. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with having sex just for physical pleasure, according to Orenstein (2021), many straight boys are actually seeking emotional connection that they are not getting with their parents or with other boys. Yet, they do not know how to identify their feelings let alone share them. They have been taught to be insensitive to their own feelings and the feelings of others, especially girls and women. Thus, a main takeaway around sex and porn for boys and girls in postnormal times is the recognition that emotional intimacy is caught in the crossfire.


Toxic Masculinity and Gender Roles

Within the complexity, chaos, and contradictions that boys and girls face in today’s postnormal world of sex and intimacy, perhaps the most essential contradiction is the message that boys (and men) get around masculinity itself—what it means to be a boy and a man. Masculinity is framed in direct “opposition to, and adversarial toward, femininity” (Orenstein, 2021, p. 13). Boys are taught to avoid “acting like a girl” at all costs: They should not show emotions or vulnerability, they should not cry or appear sensitive. Instead, they should “be a man” and “suck it up” when it comes to their emotional life while simultaneously asserting stereotypically masculine behaviors such as sharing sexual exploits, using misogynist and homophobic language, and generally exhibiting aggressive, hostile, and even violent attitudes towards others. It is what we now call “toxic masculinity,” and it governs how boys think, feel, and behave at all costs. In short, toxic masculinity is the idea that anything that reads as feminine is to be “concealed, ridiculed, or rejected. Love, connection, and vulnerability are signs of weakness; aggression is celebrated and eroticized; conquest is everything” (Orenstein, 2021, pp. 13–14). Riane

 

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Eisler (1995) concurred when she noted that “dating became a ‘sport’ where sex was basically a game in which ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ vied for domination and women were viewed as ‘opponents’” (p. 257).

And yet, the jury of America is still out on this verdict: If toxic masculinity is a bad thing, then what do men (or women) make of the gender roles still so prevalent, accepted, and even lauded in our society? We are seeing a major backlash, a fierce resurgence, in a fight for traditional gender roles. As cultural assumptions about what it means to be a “real man” are changing due to a variety of factors including generational shifts in socio-political views among Millennials and Gen Zers and women becoming more educated than in prior generations and rapidly becoming the primary breadwinners (Brooks, 2020), men have lost their once firm role in the social order.

Many men are indeed choosing to join a new kind of “men’s movement” away from toxic masculinity that relies on what Eisler (1995) called “dominator institutions” which uphold and replicate the idea that “war and the war of the sexes are inevitable, and that men must be victors in both” (p. 247) and toward a more “partnership” model between the sexes which is based on “mutual trust and respect” (p. 251) including gender equity and reducing male violence. However, other men are moving in the opposite direction either politically by “denying there is [social] inequality” between men and women or “claiming women should be, and want to be, dominated by men” (Eisler, 1995, p. 258). Still others are somewhere in between, balancing both a desire for gender equity and respect of women while simultaneously exploring and encouraging their more embodied masculinity in the form of archetypal symbols such as the “warrior” or the “king” (Eisler, 1995, pp. 258–259). If men and women are still desirous of men to be self-reliant, strong, independent, and powerful then what do men do with their sensitivity or vulnerability? Conversely, what do women do with their power, voice, and ambition? To an extent, attitudes towards gender roles are stuck in a zero-sum game in which the more equity and freedom women gain, the more men experience the loss of their familiar, dominant role and status and instead face the uncertainty of inhabiting more aspects of their emotional life. Thus, the future of gender roles remains uncertain.


Final Thoughts

There is a great wave of uncertainty rising up and the fate of emotional intimacy is hanging in the balance. In Liquid Love, Zygmunt Bauman (2003) wrote:

In every love, there are at least two beings, each of them the great unknown in the equations of the other. This is what makes love feel like a caprice of fate—that eerie and mysterious future, impossible to be told in advance, to be pre-empted or staved off, to be speeded up or arrested. (pp. 6–7)
 

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With the advent of the Internet and complexities around online intimacy, with the unique challenges of living and loving during a deadly pandemic, with the norms and values around marriage, cohabitation, and divorce shifting, with gender and sexual identities and gender roles becoming more flexible and fluid, but still hotly contested, and with the complexities and pitfalls of sex and porn for boys and girls ever-increasing, it is no wonder that romantic relationships are fraught with confusion, chaos, and uncertainty. It is no wonder that while some celebrate having more freedom in living and loving, others advocate for a return to more “traditional” lives.

These shifts in our world of relationships and emotional intimacy are monumental. Their reverberations are far-reaching and more impactful than can yet be fully seen, felt, and calculated. What does all this rapid change mean for the human identity? For love and intimacy? Perhaps the only true certainty that remains is that, taken together, these shifts locate emotional intimacy in our love relationships squarely in the postnormal age, dislodging whatever normalcy remained in the privacy of bedrooms and hearts. If relationships were not complex, chaotic, and contradictory enough before, they most certainly are now. In what ways we will navigate this most personal and treacherous terrain remains to be seen.


Declaration of Conflicting Interests

The author reports there are no competing interests to declare. The author did not receive any funding for this article.


Author Biography

Lisa Blair, M.A., Dipl. PW is a Ph.D. student in Transformative Studies at California Institute for Integral Studies where her focus is on emotional intimacy in long-term romantic partnership. She has an international private practice specializing in process-oriented psychology.


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