Like most single people in New York, I both deplore and perpetuate the IRL version of The Bachelor that is dating in this city. I complain about the prevalence of sociopathy and erratic behavior, then date four people at once to cover my feelings of vulnerability with a safety net of affection. I wake up feeling lonely one day or wishing someone (I were in love with) were lying next to me – then am inundated with friends’ and clients’ stories of infidelity, heartbreak and lost interest – and return to a place of skepticism about monogamy and relationship longevity.
You’ve probably heard of the “Dating Apocalypse,” and how it appears every single out there is frustrated, confused, and discouraged. This is a misnomer. Dating is alive and well. Dating is THRIVING, which contributes to said singles’ frustration. It’s dating exclusively that’s passé – at least in this city. And while NYC might be an on-steroids version of the “Dating Exclusively Apocalypse,” globally anywhere with apps and liberal values is affected.
Let’s first take a look at all the reasons why the system is broken (note: this is a handy summary to share with grand/parents, colleagues, and anyone else who “can’t understand how you’re single!!!”). We’ll then all laugh nervously and discuss how to maintain sanity while partaking in the social experiment that is dating in 2017.
1. The “Paradox of Choice”
A decade ago, Psychologist Barry Schwartz gave a seminal TED talk on “The Paradox of Choice.” If you haven’t seen it, watch it. It’s still one of my favs. The gist: when we’re faced with too many options, we become paralyzed in our decision-making process. Should we actually make a choice, we end up feeling dissatisfied because we question whether we made the “right” one. For example, you go to buy a box of cereal and have 30 to choose from. Overwhelmed, you labor over which cereal to go home with, finally choosing the Corn Pops fifteen minutes later but stressed AF throughout the decision-making process. You get home and wonder if you should’ve chosen the Chex instead. The next morning you eat your bowl of Corn Pops skeptically, resentful to them for getting soggy faster or being less social at parties than you imagine a bowl of Chex would. And a couple days later when you pop into CVS to pick up toothpaste (which also takes 15 mins longer than it should), you pick up a box of Chex.
Now replace “Corn Pops” with “Amanda” and “Chex” with “Ayako” and “the cereal aisle” with “Bumble” and you understand the destructive effect of dating apps on commitment and satisfaction. AND imagine you could access the cereal in Germany or L.A. or Brazil as well (coughTinderPluscough)!
Once upon a time, proximity was the primary way people met: we lived in the same building (or in the homestead a mile down), ran in the same friend circle, or worked in the same office. Now, we not only have access to an endless supply of options in our city, we truly can date anywhere in the world. A weekend visit to London? Put it on points! That Aussie dude you met surfing in Bali? Skype sex FTW!
2. Phantom daters in the online pool
If someone’s on an app, it means they’re committed to trying to find someone, right? Wrong. Apps are an emotionally unavailable person’s dream. You can titrate your vulnerability (yep, Yours Truly over here), seek distraction from your uncomfortable feelings, and instantly find reassurance of your desirability…then forget the app exists when you feel whole again. So for those of us who are frustrated because we don’t know where that girl we had that long talk about politics with disappeared to, or that guy we matched with who won’t respond, they’re probably still getting over their ex or are now busy with work or are seeing someone else or just aren’t that into you but wanted someone to talk to when they were feeling lonely that night.
These “phantom daters” create the intermittent reinforcement that keeps us mind-fucked and “dating defensively” (which I’ll explain shortly). We become conditioned to feel anxiety, distrust, and pessimism around dating because the “phantom dating” experience creates the illusion of connection–that inevitably unravels and leaves us a little more disconcertingly unfazed each time.
3. “Defensive Dating” out of uncertainty that actually perpetuates the cycle
When I was 26, I fell hard for a guy I was seeing. With blinders on, I (incorrectly) assumed his unabashed affection meant he felt the same way. Fast forward to a few months later when he broke the news he’d been dating someone else at the same time, whom he ultimately “chose” over me. The shock, humiliation, and betrayal of such an event birthed in me a behavior I refer to as “defensive dating.” The strategy is to date multiple people at once to protect oneself from the anxiety of “all your eggs in one basket” abandonment. We used to assume a mutually identified connection with someone meant things would progress. Now, because we have limitless understudies at our fingertips (literally), there’s no security in said connection; thus the defensive dating strategy diversifies our portfolios.
The problem with this strategy, though, is it perpetuates the cycle. Why? GRE refresher time! “If Megan is dating three people, and each person Megan is dating is dating two other people while they date Megan, how many stand to get hurt should things progress to an exclusive place with any of the individuals involved?” And what does each rejected party take away from the experience? Anxiety, skepticism, guardedness, and… yep… more “defensive dating” as a way of navigating the minefield.
4. Other-oriented perfectionism (unrealistic expectations)
Because we’re a generation of individuals who’ve been taught to “never settle,” we’re all waiting for unicorns. We might meet someone with whom we have an amazing connection, similar values, and unbelievable sex, but their grammar isn’t perfect or they’re a terrible cook or they have an itty-bitty freckle next to their nose that we find suuuper distracting. Not only does this prevent deepening of the “situationship,” it has a boomerang-back-to-the-unlimited-supply-of-alternatives effect.
5. Dissolution of religion
Organized religion is so last century, and anxiety, divorce, and ambivalence about marriage are totes on-trend. Some studies actually show divorce rates are higher in Christian marriages than atheist ones, but that’s because you have to actually get married to get divorced (and atheist couples are less likely to get married than Christian ones). Religion-inspired marriage is rarely the sole impetus to seeking an exclusive relationship, but there’s no denying its influence.
6. The liberation of women
I’m not complaining about this over here, but it’s worth mentioning. While the wage gap and many other forms of inequality are DEFINITELY STILL A THING, women are no longer forced to marry to survive. We’re now allowed to earn an income of our own, both legally and culturally, thus one major “need” to partner is now irrelevant. And this allows us to be choosier and less committal.
7. Children-of-divorce with resultant attachment issues and skepticism around relationship longevity/monogamy
The aforementioned dissolution of religion and liberation of women skyrocketed our parents’ divorce rates and produced a millennial generation of attachment issues, marital disenchantment, and relational skepticism. Not every child of divorce is going to be insecurely attached, and not every child from an in-tact family is going to be securely attached, but the correlation is real.
Well, this is bleak. What do we do about it?
Similar to the psychological struggles people bring into my office, knowing the “why” doesn’t necessarily equate to resolution. We can’t easily revert to a time when we didn’t have a date vending machine at our fingertips – to a time when people weren’t so disposable.
But there are a few things we can do. And trust me, I highlight these “best dating practices” to cultivate integrity in my own behavior alongside a call to action for my fellow singles. Self preservation-driven or not, it’s up to us to fix the broken system:
Make it clear on your profile and in-person whether or not you’re looking for a relationship in the near(ish) future. If you’re healing a broken heart or a workaholic or emotionally unavailable and not looking for anything “real” for another reason, no judgment, but be explicit about it. You’ll prob still attract a bunch of people on a mission to “change” you, but at least they’ve signed the waiver.
Recognize beyond a certain point, more choice=greater frustration and less satisfaction. Sure, you may wanna keep a couple prospects around in initial stages for comparison (and diversification) purposes, but after a few dates with someone with whom you see potential, stop swiping for everyone’s sake.
Accept that everyone has flaws. You’re looking to be with a human, and humans are imperfect. Anyone who’s been in a long-term relationship knows there are times when you feel so annoyed or repulsed by your partner you can’t imagine ever having sex with them again (don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about). But remember the idea that you’re always going to want to tear each other’s clothes off or never need time apart is just another lie media tells us to believe we’re failing at life. So stop focusing on flaws and keeping yourself chronically dissatisfied.
Remember: It’s not you, it’s the system. Accept that people will ghost and breadcrumb you. They won’t always look like their pictures or be as witty as they were when they had several minutes to craft their banter. They’ll have a fiancé who’s been in Asia for work for the past two months and they moved all her shit into another room and tried to sleep with as many people as they could during that time (I’m over it!). They’ll bail last-minute, take forever to respond to texts, and date multiple people unbeknownst to you. You will feel anxious, rejected, jealous, disappointed, and pissed off. But try. not. to take it. personally. None of this is about you, and we’re all experiencing the same shit-show.
Get therapy. Everyone should get therapy. Yes, usually none of this is about you, but we all try to heal our childhood wounds in our relationships. I, for example, tend to sabotage or run from things before they progress into a place of seriousness where I could hurt or be hurt. I love to date seemingly unbreakable assholes on whom I’ll never fully rely, or “wounded” peeps by whom I feel needed (read: worthy), and can trust will NEVER LEAVE ME. Megan’s latest therapy-inspired challenge is to date an emotionally stable good human!
When you experience the inevitable anxiety or rejection of dating, try not to react mindlessly (i.e. jumping back on the apps or throwing yourself into work). If we wake up to it, dating can actually be an opportunity for serious spiritual and emotional growth. Taking advantage of these “opportunities for awakening” (whattup Pema Chodron) allows us to dig into some of our unresolved shit and practice different ways of coping with uncomfortable feelings (for example, self-compassion vs. numbing). We have the power to change the culture of dating, but in order to do so we have to learn how to wake up in these moments.
That’s all for now (though I welcome you to share any advice on how to make dating great again). And, if my shameless oversharing makes you question my credibility, let’s just all fall back on wisdom we can universally agree upon: The #truth of The Sunscreen Song: “Don’t be reckless with other people’s hearts, and don’t put up with people who are reckless with yours.”
Good luck out there.