Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Dating as Investment?

During a long and heated discussion about dating and finances here, a guy made the following statement:

“No one should shell out money until you believe you’re going to get a return on your investment.”

When I read that, I kind of cringed. There's something off, in my opinion, about viewing relationships like a business. But I imagine many of us have had, or continue to view all or parts of our relationships - romantic, platonic, even familial - in a transactional/exchange sense. It's another example of how thoroughly the capitalist, consumer-based mentality has penetrated our lives.

Here was my initial response to the comment above:

Perhaps it’s just a nice turn of phrase, man, but if not, you might want to rethink your relationship views. Seeing relationships in a business-model framework, including how you choose to spend or not spend your money, is a road to misery from my experience.

It’s one thing to keep the spending reigned in early on because you’re maintaining a budget, and don’t know the person you’re dating. It’s another to think of your date as not currently worthy of an investment. The money spent might be exactly the same, but the thinking impacts how you treat someone. Any woman I go on a date with I consider a person first and foremost, and because of that, someone who I will my time and attention to on that date, even if we aren’t a match.

I'm fairly convinced that healthy, fulfilling relationships are not based on transactional thinking. When I think of my best friends, for example, there isn't any thought about what they will give me, or not give me. There isn't this sense that they own me something, or that they need to fork up some money, or a gift, or some time even in order to prove they are "a good investment." The connections are so much deeper than that. And in a lot of ways, it doesn't really matter much anymore what we do together, or whether I or friend X has paid for more of this or that.

I consider my immediate family in a similar way, although there is really no way I can ever repay my parents for all they have done for me. Other than to be generous with my time, skills, and life with as many people as possible. But even there, thinking solely in terms of a debt you "can't repay" isn't really helpful. A healthy relationship with a parent is much more, and many of us instinctively understand that, even if we struggle sometimes to articulate it.

But somehow, when it comes to dating, a lot of us seem to think in business terms. In what we can get from another. In what someone has to offer us. In how "worthy" someone is of "our investment" in them.

And I'm convinced that this attitude, and all the behaviors associated with it, often bleed straight into our long term relationships, slowly (or sometimes quickly) poisoning what otherwise might be a great thing. I have certainly been guilty of this in the past. I remember internally tallying expenses I paid on certain trips, or nights out with a former girlfriend who regularly made more money than I did. We rarely argued about money, but I do think that the resentment I had about what I was spending, and her struggles to maintain a decent budget, negatively impacted our relationship. The reality was that any imbalance in spending was probably minimal and so it really was silly to feel resentment, and also let it influence how I viewed her, but I did it anyway. Why? Because some part of me saw the relationship as a series of transactions, and when hers slipped below a certain point, I felt cheated.

I believe she also had some of this attitude. However, instead of money, for her it was about attention and affection. If she felt something was wrong between us, she would withhold not only sex, but most physical attention and contact. Or sometimes, she would heavily increase all of that out of a desperate attempt to please me, or sooth whatever issue was between us. After awhile, I began copying her, almost unconsciously, to the point where during the last several months of our relationship, whenever there was a problem, we did this dance around physical intimacy all driven by a failure to clearly communicate with each other.

Now, I definitely believe there are times during a relationship when one or both partners are totally right to step back from physical intimacy. I have been on both ends of that equation, and don't believe anyone should feel obligated to be physically intimate and sexual with their partners.

But the particular dynamic I wrote about above seemed much more about a transactional approach to relationships than healthy boundaries. Any little disagreement could lead to withholding touch. Or to a ramped up expression of touch that was based both on a fear of loss, and on a sense that in imputing X amount of physical attention will right whatever is wrong.

Have any of you treated your relationships in this way? If you have worked to shift that, how so?

As always, any thoughts or sharing is welcome.


  1. Investiment is not a word I connect to relationships, but I suppose I could say there is a difference in the amount of time and emotion invested when it comes to them.

    In the case of the poster you cited, he was willing to 'treat' a woman he REALLY liked, but not one he was dating casually. I wonder how long it takes him to decide he REALLY likes someone? How long does he date someone casually?

    The like part would indicate an emotional investment. The going out long enough to make that determination would be a time investment. Dating someone casually just as something to do would also involve a time investment, but probably never considered that way.

    I've never used sex and affection in a transaction model, the desire is either present, or it isn't.

  2. I do think it can take time to figure out if you really like someone and want to be with them. I'm not inclined to rush that, and think the emphasis on instant chemistry many people have is foolish.

    However, there's something off about that commenter's approach. Primarily because I'm not sure if he actually is aiming towards a committed relationship, which means he can simply use the "casual card" as an excuse for not giving much to the person he's dating. And by giving, I mean anything from paying for a meal, to consistent attention and support during life challenges.

    Perhaps I am reading him wrong, but even though I was somewhat in agreement with his frustration over the particular situation he wrote about, I didn't get the sense that he's really interested in commitment - which is fine, but it totally weakens the arguments he's making.

  3. I agree the emphasis on instant chemistry many people have is foolish - I believe chemistry is a combination of physical, mental, and emotional attraction and that it developes as you get to know each other. The "instant" chemistry many hope to have is just physical attraction and that can disappear pretty easily when it's clear the other two components aren't there.

    And I agree with you about the commenter as well- he struck me as a fellow who wanted to just date casually at this time in his life. Nothing wrong with that per se, but his "investment" arguments didn't wash for me.

  4. Yeah, it's too bad he can't just say "All I want is casual connections right now. I'm not interested in long term commitments, nor any of the extra effort and energy needed to support them." I'm actually grateful to those who say this kind of thing up front because then I can choose to look elsewhere, and neither of us wastes any time or gets unnecessarily hurt.

    Your point about instant chemistry is totally true.

  5. Nathan,
    Do you think on-line dating encourages the expectation of "instant chemistry" (physical attraction)? And subsequent disappointment if it isn't there?

  6. You know, that's a good question. I think that instant chemistry has been around a lot longer than online dating.

    But it does seem like there is a speed factor behind online dating that might ramp up the chemistry search. For many people, the whole thing is over after 10-15 minutes of a date if they aren't feeling sparks. Which is pretty ridiculous if you step back a moment.

    I have been out with women who had multiple dates set up in a single day, and were basically rushing through the experience once the butterflies didn't emerge. Last winter, for example, I remember having a really nice conversation over a drink with someone. We had a lot in common and so the conversation was easy and flowing. Anyway, 45 minutes into the date, she abruptly gets up and says "Well, I just wanted to squeeze you in you before I met up with this other guy. It was really nice to meet you though." I just sat there, kind of stunned. I mean, what do you do with that?

    It seems like some folks treat online dating like a buffet.

  7. I have no idea what you would do with that. I get it that people look at a first online date as a meet-and-greet thing, but why would you schedule yourself so closely? It sounds stressful, plus if you were really hitting it off with someone, perhaps you would like to see the date extended. She apparently wasn't allowing for that possibility. Sounds like she had created a variation of the speed dating model for herself.

    I haven't tried meeting anyone through an online dating site. At one point I thought it might be fun - the more I read about it though, the less appealing it is to me. For all the dating coaches promoting it, the actual people doing it seem to be experiencing a high burnout rate. Some getting really dissatisfied, even angry with their opposite gender. Both genders!

  8. I think there's definitely a high burnout rate. I take breaks from it because of that reason. It's been a good way to meet people, and I have learned a lot, but I totally understand the lack of appeal. I have a fair number of friends who have steered clear of it too.

  9. If I may involve myself with your conversation:

    I think the difference you are seeing regarding the desire for instant chemistry is as follows: When you meet someone offline, before you ask them out for a date you likely have established in your own head whether you find them physically attractive and whether there is a modicum of chemistry. You can not do that with someone from online. So you have already weeded out those from offline that you are not attracted to or do not have chemistry because you didn't ask them out. In order to weed them out of the people from online you have to meet them and see them. Thus, i think you go and meet them and you can generally tell in the first few minutes whether you are 1. attracted to them and 2.have enough chemistry with them to see if they could be someone worth dating.

    Nathan, what that women did by setting up another date after you AND telling you about it was incredibly rude. Even if she did have one, she should have just excused herself with a better excuse. i understand the concept of keeping first dates short, but no reason to tell the other person that they are just one date in an assembly line of dates.

  10. Chuck,

    I can see your point about chemistry with online dating. And I think you're right that there is a weeding out process that we all go through in that regard. At the same time, I have met many women in real life where there was a gradual build up of physical attraction. It's probably true that something was there from the beginning, but it took time to see what that something was.

    The challenge with online dating seems to be that with so many "options," people are weeding out anyone who doesn't full blow "wow" them on the physical attraction scale. And that's a big mistake in my book. Because in doing so, you've eliminated all those who have the potential to develop into great partners, but aren't wowing you on the first date.

    So, I guess I'm arguing for fine tuning that weeding process. If I feel nothing for someone on a first date other than a casual niceness, then I won't go on another date. But if I feel something, but am not sure, I usually try and go on another date.

    Oh, and I agree about the woman who set up a second date right after mine. It mostly was the way it went down that bothered me - the abrupt standing up in mid-sentence and saying she's gotta go meet someone else. Totally awkward.

  11. I think I am different than you, Nathan, in this sense. I know almost immediately whether I find a woman attractive or not. If I don't it will never change. If I do...that could change based on other factors. Attraction can also grow but not if it wasnt there at at upon initial meeting.

    I can not tell from looking at someone's picture whether I am attracted to them or not. I can usually tell if I definitely won't be, but sometimes i have no idea really either way. So I meet whomever I can and see for myself in person. If when I meet them and I am not attracted to them - the best I can hope for is a new friend.

    Even the woman I am currently dating I was unsure of based on her pics. I was very pleasantly surprised when I met her.

    Online does give options, but that is why it works. It enables me to meet women that I would never had met otherwise. But I believe options are good. I want someone that stands apart from all the options, not someone because I have no other options

  12. Maybe we aren't so different on that issue. And maybe we are. When I think about my experience, it's more about the level of, or intensity of attraction present. I rarely get that "lightning bolt" kind of attraction, but this is what a lot of folks seem to base their choices on.

    I can think of plenty of examples in my own experience of an attraction or connection that is not as intense, but which is enough for me to want to explore more. It feels like more than a simple friendship, but from one or two dates, I don't know if there is much more to it or not.

    You're totally right about photos though. I have gone out on dates with women whose photos sparked something for me, but whom in person just didn't at all. And they looked basically the same as their pics. The opposite has happened for me as well - not really thinking much of the photos, but then finding the woman in front of me pretty attractive.

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