Monday, August 6, 2012

Consumer Love: Online Dating as a Commentary on Modern Relationships


This post from Evan Marc Katz's dating blog has gnawed at me for awhile now. It's title question, "Do dating sites promote gender stereotypes?," provoked a number of "No. What nonsense!" kind of responses. Many readers were irritated with the snarky writing of Lindy West, whose article was the inspiration for Katz's post. Others defended "traditional gender roles," using everything from the old biological differences arguments, to the idea that bucking the "system" leads to failure. A few readers agreed with West's article, while onesuggested the gendered advice itself isn't a problem, but more how dating sites like eharmony frame it that is problematic.

Other than a somewhat snarky and cryptic comment early on, I stayed out of the conversation over there. It didn't take long for me to recognize that trying to debate the gendered quality of the online dating world wasn't going to go well. In addition, although I think that online dating advice does sometimes advance stereotyped notions of men and women, there's a lot more going on than just that.

There's no doubt that online dating is popular. Here in the U.S., a good 40 million people have tried it at least once, and according to one study of people in 18 different nations, nearly 30% found their partner through online dating services. Amongst the reasons for it's popularity: great expansion of the dating pool, ease of connecting with potential partners, ability to bypass the in person ask and dreaded in person rejection, opportunity to learn more about someone before going on a date, and the general flexibility offered for people with busy lifestyles.

Years of online dating experience taught me a lot about myself, what I need in a partner, and what I don't want as well. I learned to let go of a lot of the fears that come with asking someone out on a date, and also meeting them for the first time. I also learned how to be more of who I am, and to forget about trying to "be perfect" early on, because it isn't going to hold up over the long run anyway, and actually, attempting to appear perfect stifles your personality and individuality. Another thing I learned over time was that no matter how well a first or second date went, there's no guarantee that such initial "success" would lead to something more long lasting. All of this and more has been invaluable to me in dealing with the ups and downs of dating and relationships. And I can thank online dating in part for these revelations.

However, after years of personal experience, learning about the experiences of friends and family, and also reading about online dating, I have become wildly less impressed by it as a method. One of the interesting statics cited in one of the links above was the difference in length of courtship before marriage for those who met online and those who met offline. Online romances that lead to marriage go there over twice as fast as those that began in other ways. Which leads me to one of the major challenges I have with online dating as a whole, as well as the modern dating culture that has cropped up around it: the speed factor.

Because there are so many more potential options available, many people feel a great deal of pressure to move quickly through the steps and "lock" someone in as their partner. Better follow up after that first date really quickly, or you'll be left behind. Better have sex within the first few weeks of meeting or you'll be considered not interested. Better declare exclusivity after a month or two, or else you might loose out to some rival.

All of this leads me to my second point, which is that online dating is a majorly driven by consumerism and tends to promote dating and relationships in business-like terms that warp who we are and how we act.

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You meet someone and like them enough to want to spend more time with them. But the website you are on is filled with hundreds, even thousands of others who could be better, and so you continue shopping, either while seeing the first person, or after dumping the first person because you figure you might do better with someone else.

You disqualify people for decidedly unimportant reasons you'd probably never fuss about if you met the same people in person. Their user name is goofy. They like a musician you think is awful. They are 5'11 instead of 6 feet. They're 30 years old instead of 28 years old. (I have experienced the last two personally.)

You spend entirely too much time looking for "red flags," instead of actually being on your dates and experiencing what's happening.

Your list of must haves and must not haves both become so long that almost no one could ever meet your desired qualifications.

You find yourself doing things differently not out of a sense that changing would help you be a better person, but because you think that you'll sell yourself to others better.

You find yourself justifying withholding certain critical aspects of your life from those you date, as well as more and more "little" lies.

You find yourself conforming to old gender roles not because that's who you are and what you believe in, but out of a sense of practicality. While prioritizing the practical is definitely called for sometimes, it can become a way of loosing yourself or sacrificing who you are and want to be, in order to get or keep someone around. How many of you have woken up one day while in a relationship and thought to yourself "Who have I become? Why did I keep doing X, or stop doing Y and Z?" It's definitely happened to me before.

You become fixated on the next date, the last date, the number of potential dates, and everything else related to being an active dater. To the point of obsession.

You find yourself keeping tabs like an accountant. Constantly checking off pluses and minuses in your head.

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Now, any of these can happen to people who are not active online daters. But it seems to me that more of them, in greater quantities, are present in those who are submerged in the dating culture that online dating has spawned. Which goes beyond people actively doing online dating, but is driven by online daters.

The thing is, though, that these qualities I am linking to online dating are actually sourced in our overall capitalist culture. Where dating and finding love are both a highly profitable industry, and also a means of demonstrating personal success and worthiness in social settings. Being single after a certain age - say 30 - is widely considered a mark of failure or at least a sign of being deficient in some significant manner. Whereas those who have long term partnerships and marriages tend to be viewed more positively, even if the relationships are destructive or totally stagnant. It usually takes high levels of physical and/or emotional abuse spilling out beyond a given couple to make their "stock" drop. Whereas the single person, divorced person, or person only doing casual dating often has to ramp up other aspects of their life to be considered successful and worthy in mainstream society. The same is true to a lesser extent for couples without children. You better damn well have a highly successful business, be an uber active community volunteer, or someone who is wildly generous with your time and/or money to make up for the lack of a partner and/or children.

What's fascinating to me is that online dating has probably opened the door for people to more easily engage in a diverse array of relationship arrangements. You want to meet people for casual sex? It's a click away. You want to date people interested in polyamory? A click away. People who want long term commitment, but not official marriage? A click. Folks into fetishes? A click. It goes on and on.

At the same time, the nuclear family, a model that's intimately linked to modern, industrialized capitalism, continues to be the norm. And what I have noticed is that as more of us buck this norm in various ways, the rhetoric of "lack" and "sin," attempts to legislate "morality," and general calls for a return or continuation of "traditional values" get stronger. It's not just coming from religious conservatives either. EMK's blog doesn't seem to attract overtly religious types (here, meaning people who couch most of their arguments in religious teachings or directives) in general, but the main audience of the blog are people looking for nuclear family marriages. Some might not want children, but it's a great minority the number of regular commenters who are considering options outside of marriage. And lest you say "But that's his niche," it's the niche of nearly every popular online dating site and dating writer.

I can hear folks saying, "Duh. That's what people want. Love and marriage." Which is true in a practical sense, but if there was less pressure to conform to this model, would the same truth remain? I can hear other folks saying "But the family is the glue that holds society together, and the vehicle for raising healthy, successful children," which may be the case in the capitalist, privatized society we have created. But would it be true if major changes come to our country? Would it be true if the economy completely tanks? Or if global warming brings even more extreme weather and land condition crises? What if it becomes impossible for every couple with a few kids to maintain their own household? Have you not noticed that this is already the case, and has been for awhile.

Getting back to online dating specifically, regardless of the kind of relationship you want, I think finding a decent one through online dating requires a lot of insight, the ability to remain true to yourself and buck outside pressures, and probably a bit of luck as well. It's popularity is understandable given the sped up, overly busy modern culture we live in, and I wouldn't tell people to reject it out of hand. Like I said, I learned invaluable lessons going on dozens of online found dates over the years. But online dating is more than just a vehicle to potential romance. It say a lot about modern society, and a fair amount of what it says is troubling, even if many people find the loves of their lives in the process.





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