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Response to Dan Slater’s “A Million First Dates”

295205_423299334375246_1996350639_nWhen I think about commitment and why some relationships go the way of the dodo, the first place I consider laying blame has never been the Internet. Vast immaturity on the part of my partner? Sure. Abuse? Absolutely. But the existence of online dating? Um, no. That very thought, as fleshed out and discussed by Dan Slater in his piece in The Atlantic last week, A Million First Dates: How online romance is threatening monogamy, is preposterous.

Finding a date online already carries a rather negative social stigma. How fierce is this social loathing? So much so that those writing dating profiles often note the most embarrassing thing they are willing to admit is that they are on a dating site. In fact, just today I came across a profile that assured me should this eligible man ever meet my friends, he would be pleased as punch to make up a cute how-we-met story that does not involve OkCupid. (Yes, I date online, and no, I’m in no way ashamed of this.) Why not fault online dating for blitzing commitment? Easy target. Holding up online dating as the martyr for the demise of monogamous commitment everywhere is an overly simple answer to the “problem” (as it’s arguable whether not being monogamous is problematic).

Where Mr. Slater goes wrong is twofold: one is the intricacies of online dating as demonstrated by his sample subject. And two, is how commitment and monogamy are related, and why the need for a change as to how we view monogamous commitments may not be as radical as he’s made it out to be.

According to Mr. Slater’s subject, Jacob, online dating is easy-peasy! Log in, peruse, and voila: dates just fall into your lap, and he thus notes commitment would be silly when there are so many available ladies waiting hand and foot for a man. Yes, first dates might slide on down in such a fashion (especially when you’re an early thirties, never married chap who is able to put together a profile that doesn’t make you look like a sociopath). But Mr. Slater notes Jacob as having been described as “lazy, aimless, and irresponsible with money” while also “not being able to make a girl feel like she was the most important thing in my life”. I don’t see the issue here being online dating opening up a pool of women for Jacob so he needn’t make a commitment: I see immense immaturity, an inability to want to connect and have a relationship and someone who in ten or fifteen years is going to be resoundingly lonely and confused as to why.  Jacob, for all intents and purposes, doesn’t sound actually interested in commitment to anyone but himself.  I can’t fault online dating for that.

Let’s look at a contrasting story to Jacob: my own. Just over a month ago, I returned from an epic road trip for the making of 50/50: A Dating Documentary, in which I went on fifty first dates, one in every American state. Almost every date was arranged through OkCupid and How About We – aka, online dating sites. The premise of seeing America through the eyes of the nation’s bachelors while being a bachelorette myself gave me the freedom to ask questions one doesn’t normally dig into on first dates, such as, “What is dating like here?” And you know what the answer was more often than not? “Hard.”

Almost all the guys I went out with seemed to be looking for a long term relationship, many saying up front they were hesitant to take a date with me since I’d be traveling so much for the film. The men I met seemed lost in the sea of online dating; no matter how big or small their town, it didn’t thrill them to look for a date. Rather, they just wanted to already be in a relationship.

A lot of people – myself included – don’t want to be just dates.  Dates don’t want to hear about the fact I just learned one of my kidney’s doesn’t work and I have to have surgery. Dates don’t want to talk about the tribulations of job-hunting. I’m single, and I while I hate to admit this let it be known it’s not really by choice. I’m thirty, educated, and overly good at talking to strangers. While I have a blast on dates, whether I’m on the road or back in my hometown in the San Francisco Bay Area, I don’t prefer dating to having a commitment where I share the inner workings of me.

Ah, but here’s the crux of the dating issue: you actually have to be in and find a relationship of sorts before you can build a commitment. Which means yes, you have to go on first date and look for someone who complements you. There’s a lot of advice out there as to how to do this, and we can turn to Lori Gottlieb’s article in The Atlantic, Marry Him! for the reason hundreds of single, successful ladies are willing to give over one stakes-free date to someone like Jacob:

“My advice is this: Settle! That’s right. Don’t worry about passion or intense connection. Don’t nix a guy based on his annoying habit of yelling “Bravo!” in movie theaters. Overlook his halitosis or abysmal sense of aesthetics. Because if you want to have the infrastructure in place to have a family, settling is the way to go. Based on my observations, in fact, settling will probably make you happier in the long run, since many of those who marry with great expectations become more disillusioned with each passing year. (It’s hard to maintain that level of zing when the conversation morphs into discussions about who’s changing the diapers or balancing the checkbook.)”

Ms. Gottlieb’s advice, which is resonating across America, is saying to be open to someone who is good enough. This is a complete one-eighty from Mark Brook’s study, noted in Mr. Slater’s article, which partially concluded, “Above all, Internet dating has helped people of all ages realize that there’s no need to settle for a mediocre relationship.” Granted, Ms. Gottlieb’s advice is meant for women; perhaps without realizing it, Mr. Brooks’ is gender specific as well. Dating is hard, seemingly for both sexes. It seems doubtful that the Internet is really helping us think we shouldn’t settle.

None of this is new territory. Remember back in ye olden, golden days, before the Internet – they had those crazy newspapers and magazines harboring personal ads which solicited physical and emotional dates (both openly and discretely). And those chronicles were distributed widely, though some might argue that the fact that papers are often community oriented upped the temptation and availability of a new lover, while the Internet makes it all too easy to meet someone far away and thus hard to get to. I should note people who met via personal ads were subject to mockery, too.

Slater’s entire argument feels centered around the idea that commitment and monogamy go hand in hand, as though one equals the other. This reminds me of a something we learned in geometry: that a square is a rectangle, but a rectangle is not a square. In order to be monogamous, one must have commitment, but in order to be committed, one needn’t be monogamous. There’s a scientific reason behind monogamy. Sociobiology would tell us that it’s because humans want to pass on our genes, and based on the construct of Western civilization, the best (and maybe only) means of doing that used to be having a man who brought home the bacon and a woman who reared the children. If the man skipped off, it was likely his offspring wouldn’t survive. If the woman skipped off – same issue. It may take a village to raise a child, but at least in America, we seem to rarely be interested in coming together in such a way.

However, that’s not the cultural norm we live in anymore. Women don’t need a man’s protection or money to raise the kids. They can have pepper spray (or a .22) and a profession – assuming daycare is affordable, men need only be sperm donors. Men aren’t bound to a woman to make sure his offspring thrive. The answer to the “problem” might really be that monogamy is on its way out (regardless of how easy it may sound to hook another fish in the sea). We, as a culture, may very well be redefining and restructuring how and why we engage in commitment, Internet aside.

I can’t help but think back to Mark Oppenheimer’s piece in the New York Times eighteen months ago, Married, With Infidelities, in which Oppenheimer goes in-depth with one of the most popular and influential relationship advice columnists, Dan Savage. Oppenheimer writes,

“The mistake that straight people made” Savage told me, “was imposing the monogamous expectation on men. Men were never expected to be monogamous. Men had concubines, mistresses and access to prostitutes, until everybody decided marriage had to be egalitar­ian and fairsey.” In the feminist revolution, rather than extending to women “the same latitude and license and pressure-release valve that men had always enjoyed,” we extended to men the confines women had always endured. “And it’s been a disaster for marriage.”

What if the issue isn’t commitment at all, but rather the fact that we continually insist the only way to demonstrate commitment is monogamy? It’s clear we biologically do not need monogamy, though that doesn’t mean we don’t want commitment. It’s also clear that true monogamy is hard – that it’s something you have you choose every single day. In a culture that is trending toward entitlement by way of YOLO and do what makes you happy, it’s challenging to see currently defined monogamy keeping calm and carrying on. And maybe that’s not so bad – there is, after all, what Mr. Savage calls “monogamish”, where occasional infidelity is allowed provided it’s done honestly. There’s strong commitment in a monogamish situation – I would go so far as to say it creates more trust, openness and thus better relationships.

When all this is distilled down, one way or another, perhaps the main point is this: as long people are happy living the lifestyle they prefer, monogamously committed or simply committed (so long as commitment is what they are capable of and desire), maybe it doesn’t matter what’s happening in other people’s relationships. Yes, divorce is bad, particularly when children are involved. But where else is it ever mentioned that dwindling commitment and monogamy are causing a ruckus?

The bottom line is that dating isn’t easy. Relationships aren’t easy. Each is as unique as the people involved, and therefore forming hard and fast rules for everyone to follow is as difficult as putting the same size shoes on all the kids in your twelfth grade class. Maybe monogamy is dying, maybe it’s just changing. Either way, online dating is only one tool in the evolution of relationships in our country; it’s certainly not a one-stop reason for this change, and it’s certainly not its downfall.

2 Responses so far.

  1. Lots of interesting thoughts here – worthy of a long, lively road-trip conversation. (I’ll bet you miss those.) I definitely appreciate the familiar dynamics of “dating” vs. “wanting to already be in a relationship” – a very real emotional state that I’ve never seen discussed before.

  2. Sarah says:

    here’s another recent NYT piece about dating, in which I found elements of truth but still disagree with the basic thesis: that dating is dead
    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/13/fashion/the-end-of-courtship.html?pagewanted=3&ref=general&src=me

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