The real cost of modern dating
Young people are bankrupting themselves for love that doesn't last
Why does anyone go on a date? According to a recent survey nearly a quarter of American millennials find it so important that they’re willing to go into debt in the process, which suggests there’s some reason behind it.
But why? The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman characterised the contemporary world as one of ‘liquid modernity’, a generalised state of impermanence, fluidity and fragility in which nothing could ever be taken for granted. And while it’s not so many decades since ‘courting’ was widely understood as a relatively short stage that preceded marriage and permanent partnership, now liquid modernity appears to encompass even couple relationships.
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Today, friends who are single report that there are no longer any clear conventions governing the purpose of dating, or when (and even if) permanence or exclusivity are on the cards. This may be anecdotal, but innumerable anxious articles in women’s magazines suggest this experience is widespread.
This general state of impermanence seems to extend, for younger generations, even past the point of moving in together. Where for Gen Xers cohabiting was broadly understood as a kind of ‘trial marriage’, this doesn’t seem to hold for those even slightly younger. A quarter of cohabiting couples born in the 1970s separated within two years of moving in together, according to one study. For the youngest cohort studied — those born between 1985 and 1990 — the separation rate shot up to 43%.
This may in part reflect the cost of housing, which doubtless incentivises some couples to move in together relatively quickly, without making long-term assumptions. But this surely doesn’t account for how much less stable couple relationships seem to have become.
Something is very wrong here. The social ritual of ‘dating’ only makes sense as a period of costly signalling where putative couples go to extra effort to appear at their best, as a precursor to the more mundane business of building a life (and, implicitly, a family) together. Without that telos, it’s mere empty consumerism. This means that a quarter of young people are routinely going into debt for something that used to be a temporarily costly precursor to family formation. Now, it is a potentially never-ending drain on funds without any prospect of moving beyond that stage to more long-term thinking.
Liquid modernity is great for markets and GDP, then. But this has now reached so far into our intimate lives that it’s actively parasitic on our capacity to form the bonds that enable anyone to make long-term plans. In the context of raising the next generation, a commitment as extended as it is existentially necessary for our continuation as a species, this is an obvious problem. No wonder, then, that today over half of millennials remain unmarried, while nearly half are happy with the prospect of never having kids.
It’s impossible, of course, to say whether these are the same millennials going into debt to impress a potential partner. But it’s clear enough that, contra the free-market ideologues, there are contexts in which markets aren’t a mere neutral facilitator of human needs, or at least not if you include stability, belonging, and the obvious need to propagate the species among those needs. Far from it: where wellbeing is premised on being able to build, the liquefying effect of markets is now the enemy of human flourishing.
Get yourself a Eastern/Central European woman, they are accepting of all people but don’t go for the crazy stuff and like a more traditional relationship. Also really dislike communists having actually lived under that system. Win win.
Call me a cynic, but from anecdotal experience only I expect that the ones going into debt over dating are young men and not young women.
Young women are going into debt on beauty products and procedures for first dates. They feel a lot of pressure to adhere to a particular beauty standard to attract and secure these dates.
Yes. A few seem to think liquification of the old dating mores have benefited woman at the expense of men. A more realistic take it that aside from a small minority of unusually promiscuous women, the only clear winners are the Chads (Men in the top ~10% for sexual attractiveness.)
Back in 1979, the great anthropologist Donald Symons wrote “The desire for sexual variety dooms most human males to a lifetime of unfilled longing”. At least that is no longer a problem for Chad.
That’s just unwell.
Where did these young men get the hopelessly provincial idea that it is necessary to pay for dates?
Well Mary, perhaps you let the cat slip out of the bag when you mentioned that “The social ritual of ‘dating’ only makes sense as a period of costly signalling where putative couples go to extra effort to appear at their best, as a precursor to the more mundane business of building a life (and, implicitly, a family) together.” So indeed people matured to realize that what you witness during courtship is a grand farce, destined to devolve into the baseline ugly reality of “me first” at the first sign of conflict. Nobody ever does anything wrong – it is always the other person… Accountability has been erased from people’s dictionary. Perhaps the fact that these people refrain from insisting is not that bad after all. As for reviewing their own attitudes, considering what they are bringing to the table, etc. – well, that is another can of worms.
Surely the primary purpose of dating for most people is to enable sex? In the past, this was regulated through marriage, but since it’s no longer necessary (or even desirable) for many, the courtship ritual is about finding a temporary sexual partner which may, with some luck and fortitude become a lasting one for the purposes of procreation. This applies to both sexes, plus perhaps the need for intimacy more prevalent in females.
That elemental and urgent drive isn’t going to go away; all that’s changed are the circumstances, and as we age (i include myself here) it’s just better to have someone to do stuff with. It’s both more costly to begin with but more cost-effective with a longterm partner!
Sex not only for procreation…when you’ve procreated, or even if you haven’t, you can have sex for, dare I say it, pleasure.
We are on the planet to consume has been the mantra for 40 years. Hence selfishness and shallowness. Feminism has promoted these notions.
Partly true but a little one sided. Feminism may have promoted selfishness and shallowness but didn’t originate them. If social preasure still largely encouraged women to be nurturing & even self-sacraficing like it did pre – Feminism, there would be a lot more miserable & exploited women about.
It’s shallow and selfish to want to be treated equally? And, by implication, allowing oneself to be oppressed by – one assumes – the selfish and shallow is the route to unselfish and deep? Wow. Imagine if we could evolve beyond binary thinking. It seems to be getting worse despite the glut of knowledge out there on How to Be a Decent Human.
The linked articles from Women’s Health are an absolute riot.
With friends like these, what girl needs enemies?
Why dating if not marriage-minded?
Most men do it because it’s the gateway to sex, and then to imtimacy. “Chads” (as mentioned in the comments below) can sidestep dating as a gateway to sex, and do so, but for non-Chad types it’s mostly via dating that sex is made available to them.
Women do it because it’s the gateway to intimacy, and then to sex (some women do it primarily for sex, too, but women who are looking primarily for sex — aka a “f**kboy” or even a “FWB” don’t need to go on a date for that, typically).
Neither of those drives — for sex or for intimacy — is necessarily tied to marriage, children, family life or the long term, and can be of any term, really. And so that’s why it’s happening the way the article describes.
Note to Mark Lilla: this is what your article of 5th November on this platform should have looked like. Would have saved a lot of arguing.
Here in Brooklyn, as in other paces I’m sure, the benefitiaries of all this churning are the property owners. Every break-up is a chance for the landlord to jack up the rent. As rents go up homeowners can afford to pay more for their “dream’, since they’ll rent out two floors and live in the other two. The tenants wind up paying the mortgage and probaly most of the taxes, too.
But there’s also another story. Among the lap-top classes and the managment types marriages are very stable, with kids all over the place. The business of marriage makes it worth many sacrifices when there are two big paychecks ever month. Few couples ever rock that boat.
Yes. Feminism turned the screws on almost everyone.
Sadly, too many millenials and gen zers have lost the ability to sit down and talk to each otherwith the advent of the cell phone. I also see generations that have been raised with fewer boundariesthat traditionally existed imposed by either the society or religion. Boundaries can give a sense of security and thus in some respects liberation.
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