Over the last five years, traditional codes of modern dating and relationships have radically changed with the rise of digital apps such as the ubiquitous Tinder. Dating is no longer exclusive, with people from Generation X and Y choosing short-term dating, undefined relationships and casual arrangements to fulfil emotional and sexual needs. The traction and development of the terms ‘friends with benefits’, ‘intimate hook up’, ‘hook up’ and even an ‘almost relationship’ all reflect a changed landscape in modern dating, documented by popular websites such as Huffington Post, Buzzfeed and Elite Daily.
Are young people scared of making the same mistakes as their parents? Divorce could be a factor that discourages young people from wanting to commit to a long-term relationship or marriage. We know around 50% of marriages result in divorce. This may lead young people to feeling reluctant to make the same choices as their parents. Growing up around the struggles of divorced parents could be a source of childhood trauma that prevents young people from making strong romantic commitments.
Can such lifestyles facilitate true happiness? And is this shift to be welcomed for society? An abundance of choice can be too much of a good thing. Rather than a liberating phenomenon that allows young people to have ‘fun’ and exercise choice, as per western liberal values, a lifestyle that chooses undefined and casual relationships is a barrier to experiencing true intimacy. Modern dating creates a fragmented self, in which sexual and emotional needs are fulfilled from a range of partners.
Those who engage in short-term dating miss out on experiencing true intimacy with another. For most people, true happiness comes from experiencing intimacy. A committed and monogamous relationship has the potential to experience that. We can share innermost thoughts and be vulnerable, taking off those proverbial masks that we wear in society. But in an undefined or insecure relationship, it is difficult to take off those masks because there is greater emotional risk to bare our soul. That person may be gone tomorrow. Brene Brown’s work highlights the importance of vulnerability. She argues that vulnerability is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity, and it cultivates a purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual life.
Some may argue that young people – men in particular – have always engaged in casual relationships and ‘played the field’ before settling down. Committed relationships and marriage are, however, the bedrock of society and opportunities to develop character and evolve as human beings. It is the place in which we learn values such as sacrifice, trust, forgiveness and patience. If some people are choosing a lifestyle of undefined relationships well into their twenties before ‘settling down’ then they may not have the opportunity to develop these attributes and values until much later. What we may be witnessing is a shift, with the delaying of adult maturity until ones late twenties and thirties. This puts women in particular at a disadvantage for whom the biological clock starts ticking when they reach 30.
Being in a committed relationship, moreover, and overcoming its challenges is an antidote to self-centredness and narcissism, the latter of which is an upward trend in society. When we put up with another person’s fatal flaws, rather than moving on before things get ‘too serious’, we cultivate compassion and are more likely to have self-awareness of our own flaws. There is great danger that hookup culture fosters an individualistic society of people who are focused on gratifying their own desires and needs.
While some actively choose casual relationships, there are others, particularly women, who may prefer a monogamous relationship but are being forced to adapt to the new attitudes to exclusivity. In recent years, there has been a body of academic research looking at gender dynamics and hookup culture on American campuses, that highlights male students have the upper hand in hook up culture. This research documents peer pressure, safety concerns and unequal power dynamic between men and women.
The nexus and interplay between consumerism and digital media has also shaped the dating scene. Capitalist consumerism primes us psychologically to want choice. That sense of choice has been developed and proliferated by the rise of social media apps in the last ten years. Aside from the choosy mentality that affects finding that elusive man or woman, this sense of wanting a specific ‘thing’ affects all our product and lifestyle choices. We are primed to believe that we deserve to find that perfect person or product which may or may not exist, propelling us towards an eternal quest.
That nexus between consumerism and digital media also has a gender dynamic. A recent Vanity Fair’s article about the ‘dating apocalypse’ drew attention to the work of Professor David Buss who specializes in the evolution of human sexuality. Buss says that Apps like Tinder and OKCupid give the impression that there are thousands of millions of potential mates. Buss says, “One dimension of this is the impact it has on men’s psychology. When there is a surplus of women, or a perceived surplus of women, the whole mating system tends to shift towards short-term dating. Marriages become unstable. Divorces increase. Men don’t have to commit, so they pursue a short-term mating strategy. Men are making that shift, and women are forced to go along with it in order to mate at all.”
Finding a romantic partner has become an expression of consumerism. We want to mail order a person on a social media app, like we would a consumer product. With the pervasive narrative of choice, fostered by consumerism and digital apps, we make the mistake of thinking we can order attributes and characteristics of a perfect partner just as if we can select components that make up a new kitchen. We become hardwired to think of people as products.
Whilst dating apps have helped thousands of people to find love, the ugly side of social media dating is thinking that perfect carboard cut-out is available for all of us. Human beings do not work like that. We are not biodata. We are not a CV. We are the sum-total of our fears, fatal flaws, baggage, idiosyncrasies and aspirations. Our unique humanness.
And what of old fashioned values? In a consumerist identity, who we are is fashioned by our product and lifestyle choices. But what we choose to outwardly be – what we wear, what we listen to, what we buy, where we travel, what we look like – those are merely the outward form. What about the inner life? Trust, patience, kindness, and compassion, and other values are not revealed in the outward form, but they crucially shape whether someone will make a good life partner. In our narcissistic and selfie-fuelled culture, the outward form has been prioritised over the inward.
It is trite to say that dating has become an industry. With the prevalence of short term dating and changed attitudes to commitment, we are failing to achieve the peak of our human potential. Far too much angst, time and energy is being poured into short-term dating when we could be doing so much more for ourselves and society whilst in committed and loving relationships.
Just because many young people are choosing a short-term dating strategy does not necessarily mean they truly want that deep down. They may just unwillingly be caught up in the zeitgeist of our times. It seems that many young people do not seem to want to make that leap towards long-term commitment – either via marriage or a long-term relationship.