On Tindering, Tentatively

Note: Family members who are queasy at the thought of discussion about human sexuality/romance/all that jazz should not proceed past this point. I will take no responsibility for the intense burning in your retinas or the rise of Catholic guilt or the subtle reproaches of glaring disapproval emanating from you at future family gatherings, because you will not be able to say that I didn’t warn you. (It’s probably not going to be THAT bad, but I’m hedging my bets just in case.)

 

““Some people still catch feelings in hookup culture,” said Meredith, the Bellarmine sophomore. “It’s not like just blind fucking for pleasure and it’s done; some people actually like the other person. Sometimes you actually catch feelings and that’s what sucks, because it’s one person thinking one thing and the other person thinking something completely different and someone gets their feelings hurt. It could be the boy or the girl.”

And even Ryan, who believes that human beings naturally gravitate toward polyamorous relationships, is troubled by the trends developing around dating apps. “It’s the same pattern manifested in porn use,” he says. “The appetite has always been there, but it had restricted availability; with new technologies the restrictions are being stripped away and we see people sort of going crazy with it. I think the same thing is happening with this unlimited access to sex partners. People are gorging. That’s why it’s not intimate. You could call it a kind of psychosexual obesity.”

The above is an excerpt from an article in Vanity Fair about hookup culture. I’m nearing 28, and I’m smack-dab in the middle of a sexual revolution of sorts. I’ve been meaning to post about this for a while now, but I haven’t been able to put it all into words. And still may not be able to…but here goes:

One Thursday, I rolled into work in the morning and stood at my desk chatting with my work wife across the pre-fab bland blonde walls of our cubicles. “Oh god,” I said in dismay, “the feelings have landed.” Her face was sympathetic. “Really?” she said, and the discussion wound on, evaluating pitfalls and what it might mean to actually be having feelings. Feelings, we agreed, are the worst. Feelings make everything complicated.

I inwardly groaned when I realized I’d been infected with feelings for the person with whom I’d been sleeping. <— How horrible of a sentence is that? Dismay at the thought of actually liking someone? Distress because suddenly it’s not just skin contact and cocktails any longer? Panic because of the potential for disaster?

Of course there’s potential for disaster! The only things in life worth doing involve great potential for disaster! Not really, but for the sake of this argument, the ability to be vulnerable in a relationship is a risky move, but also one that has great potential for growth, etc. And that is important! The minute that we lose the ability to be vulnerable and to accept that this may end in horrible heartbreak and be the inspiration for the next “500 Days of Summer,” we’ve lost the most important part of human connection (besides the skin contact and endorphins, am I right?) and also a potentially lucrative screenwriting credit.

If we lose the ability to truly feel the emotions associated with romantic/sexual activity, we’ve lost the meaning, the depth, and in the end, the entirety of the relationship has been reduced to posturing and pretense, a superficial and ultimately narcissistic exercise in fleetingly empty satisfaction.

For me, life’s meaning is rooted in love and connection. There are all sorts of kinds of love, obviously, and I love them all. But there is something utterly fantastic about romantic love, and I absolutely appreciate the fact that I’m able to experience it, and would never want to lessen the impact that it has and can have on your life. It is profound. It is immense. It sears through you and shapes you. It’s beautiful, and deserves the utmost in care and appreciation.

We sit here in our digital age and wax nostalgic for the days of a simpler time, when men were gentlemen and they still called. Then we get on our apps and play the 2016 version of “Hot or Not” on Tinder while we wonder why we can’t find anyone suitable. We actively avoid getting involved with people, because we’re all too busy trying to evaluate all of our options, move upwards in terms of societal valuation of our scores, and ultimately….oh wait, what happens at the end of it? When happens when we’re not toned and fit and still hot? What happens when we are suddenly forced to rely on the content of our character? What then? What happens when the potential matches have dried up, the game has lost its luster and you’ve not attained any level of connection or progressed as a person?

There’s a lot to unpack here and I’m going to attempt to do that and then impart my wisdom (read: draw wild conclusions and dig in on them, because I can).

Here is the summary of what I’m going to attempt to discuss: communication, connection, cultural standards, the advent of the internet and its effect on sexuality and dating, expectations, exploration, and my goals/hopes/dreams (and so on, ad nauseum).

Where I’m coming from (while I may not be Raymond Carver, I’m still coming from somewhere…): I’m 27, have been actively dating since I was 15, and I’ve got over a decade of relationships and relationship failures (and successes) under my belt. It’s like the end of an NBA commercial I saw last night: “Success is just failure that hasn’t happened yet.” Foreboding, yet mostly correct.

One of my favorite quotes from well-known sex columnist Dan Savage goes something like this: you date, you break up, you date again, until eventually you don’t break up. I’ve always taken this to heart – even if I go on my last first date when I’m 80, I will have tried. I will have built a body of experiences and relationship endeavors that will have led me to find the thing that I seek. I will have loved and lost and, perhaps most importantly, learned.

I have hundreds of great stories about dating. Some of them are beautiful, some hilarious, some cringe-worthy, and all of them comprise the library that is my experience and the lens through which I evaluate relationships or potential relationships.

I’m an excellent first dater, because I’m not into the superficial conversation that generally comprises a first date. I want to know all of the things, because in finding out the deeper parts of a person, you’re better able to assess their potential as a possible partner or mate. Part of it is my unwillingness to conform to the expectations of the date as an interview mentality, because it is and it is not – the dating part of it is the longest interview of your life, and should be embraced wholeheartedly – and part of it is because I’m fantastically curious.

But then I find myself quickly losing interest, because the men I’m dating just don’t have “it.” They’re bland. They don’t hold my interest. In the early moments, I’m able to mirror my own versatility and excitement onto them, because they’re still reflecting that back, but once the mirror drops, it’s often a letdown. Tobias calls it “the sparkle phase” – normal people refer to it as the “honeymoon phase” – it’s the endorphin-filled glittery time when things are still new and we’re all still filling in the gaps of unknown information with the things that we want them to be. Once all that subsides and the routines of normalcy land, we’re left with the actual real human person and we’re forced to cope with the fact that they might actually, unfortunately, be just like us – flawed, neurotic, normal.

I always say that I want to find someone whose weird matches mine, or at least, works with mine. If we can each understand each other’s negative qualities, or even real human qualities, and still respect each other, then we’ll stand a chance of succeeding. I love my friends unconditionally. I know their flaws. But the sum of their parts as a person obviously overwhelm those flaws. Besides, if they weren’t flawed, they’d be totally boring, and I’d never want that.

I’m intelligent, pretty enough in an unusual way, and not into the whole image thing. I’m dynamic; I like a lot of things. I’m not driven by physical attraction – well, obviously a little bit – but I find that character and authenticity are far more important to me than a chiseled jawline. I need to find someone who’s driven, intelligent, kind, dynamic, flexible, willing to deal with my inability to organize and my ADHD-driven conversational patterns, and a little bit wild (a lot wild, but not too wild, you know?). It’s hard to find that blend of adult/responsibility/adventure/intelligence. Really hard.

I want to find someone who respects me first as a person and secondly as a partner. I want to be an equal, not an object. I also want to find someone whom I respect, someone who pushes me to be better, but who genuinely adores all of the things that I already am. And someone who laughs at my jokes, because I love (my) jokes. I want to find someone who’s funny, and who appreciates humor’s importance in our lives. I want to find someone to share my life with, to have adventures with, and ultimately, to maybe grow old with. (Or at least a suitable first husband.)

I seek quality. That’s why Tinder is completely overwhelming. I have to just swipe right a few times, get about 10 matches, and then sort from there. I can realistically only date a couple of people at a time. I don’t want my dating pool clouded with confusion, cluttered like my car, and ultimately counter-productive.

I’m also diligent about the endeavor. I don’t want a one-night stand, not that those are terrible. I want to explore the possibilities with a person before I bail, but I also want to make sure that I’m not settling. And that’s part of the problem.

My friend recently used an excellent analogy about cheesecake. He posits that dating is like being at the Cheesecake Factory (if you’ve been living under a rock, it’s an entirely self-explanatory concept restaurant with oddly off-putting interior decoration). Cheesecake is great, but what about this fancy cheesecake? Or that one? There’s so many to choose from, how can you just choose one? (See that earlier quote from the Vanity Fair article – “psychosexual obesity.” Pertinent.)

Well….if you don’t want to get fat, you’ll probably have to settle for fewer cheesecake pieces rather than all of them (dear lord, imagine the lactose situation you’d have gotten yourself into). Also, if we’re approaching this analogy in the manner of this NPR article, if we wait and hesitate, then the cheesecake will spoil, or be purchased by other hungry cheesecake seekers. But then again, are we missing out if we get one cheesecake and not the other? Is there a better cheesecake? What if I picked the wrong cheesecake? Arrrrghhhh! The wrong cheesecake, the horror!

This is the crux of the problem now – it’s well documented that increased availability in choices leads to more indecision and increased rumination about regret. “What if?” becomes a standard follow-up line of thinking after a choice has (finally!) been made. It’s a Millennial conundrum. We’re standing with a seemingly endless array of options, and we’re completely stagnant, unable (or unwilling) to decide for fear of missing out or making the incorrect choice. Ha. But that’s the thing about choice…

In the days of yore (anywhere from agrarian societies to pre-Industrial Revolution…or maybe even as far as the early 1900s…), we had fewer choices. There were a limited number of eligible bachelors (or bachelorettes, if you’re into that sort of thing) available for mating, and it was expected that the pairing would be mutually beneficial, befitting of your social station, and lead to procreation for the sake of posterity and lineage continuation. The finality of the match was sealed, and that was that.

Then came everything that has come since that time, including women’s rights (pesky things, women…can’t live with them, can’t live without them), the Sexual Revolution, the advent and popularity of divorce for “irreconcilable differences” (those again), and the internet (which brought us Imgur, so we’re clearly coming out ahead). All of that has led to a massive paradigm shift, and with that, different expectations for dating, mating, and the like.

Being a modern woman, I am blessed with agency in the choices relating to my sexuality and partner preferences that past generations of women have not experienced. The importance of that agency is not lost on me. I am also blessed with a healthy sense of knowledge and self-assurance as it relates to sexuality (including health, preferences, subcultures, and practices, etc.). A lot of that is self-taught. I became incredibly curious about sexuality as whole and spent a significant amount of time ensuring that I was well-informed when it came to health, in particular, but also to the other elements.

When you think about it, human sexuality as a whole is fascinating. We’re blessed with the ability to create tiny people, but it’s about more than that. The entirety of the connection and endless possibilities for pleasure is amazing. We are truly #blessed to have been gifted with these fantastic bodies and the creativity to explore them to the fullest extent possible.

We are all over the board. We like what we like. We want what we want. One of my exes always used to say that he didn’t want limit his connections with other people. I hated the way he said it, but I get it now. I finally understand what he meant.

I understand that human beings aren’t necessarily wired for monogamy. We do want to maximize the potential for procreation; it’s biological and it makes sense. But much like the fight or flight response has been dulled in our softer survival situations (fire on demand, indoor plumbing, buildings, reduced threat of mountain lion attacks, etc.), I find that there are certainly evolutionary options to consider. I think that romantic love is the highest form of love – and creating, nurturing, and sustaining a relationship with someone is a highly intense and rewarding endeavor. It transcends the more basic animal tendencies of straight procreation and evokes the will power and high-mindedness of our human experience.

That’s not to say that it might not get boring. It might. I am finally coming around the idea of increased fluidity in relationships, but not so much so that I would want to be a non-primary partner. Or even have secondary partners to actively date in addition to the main, really. I know that works out well when it works out well, and maybe at some point in the future, I’ll be happily reporting back about the navigation of that territory. But for now – I’m looking for my person.

That determination to seek partnership may stem from my childhood – the whole broken home, divorce, not happy parental relationship thing – and my subconscious need to “correct” it. But it may not. I understand the argument that marriage is a social construct, and is actually entirely unnecessary. And yet, I would like to have a person. My penguin, my lobster, my partner, whatever you’d like to call them. I think of it as a permanent adventure buddy.

I’m also not freaking out about time. I have plenty of it. As we’ve progressed with women in the workforce, delayed age of bearing children (yay birth control!), and other more modern societal norms, we’ve seen the socially created and maintained institution of marriage become less of a focus. And for that, I’m grateful. Whereas I would have once been considered a spinster due to my advanced age (ha, the advanced age of 27), now I’m only just entering my prime. I’m free to happily explore my life without the intense scrutiny that once would have befallen my adventurous endeavors.

Do I want to get married someday? I think so. Do I want children someday? I think so. But I don’t know for 100% sure. And I’m definitely not going to settle for shitty cheesecake, so if it happens, it happens. And if it doesn’t, I can still have my life and my adventures and some cats. And maybe a turtle. Who knows what will happen. The possibilities are endless!

I do think that it’s interesting to see how the dating game has changed as a result of all of the influx of technology and lowered expectations for commitment. It’s not that people are doing different things than they’ve been doing for millennia, it’s that suddenly, there’s access to information, to media, to availability.

But – much as the Vanity Fair article points out that people seem to be “gorging” themselves as a result of our ability to sudden meet and connect with potential partners whenever, wherever, however – I think that much of it is a false speculation of the true breadth of the market. There are thousands of people using Tinder within a 50 mile radius of me. I know this because I didn’t log in to Tinder for a few weeks, and Tinder sent me a notification saying that over 3,000 people had “liked” me since I last logged in. Whoa. That’s a seemingly endless supply, and yet…it is a finite and ultimately poorly represented number.

(Think of the data that came out as a result of the Ashley Madison hack…think of the disparity and misrepresentation occurring within that small niche market. Not that it’s representative of dating sites, per se, but I think that arguably, we’re all operating with the false notion that this supply is constant, consistent, and infinite, which is not the right way to approach it. Think about all the times you’ve logged in to your account online only to see, ugh, the same people you saw before. Think about the resurfacing of past bad dates, or running into an ex at the grocery store. It really is all the same concept. It’s not practical to operate on that assumption of infinity.)

As far as maximization of potential, it makes sense for men to swipe right on (which is to say, choose or like) nearly any woman. Women tend to be far more selective when it comes to online dating, and so for every time I swipe right and immediately get a match, there are equally opposite experiences on the other end. I know this because I help one of my friends with his online dating game on the regular. It’s hard out there.

Sure, the article talks about the twentysomething males who are focused on maximizing quantity, and that’s all and well. I think it’s also interesting to see the disparity between how they describe their experiences and the reality that I’m seeing when I help my guy friend. Not that he’s not getting dates, but he’s not getting 3 dates back to back in a night. I’m sure if he stepped his game up, he could. But that seems like overkill.

To me, it seems like an exercise in narcissism. I think that’s part of my criticism of online dating as a whole, and I’m not trying to excuse myself from complete and mostly complicit participation in that. I like online dating; much like all technology, it’s been able to bring people together and connect likeminded people, but it’s also brought about some worrying behaviors that I argue aren’t just relegated to online dating, but representative of a significant set of societal shifts that have occurred since the introduction of reality tv, the spread of the internet, and the increased prevalence of social media. Those behaviors include: the devaluation of commitment and connection/relationships; increased objectification of women; decline of chivalry; significant increase in brevity of and expectations for interactions; increased pressure to conform to societal expectations and engage in performative interactions as a way to demonstrate value; decreased authenticity; decreased depth of relationships as a whole; and an overall decline in etiquette to include devaluation of self and others.

The women interviewed in the article seem to discuss the way that manners have become less prevalent since the internet became the way that we date, and I agree, but also disagree. I have strong expectations for someone I’m meeting offline that I’ve met online. If we’re going to meet face to face, I won’t do it as a booty call or hookup. I expect that they will respect me, value me, and treat me as I treat them/want to be treated. Anything less than that gets a non-response from me. That and grammatical errors. I demand consideration, and so I get it. Otherwise, I’m closed for business, no longer interested in being a potential partner.

The twentysomething guys indicate that women love receiving salacious pictures. They report that women respond positively. Ha! I nearly choked on my tea when I read that. I have a friend who regularly sends me unsolicited lewd photographs. To him, it’s an expression of his masculinity, and an attempt to demonstrate value through physical appreciation. To me, it’s an exercise in utter narcissism, and does very little for me or my lady parts. I could do without them (the pictures, not my lady parts).

I think that hookup culture is fantastic, to a point. Women and men are able to engage in consensual activities that are mutually beneficial. For women, we’ve been able to cull the herd in ways that mitigate the onslaught of messages and requests for dates, and for men, they’re able to connect with women who are actually interested in meeting/engaging with them. It’s fun, it’s less oppressive than dinner on a first date, and it allows for increased adventures and decreases in pressure.

However, if one is participating in this process as a means of genuine connection, then it requires firm assertions of expectations at the outset. If you’re unwilling to accept a certain behavior, then you can’t bend on your standards, because if you do that, you’ll end up regretful. If you’re unwilling to have a hookup with no strings attached, then don’t hook up. Don’t have the expectations of something else from the beginning, because your hopes will be crushed.

That’s why communication is important. If you’re clear with someone from the beginning, and regularly touch base along the way, you’ll find that your interactions will progress far more smoothly than if you approach from a place of deceit. The autolycan nature of dating is depressing, and the fact that people are willing to lie, mislead, and misrepresent then truth of their intentions is indicative of a general lack of respect for and objectification of their partners.

I recently flipped through the book, “The Game.” I didn’t have much time, and may end up reading it in its entirety at some point, but near the end, the author is writing about meeting up with a woman who he’d hooked up with on a prior occasion, and who had just ghosted him. (Ha, ghosted. My word of week this week.) He asked her why she’d done that, and she replied that she wasn’t interested in his peacocking behavior. He wrote that during their drinks (the second time, post-ghost), he had already used so much of his material (meaning his “game”) on her that he had nothing left and was forced to actually be himself.

Surprise, surprise! I had a smug moment of “duh!” towards him when I read that. Authenticity is something I seek, and any posturing/peacocking/overtly annoying false presentation is going to drive me to near insanity very quickly. I’m not going to spend time with someone (relationship or hookup, whichever) who’s attempting to persuade me of their value without any real substantive proof. Smoke and mirrors are only just that. I want to see the man behind the curtain.

There’s another thing that’s mildly annoying about our current paradigm shift towards consistently casual dating. You start hanging out, you like each other, you keep doing that, and it’s never clarified. And then, seven months down the road, when you’re wondering where this is going, the other person is still free to be like, “Oh we’re not together, we’re never going to be, what are you talking about, weirdo?” and suddenly you’re the crazy one because you got hurt/developed feelings, etc. It’s curious, how that works. Yes, of course, no one wants to jump straight into a relationship, but I’m not willing to rule out that possibility.

If there’s emotional entanglement, the potential for heartbreak exists and is present and it’s the responsibility of both parties (or however many parties there are – I’m imagining class action lawsuit level number of parties, ha), to ensure that honesty is at the forefront and that clarity is communicated effectively.

Of course, there are hard caveats to online dating and tindering and swiping and hinging and whatever else we’re doing, bageling and bumbling, drunkenly groping for love in the darkest parts of dingy bars. It can get increasingly depressing, very quickly. The approach and results for everyone are completely different. It’s all about attitude, or so I’ve concluded. If you approach with an open mind and clear intentions, your results will be exactly as you want them to be. If you’re disillusioned, desperate, or despondent, your takeaways will reflect that.

In short – life is short. There is something beautiful about the intersection of love and sex, and even in the two on their own. We all strive for something meaningful, even if we’re loathe to admit it, and in our technology advanced society, we’re able to seek and strive so much faster than before. It’s like in movies – I have this theory that we’re far less patient not only because of the instant gratification options available to us at any given time, but also because in movies and other media, for the sake of story progression, the waiting parts are cut out or merely inserted as a montage. We don’t get to see the waiting, or the stagnation, or the things that aren’t action or explicit or explosions, and thus, we have come to expect that our own lives will progress in the same way.

However, unfortunately, that’s not how it works. If that were the case, I’d be montaging the hell out of my work week and speeding towards the action/explosions that comprise my weekends. (Of course then you miss out on the actual meat of life, and in speeding towards the ends of things, you miss the value that is the journey, blah blah, we all know that.)

It’s like everything – you get out of it what you put in.

I’m a part of a strange tide of children of divorce possessed with the unrealistic expectations for fairytale endings actively seeking our own connections in the world, unwilling to settle on something unless it’s “right,” and enjoying the hell out of the ride. Wherever I end up, whoever my person may be – if there even is one – I will at least know that in the course of my life, I’ve done the very best I can to attain adventures, tell fantastic stories, express emotions, and genuinely connect with people around me. If that’s not the best approach, I don’t know what is.

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