Opinion Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the author/producer’s interpretation of facts and data.
Disclaimer: This essay mostly addresses issues among cisheterosexual partnerships.
Ah, dating in the 21st century—a time when many of us entrust the fate of our love stories to algorithms and the swipe of our thumbs.
In my own dating life, I reflect on the many risks it’s taken to find intimacy. I remember the times I braced myself to see if the person I was about to meet from a dating app resembled the photos on their profile. I also remember notably good first date experiences, and how they weren’t quite good enough to warrant a second date. Those were the days when I anxiously awaited their invitation, slightly startled whenever my phone vibrated, wondering if the problem was me or Mercury retrograde.
The struggle to find love also exists outside the digital world. I went out with a lot of people in college and graduate school when dating apps were still in their earliest stages. Even then, I endured the volatility of modern romance, with questions and tensions orbiting around my relationships: Is timing going to be an issue? Is this political belief they just shared a sign of incompatibility? Are we “trauma bonding”? Are the dynamics with their family going to be a problem over time? Are we even ready?
Why is modern-day dating challenging for many single people?
As a single adult, I am no stranger to firsthand and secondhand dating stories, ranging from horror to blissful success. The latter seems miraculous at times. Simply put: Dating is hard. It is hard even after our access to meeting potential partners increased with the diverse modern dating tools and platforms we have today. After World War II, the majority of heterosexual American couples met because they were set up by mutual friends or had similar social settings, like school, the workplace, church, etc. This changed in 2012 with the development of online dating apps, which have turned into the primary modes of finding love (The Daily Sundial provides this concise timeline of the evolution of online dating). It’s easy to assume that having more options would help make dating easier and faster, but, ironically, it might’ve complicated things. Overall, the question remains: Why is modern-day dating challenging for many single people?
“The past had things easier.” I hear this a lot. This sentiment is backed up by reports like that of VICE Australia, which collected stories from people from around the world, reminiscing about the quality of love and connection just before the digital era. Eileen Pai, based in Taiwan, shared: “I miss true connections. Dating apps are like a convenience store. You don’t end up taking things seriously. You end up moving on and on to the next person who can compensate for the boredom of the last date. In Taiwan, back in the day, going for karaoke together was a big thing. Just singing together with your date was special. We would also be very adventurous and move beyond just restaurant dates. I remember going on dates to the high mountains on scooters, and taking in the whole view together.”
There is much to say about the beautiful intentionality in relationships when we had less technology and screen time. But over-romanticizing the past might make us overlook some of its own problems and challenges.
The U.S. divorce rate was high in the 1980s, with nearly 23 divorces per 1,000 marriages each year until reaching a decline in 2019. This shows that even though some relationships began quickly and smoothly, that doesn’t mean they were happy, safe, exempt from loneliness, or worth keeping. We must also consider the dominant ideals that infiltrate relationships among mostly monogamous and cisheterosexual couples.
Love is messy—and messy isn’t marketable.
Patriarchal standards of relationships were heavily and explicitly imposed on the basis of gender: Men are expected to lead and take a more active role in pursuing and preserving the relationship, while women took a more subservient one. With these hierarchical dynamics (based on unprocessed traumas and internalized sexism), cisgender men commonly assume they should be the main recipient of a relationship’s benefits and privileges, causing a strong sense of entitlement and a lack of accountability. (I wrote a short message for accountability to cis men here.)
Speaking of patriarchy, let’s look at 19th century Britain, when the monarchy had control over the marriage market. During this time, the Queen coordinated the London Seasons to stage marriageable young women so they could meet eligible bachelors who align with their interests and class backgrounds (yes, like Bridgerton). It was a way to protect the aristocracy and, ultimately, to appease the throne.
These oppressive ideologies still exist and fester in our relationships today, but unlike before, the discourse around gender rights and equality in relationships is gradually becoming more accessible in North America.
While some may argue that people in the past had it “easier,” it doesn’t mean these relationships didn’t have issues similar to what we have today, which are still related to social and political power and material value. Amy March, a character from Little Women, had a point when she said, “Marriage is an economic proposition.” We can see that in every era, love—in all its symbols and institutions (i.e., marriage, dating apps)—is a marketable product. Even though most of us are sincere in our pursuits of true love, how much do we actually perceive love as a product, and how does this influence our relationships?
I believe Pai was onto something when she mentioned dating apps are like convenience stores, because for certain people, when the connection no longer feels gratifying, easy, useful, or excitingly new, the tendency is to dispose of it (i.e., ghosting). Ironically, our relationships become impoverished when we seek them out of the sole purpose of gaining or consuming—whether or not we are aware of it. Are we capable of pursuing relationships without this capitalist impulse? As long as we are human beings in a capitalist society, I don’t think we can fully escape it. But it helps to be aware of the impulse to consume and then take responsibility for it as it shows up within our partnerships.
For instance, I am aware that I want to date for closeness, pleasure, and joy. However, am I willing to also admit and take responsibility for when I also want to date so my partner can mend my relational wounds and fill the emotional gaps my parents left me with? It might feel uncomfortable to notice the transactional element of our motivations in finding love, but it illuminates our legitimate needs for connection and how they weren’t always fulfilled growing up. With this awareness, I can be mindful of the times I project onto my partner, putting unfair expectations on them based on my own trauma.
Ultimately, love is multifaceted. Love is messy—and messy isn’t marketable. It takes courage to confront that each of us loves in complex and untidy ways—and that means we won’t always get things right. The good news is that being a lover doesn’t mean being perfect. It’s about showing up. And I love that no matter how hard love gets, we still intrinsically look for it, work for it, write about it, calculate and take risks for it, and embrace it in all its mess, which feels like a nice “fuck you” to capitalism.
Gabes Torres is a psychotherapist, organizer, and artist. Her work focuses on anti-colonial approaches and practices within the mental health field. She also focuses on abolitionist organizing on a global scale. You can find most of her work on her official website, www.gabestorres.com, and social media platforms, including Instagram.