The Endurance of Courtship

January 15, 2013

long-term-relationship-love-couple-apathy-flirting-ecards-someecardsThanks to all the readers who sent me the link to the Alex Williams’ New York Times article The End of Courtship? this past weekend. The article accurately lays out how at least some people conduct their romantic lives (sex lives?) today. 

A musician asked Shani, 30, out on a date for Friday night. She next heard from him at 10:30 p.m. on Friday, at which point he texted “want to meet up?,” clearly implying she was welcome to cab over to a bar where he was already hanging out with college buddies. 

Shani declined the offer, politely, which is more than I would have done. To the Times, however, she was more open about her frustration.

Dating culture has evolved to a cycle of text messages, each one requiring the code-breaking skills of a cold war spy to interpret.

It’s one step below a date, and one step above a high-five.

There’s more going on here than a shift in the culture. There is no universe in which asking someone out on a date does not mean setting aside a specific time for the two of you to become better acquainted. It’s a signal of intent to prioritize getting to know another person. In contrast, texting late in the evening to say “hey” or “sup” is a move, perhaps calculated, to seem just slightly more than indifferent. Often these throwaway texts imply that you’re doing someone a favor by acknowledging that they crossed your mind while you were out having sooooo much fun.

Dating is fine. Meeting up is fine. Both have their place. But meeting up is not dating, and this guy pulled a bait and switch. Pretty douchey. 

Raised in the age of so-called “hookup culture,” millennials — who are reaching an age where they are starting to think about settling down — are subverting the rules of courtship.

Instead of dinner-and-a-movie, which seems as obsolete as a rotary phone, they rendezvous over phone texts, Facebook posts, instant messages and other “non-dates” that are leaving a generation confused about how to land a boyfriend or girlfriend.

Donna Freitas, a religion professor and expert on hookup culture:

The problem is that “young people today don’t know how to get out of hookup culture. In interviews with students, many graduating seniors did not know the first thing about the basic mechanics of a traditional date. They’re wondering, ‘If you like someone, how would you walk up to them? What would you say? What words would you use?’ 

The truth is, dating has never died in the post-college scene. It can’t – without some form of courtship available to men and women in their 20s, no one would marry. Both sexes want the opportunity to date in their search for a life partner, and the majority wants to avoid people with a casual view of sex (and the sexual history to match). So they figure it out. 

There appears to be a bifurcation among the 20-somethings, and this is showing up even in online dating. Most people who strike up a connection on a dating site will arrange to meet in person for a first date, then schedule more dates if all goes well. The process continues until it is clear that the pair has the potential of being a real couple, at which point they begin introducing one another to friends, showing up together in groups, etc. 

A minority, however, is seeking some continuation of the hookup scene that they presumably experienced in college, where getting acquainted between 11 pm and 2 am is sufficient grounds for hopping into bed together after the bar closes. That constitutes a date. 

Nick, 25 and Julie, 22, connected online and arranged to meet for a drink. The evening went well and at the end of the date, Nick told Julie he’d love to “explore this great city with you.” Julie expected more dates for two, so she was surprised when she next heard from Nick late one Friday night about two weeks later. He called and said, “Where you at? I’m drinking in your neighborhood. Wanna meet up?” Julie was very interested in seeing Nick again, so she talked a friend into being her wingman and grabbed a cab to the bar where Nick was hanging out. When the bar closed, Nick suggested they go back to his place to hook up. Julie declined. The next time Julie logged into the dating site, Nick had blocked her.

These are guys who have no interest in dating. They use the word “date,” something they wouldn’t have done in college, because they know that the 20-something landscape is more varied than the college culture. They’re simply modifying the script in hopes of getting the same end result – a no-strings encounter after a brief period of acquaintance. I’m not sure why they simply don’t advertise for casual encounters up front, but increasingly men who want to avoid relationships are using the word date. And that’s confusing for women.

The most important strategy women have at their disposal when dating in their 20s is the extensive use of filters. You must ruthlessly filter out men who are not offering what you want. Which is a real date. Men are counting on you not asking too many questions, like, “Hey Nick, how does meeting you at this dive at midnight count as exploring this great city?”

When people don’t want much out of a connection, they don’t put much effort in.  If a 20-something guy is open to a relationship with the right girl, he’ll go the dating route. Real dates. Courtship. It’s still the best way for two people to get together and fall in love. If he’s looking primarily to get sex with a variety of people, he may use the word date, but his effort will be minimal and the “dates” will be late night rendezvous.

Referring to the use of technology, especially texting, to facilitate dating, Williams says:

In the context of dating, it removes much of the need for charm; it’s more like dropping a line in the water and hoping for a nibble.

Not only that, it’s not unusual for guys to send out mass texts, or at least texts to more than one girl at once. Kristen got a text from Jake around midnight one Saturday night, a month or so after he’d broken up with her. It said, “I need you here now.” Kristen didn’t reply but happily ditched her friends to catch a cab to Jake’s apartment. When she got there, she rang his bell but he didn’t buzz her in, telling her it was not a good time after all. He asked her to “Just go. Please.” Kristen refused to leave without some explanation, and while she was standing there another girl arrived and pressed Jake’s doorbell. It turned out she was Jake’s new love interest, and he’d sent the same text to both of them. Given a choice, he preferred new to old. 

Williams also mentions the pervasive Millennial condition known as FOMO – fear of missing out. They don’t want to settle too soon on a person for a relationship when online dating, speed dating and group hangs all create opportunities to meet many new people in a short time. Dating becomes a perpetual audition, and keeping things informal – and cheap – is a pragmatic way of not investing too much in someone when someone just a bit better might be right around the corner.

Of course, there are real economic concerns as well. The recession, a sluggish job market and student debt all have Millennials feeling financially insecure. Add in the fact that young women in cities outearn their male counterparts, and traditional dating becomes awkward at best. Still, it’s happening. I see young couples out on dates every time I go out in the evening. Nearly all the women I know who graduated from college two years ago are in serious relationships or actively dating. Like Shani, they decline invitations for booty calls masquerading as dates. 

If you want a meaningful relationship, you must filter guys according to the degree of effort they put in. Garbage in, garbage out. There’s nothing wrong with hanging out in social groups, or meeting up with someone you’d like to know better. But that initial interest should graduate quickly into real dates. Focus on men who are willing to put in the kind of effort you’re willing to put in. You can help them out by encouraging their interest, initiating some plans, and sharing the expense of dating. 

Courtship will endure, because people want romance. By filtering out the guys who don’t do real dates, you make yourself available for the ones who do.