Friday, April 29, 2016
Say No to the Dating-Industrial-Complex
BY her own admission, Sara Cambridge was "totally cruising."
She spent hours trolling online dating sites, sending e-mail messages to potential mates and creating "a real connection," which would invariably sour into deep disappointment within the first five minutes of an actual date. At which point she would return to the sites, send more e-mail, make another connection and suffer another snap disappointment.
Finally, there was the left-leaning writer, who took her to a Japanese tea garden and, like so many of the others, seemed so perfect from his resume.
"In the e-mails, he would say, 'Tell me a story,' which I thought was kind of charming," said Ms. Cambridge, 38, a graphic designer in San Francisco. "When we got together it was, 'Tell me stories, tell me stories, tell me stories.' I felt like I was auditioning for a play."
That was it.
"I realized I could be starting my own business in the time I was spending looking at these ads and crafting these responses," she said. So instead of going back online, she began taking a Small Business Administration class and designing funky planters.
Ms. Cambridge's tale is one small act of resistance against what might be called the Dating-Industrial Complex, a mighty fortress increasingly hard to ignore. To Match.com and Nerve.com, add DreamMates, The Right Stuff, eHarmony and eCrush (neither to be confused with Etrade, though the general concept is the same). TurboDate, HurryDate, 8minuteDating -- or It's Just Lunch.
Reality television shows -- "The Bachelorette," "Average Joe" -- have fed the impression that finding the right mate is as simple as being presented with a room of 10 people and picking one. Bookstores bulge: "Surrendered Single," "Find a Husband After 35 Using What I Learned at Harvard Business School," "Make Every Girl Want You." That is just a sampling from the last year; the next two months will bring one manual promising to lure the love of your life in seven weeks, another in a sleeker six.
"There's a fetishization of coupling," said Bella DePaulo, a visiting professor of psychology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, who studies perceptions of singles. "It's made the pressure that's always been there more intense."
Yet like Ms. Cambridge, longtime combatants in the dating wars, psychologists and those who study the lives of singles talk about increasing dating fatigue. They say more and more people are taking dating sabbaticals or declaring they will let romance happen by chance, not commerce. Once-obsessive online daters are logging off, clients of speed dating services -- which offer dozens of encounters in a roomful of strangers -- are slowing down. A book due out in January, "Quirkyalone," offers "a manifesto for uncompromising romantics" -- those not opposed to romance but against the compulsory dating encouraged by the barrage of books, Web sites and matchmaking services.
Pottery Barn and Williams-Sonoma report that singles are signing up for housewarming and birthday registries, deciding they do not have to wait for a wedding to request the pastamaker and flatware. Smaller stores report single women registering for china patterns and crystal, without ring, proposal or mate.
On the extreme end of political activism, the American Association for Single People, a kind of AARP for the unmarried, convinced governors in five states to declare Unmarried and Single Americans Week in September. And a small voice in the Web wilderness reassures: Itsokaytobesingle.com.
"I have no doubt that there is a great, committed relationship out there for me," Ms. Cambridge said. "I don't identify at all with people who think, 'I'll never find another person.' I just think the best thing to do is pursue my goals, and whatever unfolds will be a new story."
Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, co-director of the National Marriage Project, who relied on a national survey as well as in-depth interviews and dating histories of 60 women for her 2002 book, "Why There Are No Good Men Left: The Romantic Plight of the New Single Woman," said this hard-won wisdom is increasingly common. "People are making some kind of private agreement with themselves that they're not going to do this in a panicky, driven way that implicitly buys into the notion that if it doesn't happen to you, you'll be miserable," she said.
As Sari Siegal, who surrendered her love life to fate after a dating binge last spring, said, "This Internet stuff makes it seem like there's no excuse for not having someone."
"It trivializes it," said Ms. Siegal, a 30-year-old graduate student in New York. "It's like a math equation."
The discontent, Ms. Whitehead said, is not limited to women. Marc Johnson, 33, describes his late 20's and early 30's as a cycle between looking for dates, planning dates, going on dates or deconstructing dates with friends. He submitted to innumerable setups, and endured the gentle but persistent nagging of suburban-with-children friends. Every year, the fall scramble -- the rush to find someone to cuddle with against the winter chill -- gave way to the spring fling, and then a rinse-repeat.
It all began to seem a bit small last year when he returned to New York from a trip to Vietnam, and was greeted by friends hassling him about when he was going to date various women.
"When you're seeing the world and civilizations that are thousands of years old -- it seemed so petty to focus on 'meeting the right match,' " he said, his voice mocking the phrase. "You get a bit older, you go through this a couple of times, you start to think that life is short."
Like others, Mr. Johnson now feels you can't hurry love. "It's not a backlash or resenting the whole dating thing," he said. "It's just, you've gotten over it, it's no longer of the utmost importance to go on a set number of dates or be on dates or to meet some specific person. By taking off that pressure you allow yourself to just go through life, enabled to meet people."
Kara Herold, 34, who lives in San Francisco, grew increasingly alarmed as friends succumbed to the pressure to find a mate, buying -- and buying into -- the endless supply of love-help books.
"In college when I was 20 it was dieting, now it's men and relationships," she said. "I was in a panic, but part of me thought, 'This is crazy, why are we concerned about this?' "
Ms. Herold is turning her disgust into a documentary, "Bachelor, 34," which captures her mother's urging her toward a relationship ("He's Catholic and Republican, but it's nothing you can't change") and her online experiences.
Sasha Cagen, the author of "Quirkyalone," wrote her book after being, as she said, "thoroughly messed up by 'The Rules,' " the best seller that advised women to play the old-fashioned game of hard-to-get.
"The whole idea that you shouldn't ask someone out, that you're putting yourself out there to be rejected, that's just stupid," she said. "It just reinforces this warped, passive vision of what it means to be a woman."
Her manifesto exhorts singles to "resist the tyranny of coupledom." To Bridget Jones's Smug Marrieds, she adds the "Perkytogethers." After she wrote about the concept in her self-published magazine and the story was picked up by the Utne Reader, people in four cities held "International Quirkyalone Day" parties as alternatives to Valentine's Day celebrations earlier this year.
Ms. Cagen, 29, is not against setups or dating, online or otherwise. She is emphatically not against sex (the book includes a lengthy discourse on the Quirkyslut: "usually emerges during travel"). Rather, she writes, she is "anti dull relationship."
She reminds her followers of the power of not yearning for a relationship. "If you are in a relationship to feel normal," she writes, "get out."
"I think the era of the pitied single is on the way out," Ms. Cagen said in an interview. "It's about trusting yourself and respecting yourself despite the onslaught of subtle andnot-so-subtle messages that there's something wrong with you if you're not dating, that you must have some sort of fear-of-commitment pathology, or you're overly picky or you've become so accustomed to being by yourself that you'll never be able to accommodate another person."
Still, the dating industry steamrolls forward, particularly online services, which claim a huge jump in membership in the last two years.
While the services love to talk about the success stories, they also admit, more quietly, to the dropouts. Matchmaker.com said its internal surveys show that the No. 1 reason people leave is that they do not find the right person. Just below that is that they have met someone, and men are twice as likely as women to say they met that companion offline, not on. (Women who drop out after meeting someone are twice as likely to cite an online connection.)
Tim Sullivan, the president of Match.com, one of the biggest dating sites, said people can't rely on fate alone. "I don't think their chances are as good if they don't take a proactive approach and try to blend the natural fates that exist out there with a proactivity," he said.
Experts say the rise of the Dating-Industrial Complex, and the burnout, is an inevitable result of the increasingly delayed age of marriage and the lengthening of the dating years. Nationwide, the number of single households continues to rise. The technology and advice industry that has developed in response advertises efficiency. In fact, Ms. Whitehead said, it offers anything but.
"It requires a whole bunch of energy and time and entrepreneurial drive," she said. "If you do that for a number of years, it begins to be fatiguing and you think, 'There are better things to do with my time,' things with a known payoff like travel or learning a language."
"It's like trying out a new diet," she added. "You hear about a new system or a new approach or a new site, and it seems to offer a lot of what you're after. You go through a period of being very high in the initial experience, then it doesn't quite pan out, there's a low, it leads to discouragement, you think, 'Why am I doing this, I can be happy without it.' "
Ethan Watters, the author of "Urban Tribes," which began with his own exploration of why he had remained single into his 30's, said as people delay marriage, they begin to rely more on friends, and see relationships less as the missing piece that will complete their lives. "They realize that a good love affair has as the basis a really good friendship," he said. "They're not becoming cynical, but they're getting more savvy about the ebb and flow of relationships. I think people get a bit more relaxed about this thing as they realize that being single is normal."
Being relaxed, the resisters say, is putting faith in the age old wisdom: you find the thing you're looking for just as you stop looking.
"Not that I'm going to meet someone across a crowded room," Ms. Siegal said. "But I want it to happen in an organic way, where it starts as just friendship or I meet someone at a party. I think people think I'm living a fairy tale, that it's unrealistic, but I don't feel that way. The right person has not walked into my world."