Dating Is Broken. Going Retro Could Fix It.
Among the traditional rites of an All-American high school experience is the taking — and judging — of yearbook photos, and in this my all-girls Orthodox Jewish school was no exception. Our dialogue as we swapped prints was more “Fiddler on the Roof” than “Sweet Valley High”: “Are you going to use that for your shidduch résumé?”
It was a joke. Mostly. Though many of my peers would go on to make the dating profiles favored by Orthodox matchmakers, most wouldn’t do so for a few more years — by then, our 17-year-old acne-studded panim would be poor likenesses. But the joke reflected something that was true: Even as high schoolers, many of us knew how we planned to meet our spouses, and it wasn’t going to be the loosey-goosey way the secular world did it.
It’s been odd, therefore, the past several years, watching the ways the secular mainstream has latched — tentatively, faddishly — onto traditional dating practices. There’s the slew of matchmaking companies sorting out the love lives of the rich and famous; the articles declaring that matchmaking is hot again; the Netflix carousel filled with shows casting back to an older (if partly imagined) vision of romance: “Indian Matchmaking,” “Married at First Sight,” “Bridgerton.”
A reacquaintance with more traditional forms of meeting and falling in love makes me feel hopeful. I see signs of a culture grasping for the things it rightly needs. In today’s largely online world, burnout, opacity and callousness define dating, reflecting the values of a society that prizes individualism, privacy and choice in nearly all things — including matters of the heart. But while dating is more convenient than it has ever been (people find dates while literally sitting on the toilet), it’s clearly falling short.
There are elements of traditional dating culture that can provide solutions not just to the way we find people to date but also to the way we navigate relationships. Through conversations with traditional and secular daters, I’ve come to see three practices as particularly promising for people who are looking for committed, long-term relationships: meeting partners through friends, family or matchmakers rather than online; early, upfront communication around long-term goals and values; and delaying sexual intimacy.
It’s worth asking: Is it time to court again?
In October 2019, Pew conducted a survey to understand Americans’ attitudes toward romantic relationships. Most daters told Pew their romantic lives weren’t going well, and three-quarters of respondents said that it was difficult to find people to date.
When askedwhyfinding a date was so difficult, reasons varied by gender. Women tended to say that it’s challenging to find someone who meets their expectations or is looking for the same type of relationship. Men mostly said they have trouble approaching people.
These complaints seem counterintuitive. Internet dating promises an abundance of choice (to meet any standard), a profusion of filters (to suit any relationship) and low barriers to reaching out (to relieve any anxiety). But, as I found when I talked to people about what it’s like to date now, the theoretical abundance of options, filters and low barriers to engagement often don’t translate to high-quality interactions. Instead, daters find themselves caught in a cycle of unanswered messages and dead-end interactions, contributing to a ubiquitous feeling of “dating app burnout.”
Things were different before the rise of online dating. From the mid-1940s until 2013, heterosexual Americans were most likely to meet their romantic partners through friends. Families were also big in the matchmaking business — as late as 1980, almost 20 percent of heterosexual couples met with their help. Matchmakers, both formal and informal, continue to play a major role in connecting singles in plenty of more traditional communities.
Think of what this more traditional model solves. A mediated match tends to connect individuals who are looking for the same kind of relationship and who have the education, religious background or values the other is looking for. It may ease the difficulties of approaching a potential partner by having a third party arrange the meeting. Plus, as anyone who’s been ghosted or harassed by a paramour can attest, there’s a benefit to the behavioral accountability a mediated match offers. One single woman told me that you can’t treat a person met via a setup as “completely disposable” because you have a mutual connection it might get back to.
For Tonia Chazanow, 24, who met her husband through the formalized system of shidduch dating, having her family involved in the initial stages of a setup was a built-in benefit of the sort other people pay for. “It’s like hiring someone who, like, loves you and understands you to just vet guys before you date them,” she said. After the initial vetting stages, her parents took a step back, and Ms. Chazanow decided on her own whether to continue seeing the men she was set up with.
The third-party role need not always be so formalized. My husband and I met when I was in college and he, a recent graduate, had moved to the area for work. We were introduced at a local community synagogue, a meeting point that helped ensure we shared common values and whose members supported (and sometimes vouched for) each of us as we began dating.
It’s reasonable to ask what the trade-off here might be. Online dating promises to connect people whose lives and backgrounds are so different that they only could have met in the internet age. Would a return to more mediated forms of meeting also spell a reversion to the homogeneous partnerships of decades past?
This fear turns out to be unfounded. Couples who meet online are more likely to be of different races or ethnicities and political parties than those who meet offline — but that’s also true of younger daters in general. When researchers compared the likelihood that couples under 40 were in racially or ethnically diverse pairings, there was no significant difference for couples who met online and offline. The same goes for income levels and political affiliation.
Setups are only one piece of the puzzle. To find the right partner, intermediation is best combined with another hallmark of traditional courtship: early, transparent communication about values and long-term goals.
Ali Jackson, a dating coach, told me that she’s commonly asked by singles (mostly women): “Is it OK to tell someone that I’m looking for a relationship?”
“Half of what I do as a coach probably is give people permission to want what they want and say what they want,” she added.
This permission to ask for what you want and need is a built-in feature of some more traditional dating cultures, in which alignment of fundamental values and life goals can happen even before the first date.
True, it’s often possible, at least in theory, to determine some alignment by filtering on a dating app or site for people who want kids or who share your religion. But in practice, the relative broadness of these filters and the culture of optionality optimizing in online dating means that these features often aren’t used, or aren’t used well.
Zara Raheem, the author of “The Marriage Clock,” a novel about the trials and tribulations of a South Asian Muslim American woman, met her own husband through an arranged marriage process in which her parents screened possible matches. She told me that even in early interactions, no topic was off the table: “Do they want kids? How many kids? What expectations do they have of a wife?”
Conversations like these save time in the long run — no one’s waiting six months (or 67 episodes) to find out that their match doesn’t believe in marriage. But they require a fair amount of introspection — what do you want, what are your deal breakers? Plus, it’s, um, intense.
Perhaps intensity is not such a bad thing when you have a goal in mind. It’s easy to send a like on Hinge or head over to a bar after work in the hopes of stumbling across someone who’s easy to talk to. It requires less — less introspection, less anxiety, less investment — at least in the short term. But is it really easier?
One of the ironies of modern dating is that while it’s not uncommon to date for months or even years without broaching the big questions about marriage and children, other forms of intimacy tend to be embraced more quickly.
Almost all Americans have sex before getting married, and that’s been true for decades. But the normalization of casual sexis newer. And it’s not clear that newer norms around having sex casually or very soon after meeting are really helping those who ultimately want lasting, committed relationships.
A 2010 study published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Family Psychology looked at the relationship between the amount of time a couple waits to have sex and the quality of their marriage. Researchers found that couples who waited until marriage reported not just less consideration of divorce but also higher relationship satisfaction, better communication and superior sex when compared with couples who began having sex within a month of their first date (or before they started dating). Couples who slept together between a month and two years after their first date — but didn’t wait until marriage — saw about half of the benefits.
Jason Carroll, a professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University and one of the study authors, speculates that one reason couples benefit from waiting before becoming sexually involved is because people tend to make better decisions about dating before they’re physically entangled. “Simply put, we are hardwired to connect,” he writes. “Rapid sexual initiation often creates poor partner selection because intense feelings of pleasure and attachment can be confused for true intimacy and lasting love.”
Maybe this sounds like an excerpt from “The Magic Touch.” Or whatever book or purity metaphor (unsticky tape, chewed gum) dominated your abstinence-centric sexual education curriculum.
Though often bundled in practice, the idea that sex may not be truly casual and the stigmatizing metaphors don’t really need to go together.
An increasingly prominent strain of thinkers, many of them feminists, have been lending their support to the idea that treating sex as something that is not casual might be an idea worth taking seriously. Christine Emba, the author of “Rethinking Sex: A Provocation,” argues that the modern sex-positive climate in which there’s wide agreement that “sex is good and the more of it we have, the better” has contributed to young people, especially women, engaging in sexual encounters they don’t really want.
When I reviewed the transcripts of the dozen or so formal conversations I had for this piece, I noticed a common theme. Whether Jewish, evangelical, Mormon or Muslim, almost everyone I spoke to emphasized that their approach to dating offered some kind of protection for the single person, a way to make the process of finding a partner a little less painful.
Sometimes these protections offer obvious benefits: Meeting someone through a third party, like a friend, parent or matchmaker, creates accountability that discourages bad behavior. Refraining from quick, casual sex lowers physical risks, like S.T.D.s, and the emotional risk of sliding into an incompatible relationship.
But sometimes these protections offer safety via a kind of check on one’s own judgment, too. Chanie Lebovics, a Florida-based matchmaker who works mostly with Chabad Jews, told me that having a mentor who can look at the matchmaking process “from an objective place” is common in her community.
It’s easy to see these protections as overkill. But when you look closely at how today’s norms have taken the handlebars off the bike of romance, you have to wonder if modern daters are really the ones who’ve gone to extremes. Many of us go on dates seeking the spark of chemistry and tumble into bed, or relationships, often without ever determining whether our prospective partners pass the most basic of compatibility tests. It’s almost as though we want to get hurt.
And perhaps we do. Maybe we’ve come to believe the Hollywood myth that heartbreak is a necessary rite of passage and path to self-knowledge, a sort of preparatory ordeal for true love.
We’re probably never going to return to the courtship practices of the 19th and early 20th centuries, when dating — at least among the American middle class — was highly regimented and scrutinized, nor do I endorse trying. But it might be worth accepting a certain level of restriction and dependence to get what we ultimately want and avoid unnecessary pain. It might be worth eschewing the relative privacy and autonomy of an app to ask our friends for help, worth refraining from acting immediately on our sexual freedoms in order to give our relationships time to develop, worth losing out on an abundance of potential options in order to narrow the pool to those who might actually want to share a future with us.
Michal Leibowitz (@michalleibowitz) is an editorial assistant in Opinion.
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