So recently, over a bucket of Bud Lights (they were out of Corona, but really once the bottles hit the bucket, they all taste like Coors) and a pair of Michter’s rockses, I asked a friend of mine a question that’s been lurking around in my brain (and the formant pages of my seedling memoir) lately. It’s a tough one to ask because it really makes you look like a prick to even ask the question these days. And honestly I don’t think there were ever days in the past when the question was framed in quite this way. In the past, the question I asked went like this:
“Dear wise friend, how do I know if she’s THE ONE?”
Something I haven’t actually heard in a long time, not in movies, not on the TV, music, and certainly not out of some earnest person’s mouth. But it used to be THE QUESTION
If you’ve read any of these posts, you’ll know that wasn’t what I asked, exactly. My question was a more pragmatic, internet age-fueled:
“Hey man, we are surrounded by single women all the day. Most of them are really solid, perfectly good potential partners. Most of them are down to go for a ride. Given that I’m so old, crusty, and cynical that I will never let myself just fall in love ever again, how do you stop the wheel spinning and just PICK ONE?”
“Great point,” he said.
Well fuck. Not the answer I was expecting, but definitely the one I’ve been fearing. He had no idea.
Time for some mental gymnastics!
I’ve been nursing the idea that some of what’s happening in the dating scene in NY, and presumably other big cities, is fairly unprecedented (at least since maybe the 30s), and we don’t really have a language in place to deal with it. Especially without shaming the people involved. Lemme walk you through the tortured labyrinth of my braincase to see if I we can get somewhere useful.
Take the concept of soulmate. I think by now we as a society have a much broader (sanguine? pragmatic?) view of this elusive construct, right? There used to be a fairy tale fantasy (since when though?) that out there, somewhere, the one person who perfectly meshes with our personality, our heart and mind and body, is waiting. If you’re a grad student thinking, “H.I.E. (that’s me), the soulmate is a construct invented to sell romance novels in the 18th century and parallels the rise of the merchant bourgeoise, whose sudden financial dominance necessitated the invention of a type of supranatural, all-consuming, essential ‘love’ that justified the crossing of traditional class lines, allowing the decadent European elites to marry rich commoners,” you can just shut the fuck up. I’m not gonna argue it, because I really have no idea if you’re right or not. But don’t forget that dumb Greek philosopher who stipulated men and women were once sexless, giant egg-shaped monsters who got split in half. That was like a couple thousand years earlier. Never forget.
The pop culture fantasy goes on that some fateful day we will meet that person and instantly, irrevocably, and seamlessly fall in love forever. Sometimes we toss in a little realism to the picture: It may be a little rocky at first, maybe he or she is a little messed up from past loves gone wrong and will need some time to grow into his/her true positioning as THE ONE. Maybe Mrs/Mr Right is currently embroiled in some bullshit with some asshole who’s no good for him/her. Maybe they got hit by a car and died and we’ll never meet. Whatever. Point was we should strive for THE RIGHT ONE WHO IS TOTALLY OUT THERE SOMEWHERE. WAITING!
I’m not 100% sure this fantasy wasn’t invented by hollywood for the sake of making tidy packaged romances for the millions of downtrodden masses and aching hearts of the 30s and 40s. Or even earlier in Victorian novels or… Ok ok there’s that stupid Greek thing (DON’T REMIND ME) with the lump people getting split in two at the beginning of time. So yeah, it’s out there and has been. I’m not claiming all of humanity subscribed to it, but it’s a fantasy many held/hold/was in the room.
These days shit is more nuanced. At least I think so. These days I think we’re open to the concept that romance and lasting relationships take work (by “take work” I mean, “are too fucking hard and maybe not worth it?”). They take mutual respect and admiration and some shared values. There’s heaps of STUDIES backing all this up. Science pointing to concrete variables that determine the success of a pairing. Nowhere have scientists found that a marriage worked because of SOULMATES. Ok. Obvious.
So, now we’re dealing in small populations of potential long-term compatibility, instead of THE ONE. Science. Relative risks and rewards. Economics.
Let’s suppose there are several really good matches for you out there, right there in your city. Especially if you’re in one as big and self selected as New York. There really are a lot of good matches in a relatively small geographical area. (don’t get me started on geography though… holy shit). Now you might imagine (correctly) that, even with a ton of good solid go-the-distance potential “soulmates” right there in your own town, the odds of you meeting one who is single, emotionally available, ready to date AND in the same bar or wherever you’re gonna be tonight are slim.
But! My Parents? Or Something.
According to my first shrink, a saintly Jewish woman from TX, we used to manage this unlikelihood with friend dates. Dates weren’t job interviews (a topic in itself), they were two groups of friends (guys and girls) hitting the strip, the movies and malt shops, the boardwalk or the midway, together. Nobody was necessarily prearranged and no one felt pressure (I’m sure there were situations in which friends encouraged certain couples to spend time together, but that’s also great! Friends approving up front!). Just a bunch of youngsters (and maybe age is important too) goofing around in a haze of ice cream and cotton candy riding the swells of hormones and laughs. Plus they had a ton of dances back in the day. Dancing! My one temporal regret (in which people wish they were born earlier, see Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris). We just don’t have things like summer cotillion and dance cards and mixers anymore. Too bad because dancing cheek to cheek with a dame is aces, friend.
Anyway, tons of socially encouraged low pressure mixin’ times. As we lose more and more of our community-centered lifestyle and ways of passing time together with people (let’s call that the 60s, arbitrarily), it gets harder to date. Classifieds for dates appear in papers, video enhanced systems and dedicated phone services (mostly recorded classifieds, but some party lines too) sprout up to fill the demand for introductions to eligible humans. We’re still looking for THE ONE and need to believe he or she is looking too. But face it, all those places–classifieds, phone systems–were backwaters, dead ends, catch-alls for the hopelessly undatable. Real matches still only happened in bars, churches, airports with flights delayed (are you writing these down?), sporting events, etc. Events and spaces filled with normal people who have a convenient excuse to chat. I know because there’s a (Canadian) STUDY, dammit. <citation forever absent, jerk>
Blah blah blah fast forward to NOW. Free, socially accepted (even encouraged) online dating for massive populations of 23-45 yo single, decent-looking, not super crazy people. Now sex on the first date isn’t just ok, it’s practically a requisite for a date #2.
Wrapping it up, Romeo
These days, if you’re looking for love, you can find yourself in command of a constantly queued up line of dates. Churning through icons, overlapping initial contacts, refining your search criteria, your list of Important Questions and Dealbreakers, speed dating.
Serial dating? No. Semi-rational choices based on the runaway economics of supply and demand? Yes. We’ve amped up the efficiency of our sorting process to an unprecedented level. Some of us (ahem) can churn through 15 great matches in a month if we really get fired up.
Which brings me back to my weird hybrid philosophical crisis: what if what counts (thanks, science. thanks, economics) as THE ONE pops up more than once? We’ve used technology to sift a pile of highly matched ladies into our bag. What if EVERY SINGLE GIRL that OKCupid spits out would have worked as a long term partner if this was 1930??
How does one choose? WHY does one choose? What does it do to the relationship if it starts out as an obvious, explicit choice from several likely options?
I mean, fuck if I know. But it’s really bad news for a guy who takes 2 years to pick the right backpack. Which I just did, by the way, and I’m THRILLED with it. Except I didn’t expect the strap buckles to dig into my arms so bad… I wonder if they make one with flat buckles?