On the loathsome “dating” construct

06 Apr

Let me tell you a story; I promise it won’t take long. Roughly two months ago, my younger sister called our mother to ask for some advice. A bartender she was friendly with had asked her out via text message and she wasn’t sure how to handle the situation (in part because she is currently in an exclusive relationship with her boyfriend). I don’t know exactly what was said, or exactly what my sister wanted to happen, but my mother encouraged her to at least consider it “because she’s never been on a real date before and she might want to have that experience” (for context, she and the boyfriend were friends in high school for some time before their relationship became romantic). For some reason that exchange has inspired me to think about “dating” a fair amount, and I want to unpack that statement and everything that I find appalling about it and the attitudes behind it.

(My mother’s view of all things relationship may be a frequent casualty of collateral damage when I blog about such things; an unfortunate consequence, but she often says things that seem to me to be representative of regressive patriarchal attitudes. I’ve never been certain how seriously she means them).

In any case, the picture I get of “dating” from this and other similar remarks is something like this: two people, who do not know each other particularly well (acquaintances at best, total strangers at worst), mutually interviewing each other as if for a job. From other remarks that were made when I was younger (about, e.g., avoiding messy foods like spaghetti on ‘dates’), it was made abundantly clear that one is supposed to hide one’s flaws as long as possible during this process. One sees similar things in ‘dating guides’ written in the 1950s, about how to attempt to impress one’s partner (or avoid failing to do so) in this context, etc. I am not going to attempt to argue against politeness, but it is possible to take it too far and require people to cultivate an appearance of being superhuman (I don’t even think this is a strawman – I once read a blog post that particularly disgusted me, in which a woman proudly boasted of the fact she would leave the house to go to the bathroom whenever her husband was home, because she didn’t want her husband to know she had bodily functions. I no longer have the link and have no desire to go searching).

This seems one of the most ass-backward ways of beginning a relationship that I can imagine. I don’t even understand how people willingly go into a situation like this – why would you put romance on the table with somebody while explicitly not knowing them very well? That seems to be what my mother meant by “a real date” – if you know the person well before you start the romance, then it’s been tainted somehow and is no longer “dating”? What, precisely, makes this awkward process so sacrosanct? Is it some kind of rite of passage to go through stilted, cliche activities with strangers, firing blindly with a shotgun in the hopes of getting a hit? (I suppose if one does get lucky and find a compatible partner via this process, it could be something to reflect on and laugh about later? That’s really the only advantage I can see in it…)

It seems to me that if you are monogamous and interested in a long-term partnership, your partner should be a very close friend if not your closest (otherwise, why choose that person with whom to spend the largest portion of your time?), and therefore it seems… impractical, at best, to seek one’s partner using methods one would not otherwise use to find new friends. What this formalised “dating” method seems most likely to produce, if you ask me, are the sorts of Patriarchy-approved relationships in which two partners live largely separate lives within their prescribed roles and tolerate one another for the sake of their children but otherwise interact as little as possible. Which sounds downright hellish to me, for lots of reasons (in particular, as a person who is and will remain intentionally childfree, the idea of such a child-centred existence surrounded by misery is just incredibly enticing).

What makes it worse is that I do actually think that the “dating” approach does get some things right – doing structured activities together can be quite pleasant, and is a good way to spend time and get to know somebody better. The key word there is “better” – it’s hard to build from nothing. And more importantly, in the “dating” model there’s no way of knowing whether the person is worth knowing before beginning this process. Combine this with the ubiquitous rape culture and it gets even worse, because in addition to whatever emotional vulnerability one opens themself up to by going out with a stranger there is also a great deal of physical vulnerability (not that I mean to imply people aren’t also often harmed by people they trust, I know the statistics as well as anyone else, but I trust my point is taken).

I will go further: I think the formalised “dating” formula inherently relies on gender-essentialist and misogynistic ideas to function (and probably also some misandric ones to boot, gender-essentialism is bad for everyone). It seems to me that an actual belief in equality would entail that a person meet people in the same way irrespective of gender. To do otherwise implies that people of different genders are different classes of person. (Especially when you consider that in many of our society’s attitudes you see the conceit that “men and women can’t be friends” – fuck “When Harry Met Sally”, while that film may have done some good in promoting the idea that women can also experience sexual pleasure, I think on the whole it’s sexist and awful and promotes some really toxic ideas).

Obviously the dynamic I’m criticising here is only really applicable to traditionalistic monogamous heterosexual relationships, but that doesn’t make it utterly irrelevant.

I’m rambling a bit at this point, and I’m not sure if I have a coherent point here, but I think there’s something truly perverse in invalidating an actual relationship for the sake of this sort of pageantry (which is essentually what my mother’s comment to my sister did). Who, in their right mind, would prefer the latter?

(I will, of course, add the usual caveat that people are different and not everything works for everyone. You don’t have to agree with me, and I’m sure that approach does work for some people. What I object to, above anything else, is its presumed normativity; if it worked for you personally, good for you and I don’t intend to invalidate your choices).


Posted by on April 6, 2014 in mitchell


8 responses to “On the loathsome “dating” construct

  1. Silver Adept

    April 12, 2014 at 3:17 am

    My guess is that the dating construct of strangers rather than friends is that one accords special status to dating and that, should dating a friend go poorly, it would be awkward for everyone in the same circle to have to deal with the fallout. Which can happen anyway, I’d it’s a long sequence of saying and then a fallout, so, yeah.

    I fink the idea, though, is something akin to the mysterious Friend Zone – that there really are relationships already established that are too precious to risk ruining by acting on romantic feelings. Full disclosure: I have had a good friendship crash and burn when I mentioned the proximity of a romantic attraction, but I brought it on myself by doing so in the worst possible context.

  2. mcbender

    April 12, 2014 at 7:12 pm

    Silver Adept: Hmm, that’s a good point. I hadn’t considered the comparison to “Friend Zone” (though that’s usually a loathsome construct itself, used by Nice Guys in what I think might be an attempt to gaslight themselves… but don’t get me started on Nice Guys, if I start I’ll probably never stop). I’ve also had a friendship go sour in a similar situation (also my fault, heh) in the past, but truthfully I think when that happens it’s often because the friendship was on thin ice already or based on false pretences (if one of the parties’ main draw to the friendship is a limerent attraction, I’m inclined to say there’s usually enough self-delusion involved that they don’t really know the other person). I should think that if a friendship is strong enough it can survive this kind of hiccup.

    But I’m willing to admit that I may be coming at this from a biased perspective; I am (probably) demisexual and that may be inhibiting my comprehension. I genuinely cannot see the appeal in, for instance, casual sexual encounters (though don’t misread this as a moral objection, I have no objection to people doing whatever they want as long as there is mutual enthusiastic consent, I just have no interest at all myself). I’ve no interest in physical intimacy of any kind if there isn’t a previously-established emotional and intellectual intimacy, and I would much rather be alone than with an ill-suited partner, which may be why I have a problem with the “dating” construct as I’ve defined it in this post.

    So perhaps my thinking on this is a bit naive, and I’m overgeneralising from myself; I’m certainly open to being convinced of that possibility.

  3. Gowan

    May 17, 2014 at 12:19 pm

    Dating is … not really interesting in and of itself. I am socially inept to the point that I am almost unable to find friends, which is why internet dating sites are my only option when it comes to romantic relationships.
    I went on lots of dates and while I met interesting men, it would have been just as fun to talk to those men in other contexts … had I been able to do that, which I usually am not.

    The “job interview” part is nice for me, but that’s because, as I mentioned above, I am socially inept. People in general tend to not like me. I feel like I am in a job interview and not getting the job all the time when I am around people I’d like to be friends with. (To be fair, I don’t know whether other people really don’t want to be friends with me, or whether they think I don’t want to be friends with them because I’m so shy, but my impression is that I am just too boring and uninteresting.)

    The “friendzone” myth is born from the fact that men want sex with women they don’t want as friends. When I go on dates with men, I feel like I am suddenly on the other side of the job interview. Men who, if they met me at a party, probably wouldn’t deem me interesting enough to pursue a friendship with me, try to make a good impression on me once they know I am availible for a romantic relationship.

    It feels nice when other people try to make a good impression. It’s also nice to know that someone really wants to talk to me, and doesn’t just do so out of politeness. (I don’t assume that the men I go on dates with just want sex. I am generous enough to assume that they want a girlfriend, although I am frequently not sure whether they would want to spend their time with me if they already had a girlfriend.)

    I really do not see what your sister would get out of dating. Self-esteem? She probably already has tons of that. A boyfriend? She already has one.
    Also, I don’t think it is acceptable to go on dates with people if you are not availible for a relationship. So … “I like to spend time with you as friends, but since I have a boyfriend, a date is not really on the table” is the most appropriate answer, I think.

    • mcbender

      May 17, 2014 at 10:01 pm

      Thanks for this. I hadn’t really considered the advantages the structure might provide for people with varying degrees of social ineptitude (I have mild social anxiety myself, so I’m familiar with where you’re coming from on this to some degree), and I probably should have done. I wish I knew some solution for you, though I recognise in writing here you’re not asking for one so it’s probably best I don’t offer anyhow!

      (Side note, I certainly don’t think you’re uninteresting! I know these anxieties aren’t always rational, so my saying so may not change anything, but so be it. And lots of people do misread shyness as disinterest, I’ve had the same problem in the past myself.)

      That is a very good insight into the “friendzone” phenomenon – let’s not generalise this to all men, of course, or even all heterosexually-attracted men, but you’re definitely right that a lot of heterosexual men feel that way (it seems utterly alien to me, but as I said in a prior comment, that could be due to the fact that I may be demisexual). For that matter, I know of quite a few women who feel similarly, so that attitude (that the set of possible sexual and/or romantic partners is not a subset of the set of possible friends, and they may overlap some but not completely) isn’t restricted to men either. But it does tend to manifest in its most egregious form in the “Nice Guys” who whine endlessly about the “friendzone”.

      I will admit I find it genuinely incomprehensible that someone could want to spend time with somebody only so long as that person is a potential girlfriend (and would want that person as a girlfriend, for that matter) but would be completely uninterested in spending time with them if that option were not available. (Is this rooted in the idea of girlfriend as status symbol, or sexual desire, fear of being unpaired/”alone”, or something else entirely?) I wouldn’t want to be with a woman who viewed me in those terms!

      Incidentally, the response you suggested was the one my sister eventually settled on, as far as I know.

  4. Gowan

    May 18, 2014 at 8:50 pm

    I don’t really want to protect dating culture.

    I use the dating construct it while it exists, but should it die some day, I don’t think I will mourn it much. A construct in which there is a 100% socially acceptable way to ask someone to be your friend (other than befriending them on facebook which doesn’t mean that much, anyway) would help me more than dating culture does, I think.

    Regarding the lack of overlap between “potential friend” and “potential romantic and/or sex partner” some people seem to have, I can understand that only in very specific cases where someone has fallen in love. Falling in love makes you crazy enough to accept people as lovers you would never want as friends (although I don’t think it’s advisable to pursue such a relationship), and it also makes friendly social interaction with the person you love but who doesn’t love you back somewhat painful.
    In most cases, though, the “nice” guys who complain about a “friendzone” do not seem to be in love with the person who allegedly “friendzoned” them – if they were, they’d quit whining and cut contact to protect their feelings instead of deluding themselves into thinking that they are “too nice” or whatever.

    • mcbender

      May 19, 2014 at 8:40 pm

      That makes sense, yes. Still, you’ve highlighted some potential utility in that construct which I hadn’t thought of, which is worth noting.

      (As far as I know, at least some of the online dating sites do have options for “seeking friends only” – I’m pretty sure OKCupid does – but I’ve no idea how those work and to my knowledge they still end up sticking relatively close to the dating structure in how it’s implemented… there really do need to be better ways of establishing friendships with people.)

      I think when you say “falling in love” you’re looking for the concept of limerence (, which I think deserves to be brought to greater awareness. Distinguishing between limerence and actual love (and especially between it and reciprocal love) is something I think is quite useful. Limerence is what gets idiots like Romeo and Juliet killed, for instance (though I suppose I shouldn’t classify them as idiots, that’s rather ableist considering limerence may be a form of mental illness… the real tragedy of that play is that they never got the treatment they needed and the lack thereof proved lethal).

      In the case of a lot of the supposed “Nice Guys”, I think they’ve experienced one or more unrequited limerent attractions (I’ve often seen these people – and the related “Pickup Artists”/”PUAs” – use the term “one-itis” to mean something similar, an obsessive romantic focus on a single individual), and find the lack of sufficient reciprocation (“friendship” isn’t enough for them) painful but not able to counteract their obsession. So they get bitter and frustrated over their inability to move forward with the object of their obsession(s), especially when they’ve been told by society that “being nice” and “being persistent” are how to “get the girl” from “romantic comedies” (which are ironically neither romantic nor funny). Or to put it into other terms – I forget who said this initially – they seem to view women as vending machines into which they can insert kindness coins and it will eventually dispense a sex (or a relationship). The hostility stems from their frustration at not receiving what they’ve been conditioned to believe they’ve earned (this is where their sense of entitlement comes from), because they don’t really regard women as full persons in their own right (I think for a lot of them, they view “having a girlfriend” as an essential step toward adulthood or manhood, and they feel the universe and/or women are conspiring against them to keep them down. It’s as if life were a video game and they’re looking to check off the “Girlfriend” achievement, and every time they get “friend zoned” they have to start it over. Nice Guys think they’re the romantic equivalent of Sisyphus.).

      I’ve framed this rather uncharitably, and yet having written that I feel rather uncomfortable even attempting to sympathise with them as far as I’ve done; in case I’ve not already made it clear, nothing about the above thought processes justifies their behaviour (which often manifests as some kind of sexual harassment or stalking).

      That said, I should probably write a full post about the Nice Guy phenomenon at some point, I think.

  5. Gowan

    May 21, 2014 at 8:51 am

    You’re absolutely right. I have experienced limerence, though, and it is not pretty, which is why I have a great deal of compassion for people to whom it happens, IF they handle it in the best way possible, which is moving away from the object of their unrequited attraction and suffering in silence. (I have heard of people who were able to maintain a true friendship in spite of limerence, but that’s difficult and I really can’t blame anyone who doesn’t feel able to do it)

    Limerence may contribute to nice guy-ism, but it doesn’t cause it. Nice-Guy-ism is based on the idea that women are vending machines. Without that idea, men would probably do what I suggested above and just leave the object of their unrequited attraction alone. It is better for a woman to lose a friend than to gain a crazy stalker.


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