Time to dump dating and risk falling in love
November 9, 2004
Human relationships are more complex than a consumer transaction, writes Julian Baggini.
Although I find US-bashing a tiresome game, I do object to one lamentable feature of the American way of life that has insidiously infected other cultures: dating.
When I grew up, no one talked about dating, let alone did it. You "went out" with someone or, if you wanted to be cool, were "seeing" someone. But it is not the word I object to. It's the ethos.
Although dating British-style doesn't follow the rigid rules of New York, say, it does follow the same general principles, which for me undermine the whole point of romantic liaisons.
Dating is all about introducing a consumerist ethos to sexual relations. It takes the messy, ambiguous, unpredictable world of love and desire, and tidies it up into manageable compartments. Relationships are broken down into distinct stages, each with their own appropriate degree of commitment.
Stage one is shopping for partners. People self-consciously go on dates where they measure each other up and decide if it is worth seeing more of each other. This degrades personal relationships, because it turns individuals into items we size up like sofas.
It might be said that people have always gone on dates, but this isn't how I remember it. If you went out with someone, it used to be an indication that you were keen on them.
You would accept an invitation pleased that someone was after you, not anxious that you were going to be judged not good enough.
Stage two is the no-risk trial offer. One successful date is followed by others. This may or may not involve sex, but that is not the crucial point. At this stage, there is no relationship, only a series of dates.
What you do in between is up to you, and the most efficient partner-seekers will be hedging their bets with other dates. Again, this is all about staying in control, acting like a cautious buyer.
Stage three is "going steady". At this point, you might think the dating game is suspended while you finally give a relationship a go. But even this is not straightforward. To push the consumerist metaphor further, your new partner comes with a pay-as-you-go contract, with no minimum term.
When people have become so accustomed to treating their lovers as replaceable goods, the fact that you have been with someone for several months, or even years, does not necessarily mean you've stopped leasing and have bought.
As a good shopper, you keep your eye out for better deals and may trade in your present model whenever the time is right. I find this tendency of the dating ethos to encourage us to be with someone who "will do for now" horrifying. Whether it's for a brief time or the rest of my life, if I'm getting together with someone, it's got to be because I really want to be with them.
The Americanised, Fordist rationalisation of sexual relationships may seem "mature" and "realistic", but love is neither of these. So what's the alternative? I prefer the bumbling, heart-thumping British way. It may be inefficient, but at least it feels human.
Romantic nonsense? Maybe. It's certainly not for those who can't bear to be single for any length of time. But I'd rather be a person alone than an object with someone else.
Julian Baggini is the author of What's It All About? Philosophy And The Meaning Of Life (Granta).