Last week I was having lunch with a girl friend and we somehow ended up on the topic of romance and the current dating scene. By the end of lunch, we reached the conclusion that romance is pretty much dead. I was devastated at the thought, but I think we're right.
One of my main areas of research is on how women compete amongst each other for mates. As part of that work, I have asked women about their perceptions of the dating market - what they have to do to acquire a good prospect in light of the fact that there are other women out there trying to win the same prize. A comment I routinely hear is that they greatly dislike the dating scene today. There are three main sources of concern - the quality of the mate, the energies they have to undertake to self promote, and the competition they face. I should preface the rest of this blog by saying that I don't know much about men's views of the dating world, as it's not part of my research, so I'm going to focus on women here.
They usually begin by complaining about the available men. There seems to be two main problems. First, they meet men who are already in relationships but who take off their wedding ring to appear available. Or, there are men who say that they are single but then secretly text their girl friend saying that they are still out with the guys and will be home late. Second, many complain about meeting men who only want sex; some of these men pretend to want a relationship, but ultimately it's a deception. In general, there seems to be a perception that there are only a few good men out there left. To win these few good men, they have to improve themselves and compete with other women who are trying to get the same guy. And, because there are only a few good ones out there (at least in their eyes) they don't want to be overly demanding. When questioned about what they would ask for if they could, most women mention romance - they want to feel that they are the center of his world, that he can't help but fall in love with them, and it's them and only them that he wants. They want him to be clear about his love, not sending some cryptic text that is laden with ambiguity. Some do mention sex, but usually it follows from falling in love. Basically, these women want to live the plot of any romantic comedy movie or romance novel (and yes, I will eventually blog about my experience working with a romance novel publisher, just wait). When I asked whether the women thought they themselves were romantic, the answer seems to be no - so the women want the men to be romantic, but aren't themselves. They seem to believe that men really don't care if they are romantic, so why bother? Overall, then, there is a perception that there aren't many good men out there, and if a woman finds one, she doesn't want to place many demands on him because it might scare him off.
The second issue is one centered on the women themselves. Many feel exhausted from all the various activities they undertake to look good and to make themselves seem as desirable as possible. In research, this is called self promotion because one is trying to promote herself as being the best option out there. Listening to a group of women who are active daters talk will often reveal the effort that is involved simply in terms of improving physical appearance. Then there is the financial cost of that undertaking - gym memberships, clothing, salon visits, teeth whitening, cosmetics and wonder creams are not cheap. Many women also feel unsure how to ‘be' when dating - what personality characteristics should they display and hide? Is it ok to have a loud laugh or not? Is it ok to be intelligent, or does playing dumb improve one's chances? Should they be honest about their profession if it's one that is high in status, given that it might mean they are too competitive or challenging? Together, trying to put the best foot forward is not an easy undertaking if you are making the effort to find a good mate, especially if you are particularly self-conscious or have been away from the dating scene in a while.
The third issue is competing with other women for a good mate. This is where the issue of romance resurfaces. Yes, by using good clothes and a winning personality one is competing against potential rivals for a keeper of a man. However, that pales in comparison to the competition women are in when it comes to sex. One of the most significant issue that I'm hearing these days is how men are not really displaying any romance, and women are feeling increasingly pressured to have sex earlier in the relationship. When I ask them why, I often hear something like, "if I don't have sex with him, he'll find someone else who can." These women don't necessarily want to have sex, they just don't want to be single again or they want to have a little more time to see if he's a keeper. And these days, it seems that the ‘sex' date is number two or three - a far cry from the courting days of 1900 when one used only a finely tuned wit to woo. I should mention that most of my research is based on young women, between 18-28 years of age. Perhaps the situation is different among older crowds.
Related to this issue of competition is that many women try to determine what potential rivals are doing so that they can be unique, but not too unique as to become freakish. Friends who are active daters have reported to me some of the backstabbing things they have done to each other, like saying "you look super" when they think their friend looks fat, or telling a friend that a guy they both like is gay or unavailable, just to deter the friend from competing. The majority of women I've talked to undertake considerable effort to think about their rivals, and what they will be facing in terms of competition. Sugar and spice, and everything nice, that's what girls are made of? I think not.
What does this all mean? Well, basically, in today's dating scene, romance has been pushed to the side. Women tend not to display it, and they tell me it's because the men they are meeting don't care about romance at all. Men aren't displaying it because women don't expect them to - or at least that's how it seems. For the men reading this blog, I'd advise you to use romance (as so long as it's not paired with a tan line from where your wedding ring should be) because you might seem like a very good catch to prospective mates, and you'll stand out as being different, but in a good way. I can hear critics saying "nice guys finish last" and equating romance with nice guys, so it's important to note that the research is really not well supportive of this idiom (see here for a really interesting review.)
If romance is dead, what comes next? I really don't know, but it's looking like the routine is to have sex and then hope that there is some emotional connection afterwards. This pattern is not true for everyone, of course, but it is becoming more prevalent among the women I'm talking with these days. Maybe I'll be proven wrong, but it seems to me that as our society has streamlined everything imaginable (even social relationships are now efficient thanks to facebook), there's just no room left for romance. The only solution I can see, at least on theoretical grounds, is that women need to start demanding it from potential mates, and males who want to seem like good catches should start offering it. Maybe, just maybe, we can start to resuscitate romance.