Love is what makes the world go ‘round. Wars have been fought for it, people have died for it, we all know we want it, yet in a world where we have more access than any generation in history to an abundance of partners, love seems harder than ever to find.
No matter why someone comes to see me for therapy, relationships are a big part of what we talk about. The number of attractive successful people that I’ve met, who by the time they are in their mid to late 30’s, have never had a relationship longer than six months, and the number of people who by the time they are in their 40’s and 50’s are so discouraged by their perpetual disappointment that they are opting out of the dating world entirely, is more than striking. Younger clients of mine don’t even use the term dating, everything is a “hook-up,” and the “C” word to be petrified of isn’t "Cancer", it’s "Commitment." What is obvious to everyone is that the world of mating has changed.
The easy culprit to point the finger at is the internet. A good deal has been written about how social media can negatively influence our relationships. We don’t talk as much because instead we text; we don’t express emotions because instead we use emoticons; satisfaction is down because we compare our relationships to everyone else; trust is gone because we monitor our partners online behavior; privacy is gone and breakups are extra painful because everything that happens is now public. In two separate studies, Russell Clayton PhD, an assistant professor of psychology and journalism at Florida State University, found that the more often a respondent reported being active on Twitter or Facebook, the more likely they were to experience Twitter or Facebook-related conflict with their partner, which then significantly predicted negative relationship outcomes such as cheating, breakup and divorce.1
Then there is the world of online dating. Many people find real love on the internet. Like social media, the mechanism can be very useful. But what most will agree on is that internet dating has created the illusion of abundance. When someone signs on to a dating website they see page after page of people looking for love, and it is easy to believe that all of these single people are available options. The reality is these people aren’t necessarily any more interested in you than if you met them at a party or a concert. The volume, however, creates seeming abundance and that can generate a belief that the idealistic is attainable, which can increase dissatisfaction with what you have. Quantity, however, doesn’t equal quality and for many, “the free market economy [of love] with its abundance of choice has led to paralysis not liberation.” 2
One consequence of the perceived abundance of partners that internet dating has brought to our society, is that many people approach dating through a cultural mindset of consumerism. You can shop for a relationship in the same way that you shop for a cellphone or a car. As online dating has become more common place, so has the tendency to view potential romantic partners through a product consuming paradigm. As a result, relationships are viewed by many as a passive consumption of an experience. If the experience fails to meet our desired personal expectation, we dispose of the other individual and move on in search of the next better experience. Often without much explanation, if any. (Read: Why Ghosting Hurts So Much).
A consumerist mind set is easier on your ego, if the food in the restaurant is lousy, or the hotel is disappointing, it’s not your fault. But when it comes to relationships, this approach ignores the important fact that we are active contributors who participate in the creation of the romantic experiences we have. It can mistakenly lead to the belief that the external is the problem when what you really need to do, in order to find a more satisfying relationship, is work on your internal state.
The internet alone, however, isn’t to blame for our dating dilemmas. There has been a cultural and societal shift over the past 60 years, which significantly predates the internet, that has redefined what we seek for ourselves in terms of our own individualism and personal fulfillment. This shift has changed what we expect from our romantic relationships whether we meet them online or not.
We prioritize our freedom and individual happiness and feel less constrained than past generations by the concepts of duty and obligation. As Esther Perel puts it in her book, Mating in Captivity, “we are freer, but also more alone.”3 As a result, we crave companionship and emotional connection to fill an existential emptiness. We want more from our relationships than ever, yet ironically, the technological advancement of modern life and the internet has resulted in many people being less adept at creating intimacy and less willing to do what it takes to put forth the effort to create the connection we are desperately seeking.
So how to do you survive the quest for love in the age of the internet and romantic consumerism?
1. Know your value – Dating in this modern era can take a toll on your self-esteem and your mental well-being. If you’ve ever been ghosted, benched, or stashed, or encountered any other dating trends that can leave you feeling disposable or unappreciated, it is important to know that these behaviors say nothing about your worthiness for love and reflect only on the person engaging in them. Instead of allowing the bad behavior of someone else to make you feel badly about yourself, focus on why you know you deserve better. It may help to write down what it is you know you offer or bring to a relationship. You don’t have to be rich or beautiful to offer something—personality characteristics are far more important to the overall quality of a relationship. When you feel good about who you are and know the value you bring to a relationship, you are far less likely to tolerate bad behavior from someone else. If it’s hard to think of anything positive then it may be important to do some work on your self-esteem before your next relationship. (For a simple 30-day exercise that trains your attention to focus on your positive qualities, click here.)
2. Know your values – Most people don’t spend much time in their day thinking about their values, and yet, your values guide so much of what you do. Your values are simply your ideals and beliefs about what matters to you and what will make you feel good about who you are. When you aren’t clear about what you value, it is easy to allow other people to steer you in the direction of behaviors and activities that don’t leave you feeling good. Knowing your values helps you prioritize and make good decisions. If you know you value being productive during your day, you might not choose to spend the whole night out drinking. If you know you value only having sex with someone who you are in a committed relationship with, you might not choose to have sex on a first date.
Relationships tend to work out best when you find someone who shares your value system. Instead of compromising what is important to you because you fear that the other person will move on if you don’t, be willing to let go of people who don’t share or respect your choices to be the best version of you.
3. Trust your instincts – How many times have you heard the little voice inside and then completely ignored it? At the end of a relationship most people will say they saw the red flags early on but decided to ignore them. We all have an inner voice that tells us when a situation or a person we are with is good for us or not. Often times when someone acts in a way that isn’t in accordance with your value system, that’s when the alarm bells go off. You may tell yourself that you should be open minded, or that you don’t want to judge the other person, or that if you are too picky you will never find anyone. When you start having those thoughts it may be a good idea to step back and ask yourself if you are ignoring important information.
4. Own your role in a relationship – If there are two people in a room, there is a dynamic that both people participate in creating. Spend some time learning about what interpersonal style you bring to a relationship. Most of us learned how to relate to another human being in our family of origin. Unless that was an idyllic experience, there is likely quite a bit you could learn in terms of how to relate to your partners in a healthy way. Learn about your own cognitive biases and attachment style, learn your love language, learn how to improve your communication skills, learn how to express your emotions and build an intimate bond with someone. The more you know about yourself, the more likely you are to successfully navigate a relationship with someone else. There are lots of books, blogs, videos, workshops on relationships that you can invest some time in, and yes even therapy may be helpful. If you don’t take responsibility for what you bring to a relationship, finding someone new won’t make any difference. You will continue to recreate the same dynamics in every relationship you have.
1. Russel Clayton. The Third Wheel: The Impact of Twitter Use on Relationship Infidelity and Divorce. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking Vol. 17, No. 7, Published Online:3 Jul 2014. https://ift.tt/2E8zRuz
3. Esther Perel. 2007. Mating in Captivity. Harper Collins, NY.