From sending matches questionnaires to denouncing any sense of obligation as ‘emotional labour’, the pursuit of love has never been more individualistic
“In the post-domestic world, where the old ties no longer bind, all that matters is you: you can be what you want to be; you choose your life, your environment, even your appearance and your emotions. Nothing ‘happens to’ you. There are no ‘can’ts,’ only ‘won’ts.’”
No, this isn’t an extract from Women Don’t Owe You Pretty or a Molly Mae quote. This is an observation made by author and activist Barbara Ehrenreich in her 1978 book, For Her Own Good: Two Centuries of the Experts’ Advice to Women, where she explored how the rise of pop psychology in the 1960s eventually led to people (predominantly women) adopting a more ‘selfish’ approach to love. As Ehrenreich observed, general consensus in the dating pool seemed to be that a person’s needs have “an inherent legitimacy”, while “the people are replaceable.”
Ehrenreich was writing over 40 years ago, but her observation of the rise of this colder, less compassionate approach to love remains astute. If anything, the rise of social media and ‘influencer feminism’ has accelerated and compounded the spread of such sentiments. The Guardian recently reported on the growing numbers of people presenting their dating app matches with questionnaires, demanding to immediately know what their love language is and whether they’re in therapy (and swiftly blocking anyone who gets the answers ‘wrong’); the term ‘emotional labour’ has also undergone concept creep, and we’re now at a point where any sense of obligation to another person is seen as A Bad Thing.
The rise of dating apps has only exacerbated this mode of thinking. “The promotional discourses of dating apps revolve around this idea of fixing the messiness of love, turning it into a simple procedure,” explains Dr Carolina Bandinelli, associate professor in media and creative industries at the University of Warwick. “Digital technologies are always presented as solutions to problems, solutions that are supposed to be more efficient because they are technological. We tend to assume that because something is algorithm-driven it is somehow more rational.”
The idea that underpins all this seems to be that the chaos and mess and pain of love can somehow be overcome, and that dating is something you can ‘be good at’. The only thing stopping you from maintaining a happy, stable relationship, is you: you just need to get better at spotting red flags, or go to therapy for your anxious attachment style, or read Attached. Simples! “We hold on to this utopia of efficiency, the idea that love can and must be made into something that ‘works’, and we think that this can be achieved by means of self-management,” Dr Bandinelli says.
On the surface, it’s an empowering idea to think that you can really exert control over something as unpredictable as love – especially if you’re a woman who has had multiple bad experiences with men (and, really, who hasn’t). Dr Bandinelli explains that she too has noticed that it’s usually women who try to adopt this more “managerial” approach to dating. “On the one hand, this is to try to avoid being abused, harassed, gaslighted and humiliated by men. It stems from the realisation that heterosexual romance is a product of patriarchy and as such is built on gender inequalities,” she says. “Yet, on the other hand, it takes the form of a specific utopia, that of ‘love without the fall’ – the idea that one can experience romance without risk, without letting it go, without losing control.”
“We want love to confirm who we are, instead of subverting us. We want sex to empower us, instead of teaching us how to release power in a safe situation. We are trying to erase the pain, the bad, the negative” – Dr Carolina Bandinelli
“We have high expectations of immediate success and gratification in the way we are living – which is faster-paced, more outcome-orientated, and with more choice – so it feels natural that we’d start to apply this to our romantic relationships,” adds Jodie Cariss, therapist and founder of Self Space. It’s true: for a while now, we’ve witnessed our growing collective obsession with self-optimisation. TikTok is full of people showcasing their ruthless morning routines, where they spring out of bed at 5am and eat an açai bowl before slipping on their Hokas and running 10km on the treadmill while listening to Steven Bartlett’s podcast. There’s been a backlash to this hyperefficient approach to life, of course, but it’s proving difficult to actually let go of it in practice – it seems as though for every thinkpiece about the death of the girlboss, emerges some other lifestyle trend which glamorises relentless self-improvement like an inexhaustible Hydra head.
Our tendency towards ruthless self-improvement arguably boils down to the growth of individualism which has been mounting in recent decades. “Social and political problems are reduced to individual responsibilities,” Dr Bandinelli explains. “Take the rise of anxiety among young people – the solution is to get the right medication and to manage the self by means of a plethora of apps. But the root of anxiety, the fact that it may be due, for instance, to climate change or job casualisation and precarity, is not dealt with. Individuals are supposed to find their own solutions to systemic issues.”
Essentially, as so much feels out of our control, it seems as though we’re fixating on the areas of life where it feels like we do have some autonomy: the time we wake up, what we eat, how often we exercise – and who we date. “To fit the system, rather than changing it, is the ultimate goal of self-optimisation [...] we can imagine a better self, but not a better world,” Dr Bandinelli says.
But as comforting as it is to think we can girlboss our way to a happy relationship, of course, this isn’t possible. Conversely, this attitude is actively making the dating landscape even more difficult to navigate. “Dating apps have created a digital space dedicated to dating, an ad hoc space, so that approaching someone in a pub or cafes is perceived as awkward,” Dr Bandinelli explains. “Dating apps have made dating even more uncertain because of the lack of shared scripts and norms. People are constantly betting and guessing, trying to make up for the lack of social cues.”
@florencegiven Self love shows up in the choices we make not the things we say (But they can both impact each other) #fyp #selflove ♬ Didn't Cha Know - Erykah Badu
She adds that she believes we’re living through a “post-romantic era”, where we’re attempting to re-codify love in light of a new set of ethics. “These new ethics stem from the recognition of the malaise of romance in a patriarchal society, and tries to subvert patriarchal power dynamics,” she explains. “Yet, at the same time it seems to aspire to cancel all power dynamics, all risks of being hurt, of losing time, money, of losing, ultimately, oneself.”
“We want love to confirm who we are, instead of subverting us. We want sex to empower us, instead of teaching us how to release power in a safe situation,” she continues. “We are trying to erase the pain, the bad, the negative.” And obviously, this aspiration to erase any risk of pain is not conducive to true love. Relationships are two-way streets – we can control our actions, yes, but we can’t control the other person’s. There’s no way of ever knowing how someone else will act: the dickhead might have a bunch of cute dog pics on their Hinge profile; the nice, normal person might have a profile littered with beige flags.
“When we rely too much on a ‘perfect’ outcome, or try to control and manage the experience overall, which might be a defence against pain or failure, we do ourselves the disservice of disallowing the experiences of uncertainty, disappointment, surprise, joy, fumbling around in the unknown… all are rich human experiences and make up the pleasure of being with ourselves and each other,” Cariss surmises. Essentially, no amount of self-awareness or therapy can make someone like you back or ‘ensure’ you picked the ‘right’ person. Instead, we all just have to submit to the terrifying, ambivalent reality that sometimes your date will like you, and sometimes they won’t. That’s not a very ‘empowering’ idea, but maybe embracing a lack of power – rather than trying to control the uncontrollable – can be liberating in its own way.