Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. The Perils of Postmodern Love

 

Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, perhaps the one holiday hated by everyone — the one day when all singles long to be coupled and all couples long to be single. With Valentine’s Day come obligations and expectations: Christmas, but without the music, gingerbread cookies, and living-room conifers. (“I bought her a box of chocolates last year — and a bottle of sauvignon the year before that. Hmm. What to get her? I guess a Trumpy Bear will have to do.”)

No doubt, the Internet will soon be awash in articles about the dating scene, which, like the weather, is something everybody complains about … but nobody does something about. It’s frankly a wonder that a problem so universally acknowledged should be in want of a solution. Yet here we are.

Why is it so hard to date in 2020? Why does every single person feel compelled to submit to the ongoing pain and humiliation of online dating? Why does my generation’s romantic pessimism make Greta Thunberg look like a climate optimist? The reasons are simple, really — (a) we’ve failed to develop the requisite social habits, (b) we’ve lost the institutions capable of guiding us toward marriage, and (c) we have standards.


First, habits. By “habit,” I mean roughly what Aristotle meant by “virtue” — a tendency or disposition to act rightly. Seldom do such tendencies arise of their own accord. Instead, they’re formed by practice and repetition (as any technical skill is), and their proper development requires overseeing by those who are themselves rightly formed. Social habits, as all habits, can be good or bad, and they tend to stick around once developed. On a large scale, they acquire a ritual quality.

In matters of romance, we modern people are, quite simply, out of practice. Feminists may dislike the elaborate rituals which once surrounded courtship, but these rituals did serve a purpose: They made “going through the motions” a darned good way of finding someone. They rendered explicit the implicit rules of the social world — rules which still exist today, in equally complex form, but without any coherent articulation. People in times past were well-versed in the art of decoding these rules, and they knew exactly what to expect from each other. My generation lacks such knowledge. Left alone, we settle into the comfortable pattern of staring at a succession of screens, wondering why the world’s bounty doesn’t fall into our laps. And when it does fall into our laps, we haven’t the slightest idea what to say in return.


Next, and related to the first cause, the death of institutions. This subject is so popular a theme among the conservative intelligentsia that it’s hardly worth elaborating here. But elaborate I shall, since the decline of institutions, religious and secular, tracks closely with our growing social pathologies. Western literature is rich in descriptions of these institutions as they related to social life — the soiree, the ball, the dance. All these have gone, except among the most countercultural of sects. Fitzgerald’s world now seems as quaint and alien as Austen’s.

What’s more, the “infinite art” of American associational life described by Tocqueville has given way to one finite and feeble. The Internet has absorbed not only the public square, but also the city around it. Hobbyists of all kinds have migrated to the web — to places like Reddit and Ricochet, where they spread their thoughts and accomplishments far, wide, and thin. What once took scores of men ages to accomplish can now be done in two hours by one pajama-clad basement-dweller with Excel and an ethernet cable. If social institutions have fallen out of fashion, the other kinds of institutions have fallen into obsolescence. But necessity is the mother of institutions — so it’s no wonder that our attempts to connect become all the more futile even as they grow more intentional. The more desperately lonely we become, the less attractive we are — as would-be friends or would-be lovers. The postmodern maze turns out to have no exit.


Lastly, and vastly underrated as a cause, are standards. As anyone who’s performed even cursory genealogical research knows, it used to be commonplace for neighbors to marry neighbors. Little Jeff Johnston wed little Nell Nelson, who happened to live on the farm just across the road. It mattered not that Nell was plain or that Jeff had a paunch, or that the two shared nothing in common beyond age and proximity. Nevertheless, they married, lived, and died. Their tastes and expectations were formed by experience, just as our tastes and expectations are formed by our experience. But our experience is one of endless choice and infinite knowledge. We judge prospective partners not against the background of our township or village or church community, but against the background of Earth itself. Who can compete with that?

And so, in dating, as in so many spheres, modern man finds himself paralyzed in his abundance.

Published in Culture, Marriage
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  1. Stina Member

    Just sayin, kids love this day. And I make my husband cheesecake, so he likes it, too.

    • #1
    • February 13, 2020, at 7:48 AM PST
    • 5 likes
  2. JoelB Member

    So having too many love options is like having too many different brands of deodorant. Bernie might be able to help with that. Social socialism.

    Actually I think Bernie’s big youth draw is to idealistic young women. Young men go to where the young women are.

    • #2
    • February 13, 2020, at 7:58 AM PST
    • 4 likes
  3. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    How do y’all think online relationships (pen pals 2.0) compare to actual dating?

    I know a few married couples who connected online. Clearly, that way can work out.

    But even with live video chats, text messaging, and whatnot, there is so much missing. Without spending time together, one doesn’t encounter so many quirks and habits. Is she impatient or entitled among waiters and other services? Does he ogle every woman who goes by? Is the person clingy or obsessive when presence is an option? Without physical accompaniment, you don’t witness so much of how a person lives.

    Do physical interactions not matter during courtship? Are compatibility and fulfillment not at all related to tender (non-sexual) touches, embraces, accompaniment, and non-verbal communication?

    Are online connections better suited to particular kinds of people?

    That’s a good point about expectations. Between the Disneyfication of American romance and the normalcy of divorce, one must be more careful these days in choosing a mate because fewer people tolerate great differences and disagreements in marriage. It’s not like people who divorce enter the marriage saying they are open to divorce.

    • #3
    • February 13, 2020, at 8:19 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  4. Doug Kimball Thatcher

    The human condition works best when young couples, 25-35, find mates and form families. Beyond that, it starts to become awkward. This idea of near mandatory college, lasting 5-6 years, leaving naive young people without job skills despite debilitating college and high-rate credit card debt. This has too often had the effect of delaying self-sufficiency and family formation. Too many young adults find themselves ill equipped for adult life in a kind of extended adolescence. But the fact is, they are adults facing adult social options. No more mixers, dances and beer parties. The social options for them are limited and awkward.

    The answer lies here. Nothing beats real human contact, so my advice to all millenials and the younger is put down that phone, unplug and do stuff where you interact with people. Nothing beats the real thing; other human beings in 3-D. Put yourself out there – join a political party, a campaign, a church, an alumi association, an exercise group, a community choir, any place where people expect to interact socially. Social media is fine, but remember, dating web sites are no replacement for real social interaction.

    • #4
    • February 13, 2020, at 8:27 AM PST
    • 6 likes
  5. Doug Kimball Thatcher

    Stina (View Comment):

    Just sayin, kids love this day. And I make my husband cheesecake, so he likes it, too.

    That’s it? Cheesecake? Who knew?

    • #5
    • February 13, 2020, at 8:30 AM PST
    • 4 likes
  6. Kephalithos Member
    Kephalithos

    Stina (View Comment): Just sayin, kids love this day.

    Kids love candy.

    • #6
    • February 13, 2020, at 8:50 AM PST
    • 1 like
  7. OkieSailor Member
    OkieSailor Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Mrs. OS consented to be my Valentine tomorrow so we’re having dinner and a movie. The dinner will be BBQ about an hour’s drive to the south and the movie will be watched from our couch on Amazon. Because that’s what we want to do with our date. A meal we enjoy and a movie we want to see, unlike anything now at the theaters. And the added bonus is we can pause the movie anytime we need to.

    After 51 years together we can pretty much celebrate when and how we choose.

    • #7
    • February 13, 2020, at 8:56 AM PST
    • 7 likes
  8. RushBabe49 Thatcher

    Gentlemen with stay-at-home, doing the Lord’s work, wives and mothers, make sure you pamper your wife tomorrow. Flowers are good, a “spa day” is better.

    • #8
    • February 13, 2020, at 8:57 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  9. Stina Member

    RushBabe49 (View Comment):

    Gentlemen with stay-at-home, doing the Lord’s work, wives and mothers, make sure you pamper your wife tomorrow. Flowers are good, a “spa day” is better.

    A maid for a day. Though I heard that one has a drawback, lol.

    • #9
    • February 13, 2020, at 9:02 AM PST
    • Like
  10. Al French, PIT Geezer Moderator

    Kephalithos: I guess a Trumpy Bear will have to do.

    SOLD OUT!
    My wife would love a Trumpy Bear. You got my hopes up for nothing.

    • #10
    • February 13, 2020, at 9:08 AM PST
    • 4 likes
  11. Old Bathos Moderator

    Hobbyists of all kinds have migrated to the web — to places like Reddit and Ricochet, where they spread their thoughts and accomplishments far, wide, and thin. What once took scores of men ages to accomplish can now be done in two hours by one pajama-clad basement-dweller with Excel and an ethernet cable.

    I compose all my Ricochet contributions while wearing PJs from the Hugh Hefner Collection at Target.

    • #11
    • February 13, 2020, at 9:47 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  12. Old Bathos Moderator

    20-somethings of my acquaintance seem utterly terrified of marriage. The dating environment is utterly barbarous. Young women who seek substantive relationships feel compelled to conceal that ambition. Young men just seem largely befuddled. The legacy of [whatever wave # this is] feminism is to prevent women from openly stating what kind of relationship environment they actually need for what they actually want.

    • #12
    • February 13, 2020, at 9:56 AM PST
    • 5 likes
  13. Kephalithos Member
    Kephalithos

    Aaron Miller (View Comment): How do y’all think online relationships (pen pals 2.0) compare to actual dating?

    I know a few married couples who connected online. Clearly, that way can work out.

    But even with live video chats, text messaging, and whatnot, there is so much missing. Without spending time together, one doesn’t encounter so many quirks and habits. Is she impatient or entitled among waiters and other services? Does he ogle every woman who goes by? Is the person clingy or obsessive when presence is an option? Without physical accompaniment, you don’t witness so much of how a person lives.

    Do physical interactions not matter during courtship? Are compatibility and fulfillment not at all related to tender (non-sexual) touches, embraces, accompaniment, and non-verbal communication?

    Are online connections better suited to particular kinds of people?

    That’s a good point about expectations. Between the Disneyfication of American romance and the normalcy of divorce, one must be more careful these days in choosing a mate because fewer people tolerate great differences and disagreements in marriage. It’s not like people who divorce enter the marriage saying they are open to divorce.

    If I could quadruple-like this comment, I would.

    I don’t think online dating will ever serve the needs of a majority of its users. Something fundamental is lost in the leap from the real to the digital. The only way to truly know someone — to know someone as deeply as love requires — is to look him in the face.

    • #13
    • February 13, 2020, at 10:13 AM PST
    • Like
  14. Henry Castaigne Member

    Kephalithos: But our experience is one of endless choice and infinite knowledge. We judge prospective partners not against the background of our township or village or church community, but against the background of Earth itself. Who can compete with that?

    That’s why we should have genetic engineering. 

    • #14
    • February 13, 2020, at 10:37 AM PST
    • Like
  15. MarciN Member

    I am a fan of the British television series Foyle’s War. Detective Chief Superintendent Foyle is a local police officer in a small town in England just before, during, and after World War II. It’s a fascinating perspective of the wartime life in the English countryside during those horrible years. I hadn’t thought about it much before I saw this series, but away from the war fronts, normal life went on as it always had–complete with local crime, some of which was related to the war but some of which was not.

    The community supported the war efforts of the Allies, which meant that the community churches and civic clubs hosted social events for the armed forces who were on leave. One night I was watching a particular episode about a dance club that had formed, and I suddenly realized where the baby boom came from. All of these young people in the armed forces all around the world were dressed up in their smart uniforms, feeling somewhat cocky in their eat-drink-and-be-merry mood because tomorrow we’re probably going to die, exuding self-confidence from having mastered their military jobs, and the entire country engaged in a project together, thus cheering each other’s successes and uniting for a common purpose–defeat the Germans. The war was a tremendous social event. And like all successful people, the soldiers were used to taking risks. It was a habit. It was just one more “I’ll give it a try” to ask some pretty young thing to dance or to go out for a date. 

    I realized that the war shook up and woke up the young people, sent them all around the world where they discovered fun and merriment. And romance. 

    I also think the military does a better job working with the human psyche than schools. The military has an elaborate incentive system with rewards and recognition. That recognition builds confidence. Schools don’t do this as well. 

    Romance is a secondary theme on Downton Abbey as well. The wealthy upper classes consistently created romantic situations in which the young people found love because they were all dressed up and putting their best selves out there. People are more charming and likable and agreeable when they are using their best manners. Romance is bound to happen in such settings. 

    I live in a resort area where shorts and flip-flops are the norm most of the summer. The casual dress and manners we have adopted are certainly cheaper and less work than what we used to do when we went out in public. But somehow we have let our manners go too. Modern social settings are simply not conducive to romance. :-)

    • #15
    • February 13, 2020, at 11:04 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  16. Full Size Tabby Member

    Both of our children met their spouses the old-fashioned way – in person.

    Daughter (age 34, married 7 years with 2 children) is a mathematician who hung out with other mathematicians and physicists. Now-husband is a nuclear engineer who hung out with other nuclear engineers. Mathematicians, physicists, and nuclear engineers have enough in common that their friend groups would run into each other at social events.

    Son (age 31, married 2 years, no children) is an Air Force officer (engineer managing research and development projects). Now-wife is an engineer who works for a contractor to the Air Force. Son briefly managed a project now-wife was working on, and they were in a couple of group meetings together. She was impressed with his chivalry toward her even though he was the ranking military officer in the room. Just like junior high school, she sent spies and emissaries out (including her sister’s husband) to find out more about him. They went together on group hikes and excursions to the gun range. As I noted in another thread, he was completely clueless about her expressions of romantic interest until she finally told him directly she wanted to date. 

    The one thing about their old-fashioned meeting that we did miss is that since both children were far from where we lived, we could not have the family vetting and affirmation that Mrs. Tabby and I found so valuable when we met.

    • #16
    • February 13, 2020, at 11:09 AM PST
    • 4 likes
  17. Old Bathos Moderator

    MarciN (View Comment):

    I am a fan of the British television series Foyle’s War. Detective Chief Superintendent Foyle is a local police officer in a small town in England just before, during, and after World War II. It’s a fascinating perspective of the wartime life in the English countryside during those horrible years. I hadn’t thought about it much before I saw this series, but away from the war fronts, normal life went on as it always had–complete with local crime, some of which was related to the war but some of which was not.

    ***

    I live in a resort area where shorts and flip-flops are the norm most of the summer. The casual dress and manners we have adopted are certainly cheaper and less work than what we used to do when we went out in public. But somehow we have let our manners go too. Modern social settings are simply not conducive to romance. :-)

    I also loved Foyle’s War.

    There is a lot to be said for mystery, modesty, and distance. Young men should feel a bit of challenge, young women feel worth some effort. I struggled for years to explain to my daughters that there is some happy middle ground between burkhas at one pole and a sartorial declaration of lightly conditioned availability on the other.

     

    • #17
    • February 13, 2020, at 11:35 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  18. David Foster Member
    David Foster Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Reports from the front suggest that many women have “mandatory” checklists of dozens or hundreds of items for a potential husband or even a boyfriend. Not a good idea, IMO, for the same reasons that excessive lists of requirements are not a good idea when hiring employees. See The Five-Pound Butterfly, Revisited

    • #18
    • February 13, 2020, at 1:38 PM PST
    • 1 like
  19. Al Sparks Thatcher

    Kephalithos: Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, perhaps the one holiday hated by everyone

    Andrew Klavan said in his podcast yesterday that when he brought up Valentine’s Day to his wife who he has been married to for decades, I guess to make plans, that she replied that Valentine’s Day is for amateurs.

    It’s a good line, and it rings true to me.

    • #19
    • February 15, 2020, at 10:54 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  20. Al Sparks Thatcher

    MarciN (View Comment):
    I live in a resort area where shorts and flip-flops are the norm most of the summer. The casual dress and manners we have adopted are certainly cheaper and less work than what we used to do when we went out in public. But somehow we have let our manners go too. Modern social settings are simply not conducive to romance. :-)

    The complaints about the #MeToo movement include complaints about manners, though those complaints are couched in different phrasing.

    You see, what young modern (often feminist) women are asking of men is, act like gentlemen. But they won’t come out and say it. Instead they propose elaborate dating rules that still add up to being a gentleman.

    So why don’t they make it easier, and just come out and say it?

    Of course the reason is they don’t want to be told to act like ladies. They want it to be a one way street.

    • #20
    • February 15, 2020, at 11:11 AM PST
    • 1 like