Friday, November 10, 2017

Dating is Stupid

Imagine you were trying to land a dream job with a really cool company. You go to the company unannounced one day, chat up a few employees, and make a good impression. They decide to let you work there with no contract. You start working there immediately. You put in extra effort to make a great impression. The company loves you. They start paying you an amazing salary because they love you and want to keep you around. Everything works out so great that after a few years, your manager says, “Lets make this official and sign a contract to keep you as an employee for the rest of your life!” The contract is actually blank; all it says is that you’ll work there until retirement. You shrug and say, “Why not?” and sign on the dotted line.

After the contract is signed it isn’t long before things start to change. The company gradually starts to treat you differently. They reduce your benefits, cut your bonuses, and eventually just outright pay you a lower salary. You don’t like this, of course, but what can you do? The contract is blank, so they can do whatever they want. Then you realize one day that the blank contract works both ways. You start putting in less effort. You show up late and take lots of sick days. You do just enough work to not get fired. Before long, you hate your job. You cannot imagine what attracted you to it in the first place. You’re miserable. The company is miserable. The relationship ends badly.

The structure of modern relationships is very similar to this story.

The fundamental error in dating as a means to achieve marriage is that the process entails negotiating the terms of a relationship while engaged in that very relationship. This would not be so bad if people actually put those terms in writing and held each other accountable. But since most people do not – rather they just get married with a blank contract – dishonesty is rewarded. Both parties have an incentive to offer more than they can sustain. A man can lavish a woman with expensive gifts, vacations, jewelry, and dinners, all in the hopes that once they get married, he won’t need to keep it up. A woman can put more energy into her looks, maintain a flawless figure, be extra adventurous sexually, pretend to enjoy her boyfriend’s nerdy hobbies, all on the assumption that once he puts a ring on it, she can dispense with the facade.

Now to be clear, I do not think most people do this out of malice. Most of the lies we tell in relationships are small and well-intentioned. The act of putting the best version of yourself forward in order to win commitment from a romantic partner can be motivated by love and admiration – positive things. We justify the little embellishments about our careers, the lies of omission about our relationship history, the implied but unstated promises we do not intend to keep. It’s all swept under the rug out of the blind hope that once the wedding day comes, it will all work itself out somehow.

Often it doesn’t, hence the near 50% divorce rate in western countries. And of those couples that manage to stay together a large portion are unhappy – trapped in loveless marriages of convenience and complacency. Those in unhappy marriages often feel as though their partner has gradually stopped putting effort into the marriage. Unfortunately, precisely what 'effort' is needed is hard to determine since the expectations were never clearly established.

Why do we no longer understand marriage as a contract with mutual obligations? Most would take issue with the idea that romantic relationships are comparable to employment relationships with written agreements. Certainly there are differences, but I argue that the two are similar enough to share some basic principles. Both marriage and a job are at root a relationship between two parties seeking mutual benefit.

In a career, a detailed, thoroughly negotiated contract allows a person to do their best work. The boundaries it creates paradoxically grant you the freedom to take risks. With your salary guaranteed in writing you can budget and plan for the future confidently. The company benefits similarly. Written marriage agreements could create the same outcome by keeping both parties honest.

Some might argue that a contract shouldn’t be necessary and that if you need to put relationship terms in writing then you are with the wrong person. I don’t think evidence bears this out though. Most unmarried romantic relationships end. Marriages have a higher probability of not ending. Furthermore, marriages already involve a written contract. This is why divorce creates legal obligations in the first place. The reason divorces get messy is because people do not put any thought into the contract they create when they get married. So they end up in divorce court arguing he said she said.

Dating as a means to secure marriage makes acrimonious divorce more likely. Dating itself is a time-consuming, inefficient process. People often go through several multi-year relationships, particularly frustrating for women given their limited fertility. While dating, couples rarely settle the hard questions that come up in divorce cases. In most modern relationships people spend years trying to tease out their romantic partner's intentions about career, children, life ambitions, etc, while simultaneously trying to entice commitment. At no point do the two people actually sit down and write out their expectations because that would be, you know, awkward and not cool.

Dating also fails because it is historically recent. Throughout most of human history, marriages were arranged by families and communities. Before that, in the prehistoric era, most pair-bonding was tribal and often coercive. Courtship has only been around for a few centuries and 'dating' in the modern sense only a few decades. It should not surprise us that societies that have embraced dating all have undergone massive declines in marriage and birth rates. They have millions of years of evolution working against them.

So what is the solution? Perhaps there are multiple. Critical as I have been, dating does clearly work for some people. There are things people can do to make dating both enjoyable and a decent path toward marriage. For others, perhaps we need a new paradigm – a modern form of courtship where marriage terms are clear up front.