Gertrude Stein once annoyed Ernest Hemingway by calling his generation a “lost generation.” He responded by saying that “all generations were lost by something.” I think of this often, because I think it’s true. And I think dating culture is the same. When it comes to dating, the current generation isn’t lost by the same things as previous generations: We aren’t expected to marry to form alliances with other families. We don’t have the same strong social conventions about who we can and can’t be with. We aren’t limited to the small number of people of our acquaintance.
And yet we’re still lost. In fact, I don’t know one person who likes our dating culture. As a gay man, I want to say that it’s worse for my particular dating subculture, but I know it’s just hard for everyone.
So what are we lost by? Here are a few things that come to mind for me:
- Choice: I once read a fascinating study on the impact of choice on happiness. It turns out that more choice doesn’t make us happier. Some choice does. If we can choose between a handful of options, we are happy with the decisions we make. But, if given too much choice, we find it hard to choose and once we do choose, find it hard to feel satisfied by the choices we’ve made.
- Impermanence: The same study showed that people who were told their choice was final were happier with their decision than those who were told they had the option of exchanging their choice for another.
- Higher expectations: We expect more from relationships than ever before. Relationships are understood more and more to be about creating a genuine partnership. But with this raising the bar comes the reality that fewer people will meet the bar.
- Individuation: It used to be that individuation and self-actualization — the ability to step out of one’s community and think and create for oneself — was a rare thing. While it’s still somewhat rare (the most recent estimates I’ve seen suggest only about 20% of adults in the West reach this milestone), more of us than ever are achieving self-actualization. But again, the more fully we grow into ourselves, the harder it is to find someone whose values, hopes and dreams are aligned with our own.
And so, dating is hard.
You may have noticed that these are all really good things! Praise be that we live in this sort of culture! It’s good that we have options in dating. It’s good that we aren’t forced to remain in bad relationships. It’s good that we expect more from our relationships. And it’s good to grow and become all that we can be. But the things that make the twenty-first century awesome also make it harder to find a genuine partner in life. It’s no wonder so many just give up on the hope altogether and just look for sex instead.
Every generation is lost by something. But I think there are two pieces of hope within that. First, it means we don’t need to figure it all out: Like every generation before us, we’re making it up as we go, trying to figure out how to do life as best we can in the circumstances we’ve been given. And second, it also means that we can be found by something. And maybe even, if we’re lucky, we can be found by someone too. Because the flip side of these things that we’re lost by is that as hard as they make dating culture, they also mean that, if we are graced enough to meet someone who fits, we’re in amazing shape to make that relationship a success.