Illustration by Santeri Viinamäki. Wikimedia Commons, Licensed under CCO 4.0.
I’ve had a hell of a time with online dating. I haven’t had much fun, and I haven’t found a mate. I hadn’t been able to understand fully why it “wasn’t working” until I read Eva Illouz’s book The End of Love: A Sociology of Negative Relations. Illouz has studied the relationship between love and capitalism for twenty years, and in this book she describes the ways that consumer culture has shaped social bonds. She focuses specifically on what she terms “scopic capitalism”—how the modern free market creates economic value primarily through images. On practically every page I underlined some insight that matched my own experience; my personal travails began to make more sense.
Choice—sexual, consumer, or emotional—is the chief trope under which the self and the will in liberal polities are organized.
In the fall of 2016, my second marriage ended in spectacular concert with the presidential election. My second husband was running for office, and we couldn’t tell people we were splitting up until after the election because it might have disrupted his campaign. He lost anyway. The night of the election, I was at home alone with our dogs, mourning the end of my marriage but thinking At least at the end of this horrible night we’ll have a woman president. In April of 2017, I started dating. I was thirty-seven. I had moved from Texas to Los Angeles, where I knew almost no one, so online dating seemed like a promising approach, especially in a metropolis of ten million people. The pool of prospects would be both deep and wide.
Consumer culture—arguably the fulcrum of modern identity—is based almost axiomatically on the incessant practice of comparison and choice.
I have been on first dates with 107 people in the past five years, without securing a long-term love relationship with anyone, which was always my goal. It wasn’t my goal to go on dates with a lot of people, or to carry out some anthropological or sociological study. Yes, I’ve had some interesting experiences that make good stories: the first date where the horse ran away with me and I thought I would die. The first date where the guy drank himself unconscious at the bar, after going on and on about “authentic enlightenment.” The first date where the guy started crying and said he felt like he knew me. The first date where the guy took a nap. The first date in a botanical garden in Pasadena, where the guy told me he could hear the plants in the garden screaming. He’d just come back from Peru, where he’d done a lot of ayahuasca. The first date I flew to Tucson for, which ended in my crossing the border into the US from Mexico on foot, three days later, and taking a Greyhound from Calexico back to Los Angeles. The many first dates where the guy failed to ask me a single question, while I kept the “conversation” aloft by asking him about himself. The part where I moved to Israel during a global pandemic, thinking I’d convert to Judaism and have an IVF baby at the age of forty-one, both of my children already grown. People laugh when I say, “The first one is the only one whose name I don’t know,” or when I talk about how I’ve been on dates with so many people in Los Angeles that I see them everywhere now—I even saw one guy I’d dated at a funeral. But it was never my goal to write about online dating, or accumulate interesting experiences; all along, I’ve told myself to think of it as a terrible means to an end.
The end has never come. So I mostly thought about my experience of online dating with a bewildered sense of personal failure, before I read The End of Love. Now I think something more sinister, like I should walk out of this casino, because the house won.
While pre-modern courtship started with emotions and ended with sex that could produce guilt and anxiety, contemporary relationships start with (pleasurable) sex and must grapple with the anxious task of generating emotions.
I had not really dated, online or offline, before this period in my life. I got pregnant when I was nineteen years old, by the second person I’d ever had sex with; we married, had two children, and when we divorced four years later I was too busy working all the time, trying to survive financially, to date. I also experienced myself as not so appealing to men I might be drawn to, because I was only twenty-three and already had two young children. I was already divorced, already a fallen woman. Around the edges of multiple exhausting restaurant jobs, taking care of my kids, and volunteering for an abortion fund, I did meet a man I became entangled with for five years. From the time I was twenty-five until I was thirty I didn’t date because I hoped this man would give me the love relationship I wanted, even though from the beginning he was always clear that he wanted only sex, an intellectual exchange, and no public association with me.
Men have not been compelled to use sexuality as a leverage to receive social and economic resources and thus have no reason to implicate their whole self in sexuality … Casual sex entails detachment, which in turn provides power and as such is a trope of masculinity.
I haven’t had sex with most of the people I’ve gone on dates with. I couldn’t be less interested in casual sex, at this point in my life, but unfortunately I couldn’t be more interested in intimate sex, or good sex.
Heterosexuality organizes inequalities in an emotional system that places the burden of success or failure in relationships on people’s psyche, mostly women’s … Men and women, but mostly women, turn to their psyche in order to manage the symbolic violence and wounds contained in such emotional inequalities: Why is he distant?
I cut things off with the man who didn’t want to be in a relationship with me and went to grad school when I was thirty, hopeful that a new chapter in a new state would yield new prospects for love. But I was older than most of my colleagues; and again, I had young children. I also kept waiting tables and working for the abortion fund, in addition to my coursework, writing my first book, and teaching undergraduate creative writing classes. I still had more free time than I’d had before, so I went to parties, I flirted. I made substantial eye contact with potential mates, both at school and around town. But I didn’t go on a date with anyone during my two years of graduate school. No one asked me out, and I didn’t ask anyone out either.
This splintering of the emotional and sexual encounter into different regimes of action is a chief effect of sexual freedom and has had tremendous consequences in making men’s and women’s interactions far more uncertain.
When I returned to Texas after grad school, I moved in with my ex-husband, my children’s father, to save money; we had been divorced for eight years, but we couldn’t both afford to live in the good school zone if we rented separate places. I longed for romantic partnership but recognized my situation as unusual and probably unappealing, at least in a conservative place like Texas. But after only a few months, I met my second husband through my first, at a house party in the neighborhood; my second husband lived with his ex-wife too. How about that.
Psychological self-management is nothing but the management of a pervasive uncertainty in interpersonal relationships where sexual freedom and pleasure, both organized in the grammar and semantics of the market, have been traded for psychological certainty.
Five years later, my second marriage ended because my husband fell in love with someone else. Or it ended because we started sleeping with other people, with no clearly defined rules; it wasn’t infidelity, and it wasn’t polyamory. It was just a mess. Or it ended because he’s an alcoholic and I’m co dependent and it was always destined to explode. Or it ended because I felt safe with him and I loved being married but I didn’t obsess about him the way he obsessed about me. We didn’t know how to talk about sex and we didn’t know how to talk about money and we were both too naive, selfish, and entitled to humble ourselves in the trench of relating. It ended because we got caught in a feedback loop of avoidance and insecurity; I discovered that being the avoidant one is so much easier than being the insecure one, until the insecure person really leaves you, and then you feel like you’re dying. It ended because we couldn’t manage our own selves and it turned out we had different ideas about marriage. It ended because when he finally said he wanted to come back, I was too hurt to imagine trusting him again, and I knew I had betrayed him too. It ended because there was too much uncertainty in the system.
[Anomic desire] is devoid of an internal normative peg around which one could build an overarching narrative structure.
Since this online dating era began, I have been on only thirteen second dates. Usually what happens on my first dates is: I’m uncertain about whether I’ll like the person in real life, but I decide I can’t know if I don’t try, so I meet the person. And I know immediately I’m not into them, but I have a drink with them anyway, staying only as long as I have to to be polite. Or I don’t know immediately that I’m not into them, but by the end of the first drink I’m sure I don’t want another drink or another date. But this pattern was disrupted by the one boyfriend my online datinghas yielded thus far: we matched on Tinder, and after our first date, I didn’t know what to make of him. I couldn’t tell if he was a little weird, or just nervous. I wasn’t sure if I was attracted to him, even after being around him in person for a bit. He said We should do this again and I said Yeah that sounds good even though I didn’t want to, because it’s hard to reject someone to their face.
I breadcrumbed him for three weeks, during which time I went to Portland for a writers’ conference and, instead of going to craft talks, I went on dates with four people. One of whom said he could tell from my skin tone that I ate a very anti-inflammatory diet, and one of whom had the most entertaining and smart online dating profile I’ve ever seen, and may have been a spy. When I finally went on a second date with the man who would become my only boyfriend, back in Los Angeles, I discovered he was a fascinating person I wanted to know. I felt so attracted to him. I couldn’t wait to see him again, and I said to myself, Of course you can’t know someone after one date, Merritt.
The economic-sexual subject is the proper subject of modernity. It enacts its individuality through wants and desires, through choices, and, increasingly, through non-choices that all take place in a consumer sphere saturated with intimacy and in a private sphere that is commodified.
I do not choose men who present themselves via car selfies. I do not usually choose white men who present themselves hanging out with crowds of smiling Black children. I do not choose men whose profiles include bathroom mirror pics or men who say they are religious. Sometimes I do not choose men shorter than 6’3” or shorter than 6’ or shorter than 5’10” or shorter than 5’8” or shorter than I am. I do not choose men who claim sarcasm as a virtue; I do not choose men who mention sarcasm at all, and this alone eliminates a remarkable number of men. So many men think it is important to announce that they like ice cream. Who doesn’t like ice cream? I unchoose the many men who say they want a “partner in crime.” And I never choose men who say they want a woman—or more often a “girl”—who doesn’t take herself too seriously.
Evaluation has become an ordinary feature of the cognitive orientation of actors, geared to the identification of worth, with actors being simultaneously evaluators and evaluated in the same way that they are consumers of images and turn themselves into images for the gaze of others.
I matched with a scientist on Feeld (a dating app), and figured out that he runs a lab at a prestigious university. I evaluate intelligence to be a feature I am seeking and I have been on dates with professors of English literature, Spanish literature, marine biology, landscape architecture, gerontology, economics, geophysics, quantum physics, mathematics, philosophy, film, religion, conservation biology, sociology, biomechanics, psychology, and ecology, though of course there is no absolute correspondence between academia and intelligence. The man in Portland with the smartest dating profile I’ve ever seen worked as a security guard at a mall.
I evaluated the Feeld scientist’s work to be interesting after I read one of his white papers. I asked him about his work, and he asked to see more pictures of my face, even though he didn’t yet know my name. I sent him eight more pictures of my face. He disconnected from me, without explanation, but I assume it had something to do with an evaluation about my face.
Because potential partners are decontextualized, that is, disembedded from their social frameworks, agents become purely selecting and evaluative agents, trying to understand the worth of a person in an abstract context that has itself an abstract commodity form (in the same way that corporations are abstract spaces, cafes, bars, or restaurants are standardized abstract consumer spaces).
When I was arranging a first date with a man named Jack (not his real name), I suggested a bar near my house. He texted that he liked that place and I joked, “Me too, I meet all my dates there!” But then when I got there, a few minutes before he did, someone I had been on a date with was actually there, and I didn’t want my previous date, Yusuf (also not his real name), to see me on a date with someone else. Yusuf had told me, on our only date, that he was divorced because when his wife turned thirty she also turned beautiful, and realized she could be with someone more attractive than he was. Jack was sympathetic about my desire to avoid Yusuf, and suggested a different bar, which happened to be the bar where I had first met Yusuf, and was also the bar where, ten men later, the man who would become my only boyfriend would kiss me passionately in front of his colleagues, for no reason other than we hadn’t seen each other in three days.
I do meet many of my dates at one particular bar, though not that one, or the other one. It’s a tiny nook of a bar where my only boyfriend and I went on our second date, but I’ve been on dates with sixty-five more people since then. So now, no matter where I’m sitting in the bar, I’m surrounded by myself; I can remember feigning or losing interest from every single seat at the bartop, and at every table in the room, except for that one booth in the middle. That one is where, on our delayed and pivotal second date, four years ago, my only boyfriend is telling me about his life, and for once I am realizing I don’t want to be anywhere else.
Traditional companionate marriage was replaced by a view of marriage as the sharing of consumer leisure.
I don’t want to meet someone so we can share a life of leisure. I do like going to the movies, I do love experiencing art and music with someone, I do enjoy hiking, I would love to have someone to cook with. But I would rather meet someone because we are running an abortion medication supply chain, or because we are joining an ecocommune in South America, or because we are building something worthwhile, growing something, teaching something, helping some people, or otherwise doing something hard together. Please let’s not play board games, let’s not get comfortable, let’s not talk about opening the relationship so our bourgeois lives can become even more prosaic. Please God don’t let’s try new restaurants.
The sharing of consumer tastes functions as an emotional and sensorial platform to forge intimacy.
One recent man had a lot going for him. In fact he was the most promising prospect I’d had in some time. But then he mentioned that he got his daily coffee from Starbucks, and I found it hard to imagine dating someone who liked Starbucks coffee; or even if they liked the coffee, didn’t find Starbucks so odious and soul-diminishingly ubiquitous they would never go there. I judged this a stupid reason to stop messaging him, given his other, surely more important qualities, so I continued messaging him. But then he said he mostly watched Marvel movies, and the combination of Starbucks and Marvel was too much, so I stopped messaging him, even though I judged my own judgment in this case to be ridiculously shallow and flimsy. If he hadn’t been American, I might have excused it or interpreted it differently. Or if I had met him in another context, his consumer tastes might have barely figured in my estimation of him. But he was just an overeducated, emotionally available American, with many winsome attributes and poor taste in coffee and movies; I myself didn’t even understand why I lost interest in him, and recognized it was a bug in my programming, rather than anything to do with him. Or perhaps, the obvious ominous thought goes, it wasn’t a bug but an actual feature of the programming—not mine, but the app’s.
My second ex-husband and I did not share the same taste in music or food or books; I chose not to let that mean anything. Or rather, I chose to let it mean he was a different person with his own preferences and idiosyncrasies, like the fact that he wore the same pair of shorts every day. I wasn’t looking for a copy of myself, because that would be boring. But in retrospect, maybe the fact that I thought I could be with someone with whom I had so little aesthetic and sensual overlap could have been a glaring sign that I was so desperate to be in a relationship I wasn’t paying enough attention to other important realities about our connection. On the other hand, maybe the fact that I think I can’t be with someone who goes to Starbucks means I’m making the opposite error.
Women [bear] the main psychological burden of coping with [the devaluation of their bodies and selves] by using, for example, self-help literature or seeking psychological advice.
Since I began dating I have read or listened to: Where Should We Begin, Mating in Captivity, Healing Your Attachment Wounds, The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy, Lost Connections, Relationship Rx, Awakening Shakti, The All-or-Nothing Marriage, Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents, Getting the Love You Want, Polyvagal Exercises for Safety and Connection, Facing Love Addiction, Greater Than the Sum of Our Parts, Facing Codependence, How to Not Die Alone, Therapist Uncensored, Positive Intelligence, Attached, More Than Words, Us, I Don’t Want to Talk About It, Conscious Uncoupling, Cured, The Untethered Soul, Out of Touch, Your Brain on Love, Emotional Inheritance, The Power of Partnership, Sacred Pleasure, Hold Me Tight, We Do, Wired for Dating, The 5 Love Languages, Repressed Memories, Why Does He Do That? , Boundary Boss, Emotional Agility, The Verbally Abusive Relationship, Healing the Shame That Binds You, The Divided Self, No Self No Problem, Attachment Disturbances in Adults, Connection, Personhood, The Awakening Body, The Lucid Body, The Body Keeps the Score, Rosen Method Bodywork, How Emotions Are Made , Altered Traits, and Women, Sex, and Addiction, among other books and podcasts. I’ve eaten up every episode of Orna Guralnik’s Couples Therapy , and I’ve read as much of her academic writing as I’ve been able to find. I have sought help from a marriage and family therapist, a cognitive behavioral therapist, a Somatic Experiencing® bodyworker, a psychoanalyst, a Hakomi therapist in Israel, a trauma therapist who specializes in EMDR, a Reiki practitioner in Portugal, a Hakomi therapist in Los Angeles, a self-development coach, another marriage and family therapist, and a Hungarian psychiatrist who told me, twice, that he had drawn Flannery O’Connor’s blood when she was hospitalized with lupus. I had five appointments with him and he told me at each appointment that I was the most depressed person he had ever seen. I wasn’t that depressed. I mean, I drove myself to the appointments. Still, I took the anti-depressants he prescribed, but they made something spark and sputter so darkly in my brain that I realized I could easily become the most depressed person he had ever seen if I didn’t stop taking them. Though I suspected my treatment-resistant depression had something to do with men, or with being a woman, I tried to address it with ketamine infusions at a clinic in Los Angeles. When infusions alone did nothing to wash it away, I tried ketamine-assisted psychotherapy with a DO in San Francisco. I tried microdosing psilocybin and LSD. I tried a ten-day silent meditation retreat. I tried spending time on a radical anarchist commune dedicated to sacred love and sexuality in Portugal. Finally, I attended an all-day love addiction workshop on Zoom. When the other participants turned on their cameras one by one, they were all middle-aged white ladies too.
The entire economy of visual attractiveness relies on the constant renewal of looks through the equation of attractiveness with fashion and youth … Here is a striking example of the built-in obsolescence entailed by visual evaluation: Terry is a thirty-four-year-old French woman.
… TERRY: … [Bursts into tears.] I don’t think I am pretty. Even though I loved him like mad, and gave him all my money, and now they came to take my furniture, because I got into debts because of him. But I still feel it is my fault.
INTERVIEWER: I am sorry you feel this way. Why do you feel it is still your fault?
TERRY: Because maybe it was easy to fix. Maybe it was easy for me to give him what he wanted. It was easy to be the kind of woman he wanted and I didn’t do it.
I briefly dated a French economist I met on OkCupid, who told me openly that he wasn’t as attracted to me as he needed to be, because of mimetic desire. He said if he was going to be sent to a deserted island and had to choose between me and “someone gorgeous,” of course he would choose me, because I would be more interesting to talk to forever and he could still have sex with me too. But in the real world, surrounded by other people who’d be looking at him-with-me, he knew he would feel ashamed of me because he could have been with a more beautiful woman.
Katya is a sixty-one-year-old French woman, divorced for nine years …
KATYA: When I go out on dates, it feels really high pressured … You are constantly asking yourself: “Is it him or not?” and you use anything to decide that he is not. Any small mistake would disqualify him.
INTERVIEWER: Like what kind of mistake?
KATYA: There are so many ways … You give them a pass or fail grade … It was not this way in the past. Say you know someone through work or friends, you would have many opportunities to give them a second or third look.
I tell myself Why don’t you try to meet someone through the things you already do, the activities you already care about? So I go to protests and hiking meetups and friends’ parties. I know several artist/writer couples who’ve met at artist residencies like Yaddo or MacDowell; I love going to residencies. MacDowell is one of the most romantic places I’ve ever been in my life. They give you a gorgeous cottage in the woods, and they feed you delicious nourishing food, and you have no responsibilities except to work on your art in the beautiful forest and fraternize with the other residents if you want. Though I’ve had the great fortune to go to MacDowell twice, hoping as much for love as artistic inspiration, I’ve had nary a fling there either.
All of this is what the psychotherapists call “efforting.”
And while I grok the futility of mooning over such counterfactuals, I still can’t help thinking that if I had efforted more in the realm of, say, a foreign language, and spent the same enormous investment of time (and not insignificant investment of money), I’d certainly be fluent in one of the Category I languages by now (Spanish or French). Perhaps, with the same five years of dedicated effort, I could have even respectably tackled one of the Category IV or V languages (Farsi, Hebrew, Arabic, Russian), and thereby given myself more opportunities and access as a writer, which might have also, in the end, led to a relationship with someone interesting. I could have learned to play the guitar, or given those hours of my time to some worthwhile other-focused work, like volunteering for a sexual assault hotline. Whereas I have nothing to show for my effort on the apps, aside from a nauseating fluency with the boring, homogenous, unconsidered, narrow lingo by which many men narrate themselves online; and this essay.
If the capacity to objectify others, men and women, is widely commercialized by a vast industry of sex and is somewhat endorsed by many strands of feminism, it is because it is recoded as subjectification found in pleasure, empowerment, and detachment. As Stephane … a strategic consultant for an investment firm put it [about his use of Tinder]:
[T]here is something exhilarating about swiping right and left. It gives a feeling of power. I think the designers of Tinder work on this feeling. You have a feeling of omnipotence on your romantic destiny …
Hinge says it’s “designed to be deleted,” but if that were true, it would not be a great business model. Sure, a lot of people find a partner on the apps, but how many don’t? And how much is our capacity to evaluate, trust, and bond with other humans degraded along the way? The corporations that make the apps have only one incentive, which is not making connections but making money. If the apps never worked, no one would use them; but if they always worked, the companies would make less money than they do if the apps work sometimes, unpredictably, or magically, after you pay to upgrade to premium or majestic or boost your profile or buy three roses. 107 people sounds like so many people, and I worry that publicizing that number is not wise, with respect to my future prospects. Believe me, I know I’m the common denominator. Who would want to date a woman who talks about all the men she’s interviewed for the position? Maybe it’s not attractive. I imagine how I would feel about dating a man who wrote about such an epic online dating quest, and it seems like so much pressure, to consider oneself the proverbial needle. It took me forty-two dates to meet the man who became my only boyfriend, but then I went on dates with thirty-two more people over the year and a half I spent hoping and pining, patiently cajoling and then openly begging the forty-second man to be in a relationship with me, and trying to attach to someone else while he resisted, so we could both be released from my fixation on him. Because he was the forty-second man, I hoped that by some law of online dating math, I would encounter someone I liked as much as him by the time I got to—at most—the eighty-fourth man. I haven’t met anyone I want to be with more than I want to be with him, and I’m now past eighty-four. But is 107 a large number? is my question. My question is how many strangers would you have to put into a room to be sure you could form a lasting connection with just one of them? How many people over six feet tall with graduate degrees who don’t smoke and drink only socially or not at all and either already have kids or don’t want kids and live within fifty miles of you who aren’t polyamorous and designate themselves as active, with liberal politics and no bathroom selfies or rote clichéd philosophizing? I thought I might stop at ninety-nine, or one hundred. Those seemed like significant numbers. I thought I might stop at one hundred and one, since that seemed definitive. So when I say the house won it’s because I’m still at the table, and my question has changed from, When will I meet someone? to When will I stop?
Merritt Tierce is a screenwriter and the author of the novel Love Me Back. She lives in Los Angeles and is developing various film and television projects about abortion.
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