Romance is in the air this week. Or, what the card industry would have us call romance. We’re inundated with cheesy love poems and all things pink, red, violet, and chocolate. In the midst of these so-called accoutrements of romance, sex is on display almost everywhere we turn. Victoria’s Secret has its email blasts going. Crass humor seems to lurk behind seemingly innocent messages of tenderness in the Valentine’s aisle at the drug store. Advertisements and drug store displays encourage men to buy their lady-friends lingerie and fuzzy red sex toys as tokens of affection.
Yet the desire for true romance refuses to die. Debates about dating, love, courtship, marriage, sex, and the kitchen sink are abounding, recently spurred by a piece declaring the end of courtship in the New York Times. The debates seem to go something like this:
“Texting and Words with Friends and Grouper have ruined courtship.”
“Hooray that texting has sent courtship packing. We never wanted it anyway. Now we can be free to date however we want without artificial gender norms!”
“But it would be nice to go on a real date. One where the guy shows up at some point.”
“I’m SO glad I don’t have to sit through fancy meals like women used to be forced to do. What a relief.”
Nothing we haven’t heard before, of course. As a single millennial female, college-educated where the hook-up scene was second to none, I can’t help but notice a rather gaping hole in this conversation. It is entirely focused on “dates” as activities. But what about “dates” as people? Isn’t getting to know people what the whole process is supposed to be about in the first place?
The conversation has been framed as though it’s all about courtship, but I can’t help but wonder – is it? Courtship is that old-fashioned way young men and women met, got to know one another, got to know one another’s families, shared laughs and adventures, talked about life, and ultimately decided whether they wished to marry each other – and either did so or moved on. (Christmas wasn’t too terribly long ago — think of George and Mary’s romance in It’s a Wonderful Life. That’s courtship.)
But that doesn’t seem to be what is at issue here. When the Times declared courtship a thing of the past, it wasn’t talking about a George-and-Mary style romance. The writer redefined “traditional courtship” to mean simply “picking up the telephone and asking someone on a date”.
So it’s not just traditional courtship that’s out the window, then, but basic manners and dating as we knew it. And that’s hardly surprising, as expert Donna Freitas notes, since kids graduating from a college hook-up culture can hardly be expected to learn overnight how to start actually dating each other. That would mean learning to treat each other (regardless of gender) with basic courtesy and respect when no one has ever shown them how.
Many of my peers seem to be cheering the demise of these bastions of the ancien regime. The old ways of courting imposed restrictions based on arbitrary gender roles, forcing us into constructs we might find uncomfortable, making us think not as individuals, but according to a gender stereotype. Now, we are free to explore whatever kind of dating will make us happy. Men can ask women out. Women can ask men out. We can all go to a bar together and sit around texting people at the bar two blocks over. We can Words-with-Friend each other. We can tweet each other. We can Angry Bird each other. We can spend half of a first non-date wondering how to interpret his interpretation of our gender-role conditioned wine selection preferences (because we are unique individuals!) then split the bill or fight over who pays.
With all this freedom, who wouldn’t find ways to date that make us happy? The options are endless. And yet, I’ve never heard anyone say: “Ah, now, I have found the way I like to date that makes me happiest. I think I will settle down on this type of dating and date this way only, at least until I find another way of dating that suits me.” I wonder why.
Perhaps because the whole point of dating isn’t to find the most gratifying way to pass your time; it’s to find the person whom you’ll choose to love. For the rest of your life. But with all the big bad constricting rules off the table, we are forced to spend a painfully disproportionate amount of the time we devote to our love lives (limited, of course, by all the “career grinding” we millennials are known for) just figuring out whether and how we are dating (or hanging out, or courting, or tweeting, or whatever). And that leaves little time to focus on who we are dating.
So here’s the challenge. If we are going to grow out of the hook-up culture that surrounded us in college, we need to start focusing on people. On getting to know them. On learning to love them — not simply out of self-interest. And definitely not on the dates themselves.
The old “restrictive” rules might constrain those of us women who like to choose our own wine (“I’ll have the Malbec, please”) or prefer to start with something less intimidating than a fancy dinner. However, these are small sacrifices to make when we consider that they free both parties from agonizing over the minutiae of the dating process, and allow us instead to focus on the part that actually matters—getting to know the man or woman behind that new face across the table.
So this Valentine’s Day, instead of fretting about whether we have someone to buy us chocolate, or stressing out about the manner in which that someone does or doesn’t send flowers, let’s remember what it’s all really about: learning to love another person more than we love ourselves, putting their good ahead of our own, and remaining open to the possibility of a radical commitment. Because, whatever may happen to courtship, that kind of love will never go out of style.
Caitlin Seery is the Director of Programs for the Love and Fidelity Network, on which a slightly different version of this article has appeared.