It’s something of an understatement to say that today’s dating culture is an abysmal hellscape that ruins lives, destroys all notions of love, and makes everyone involved despair of the future of the human species.
As it stands, those romantic stories of how couples have met and grown together have now been replaced by tales of horror as people are sorted and selected on dating apps, used and abused by their “lover,” and then tossed aside none the wiser. Not surprisingly, the millennials who go through this process have largely given up on marriage. At best, marriage is a mutually beneficial relationship in which each spouse enjoys one another’s support; at worst, it’s a toxic relationship in which each spouse feels exploited and unappreciated.
There are many reasons for this tragic fall of romance, though three stand out. The first and biggest reason is the widespread addiction to pornography. A great majority of men and a sizable minority of women regularly consume pornography, and this issue has worsened with the Covid shutdowns.
Besides warping the minds of so many otherwise-eligible adult men and women, causing them to objectify and use romantic partners without a second thought, widespread pornography addiction has destroyed initiative, particularly among men. As I argued in an essay last year, most men today are far less inclined to strive for anything, let alone approach women and ask them out, because pornography has lulled them into passivity. In other words, they become losers. Meanwhile, women are now overtaking men in achievement and education. And they are having to decide whether to settle for someone in a growing pool of low-achieving perverts or opt out completely.
The rise of pornography has accompanied an increasingly transactional view of relationships, in which men and women view their partner through the lens of utility. Rather than sacrificing and proving themselves to the other, they consider what they gain from the other. Not surprisingly, this approach usually fails at fulfilling one’s emotional and psychological needs because it’s based on selfishness, not selflessness. This is why most faiths and philosophies affirm that it is better to give than to receive, particularly in love.
As if to reinforce these two problems, online dating has become the dominant means of meeting others. Nothing is left to chance as people swipe through profiles and calculate probabilities of success.
While efficient and convenient, online dating inevitably suffers from its superficiality and overabundance of choices. Before communication even begins, users mainly judge other users by their pictures and nominal interests and screen out possibilities to arrive at a manageable number of matches. As one might expect, this ostensibly rational screening of candidates leads to irrational pairings based far more on physical attraction than holistic compatibility.
In order to fix today’s dating culture, it becomes necessary to address the problems of pornography, romantic transactionalism, and online user-based dating apps. While these conditions persist, true love and a lasting marriage become enormously difficult, if not outright impossible.
As it happens, there’s a book that offers an alternative path for frustrated single adults. It’s not so much a guide as a vision of what real romance looks like. Contradicting today’s standards, this book says little about physical attraction, relational utility, or pre-programmed meetups. Rather, it focuses on intellectual attraction, relational complementarity, and serendipity. It’s not a new book by some expert, but rather an old one by a woman who never married.
The book is Jane Austen’s classic novel Persuasion. It tells the story of a single woman in her late twenties, Anne Elliot, who seems doomed to spinsterhood. Although she had a serious relationship in her late teens, she broke it off for prudence’s sake, has since given up on love, and gladly plays the third wheel to other couples.
Austen describes Anne as pleasant looking but nothing striking. Similarly, she comes from a modestly upper-class family but nothing that would make a husband’s fortune. Her virtues are her intelligence, wit, and kindness—nothing that could be advertised on sites like Hinge or Bumble.
Despite all this, she ends up having three men alternately compete for her affections throughout the novel. By conversing with her, observing her graciousness, and leaving themselves open to the moment, they are able to appreciate and value her. They don’t confront her with demands but express their feelings discreetly and wait for appropriate circumstances.
Far from being a dry and dull story from a world that has lapsed into oblivion, Persuasion is engaging, riveting, and quite relevant to today’s audiences. Rather than relying on titillation and spectacle, Austen carefully crafts realistic characters who respond to a variety of situations and coincidences. Readers will want to know how Anne will interact with the characters and settings around her, and vice versa. They will want to see how she grows and whether she ends up making the right decisions and taking the right advice.
More importantly, readers will want to learn from her. How does a young woman past her prime and forgotten by everyone find a husband? And what would a man have to do to make her reconsider the single life?
Austen suggests that a woman like Anne (and there are now many of them) starts her search for a soulmate by starting with herself. She cultivates virtue, puts others’ needs before her own, and nurtures an inner life. She does not indulge her fancies, size up the people around her, or try to compete with others; instead, she does the opposite.
For their part, the men drawn to Anne win her affection by doing the same. As such, they are mature, polite, and intelligent. They respect Anne and give her space, but they also state their intentions clearly when the moment calls for it. Because they are virtuous themselves, they recognize Anne’s virtues and this lays the foundation for a fruitful partnership.
Of course, the objection immediately arises: Is this realistic in today’s world? If men are boors, women are bored, and everyone experiences the world through the screen, could romantic relationships like those in Persuasion even happen at all? Wouldn’t it be more likely that Anne Elliot work in an office, adopt a “fur baby,” enjoy weekly brunch with a few other single women, and swear off marriage?
On the contrary, the romance of Persuasion is possible. That is, it is possible to meet another person by chance, fall in love with that person’s soul, and grow older together. This has been my story and the story of many other married couples I know—and most of us are millennials, no less.
However, while possible, this doesn’t mean it’s easy. Relationships, even potential relationships, require time and effort, along with a bit of detachment from today’s distractions. It’s a continual trial of patience, of self-sacrifice—and failure is common. Such is the case for Anne Elliot, who actually spends most of the novel working through her failures. But it must be said that the failures are what make the reward of a committed, loving relationship so wonderful and what ultimately allow personal growth to happen in the first place.
So, while the dating scene is miserable and marriage seems like a faraway dream, those still looking for true love should follow the example of Anne Elliot. Even if they don’t find love right away, love will find them eventually. And they will have become better people in the meantime.
[Photo Credit: Unsplash]