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Romantic Consumerism: Too many feathers in the App

Image description Description: A phone's is placed against a white keyboard with its black screen showing various apps for dating


In a recent interview with The Cut, well-known psychotherapist Esther Perel spoke about “romantic consumerism”.

“We are doing romantic consumerism. I’m shopping for something, and I have a list of what it needs to be. On the one hand, we want to ask more, which is not a bad thing … but we want to pay less. And just as emotional language has entered the business world — where we talk about psychological safety and vulnerability — business language has seeped into romantic relationships. We want “return on investment” and to “hedge our bets” and “this is not a deal I signed up for.”

In the last decade and half, dating, and by extension romantic relationships, for an entire generation has largely shifted to digital mediums. Whether it is the accelerated expansion of our online existence or the paucity of time and energy due to frenetic working hours, a significant part of our lives are conducted in environments behind a screen. At least for those of us who belong to an urban milieu. This brings along with itself an ease of exchange – swipe right from the comfort of your cubicle or a coffeehouse and state your preferences and/or expectations directly in your dating profiles rather than the sometimes uncomfortable and extended bulkiness of finding the right cues in person. You can take your time brewing your preferred cup of tea.

This was the initial premise of online dating. However, in recent time, people have been expressing disdain and exhaustion with what seems like a never-ending quest for love or intimacy in these virtual corridors. In therapy, I often hear clients question if their dating behaviours have been modified by excessive dependence on dating apps. Very frequently, I am asked if dating apps are making us more impatient and incompatible when it comes to the high churn factor involved with the selection and rejection cycles. People report how they download and delete apps every few days or even within hours at time.

It is interesting that in her conversation, Perel claims that we don’t come to dating with a history of dating alone but with a history of socialization. Socialization includes what we expect from and how we engage with others in an interpersonal relationship. This is quite insightful when we consider how dating apps instil a form of romantic consumerism within us. Or at least captialize on one which is already hardwired.

We live in what is often term an “attention economy”. From Instagram reels to stats on tweet views, our capacity for fully absorb and respond to environmental stimuli is being stretched further and further. Technology is supposed to provide us with solutions. That’s the general premise we are sold when it comes to most things digital. A common proposition is that online experiences can be democratized with greater efficiency. This, in a lot of cases, is a flaw of reasoning because it fails to factor how being plugged into multiple sources draining our attention, we are slowly driven out of the ability to concentrate and mindfully immerse in an experience or interaction. Also, the same problems that plague socialization in offline engagements are often imported to online experiences as well when it comes to social inequities.

One of the reasons dating apps are expected to work well is that they provide a lot of options crossing over geographical and social barriers. You can readily initiate a conversation with someone in a different city or country who matches your wavelength. You are enticed by the idea of getting a virtual smorgasbord at times. Though, this is debated by many because algorithms are rarely as favourable as we’d like them to be. That said, there is a positive aspect of online dating: variety. There is something freeing about having a plethora of options at your disposal. It can appear liberating.

On the flip side, it is nearly impossible for any type of freedom to exist without a level of responsibility. However, dating apps would like us to believe that there is little to no responsibility expected out of us. Ghosting is acceptable. Abusive behaviours are also an unpleasant fallout. Apart from this, dating apps can also become addictive and competitive. Urban loneliness pushes us into corners where our shadow seems like the only viable companion. Maintaining friendships and other forms of companionships require some amount of effort which at times can seem herculean to us. Dating apps, on the other hand, seem to present themselves as the antidote of what we might perceive as exertion. A lot of online dating relies on a veneer of unknowability and separateness. We believe we can disengage and switch off whenever we put the phone down.

This isn’t always the case. As Perel points out

“People in intimate relationships are often isolated. They see fewer people, they do fewer things. And there are many people who have a better life when they’re not in an intimate relationship because they have a very wide social life. So we have to stop thinking that if you don’t have a romantic relationship, you’re incomplete.”

Romantic consumerism emerges from being held hostage to a specific form of loneliness. In the same way that the way advertising industry sells us an experience, not just a product, a dating app is presented as a promise wrapped in a possibility. We start to believe that access to a bunch of dating apps can easily alleviate our loneliness and offer us quick-fix solutions for companionship whether short-term or long-term. After a while, the exhaustion sets in. Quite like the repeated notifications of upgrades on your fancy iThing, the messages can seem more like a task to perform rather than an invitation to engage.

This is not to say that dating apps in general don’t offer a pathway to emotional or sexual respite, camaraderie, intimacy and even, yes, companionship. However, when our inherent mode of approach is through a form of fetishistic romantic consumerism where unrealistic expectations merge with urban isolation, we feel more alone than before.

Contrary to the past, we are now better equipped to not enter contracts of intimacy based on rigid moral codes or an obligatory standpoint. In that sense, yes, we do have more freedom. How we use this freedom is really where the rubber meets the road. Losing ourselves in the entropy of romantic consumerism invites confusion. Even a psychological burnout.

An online app is a product you have at your disposal. It is up to you to decide how do you utilise it without letting it dictate your sense of self-worth.

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