The past three years of the 2010s have been a trying time for the urban single woman. All of the old adages that baby boomer parents passed along to their daughters have succumbed to the convoluted realities of dating in the digital age, and single women in the city today are left with more questions than answers regarding what is expected protocol and what are clear signals.
Many theories have been posited to explain the friction between urban upwardly mobile men and women. Jen Doll, writing in the The Village Voice, claims that the problem is that women have no idea what they want. Kate Bolick, in her excellent piece in The Atlantic, notes how the successes of the women’s movement have created a gap between the sexes, where modern women really can do it all on their own. There is no need to marry for reasons of financial stability, and there is significantly less pressure to bear children by “a certain age”.
This theory is complemented by Hanna Rosin’s article, “The End of Men”, which notes how men have disproportionately suffered the brunt of the 2008 economic collapse and have fallen by the wayside as women have continued to succeed. This has effectively divided the male population into two camps: those who have weathered the economic storm and are thriving in their jobs as software programmers, consultants or whatever, and those who have moved back in with their parents and lackadaisically look for jobs while they continue to cash in their monthly unemployment benefits.
Finally, there is the subject of the “Hook Up Culture”. As Alex Williams describes in his New York Times piece, traditional dating and courtship, with its clear intent and rules of conduct, has been replaced with ambiguous casual interactions, loaded text messages and frivolous sexual dalliances.
For all of these reasons and undoubtedly many more, single women in the city live in a perpetual grey space on the receiving end of cryptic messages from men, where everything is open-ended. An excellent example of this questionable behavior is depicted in an article by Heather Robinson called “Can We Talk? (But That’s All)”. Robinson describes a unique trend, nicknamed the “Pen Pal Complex”, where seemingly “Nice Jewish Boys” reach out to women for intellectual and emotional connections, but these connections never foster full-fledged relationships. The women cited in Robinson’s article are left confused because all of the initial foundations for a relationship exist – shared interest, witty banter and emotional reciprocity – yet romantic intimacy never manifests.
Robinson attributes this idiosyncratic conduct to the digital age, stating: “In a world where it’s easier than ever to communicate with a dizzying array of people via online dating, Facebook, Twitter, instant messaging and texting, it seems that communication is more shallow than ever.” Therefore the desire to seek out a real-life person, as opposed to a hand-held electronic screen, is understandable and driven by our primal need for human interaction.
But text messages and emails are only the tip of the iceberg, and the roots of the Pen Pal Complex are more than just the unfortunate side-effect of living in an online world. The reality is that dating today has become one long agonizing episode of The Bachelor, where a flock of attractive, educated, articulate women compete for the attention of one choice man. This gives available men the option to compartmentalize their interests and spread them across the larger quantity of available women. One woman can share his interest in music, while another can enjoy his penchant for Dim Sum. One can satisfy his sexual desires, while another can be his go-to gal for emotional support. Nobody is completely perfect, but with so many dating options available for urban men, a guy can find one mate that is perfect for one particular aspect.
Whether men want to acknowledge their dubious behavior, they are exploiting their status as a scarce good in high demand. They are picking and choosing what aspects to share with the women in their lives and categorizing accordingly. They have a female companion that is ideal for intellectual banter, but another that is ideal for emotional, or physical, company.
The whole concept of courtship today is experiencing a punctuated equilibrium. The confluence of a number of factors – demographic, economic and cultural – have suddenly changed the rules of the game, and the Pen Pal Complex is just one of many short term side effects. There is no doubt that technology has played a role in this process as well, but for all of the flak spewed at screen-driven communication, the digital age has also made finding a potential mate easier. Online dating mediums make the attractive stranger on the subway suddenly accessible. Skype and instant messaging have made it possible to stay connected over vast distances and in real time.
Furthermore, the digital age is evolving fast and loose, and it is unclear what effects it will have on courtship and relationships. The Pen Pal Complex, like the Hook Up Culture, is a recent condition that may worsen over time or disappear entirely to be replaced by something even more absurd like Twitter Speed Dating – impress your potential mate in 140 characters or less.
Therefore, we need to look at the deeper causes of friction between the sexes. Text messages undoubtedly make hooking up easier and more efficient, but texting is not the reason why hooking up has replaced monogamous dating. Sitting in front of a computer all day could make a guy want to have a face-to-face conversation with someone, but it doesn’t explain why he isn’t interested in commitment.
Unfortunately, single women seem to experience more of the brunt of the current dating predicament than single men, and there is no clear light at the end of the tunnel. Even more unfortunate is that there is no quick fix to this conundrum, and current trends make it seem like it will get worse for single women before it gets better. All that is left are the time honored adages from our parents to cling to: There are plenty of fish in the sea, every pot has a lid, trust your instincts, and love conquers all.
Featured image via Someecards