Human beings are charming. We see the world around us in an instant, and project that this world will carry on the same forever. And we either forget the past entirely or edit the past so that we only think about the bits that fit today, and erase the rest.
I always get reminded of a particular version of this problem when I go to LA. I have a lot of friends who are serial daters, girls and guys. A classic routine could be:
- Monday or Tuesday – dinner or drinks with a new find, or one in the early stages (dates 1 – 5)
- Wed – could be date with one at more advanced stages of connection (or a night at home to catch up on laundry or TV shows)
- Thurs – Sat – nights to go out with friends to help find new potential mates, unless a date is more progressed, in which case one of these nights could be for a date, and the rest free to find new people
- Sunday – chill with advanced date, or go out with normal friends (or laundry or TV)
Obviously this is only one type of serial dating. Other types are much more full-on immersion experiences. I myself find myself moving in with someone after less than four weeks (for another story).
The serial dater though bugs out part way through the relationship path to ‘permanence’. The transition points in a relationship, such as the weekend away, meeting the friends, deciding where to go for Christmas, and moving in can be avoided or screwed up. And it is so easy to find other people (if you look).
I will write on a lot of other topics around this issue, but I’d like to focus on this piece on one aspect of serial dating: the experience curve in serial dating, and the subsequent impact on long term monogamy.
When we do things over and over again, we get good at them. With experience, we get better and better. In our brain, repeated experiences create stronger neural pathways so we can perform the task over and over again, better each time.
We might now be thinking of sport or playing the piano. It turns out that dating would count as well on the list of things that have an experience curve. The more you date, the ‘better’ you get at it.
And this is where the problem comes in. There is a huge tension in many people, especially young people, in the desire to find a life-long partner, and the desire to test out a bunch to find the right one. There is a lot of social pressure early in adulthood to try out different partners, and young couples often have to fight their friends to explain why they are in a six year relationship at 25 years old. So, in some cultures, the US in particular, there is great pressure to serial date, for both women and men.
The trouble comes when one finds the perfect partner. This has two distinct phases of messiness: ‘Synchronizing to Start’, and ‘Adapting to One’.
In Synchronizing to Start, the problem is how do two serial daters get serious with each other. A good LA friend of mine has experienced this from both ways in his relationships. In one case, he thought he had found a great partner match and wanted to spend a lot more time with the person. This fits into a much wider topic – that of Proximity. I will be writing a lot more on that in the context of complex systems and other weird and wacky things, but for now, the basic concept is that you need to spend time with another person to get close.
He wants to spend more time with the girl he is after. He gives up first Tuesday night, then a Saturday night, then a Sunday. He wants to move her name into his Favorite list on his iPhone. He’d like to start planning a trip away, maybe in a couple of months when he has time off work.
But, in this synchronizing phase, each person is not quite at the same level. She is still in serial dating mode. Maybe she does not have quite the same vibe yet as he does, or has something else going on. Maybe an ex who is still in the picture. Or a new guy she is thinking of using the swap out with my friend over time. Either way, she is not synced up with my friend.
And so, of course, it does not work out (early enough), and they break up.
And, naturally, he has been in the other position too. Syncing goes both ways.
Adapting to One is more of a long term issue, a result of a successful navigation of the Syncing stage. In this case, two people have found each other, and are ready to make a commitment to be together. In the western world, using the current model of marriage or similar, this then means “No Other People Allowed – including Ex’s” in mutual agreement.
This is great news. Having a partner is wonderful. I could go into how having a partner helps conserve energy, and how this is a trait of all complex systems – but that is for another paper. In this context though, we will look at partnering as a wonderful thing. A bond between two people.
But, then there is that damn experience curve of serial dating. For one or both partners, they have spend up ten or sometimes twenty years dating several people, either concurrently or in series. Get bored with one, swap them out. Need different people for different modes? Get an artist for the weekends, and an accountant for the week.
Monogamy in 2012? Not that cool (yet).
People’s life experiences in dating are very memorable. The pleasure highs of sex, closeness, and novelty get deep into our brains as the various pleasure chemicals get encoded into our memory banks (see my past blog post on Sex and the Brain). Even the crappy times are still hyper memorable.
So, switching from a decade of serial dating is hard. In Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers he describes the 10,000 man hours experience curve to become expert at something. Well, surprise, surprise, a lot of people have racked up the hours with a lot of people. Hence switching to monogamy is a rude surprise.
This is especially true as we will be alive for a very long time. We tend to think that our current life will go on forever, and we think we can handle that long time period in our imagination. But stuff happens in life. People get sick. New job opportunities in other countries come up. Having kids normally means a dramatic fall in sexual activity for most people. Stuff happens.
I think, therefore, that the cultural norm of serial dating in the younger generations, which in the US has been going for a few decades, naturally leads to more mess in the monogamous relationship model. It is not impossible to survive, just harder. The ties that used to bond couples, such as finances or male domination of a female, are there less and less (thankfully).
A final thought on this. This paper is not aimed at you. It is not for you to follow. You are different. You are special. But, hopefully, it might give you something to talk about (maybe on your next date, or on Date Night for your special person).