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a young woman in San Francisco, met a man—call him John—on the dating site OKCupid. More notably, he indulged in the kind of profligate displays of affection which signal a definite eagerness to commit.He sneaked Suzanne’s favorite snacks into her purse as a workday surprise and insisted early on that she keep a key to his apartment. V.—an act roughly equivalent, in today’s gallantry currency, to Perseus rescuing Andromeda from the sea monster.Dating is therefore a powerful force of social control—but what do we actually mean by “dating”?
“If marriage is the long-term contract that many daters still hope to land, dating itself often feels like the worst, most precarious form of contemporary labor: an unpaid internship,” Weigel writes at the start of her book.
The monogamy of the booming postwar fifties offered “a kind of romantic full employment,” while the free love of the sixties signified not the death of dating but its deregulation on the free market.
The luxury- and self-obsessed yuppies of the “greed is good” eighties demanded that the romantic market deliver partners tailored to their niche specifications, developing early versions of the kinds of matchmaking services that have been perfected in today’s digital gig economy, where the personal is professional, and everyone self-brands accordingly.
He might have practiced polyamory, consensual open love.
But John, with his flair for saccharine cuteness and his insistence on treating his conquests like romantic-comedy heroines, didn’t like just to play or cheat, and he certainly didn’t like any of his girlfriends to suspect that they didn’t have his full attention. According to Moira Weigel, the author of “Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), most people are not like John in this respect.In “All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation” (Simon & Schuster), the journalist Rebecca Traister describes the attempts of one establishment, the Trowmart Inn, in Greenwich Village, to address this problem.Unlike most boarding houses for working women, the Trowmart didn’t impose a curfew, and actively encouraged male visitors. had they a proper place in which to entertain their admirers, would develop into happy, excellent wives and still happier mothers.”What the Trowmart founder had in mind was “calling,” the respectable mode of courtship that had been practiced during the nineteenth century and into the twentieth by the aspirational middle class.The process of testing out potential mates, and of being tested by them in turn, can be gruelling, bewildering, humiliating.