Esther Perel is an expert on human relationships and sexuality. Her new podcast, Where Should We Begin? launched in May on Audible and features unscripted, intimate therapy sessions between real-life couples. She is a celebrated TED speaker with 18 million viewers, and the best-selling author of Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence and The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity (forthcoming, October 2017). Esther is a practicing psychotherapist and organizational consultant to Fortune 500 companies.
Below, Esther and the Innovation Group discuss the effects of technology on modern dating, as well as what the future of relationships holds for women.
How has technology changed relationships and dating?
When it comes to dating, technology is the wanted ads amplified to umpteen degrees. Once upon a time in the village, you basically had to choose between John and Mark, Jane and Janet, and you were wise to pick the better of the two. There’s no doubt that the internet increases the pool of possibilities for dating, with an unprecedented proliferation of choices.
But it also brings with it the paradox of choice. We relish the freedom of multiple choices but we dread the uncertainty of not knowing. How do I know that this is the right one? It is a question that plagues many of us. We have more freedom to choose, and we have more self-doubt, manifesting in a chronic state of FOMO (fear of missing out): “I have this, but maybe there is something better, maybe there is someone else roaming in the vicinity that I have missed.” In large urban environments, people can get stuck on a hedonistic treadmill. The moment you get what you want, you immediately increase your expectations.
Thirty-five years ago when I would discuss placing an ad with my patients, it was always accompanied by a feeling of embarrassment. They hid it, afraid of being tagged as “losers.” A major stigma has been removed, and people are finally accepting that if one has not met someone at school or work, or in any other social setting, it is not embarrassing to go online. In fact, it is the central square of connection-making. I think this is one of the better changes that has taken place in dating. It’s the democratization of mate selection.
Changing marriage patterns have also had a profound effect on dating. In 1960, six in 10 people were married in their 20s. Today, about 80% of people in their 20s are unmarried. Marriage was the norm for young America; today it is the exception. People used to build their lives and their identities together with their spouses. Now we have the “capstone model.” I meet you at 27 or 29, fully formed, and following years of sexual nomadism. The capstone model presumes, as one of my friends put it, that you should only get married “after you’ve got your shit together.” Capstoners believe that marriage is something you enter into only after you’ve finished sowing your proverbial oats—and come into possession of the financial, emotional, and professional sophistication you’ll need to blend your life with another person without becoming dangerously dependent upon them. When you choose me, you choose me based on my carefully crafted authentic identity—an identity that I have worked very hard to develop before meeting you. This is a profound shift.
In a culture where everything is disposable and downsizing confirms just how replaceable we are, you throw out your old computer, you throw out your old phone, and perhaps you even “upgrade” your girlfriend. People feel a sense of commodification. The smaller we feel in the world, the more we need to shine in the eyes of our partner. We want to know that we matter, and that, for at least one person, we are irreplaceable. We long to feel whole, to rise above the prison of our solitude. We are creatures of meaning; we have always struggled to assert that our lives matter.
But in our individualistic society, the traditional scripts have faded, and we are not as tied to religious institutions, where the community prays together, everyone knows their place, and our sense of place and of belonging and identity is a given. These days, people have to come up with their own social scripts. They are the ones to decide how much to eat, to sleep, to exercise, how many children they want to have—in short, they negotiate their identity as a project of self-definition throughout their lives. At this moment in history, the burdens of the self are very heavy, indeed.
What are some of the biggest recent changes you’ve seen for women, in terms of dating and relationships?
We see positive aspects of technology that have equalized dating and empowered people. Online, for a while at least, you can charm someone in ways that transcend the immediate limits of age discrepancy, height and looks. You write to someone, and you charm them with your wit, humor and good spelling. I have known more than one person who was able to meet someone this way, when the person would never have looked at them in person. Cleverness with the pen goes a long way.
And that type of cleverness is androgynous: men have to write, and women have to write. The internet and online dating is part of the second revolution in print and writing, after the printing press. We have never written as much as we are writing today. From texting to emailing, men and women are required to communicate in the same language. I think that is a very strong equalizer: it allows people who don’t immediately attract others with their looks to use a language of courtship that goes beyond physicality.
The internet also offers new opportunities for older people who, in the past, have had limited opportunities to meet outside of retirement communities. For most of history, people married once, and if it didn’t work out, perhaps they could hope that their partner died young. Today, there is an option for people in their 50s, 60s, 70s and even 80s to start their whole lives over, which is an extraordinary shift. It’s no longer “till death us do part,” it’s until love dies. People no longer divorce only because they are unhappy; they sometimes divorce because they could be happier. Dating also happens throughout your life: you could be single until you’re 50, and then suddenly meet someone who just lost their partner. At 50, you start your life with another person for the first time. Women in their 50s can have their first child, a privilege that had always been reserved for men.
Your relationship accountability chart, which tracked different levels from ghosting to breakups, saw a lot of traction on the Internet. Why do you think that struck such a chord with so many people?
People have always had to face rejection and unrequited love. But rejection in the age of Tinder comes with a bigger sting. First, people are rejected many more times in the course of their dating lives. Second, when you are rejected there is no buffer: You are chosen at your most authentic, and you are rejected at your most authentic. You’re chosen and rejected for who you are.
We also have a whole vocabulary of rejection emerging around technology-related behaviors. When you are “ghosted”—when someone abruptly stops communicating with you via text or online channels—it feels like your entire self has been gutted. When you are “iced”—when someone puts you on hold for a while—you simmer, while someone makes excuses: “I can’t be in a relationship right now but I would love to get together at some point” or “Let’s meet next week. Oh, I can’t make that, let’s meet the week following.”
After I wrote about ghosting online, I received hundreds of powerful letters from people who felt they had been erased. People are aware that they use phones and non-responding as a way to avoid engaging with others. People tell me, “I don’t answer a text,” or “I just answer with a smile or an emoji.” It becomes a real tool of power: the acknowledgement and non-acknowledgement, the follow-up, how many minutes it takes to receive a response. People send coded messages by taking three days, or 10 minutes, to respond.
These tactics of maintaining unclear relationships and prolonging breakups all produce what I call stable ambiguity: people are too afraid to be alone, but unwilling to fully engage in intimacy building. This is a holding pattern that affirms the undefined nature of relationships. It has a mix of comforting consistency and the freedom of blurred lines.
This transactional way of communicating creates lingering insecurity and uncertainty where neither person feels truly appreciated or nurtured. It takes a toll on our emotional health and the health of others. Often it demonstrates a lack of empathy and a diminishment in relationship accountability. If you want to reject someone, you don’t even have to face them or tell them in person. You can disappear without having to do anything. You can check out on someone without having to actually say you’re not interested, or you want to break up. True, in the past you could reject someone over the phone, but the difference today is the abrupt shift in speed: yesterday we were still sending each other 250 texts in a day, and 24 hours later it’s radio silence. It’s a shock to the system and people feel empty and erased. People write to me about their ghosting and ghosted experiences, and many have been on both sides.
What changes do you think the future holds for women, in terms of dating and relationships?
The urban single woman has a much richer life than any of her predecessors—it’s not long ago that she might have been called a “spinster.” She gets to have a full life, even if she doesn’t have a partner or a child or a family. She gets to have the opportunity to marry someone later; she may be in a polyamorous relationship. These new relational configurations are the next frontier. And women are part of it—part of this new architecture.