Dating as a millennial is a beautiful, complex mess. Illustration: Sarah Pixie.
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Cassidy Best explores the world of dating as a young person in 2019

“So, what are we?” “We’re just talking.” “Have you ever tried Tinder?” “Are you asking me on a date?”

Chances are, you’ve heard at least one of these statements at some point in your young life.

Dating has never been easy, but these days it seems impossible to find something meaningful in the realm of love and romance. It’s no secret that everyone likes to poke fun at millennials for everything from killing mayonnaise (yes, that’s happening) to ruining the cable industry and derailing the sanctity of marriage (or at least lowering divorce rates). When it comes to dating, though, do these critical baby boomers actually have a point? Has our so-called “hook-up culture” changed the name of the dating game?

“A Millennial’s Guide to Kissing,” a short essay by Emma Court published in the New York Times in 2015, discusses the nature of this culture. In her essay, Court details a 12-hour romantic interlude on an airplane that is nothing if not indicative of the dating habits of millennials. She makes a poignant statement at the crossroads of deciding whether to pursue the man she had met or to let it be: “And if it did mean anything, we were college students; we knew how to pretend it didn’t,” she wrote.

And they went their separate ways.

Court calls out the media for its innate fascination with millennials and their dating culture as if it is something novel when it may not have changed. Arguably, it is simply that we see more of it since the advent of social media to which we are all so hopelessly attached. Perhaps it is not so much a “hook-up culture,” but a culture of avoiding emotional pain.

A survey of close to 4,000 post-secondary students in the United States, released by Abodo in 2017, found that 8.8 per cent of respondents were using dating apps for hookups versus 11.5 per cent who were on the hunt for love. The majority of respondents were swiping for entertainment instead. This begs the question, are we really part of a hook-up culture at all?

Millennials have turned the science of dating into the science of avoidance; Court says that our goal is to “keep it shallow so your heart isn’t on the line.” It definitely shows in how we treat phone calls like a poison, opting for texting in shorthand instead, read-receipts off. If we do stay the night, we leave before the sun comes up to avoid the awkward intimacy of the morning after in favour of an uncomfortable Uber ride or the occasional walk home.

The language of the dating game too has changed: The term “dating” doesn’t even mean the same thing as it did to our parents or even our grandparents. Kris Pulver, an Algonquin College student, knows this all too well.

In their experience, dating as a young person means confronting a great divide: Half of us crave hookups, but just as many of us are begging for relationships. People are so afraid to talk about their feelings and personal lives, Pulver added, but are more than capable of sharing all the intimate details of their sex lives.

Collectively, we all understand that hooking up is a part of growing up. We’re spending this time dipping our toes in so many pools to try to figure out what we like and what we actually want. And while our generation is significantly more open about discussing sex and past experiences, we traded that for turning emotions—and the expression of them—into the taboo topic.

In one study that surveyed over 3,000 young adults and high school students, conducted by four Harvard University scholars and released in May 2017, researchers found that this millennial hook up label is overly applied, and the culture overestimated by both young people and adults, actually obscuring the struggle some can face in forming and maintaining healthy romantic relationships.

While the studies and statistics seem to show that millennials are disinterested in or unprepared for both hooking up and dating, talking to the millennial searching for love reveals something more interesting.

According to three young people I spoke to, the common theme is that we are all looking for a connection wherever and however we can find it. And if it means no strings attached to get it, we’ll take the shallow dip even though we’d prefer the deep plunge.

Sydney Burns, a 23-year-old graduate student at Brock University, argued we have forgotten what dating is, along with the magic of the whole experience.

By seeking relationships through popular dating apps like Tinder or Bumble, we make it impossible to experience the butterflies in your stomach chemistry that can occur during a first face-to-face conversation. If non-verbal communication means anything, dating apps preclude a lot of it from happening at all: We paste the best versions of ourselves on our social media and dating profiles, and god forbid that change in person, shifting the entire tone and purpose of looking for a partner in the first place. If you can’t be your authentic self in both the online and real world, are you really finding what you’re looking for?

So, what does all this mean for people actively using these apps to try and find a partner? They’re adrift in a sea of people who don’t use the app seriously (the Abodo survey found that just four per cent of respondents preferred to meet potential dates using them), or who just want  a quick hook up. The sense of rejection comes just as quickly when you receive a message that the other person doesn’t want anything serious or just wants you to join a threesome as a flat out, “no, I’m not interested.”

But what’s a person to do?

Across the board, each young person I spoke to incriminated social media as the biggest problem and barrier to effectively being able to break out of this endemic hook-up culture that we’re all supposedly a part of, whether we’re active participants or not.

Julia Graff, 21, used an interesting word to describe the meaning behind social media and dating apps: protection. Graff argued our phones act as a protective barrier between us and the world, a sort of shield from potential partners. It’s incredibly difficult to make a real connection with people when everyone you see is buried in their phone swiping on Tinder instead of engaging with those around them, Graff said.   

Addressing emotions isn’t our strongest trait either.

Admitting to feelings is a foreign concept in our demographic. It runs the risk of showing the cards you play so close to your chest and it’s so much easier to say nothing and assume that connection you felt wasn’t special after all. Court referred to these experiences as “half-formed romantic liaisons that trail you in your youth.”

Court’s metaphor is brilliant really, that our generation treats meeting someone new as though you met them on an airplane—that you only have this one night and no tomorrow, so why not lay it all out physically but protect yourself from an emotional investment, she muses?

I think Court shared her essay because she believed it spoke to a feeling that we all have, in an open and honest way. Our childhoods’ may have done us a disservice—we are all spoon-fed the Disney version of what love is supposed to be, while every experience in our life runs contrary to that. We see no problem avoiding committing because we simply haven’t had that “a-ha!” moment with someone.

This mess of social engagements with all its highs and lows and webs of different short-lived relationships is the real experience of looking for love as a young person in 2019, and the experience of actually finding this diamond in the rubble is beautiful in its complexity.

Perhaps instead of the “bye, see you never!” attitude Court encountered, we should give the “bye, see you next time!” a try. For once, let’s avoid having to wonder what we lost in trying so hard to be the one that cares the least or doesn’t care at all.