Has dating evolved or is it the art of dating that’s evolved? It’s a fair but loaded inquiry.
On a practical level, the traditional places we find love — bars, house parties, the workplace, weddings, blind dates, even sheer chance — remain. But the age of technology has given rise to dating apps, while changing perspectives on marriage, polyamorous dating, fluid sexuality and women prioritizing their careers is changing the game.
It’s a different world now. The civil rights movement, women rights and gay rights movements and the exploration of other nonconforming gender identities have influenced our culture. “Free love” was the battle cry of the hippies of the sixties and it’s endured in some fashion.
For generations, adults were so hyper-focused on coupling up, buying a home and having children in the most heteronormative sense possible that they lost any real connection to who they were as individuals, including sexual (or nonsexual) identity and how couples change over time and share power in relationships. Then came the emergence of greater individual expression that’s murkied (or cleared, depending on who you ask) the waters.
Today, daters are of many mindsets: some align with traditional patterns, others are in a constant state of exploration, delaying their foray into serious dating well into adulthood or choosing to bypass it all together.
At the same time, many (especially young adults) are suffering from dating ADD fueled by the ability to vet countless potential suitors with the swipe of a finger.
The result: Dating is messier than ever.
DOWNLOAD MY HEART
Still, some things remain the same.
“Modern romance has a lot of the same similarities as a non-modern romance,” says Naza Shelley, co-founder and CEO of CarpeDM, a dating app that connects high-powered Black women in D.C. with prospective partners. “People our age are dating in different ways but with the same desired outcome, which is to find someone for a long-term, committed relationship.”
Two competing considerations — who we are at our core and who we are in a relationship — are forcing us to truly investigate the relationships we build. This includes not just romantic ones, but platonic and blurred ones, too. It’s a dizzying and delicate dance.
As millennials, we’ve been flying courtship airlines while building (and learning to fly) the plane.
As a 2008 college graduate, I entered the workforce four years after the inception of OkCupid (where I found my first post-college girlfriend), two years before Instagram and four years prior to the launch of Coffee Meets Bagel, Hinge and Tinder in 2012, the unofficial year dating went deep into the digital rabbit hole. Years later, Bumble came on the scene, empowering women to take control of their virtual romantic rendezvous with a focus on integrity, kindness and equality.
It’s a brave new world where it’s never been easier to date — if by easier we mean more opportunities to try and fail.
What’s slipped away is the ability to hold each other’s attention. Living in a major metropolis like D.C., it’s too easy to normalize quantity over quality.
However, Shelley offers a compass point: clearly and authentically signaling your intentions, both internally and externally.
Modern romance, a byproduct of modern adulting, brings an understanding that dating on our terms means our time and who we spend it with is precious. In this sense, delayed gratification is a great way to improve relationship success.
It is our generation’s collective rebellion against the chaos.
DATING FOR ADULTS
For many, our late 30s or 40s are ripe years for finding love. With age comes wisdom about who we are and who we don’t want to be (or be with).
Dating in high school and college felt like an impossible assignment, with our common sense undermined by hormones and typical adolescent displacement.
What I’ve learned in stride is not all love is built the same. As an adult, the stakes are higher but the reward is greater: more meaningful and resilient relationships.
“When you’re younger, you can take more risks — you date more people [and] have different types,” Shelley explains. “The older you get, the more you understand who you are as a person, what type of relationship you’re looking for and what type of person is actually compatible with you. You don’t want to waste a year with someone who you’re actually incompatible with.”
Sali Hama, co-founder and CMO of CarpeDM, agrees.
“We’re also seeing people getting married older,” Hama says. “And what’s great about that is people are really finding themselves, they’re understanding who they are and who they want to be individually and [as] a couple. And that actually results in better marriages and longer-term marriages.”
The bulltsh** tolerance lessens as we gray. And it isn’t some belief that youth is wasted on the young. As a Lyft driver once told me, “Be young, make mistakes. There’s nothing you can’t fix unless it’s fatal.”
Definitely words to live by in moderation.
In college, the worst — in theory — that could happen is a broken heart and an awkward social interaction. I never searched for any deeper meaning in a failed relationship as an undergraduate. The collegiate habitat promotes promiscuity, though of course real love is there.
The age of digital dating, however, translated the undergraduate experience into the post-college world while missing the point of it all.
Dating is more than a networking opportunity. It’s a valuation, on multiple levels, of compatibility with our lives: Our values, dreams, goals and the odd and silly behaviors we are prone to when it’s just us and our partner.
As an example, Shelley believes there are certain questions that don’t need to be a part of your “arsenal” on a first date. It’s more important to go deeper and ratchet up the intensity along the way.
“You may delay some questions for a third or fourth date so you can really get to know the person as a person versus as a resume.”
Translation: Maybe you don’t ask too soon how many kids someone wants or the number of sexual partners they’ve had in their lifetime right away and then expect them to swap spit with you.
And for men, it’s important to slow down and recognize for women dating is a much more complex undertaking.
THE DARK SIDE OF DIGITAL
I’ve learned by listening that dating is infinitely harder (and more treacherous) for women — especially women of color.
Beyond evaluating a potential life partner, you have to wade through unwanted, sometimes disturbing behavior.
“It’s crazy when you dig into the numbers [of] what’s actually going on in online dating,” Shelley says. “Professional Black women and Black women in general face so [much] more bias from algorithms, as well as hyper-sexualized advances; one in four Black women report receiving hyper-sexualized messages on dating apps.”
Race, no doubt, is an unfortunate part of the equation. It’s no secret Black men are viewed as more predatory and Black women are not respected in the ways they deserve, all while up against the false perception they’re less desirable.
Over the years, I’ve heard my fair share of horror stories from male and female friends alike. I’ve come to the conclusion there’s no shortage of virtual dating vermin with no interest in serious dating. This is not to shame them, but instead to note they make it harder to find love by shaking someone’s confidence in their capacity to ever find the right match.
CarpeDM arms Black women to overcome this reality through creating a safe environment that sets stringent ground rules, coupled with meticulous vetting (everyone who joins gets a face-to-face virtual evaluation), high standards and dedicated matchmakers. And making the “exclusive matching-enhanced app” a paid service only helps further weed out frivolous daters who conceal their true intentions.
“Singles are so conditioned to free dating apps that they are actually the product,” Shelley says. “You’re being served ads just like on social media. Those apps and services don’t have any motivation to really help you find love.”
“We try to explain to people that we want to shift the way [we] think about trying to find love; we want you to invest [in] the same way you would invest in anything else in your life,” she says.
CarpeDM is a beacon for modern Black women who want to steady the current of the dating waters they’re swimming in each day.
“One thing we see a lot with successful women is the ability, in a modern context, to find love anywhere,” Hama asserts. “They don’t have to resolve themselves to [people in] their neighborhood or who friends introduce them to. [Women are] traveling the world. They are really experiencing and living their fullest lives and hoping to meet someone on that journey that complements them.”
It is a model for how we can date better when looking for life partners, whether you have the means to pay for a service or not.
And broaching these topics with friends is a good start if we want to shift the prevailing dynamics.
“It’s really important women are not only having this conversation with themselves, but [that] men are having the conversation with other men — and other men and women across the table,” Hama says.
YOU’VE GOT A FRIEND IN ME
Of course, this conversation is incomplete without acknowledging that in the realm of relationships not everyone is looking for love. I’ve learned as an adult how critical it is to date our friends in similar ways we’d date a potential lover.
In truth, we look for many of the same qualities in friends and lovers, including commitment, loyalty, honesty, a forgiving spirit and the openness to growing together. It’s the same reason Hama, a first-generation Syrian immigrant, chose to partner with her close friend and fellow Howard University School of Law alumna Shelley, an African-American woman, to build an app that isn’t meant for her.
Inspired by Shelley’s own experiences and their shared experiences as women dating in the District, they set out to do something disruptive in the dating space.
Shelley describes her dear friend’s choice to co-found CarpeDM as a “selfless” act.
“[Adults are] starting to elevate and put a focus on different types of relationships and what they mean for us as long-term partners,” Shelley says.
Often, romantic relationships come and go in our lives and it’s our friendships that endure through it all. I have friends who’ve moved thousands of miles, even oceans away and we don’t skip a beat when we’re reunited. It’s because there’s a shared investment and responsibility in the survival of our relationship.
Friends are often the ones we travel, cry, laugh, celebrate and even mourn with. So maybe looking at our friendships and better understanding how they’ve lasted so long is the secret to modern romance.
And maybe it’s resisting the conditioned urge to serial date if it’s not in our nature — or if we’ve decided to level up our adulting and navigate love with more intentionality.
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