The truth about serial dating
When it comes to dating in 2014, the expectation is less monogamy, more feeling around...
Once upon a time, it was all so much simpler.
You'd meet at the pub, pay for your own drinks, exchange loaded glances across the room at each other, go home together – if you were sober enough to swap numbers, so much the better – and repeat until someone brought up the idea of going home to meet the Mammy. As courtship went, it was less than ideal, but it worked for us as a nation overall.
But that was then ... and this is now. The old rulebook has been ripped up as career singlists face into a brave new world of non-serial monogamy and shopping around. Everyone seems to be warming to the thrill of casual dating: the chivalry, the slight but divine discomfort, the warm feeling where you just know you want to kiss. It does beg the question: have we finally done away with the parochial ideology of pairing off? Are we more comfortable with the idea of dating non-exclusively?
Our forebrothers and sisters in the US copped on to this dating lark years ago, of course. In the spirit of 'easy come, easy go', serial dating is as much a part of the single person's life there as a casual trip to the gym. When I lived in Los Angeles in my twenties, snaring a date was bewilderingly easy, even for a mere mortal like me. I thought I was the most alluring creature going ... until I ended up on the dates and realised they meant very little. "I had fun, but I think you'll agree that there's no real chemistry here," they would pleasantly smile, beckoning for the bill. Initially, my ego was flattened, but soon I began to admire their civility; this openness. No harm, no foul.
Fast forward via time's giant wheel to the present day, and it's a different story. Dating in Ireland is sometimes like trying to decipher a foreign language. At best, it's a fleeting bit of fun: at worst, it's a lethal cocktail of vulnerability and puzzlement. Somewhere along the way, we've deduced that dating defensively is a great strategy for emerging unscathed from an encounter – but it's hardly an ideal building block for a healthy, functional relationship.
Timing-wise, we find ourselves at a curious juncture: hook-up culture has become normal, and we've cultivated an air of casual bravado. Tinder and online dating have greased the wheels somewhat, yet there's a niggling feeling that all this technology has confused us too. After all, we are only a generation or two away from a time when people settled in their early 20s for life – or at least that was the expectation. Have we really shrugged off the traditional stuff in such a short space of time?
"We're a bit far behind the Americans, mainly because it's taken us a bit longer to love ourselves," asserts Rena Maycock, director of Intro Matchmaking (www.intro.ie). "In Ireland, dates still really matter and you invest quite a bit of yourself in it," she adds. "It's more of an event. We're not yet at that point where interesting people are plentiful enough that we don't care if it doesn't work out."
The new rules of dating have left many of us confused. No precedent has yet been set on how to date casually. We're some way off the honest frankness of our American equivalents. It's a simple enough equation: two opposing hymn sheets equals one slight problem.
Psychotherapist Trish Murphy (www.trishmurphy-psychotherapy.com) has noticed an age divide among Irish daters: "Twentysomethings are comfortable using language like 'exclusive' and 'non-exclusive'," she explains. "If slightly older people get to a third date, it's meant to be implicit that they don't want the other person seeing anyone else."
Adds Maycock: "The Tinder generation are much more likely to go the way of the Americans and throw caution to the wind, to see if there's chemistry or not."
So why all the game playing and hedge-betting, even if you're seeing someone you really like? Ultimately, online dating has given us the impression that another great, even more compatible partner could be just around the corner. Faced with a maelstrom of choices – Irish folks are simply overwhelmed. Add a globule of Celtic Tiger-era entitlement, and confusion is bound to reign.
"People treat relationships in a much more transient way," explains Maycock. "If it isn't working, online dating means that you can essentially go shopping for another one."
Those in their late 30s and 40s find the experience of casual dating different again: "Given the effort that it takes, they are looking for something a little different," explains Murphy. "If you've already been in a long relationship, or even marriage, and trusted someone, you haven't had to worry about what your tummy looks like when you're naked so it's a big deal. There's a sense that, given the finances and effort involved, they want some kind of 'return' on the investment."
Murphy also contends that, for all our bluster about shopping around and playing the field, we're still a romantic bunch who yearn for a solid, monogamous relationship.
"Of course you want a fledgling romance to go somewhere," says Maycock. "There's a bit of hurt there if it doesn't work out. I think that looking for "The One" may be an aspiration, but I don't think it's the expectation. Most people who come to us simply want a relationship like their mother and father had. They've figured out that the luxury of choice soon becomes the burden of choice."
"We do like the idea of soulmates, though sometimes we're reaching too high for it and we become dissatisfied with a partner who is less than perfect," adds Murphy.
Maycock contends that we are slowly but surely gaining ground on the American model of serial dating, where there is little in the way of expectation or exclusivity until The Conversation happens.
"If you haven't had that talk, both parties are still open to seeing other people," she explains. "If he or she is on a date with someone else, you have no right to make any demands. The romantics among us would like to assume that you don't need to have The Conversation, but you really do."
In the meantime, manners and candidness go a long way. Do unto others as you would have them do to you, in other words, and we all stand a fighting chance of at least enjoying ourselves on these dates. If your casual relationship turns into something more, yes, you may live to regret that date you went on to prove your now significant other wasn't all that special – but it may have helped clarify those murky relationship waters too.
"Very simply, being honest is the right – the only – way to be," surmises Nolan. "It's not ideal, but if you have to end a date by saying, 'thanks for meeting me, but perhaps we'll leave it at that', at least everyone knows where they stand."
We're not exactly suggesting you fill the person that you're seeing in on that other date you had on Friday night, but whatever you do, don't attempt to cover your tracks – that's not being non-exclusive, it's being a sleveen.
First published in INSIDER Magazine, exclusive to Thursday's Irish Independent