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times square by joshua davis photography

From celibacy (my last post) to dating. I hear a lot, in pastoral conversations, about how difficult it can be for single people to meet others; or, having met them, how hard it is to take the relationship to a deeper and more committed level. But the extra difficulty today, it seems, is that many people don’t even know what they are looking for in a relationship; and if they do, they are psychologically hard-wired – because of mobile phones and social media – to undermine the very relationship they want.

Rebecca Holman moves from examining her own relationships to some more general points about why dating is so difficult today.

I have called myself single for the past decade. Strange then, I realised recently, that I have rarely been properly on my own. I haven’t lived with a boyfriend, introduced anyone to my parents, or been on a mini-break. Yet even without an official ‘boyfriend’ there are normally several text conversations with potential beaus buzzing away on my phone.

I also tend to have a few guys on a low-level stalk on Facebook, and there’s always that frisson of excitement when an attractive man retweets one of my ‘LOLz-ier’ status updates. I might be missing out on love, but I’m never short of intrigue, and right now intrigue seems more fun.

Some of this intrigue even becomes actual, real-life, human interaction and perhaps… more. But mostly I’ve found myself in a perpetual state of limbo – stuck somewhere between first encounter, a hook-up and a full-blown relationship. It’s thanks in part to social media. Twitter, Facebook and Google have turned the dating world upside-down, changing how we meet people, what we know about them before we do – and introducing a new layer of ambiguity into single life that generations before us never had to contend with.

I am not in a relationship – or in what someone 20 years older than me would consider a relationship – yet rarely am I definitively single. There is not quite a word for what I am. Our vocabulary is straining as much as we are to encompass the world of modern dating.

What’s going on historically/psychologically here? It’s partly the fear of commitment, the need to endlessly keep one’s options open, and the mismatch between unrealistic fantasy and reality. Holman explains:

If, like me, you’re a ‘millennial’ (born between 1983 and 2000) you will have never known adulthood – or adult relationships – without a mobile phone. Like me, you are probably so used to keeping your options open – and not deciding what you’re doing on a Friday night until about 6.59pm that evening – that the idea of ‘dating’ seems pretty foreign. Actually phone someone up to ask them out and agree on a date at some point in the future and put it in my diary? Unthinkable. What if I get a better offer? Instead, millennials like to keep it vague. Instead of dating (an American term anyway) we might be ‘seeing someone’, ‘having a thing’, ‘hooking up’. Increasingly, we ‘hang out’ – and not necessarily as a twosome.

Ours is a generation of contradictions. We bravely (recklessly?) let the rest of the world into our online world with gay abandon: you’d like to see 50 pictures of me on a bikini on the beach? Go ahead! Want to know how I’m feeling at this exact moment? Here you are! But in the world of endless options, where nothing seems permanent, and you never have to interact with anyone face to face if you don’t want to, me actually picking up the phone, telling someone how I feel about them, or even asking them out for dinner seems like too big a risk. Why make a phone-call or suggest a date when you can send a non-committal text that merely dangles the possibility of meeting? If they’re keen, you’ll see each other; if not, they’ll plead prior plans. No one’s feelings get hurt.

But at least one of you can end up feeling confused. The social psychologist Ben Voyer warns that while texting and online messaging are perceived to be easier than face-to-face contact or a telephone conversation, in the medium to long term they can make things more difficult. (Was last Friday a ‘date’? Your guess is as good as mine.)

‘Face-to-face contact is much richer. We have more visual and audio cues to help us form an impression of someone.’ Of course endless texting will never offer the same insight into someone’s personality as even a single face-to-face conversation. The I-don’t-know-what-is-going-on phase of a proto-relationship can continue far longer now. You can become vastly experienced in the heady yet confusing dance of Early Days – I have had years of it, and know all the steps – yet remain an ignoramus about the mysterious state of proper Girlfriend and Boyfriend.

Yet it’s so easy to get carried away with texting or instant messaging. Having just counselled a friend through an ambiguous ‘relationship’ characterised by furious text conversations and the occasional meet-up, I then found myself helping another friend decide what to wear when she met up with a man whose activities she’d been obsessively following on Facebook for months. So, how did it go? ‘It wasn’t as thrilling as I’d hoped it would be…’ admitted my friend afterwards. ‘I think he was a little tired.’

Such disappointment shouldn’t come as a surprise, says Emma Weighill-Baskerville, a psychotherapist and relationship specialist. ‘The person may not fulfil the fantasy created through literary communication alone – this is only one piece of an individual. With texts, you are allowing a large space for fantasy to take over.’

The common business of ‘researching’ potential dates on Facebook, Twitter and Google can lead to similar disappointment – especially for a generation like mine, who curate their Facebook pages to PR-worthy standards. One friend furiously edits her Facebook page when a man she likes accepts her friend request. ‘I don’t bother to use Facebook the rest of the time, but when someone interesting pops up I’m all over it, uploading flattering pictures, subjecting my friends to a barrage of witty status updates.’

As Voyer explains, ‘People are increasingly constructing two identities – their online identity, and their offline identity.’ He points to Twitter in particular, saying that ‘new ways of interacting have widened the gap between our actual selves – who we actually are – and our “ought” selves – who we think other people want us to be.’

So, proper, honest, face-to-face communication is key. Unfortunately, for a generation practically weaned on telecommunication devices, person-to-person communication is not exactly our strong suit…

You can read the whole article here – which has some extra paragraphs about how technology can actually help a relationship as well as hinder it.

What do you think – all you single people out there? (And all the non-single people who have been dating recently…)

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A friend sent a link to this article by Tim Kreider about our need to be busy all the time. Is he being harsh? Is it really all self-imposed? Are we really this dysfunctional, this afraid, this disconnected, this fidgety?

Or is this really about America, or about New York – and everything is fine here in London thank you very much?

If you live in America in the 21st century you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are. It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: “Busy!” “So busy.” “Crazy busy.” It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint. And the stock response is a kind of congratulation: “That’s a good problem to have,” or “Better than the opposite.”

Notice it isn’t generally people pulling back-to-back shifts in the I.C.U. or commuting by bus to three minimum-wage jobs  who tell you how busy they are; what those people are is not busy but tired. Exhausted. Dead on their feet. It’s almost always people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed: work and obligations they’ve taken on voluntarily, classes and activities they’ve “encouraged” their kids to participate in. They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.

Almost everyone I know is busy. They feel anxious and guilty when they aren’t either working or doing something to promote their work. They schedule in time with friends the way students with 4.0 G.P.A.’s  make sure to sign up for community service because it looks good on their college applications. I recently wrote a friend to ask if he wanted to do something this week, and he answered that he didn’t have a lot of time but if something was going on to let him know and maybe he could ditch work for a few hours. I wanted to clarify that my question had not been a preliminary heads-up to some future invitation; this was the invitation. But his busyness was like some vast churning noise through which he was shouting out at me, and I gave up trying to shout back over it.

Even children are busy now, scheduled down to the half-hour with classes and extracurricular activities. They come home at the end of the day as tired as grown-ups. I was a member of the latchkey generation and had three hours of totally unstructured, largely unsupervised time every afternoon, time I used to do everything from surfing the World Book Encyclopedia to making animated films to getting together with friends in the woods to chuck dirt clods directly into one another’s eyes, all of which provided me with important skills and insights that remain valuable to this day. Those free hours became the model for how I wanted to live the rest of my life.

The present hysteria is not a necessary or inevitable condition of life; it’s something we’ve chosen, if only by our acquiescence to it. Not long ago I  Skyped with a friend who was driven out of the city by high rent and now has an artist’s residency in a small town in the south of France. She described herself as happy and relaxed for the first time in years. She still gets her work done, but it doesn’t consume her entire day and brain. She says it feels like college — she has a big circle of friends who all go out to the cafe together every night. She has a boyfriend again. (She once ruefully summarized dating in New York: “Everyone’s too busy and everyone thinks they can do better.”) What she had mistakenly assumed was her personality — driven, cranky, anxious and sad — turned out to be a deformative effect of her environment. It’s not as if any of us wants to live like this, any more than any one person wants to be part of a traffic jam or stadium trampling or the hierarchy of cruelty in high school — it’s something we collectively force one another to do.

Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.

Read on here if you want.

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I can’t say I have read many graphic novels, but this is an extraordinary book. It tells the tale, as you would expect from the title, of Simone Lia’s search for a husband, and her struggle to understand God’s plan for her life. It’s Cosmopolitan meets St John of the Cross via Snoopy and the Far Side. The cartoon-like illustrations are endearing, funny, and often beautiful. Her emotional honesty is sometimes heartbreaking. But you have the sense of listening in on the inner dialogue of a soul – one that is innocent, wounded, brave and slightly quirky – rather than intruding or being the recipient of a clunky disclosure.

There is a moment of grace and enlightenment near the end of the book (I’m not spoiling any plot) that is both profoundly moving and presents a spiritual insight that is worthy of the contemplative masters, and that I don’t think could have been communicated so effectively in any other medium. It takes a lot for me to say that, as a cinema fanatic; but perhaps there is something in this graphic novel thing.

You can buy it here on Amazon.

I’m delighted that Simone has done the illustrations for the parents booklet I have been working on with Ten Ten Theatre. I’ll post about that when it is published in the next couple of weeks.

Just in case you think I am only writing this because I’ve got a vested interest in promoting Simone, or in promoting any artist/author who is bringing Christianity into the mainstream, here are some paragraphs from Rachel Cooke’s review in the Guardian:

Lia is a Catholic – a devout one: the kind who goes to confession and has nuns for friends – and when she asks God to find her a husband, she really means it. Standing in the middle of Leicester Square, having recently been dumped by email, she looks up at the sky and says: “To cut to the chase, God, I’m going to be 34 in two weeks’ time and if you want me to marry someone you’re going to need to get a bit of a move on.” Does he reply? Not exactly. But she experiences, as people sometimes do, a kind of epiphany. She decides to go on an adventure with God.

How Lia pulls off what happens next without ever seeming a) repulsively pious or b) stark staring mad, I do not know. It’s partly her tone, which is inquiring and funny, but never hectoring; and partly it’s her drawings, so heart-stoppingly neat and expressive. Mostly, though, I think it’s down to the disarming feeling that creeps over you as her sincerity (not such a rare thing in comics as in some other realms, but still pretty rare these days) quietly hits home. Lia is a knowing artist – flirting with a riding instructor in the Australian outback, her self-portrait transmutes into a luscious drawing of Penélope Cruz – but she has a vulnerable innocence that puts you firmly on her side.

And what of her “adventure”? Well, she spends a fortnight in a nunnery, where she takes comfort in routine and quiet, and then she takes a trip to Oz in search of a hermit and a hunk (naturally, she tells her nun advisers only of her desire to find the former). Nothing dramatic happens, though she does get to play Operation – yes, I do mean the battery-operated game – with Jesus (and even the son of God, it seems, struggles when it comes to extracting the tricky spare rib). I must not reveal, here, whether her travels result in the bagging of a husband. But I will say that this is a brave and beautiful book, and Lia is lucky to have a publisher who, though he must secretly have longed for another volume of Fluffy (her 2007 hit about a talking bunny and the neurotic man it takes for its father), has allowed her so intimately to follow her heart.

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Rent a Friend has just launched in the UK. You pay someone to keep you company, or to join you in some activity. It’s not a dating site; nor is it a front for an escort agency. There is a strict ‘no sex’ policy.

Haroon Siddique explains some more:

“You can rent a local friend to hang out with, go to a movie or restaurant with, someone to go with you to a party or event, someone to teach you a new skill or hobby, or someone to show you around an unfamiliar town,” explains the US website. It also suggests using its services for a friend “to help motivate and spot you during your workout”. Popular activities people are renting friends for, according to the website, include teaching manners, prom dates and “wingman/wingwoman”.

Subscribers pay up to $25 a month for access to a database of more than 200,000 “friends” who have profiles and photographs to enable browsers to make an informed choice. Once they have chosen a friend, they can negotiate an hourly fee with prices starting from $10 an hour. Rent a Friend founder Scott Rosenbaum, who lives in New Jersey, said he was moved to start his business because, amid all the websites offering every imaginable dating experience, there was a gap in the market.

“I wanted to go a step back,” he told the Times. “No one was offering friendship.”

There are two reactions to this. One is to take the high ground and dismiss it as a complete distortion of the meaning of friendship. Another is to shrug the shoulders and accept that all friendship is at root motivated by self-interest. Helen Rumbelow in the Times takes this latter route:

Show me a friendship of any duration and I will show you a balance sheet of who did what for who: the dance floors tackled, the shoulders cried on, the hair held back over the toilet, the boxes moved, the dark nights endured and the champagne breakfasts that followed.

Ruthless accounting is involved, and if one party goes even a little into the red – a certain someone who stayed just a little too long in someone else’s spare room, for example – then the emotional auditors may be called in. Bankruptcy can follow. Friendship is a gift, but it’s part of a gift economy. [July 19, p11]

Aristotle still gives the simplest and truest account of friendship in Book 8 of his Nicomachean Ethics. He recognises that not all friendships will be perfectly pure and altruistic, and that many will be based on the need to find support, help, companionship, pleasure, fun etc. But this doesn’t make him cynical. It’s part of human life, to be brought together with others for all sorts of mutual interests.

That’s the key to friendship, however – it has to be mutual. And that’s what’s missing from Rent a Friend, the mutuality. That’s why I feel, however worthwhile it may be, it’s not friendship. If people didn’t pay, and just met through a website because they wanted to meet others, that would be a different matter.

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Quite a few friends of mine have done online dating; some with great success.

It gives you a bigger pool of people to meet; and it allows you to check them out through the all-important profile: age, work, interests, where you live, religion, background, favourite film, favourite band, etc. And of course it allows you to create your own online persona through your own profile.

But, according to some new statistics from one such site, it’s still the photograph that matters. There’s a New York Times article here; and some quotes from Jonathan Richards here:

Men should show off their abs (if they have them), make no eye contact, and not to be drinking. Women should look flirtatiously at the camera… possibly be doing something interesting such as playing a guitar, and under no circumstance have their pet to hand. Those would be some of the lessons for singletons mulling what type of picture of themselves to post on a dating website.

Leading US-based dating site OkCupid.com examined the profile pictures of 7000 of its users aged between 18 and 32 and assessed them according to a range of criteria, such as ‘basic look’ (Was the subject of making eye contact? Smiling?) and context (Were they showing off any flesh? Indoors or outdoors?). The site then gauged the photo’s ‘performance’ by measuring, among other things, how many times the subject was contacted, and what kind of response rate they’d had.

Sam Yagan, one of OkCupid’s co-founders, said that many of the rules about dating in the real world applied online: ‘A girl might find a man staring straight at her intimidating, so the ‘look away’ profile shot softens him a little’. Meanwhile, intimidation for guys, it seems, comes in the form of a woman holding a drink or, worse still, a cat. [TheTimesMagazine, 7 Feb 2010]

This is all to be taken with a pinch of salt. But I couldn’t help smiling at the idea that women with pets receive 24% fewer contacts from men, but men with an animal meet 50% more women. What does it all mean?

Rudy's Dream (pet portrait) by The Lone Beader.

And it’s interesting that at least in this unscientific survey men are attracted to women who look at them, but women are attracted to men who are looking somewhere else. Perhaps this is something to do with the Mars-Venus stuff…

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