The Broken Incentives of the Modern Dating World

If you ask the winners in a system whether it’s well designed, you will probably get a very different answer than you will from the losers. In other words, if you told King Arthur, “strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government,” you can be certain he’d disagree.

Similarly, people who’ve been happily married, in a long happy relationship, or who are deeply engrossed in cultural messages about relationships they get from Hollywood and musicians, may think all is well with dating and relationships in America… and it certainly is for some people. I have plenty of happily married friends pumping out kids that seem to be thrilled with life. Is our current system working for them? It certainly seems to be, but from a societal perspective, if you take even a glancing look at the numbers, things don’t look so good.

For example, estimates do vary, but as many as 50% of marriages end in divorce. That’s even more significant because the number of marriages in the United States plunged to the lowest rate on record since 1867 last year. There were only 6.5 marriages per 1000 people. Meanwhile, in 2020, the average age of marriage was 32. That’s up from 21 in 1960. So, Americans are getting married less often, getting married later, and getting divorced at a much higher clip than they used to decades ago. Partially as a consequence of that, we’re also not producing enough babies. For a nation’s population to stay even, it needs to produce 2.1 babies per woman. Meanwhile, our rate in 2020 was the lowest on record. Just 1.6 per woman. We’ve also had a well-documented “sex recession” going on as you might have guessed from the fact that the incel (involuntarily celibate) movement has become large enough in the last decade to start drawing attention:

Over the past few years, Jean M. Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, has published research exploring how and why Americans’ sex lives may be ebbing. In a series of journal articles and in her latest book, iGen, she notes that today’s young adults are on track to have fewer sex partners than members of the two preceding generations. People now in their early 20s are two and a half times as likely to be abstinent as Gen Xers were at that age; 15 percent report having had no sex since they reached adulthood.

Abstinence wouldn’t be bad if people were doing it for religious reasons or saving their virginity until they get married, but that’s obviously not what’s happening. Most people try to break this down in terms of men or women being the “problem” who are causing this, but in the largest sense, both men and women want the same thing…the best deal they can get for themselves. What that is varies according to changing circumstances, cultural tides, and incentives provided by the system.

Consider that there was a time, not so long ago in human history, where TV and the Internet didn’t exist, travel was very slow, and the population was 25% of what it is today. What do you think your version of an extremely attractive member of the opposite sex would have been then compared to now when on a daily basis, you see pictures of the most beautiful people on the planet that have been further photoshopped to make them attractive? In other words, our standards for what we consider an “attractive partner” have undoubtedly gone up considerably, and yet, our population has gotten considerably fatter and thus less attractive to the opposite sex as a whole:

In the early 1960s, fewer than 14 percent of the individuals possessed a body mass index (BMI) of over 30. Today, the figure collected by the CDCs National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHNES) is closer to 40 percent.

You’re not out of the dating pool just because you’re overweight, but it increases the difficulty of the whole process by orders of magnitude.

On top of that, the way social media and dating websites work have falsely inflated the egos of a lot of women in the dating market. If you don’t think that’s true, think about what happens every time a halfway decent-looking woman puts up a selfie on social media. Between her friends and thirsty guys, she’ll soon be buried in likes and over-the-top positive comments. Just to give you a real example, a female Facebook friend of mine just put up one of those selfies and among the many, many comments were, "Absolutely Beautiful.” “Your eyes are so beautiful.” “You're so beautiful.” “You're gorgeous.” “Wow, I like you the most."

Then, when women go to dating websites, the dynamic works in a way that further inflates their self-image. Most men get few replies from women and yet, they are expected to be the ones making a move. So, they go after every woman they are even mildly attracted to at all. So, if you are a woman, you get DELUGED. Most women are getting 10–20–50 or even 100+ emails per day (if she’s very attractive in a large area) from interested men. Additionally, if a woman is attractive at all, a few of those emails may be from some of the best-looking, most high-value guys on the dating website. Will those women end up dating those guys? Probably not, but will those guys happily sleep with them given the opportunity? Oftentimes, yes, they will.

If you are a woman, how could things like that do anything OTHER than inflate your ego and make you believe that you deserve a high-value man? Especially when our “You go girl, women can do anything men can do except better” culture is constantly telling women not to settle because they deserve the best?

On the other hand, our culture creates different issues for men. One of the big ones is that men get extremely muddled messages about what women like, how they should behave with women, and their own masculinity. Is being masculine good or is it toxic? Do you win a woman by being a good and loyal friend, as you often see in the movies, or by being an attractive, successful, masculine male? Is a man supposed to be strong and a leader for his family, is it a 50/50 partnership, or is it, “If Mama isn’t happy, nobody is happy?” Should you be chivalrous or is that insulting? Is a man supposed to focus on being a good man or should he learn to be more like a woman? Is he supposed to be a rock, or should he be sensitive and display his emotions to the world? Should he treat a woman like a delicate flower who needs to be sheltered and protected or should she be treated like his equal? Would women rather have a man who was good-looking, rich, famous, and a jerk or none of those things, but good-hearted, loyal, and funny? Do women want John Wayne or Michael Cera? I could certainly give you what I think are the correct answers to all these questions, but that’s just the point. If you are a man, you are constantly being BOMBARDED with different perspectives on questions like these. This leads to an awful lot of confusion and uncertainty for many men when it comes to interacting with women. On top of this, society often allows women to play either the “I am woman, hear me roar” card or the “I am a helpless, wilting, buttercup who must be protected” card depending on which one benefits her the most in a given situation. Figuring all this out seems to be beyond the capacity of an increasing number of American men.

Meanwhile, the reward for far too many men who have successfully navigated this never-ending labyrinth is to get married, followed by a soul-rending divorce years later that impoverishes him and splits him off from his kids, while in many cases seeming to reward the wife. If she’s getting “half,” it’s worth asking what the man gets after the divorce that’s worth half of the income he earned? At this point, every adult male knows other men who were absolutely destroyed in a divorce and after you see a couple of those, “Wow, it seems like they were made for each other” marriages implode, every man with half a brain recognizes that could be him down the road as well.

A lot of men have responded to this constantly shifting landscape by giving up entirely. So yes, we do have a lot of women with an unrealistic view of their worth and what they bring to the table in a relationship that’s completely detached from reality, but we also have an increasing number of mediocre man-children who can barely take care of themselves, much less a family. They’re not masculine, they’re not ambitious, they’re not leaders, and they’re generally not competent at much of anything other than video games and surfing between different pornography websites.  Then, those people start trying to get together later than ever to get married because women are encouraged to build careers and date around until the last moment before their supply of eggs starts falling off a cliff. Yet and still, the risk of divorce is always there, and kids, which are the best reason to get married, cost more than ever.

As a society, we should want to make it easier for people to come together and for more couples to bond, get married, produce children, and stay together to raise them. How do we get there? Certainly, there are some legal and tax changes we could make that could help with this issue on the edges, but there are no easy answers to this dilemma. That may change in the future. In fact, we should hope it changes in the future, but barring some kind of societal collapse that shakes up the social order, a healthier, more normalized modern dating world doesn’t appear to be on the horizon.

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