Valentine's Day is here. If you're single, you will likely find yourself assessing and reassessing your love life. Your Instagram feed full of perfectly filtered photos of roses, chocolates and TMI kisses will be a constant reminder that you are not in love and not in a relationship.
Meanwhile, an endless string of engagement announcements on Facebook might lead you to question your singlehood and wonder what you have been doing wrong. You might even find yourself vowing to find a significant other by next year's Valentine's so that you can be the one tweeting about finding that perfect gift.
But how? Should you follow the old-fashioned pathway to love? Put on a little black dress, hit the town and hope that someone invites you to dinner and a movie? Recreate your parents' courtship?
No. Because it's 2013, and traditional dating as we know it is dead.
When I traveled across the United States a few years ago, I interviewed more than 100 men, women and couples about their love lives in cities big and small. My mission was to figure out what connection, romance and love actually looks like in today's day and age.
What I found was that we're living in a post-dating world.
The happy couples I talked to had not met and immediately started dating. Instead, they connected in more natural -- and yes, ambiguous -- settings. They played on the same volleyball team or were co-workers on a political campaign. Or they hung out in the same social group or were friends for years before getting intimately involved or got intimately involved right off the bat with no initial relationship plans. Or they met each other while living in different parts of the country and got to know each other via Facebook or Gchat before committing to full-on romances.
Instead of going on explicit dates, they had tested the romantic waters, moved in and out of gray areas, and used technology to explore the various aspects of their connection before putting labels or expectations on their relationship.
This romantic ambiguity was also reflected in my conversations with people who were single. Asked to define their romantic status, they gave me answers like, "Well, it's sort of up in the air ..." and "It's really complicated! How much time do you have?" and "I would define it as, hmm, dating? Ish? Dating-ish?"
Single people weren't dating, and young couples who had fallen in love hadn't gotten to that point through dating.
Yes, there were men and women who bemoaned the death of dating. They yearned for the straightforward clarity of an earlier era where gender roles were obvious and technology didn't play such a central role. Then they wouldn't have to deal with the ambiguity of e-mails or the unclear signals of text messages. They wouldn't have to overanalyze every word and interaction.
At the same time, though, even those people were ready to admit that going on actual "dates" was full of pressure and not very enjoyable. Traditional dating, they pointed out, encouraged an overly formal, inauthentic vibe that ultimately hindered instead of helped their efforts to make romantic connections.
This was perfectly expressed to me by a 29-year-old female personal trainer in Denver who had experimented with online dating, matchmakers and blind dates.
"It's hard to tell anything on the first date -- you're so on the surface," she explained. "I think expectations make things more difficult. They make it so much harder to pick someone, because you feel like the stakes are higher. ... You miss that spark. ... Whereas when you're just 'hanging out,' it's easier."
If women struggled with the pressures of traditional dating, men hated them.
As a 26-year-old male graduate student in San Francisco lamented, "I feel this burden to have to do something eccentric or clever or unorthodox. I feel like I'm fighting this almost impossible uphill battle to stand out. I have to show a girl a magic trick."
His thoughts on getting to know women through more natural means? "The ambiguity is much more romantic and fun," he said. "You have a crush on them much more easily."
And isn't that the whole point? For courtship to be fun while love develops?
Today's romantic landscape is full of ambiguity, gray areas and a lack of guarantees about where any given connection might lead. So consider this Valentine's Day an opportunity to set aside your outdated expectations and embrace a new mindset.
Forget dating. Instead, welcome this new era and see every encounter as a potential moment for romantic sparks and excitement.
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