If you’re like most people in the Western world, you’re probably putting some effort in to dating strangers. Thanks to online dating, virtually free long distance communication and the fact that fewer and fewer people live in the same place they grew up — looking for love by dating complete strangers has become normal.
I’d like to question that.
I’d like to make the case that not only is the idea of dating strangers unusual when it comes to being human, but it’s counterproductive to the goal of finding healthy, happy long-term relationships.
I’ll illustrate this point with a metaphor.
Imagine you recently started a new, exciting business. Thanks to some initial success, your business has grown quickly and now you need a trusted business partner to help manage your new venture. This partner will be a co-owner, so your relationship will be pivotal to the success or failure of the business.
How would you find this person? Would you look in your network? Would you look in your inner circle of trusted friends and family and get referrals? Where would you spend your time looking? How much time would you spend searching among complete strangers? By complete stranger I mean someone you’ve never met, someone you have no friends in common with, and someone you have no significant groups or communities you’re in together. A completely random human.
The answer is probably “not much”.
Certainly there are strangers who would be a perfect fit, but sorting through them with no known references would be a poor and inefficient use of your time. In addition to that, if you met someone promising, you would need to then establish trust, which takes many months, often years — because it involves seeing people at their best and their worst.
Finding a life partner is a very significant decision, just like taking on a business partner — yet we don’t treat them with the same level of scrutiny and preparation. We’ve been taught to “follow our heart” but often we over-correct, and don’t integrate both the wisdom of the heart and the mind.
The Odds Aren’t In Your Favor
Here’s a typical journey of someone who looks for a long-term partner by surveying the general public.
You’re out and about, maybe at a bar or club, maybe on an app, or maybe just at your local supermarket. You come across a cutie — maybe this person bumps into you by accident, or maybe they approach you, saying they like that funny tee-shirt you’re wearing.
They ask you on a date, and you say yes. You put on your best behavior, and soon you find yourself in bed with this attractive stranger. Hey, not bad so far! Sex is great and you continue to date, because why not. Pretty soon the sex, cuddling and Netflix shows are making for some serious bonding and you feel yourself falling in love.
I’ll pause the story here to point out that so far, you’ve chosen to bond with this person because they are attractive and they haven’t done anything to screw up the relationship — but you don’t really know them yet. You haven’t seen them at their worst, and they haven’t seen you at your worst either.
You now enter the “honeymoon phase”, because bonding with other humans is wonderful, and you’re both enamored by the intimacy and closeness that’s now available. You spend a year or two basking in the glory of what the polyamorous folks call “new relationship energy”, until that wears off and you start to see this person for who they are, warts and all.
If you’re lucky, you happened to pick someone who shares your values — but not the ones you talked about on your first date, or even the ones you both claim to have — the actual values that come to the surface after observing each other for a few years.
If you’re unlucky, you realize you’re not a good match, and maybe you break up and move on — but now you’re attached to each other. You’ve already invested several years into this relationship and their parents like you! You don’t want to ditch it, so you give it another year or so to try and work it out.
Assuming you do end the relationship, you’ll experience a refraction period of a year or so before you can start this process all over again with a clear mind, having re-centered yourself after the break-up.
Now consider that many people want to find life partners early enough to have kids, and you’re left with a 10-15 year window to go through this 3-4 year process. How many times can we realistically do this? Two? Maybe three if we’re lucky?
When you look at this system, it makes complete sense why dating to find a life partner is so frustrating, or why it feels to many people like they are forced to settle. Great relationships are possible with absolute strangers, but the odds are stacked against you. Although some folks get lucky and end up being a good match, overall what we end up with is either a grand compromise, or becoming resigned and cynical after repeating this process over and over ad nauseam.
Here’s the alternative.
Invest in Friendships and Communities First
Just as someone looking for a suitable business partner would search primarily among people they know — we need to look to our communities and friends for romantic partners, and we need to invest our time and our care into those local communities.
Note: The word “community” is hard to define, but for the purpose of this essay, I’m using it to mean a group of people that have shared values and gather together in person on some kind of regular basis. We could also use the term “network of friends” because there are often people you have access to because they are friends of friends.
Looking primarily to friends and local communities for romantic partners is not a new idea. Our grandparents, and many of our parents’ generation followed this advice — but thanks to modernization, we have more options now than at any time in human history.
We can live anywhere, date anyone and have whatever life we want, but we forget that there’s a cost to starting over. The idea of bumping into a cute Italian guy on vacation, then getting whisked away from your life is nice, until you consider that during that time you’re spending with Marcello in Tuscany, you’re not cultivating or strengthening the friendships, communities and job opportunities that formed the bedrock of your life.
So what happens after that relationship with Marcello ends?
You start over.
Maybe at best, we get to return to our old life, but that’s assuming we had a solid, well established life worth returning to, which is shockingly not the case for an increasing number of people. Yet, this is exactly why that happens — we’re out chasing the next shiny object, instead of building lasting connections with people that will be in our lives with or without a particular romantic connection.
All of this becomes a downward spiral, because the more we chase shiny objects, the less we care for the friendships in our life. Then, because the friendships and communities aren’t cared for, we don’t have anything worth sticking around for, so we’re more apt to pick up and go at the sight of the next shiny object. Now our friendships and communities are even more neglected, and around and around we go.
At the end of the day, when we date strangers then make that relationship the most important relationship in our life, we will struggle to feel safe and secure — because the foundation of our life will be based on a relationship with someone we essentially just met.
The Safety of Community
Let’s consider what it’s like to date someone within an established community that we don’t plan on leaving, but first let’s talk about why it’s hard. It’s hard because our reputation is at stake.
If I’m dating a random stranger, I’m about as bound to good behavior as a commenter on YouTube. It’s essentially a consequence-free environment, because aside from calling the cops or personal vengeance, the person I’m dating has no recourse if I act like an asshole.
Conversely, if I date a friend or someone that I have many mutual friends with, the consequences for being a jerk are far worse. My reputation will suffer, and at worst, I might even be kicked out of the group. What do those stakes do for me? What happens when there are consequences for inconsiderate behavior and I can’t discard someone because they don’t do what I want?
I learn about myself.
I become a better person.
But not everyone does that, in fact some people choose to cut and run. Some people quickly exit communities when confronted with their bullshit, and while sometimes that’s exactly what is needed (not everyone fits in to every community), often it’s a sign that this person has been bouncing from community to community, dazzling people with their charm, then quitting when it gets hard.
I don’t want to date those people, and I’m glad they get filtered out.
If you want to have a long-term, healthy relationship with someone — judge them based on how many long-term healthy relationships they’re currently in. If someone has been part of, and contributed positively to a loving community for decades, there’s a good chance they will be able to be a part of a loving relationship with you for decades.
Questions & Rebuttals
What if your community is small and you run out of people to date?
My experience dating within my network of friends and in local communities, is we often overlook people who are right under our noses. I’m thinking now of two friends I know who were part of the same community for many years, but they never realized how perfect a match they were until 3-4 years in. They’ve since gone on to get married, have a few kids and start an intentional community together.
In the few times I’ve gone on dating apps, I often end up matching with people I already know, and the fact that we’re both on the app makes for a great excuse to ask them out. I’ve started several wonderful relationships that way.
What’s also worth mentioning that when I use the word “community” I also mean friends of friends. You might not be the kind of person who sets your friends up on dates, but those people exist and we should be grateful they do. “Running out of options” is like thinking you’ve seen everything there is to see in a city. You’ve often just hit the same sites over and over, and haven’t dug deeper for the hidden treasures.
What if I’m not clear on what kind of community I want to be in? What if I don’t really know what my values are yet?
That’s a great question, and something every young person gets to figure out. When we’re young we don’t know who “our people” are yet, and that’s okay. You can be a community slut! Go out and visit lots of groups. Experiment with different scenes, go somewhere that makes you feel like you’re “out of your bubble”.
This is just my personal and anecdotal experience, but I’ve found it takes people until their mid 30s to confidently have a sense of what their values are and what kind of groups they are happiest in.
So what about strangers? Should we just totally avoid them?
Strangers are great, but too often people build the foundation of their lives on strangers and when that crumbles, they lose everything and have to start over. What about having a fling or brief love affair? What about lowering your expectations for this person to be a suitable life partner? As long as it’s done with consideration of people’s hearts (easier said than done), I love the opportunities that strangers present, whether it’s romantic or not.
It’s also worth mentioning that dating doesn’t have to be something so focused on finding “the one”, we can date for the joy of dating. We can date to express our sexuality, to flirt, meeting new people, exploring fun date spots, etc…
Some people may read this piece and think to themselves, “I’m already connected with a community or two… I’ve dated plenty of friends… what’s the big deal?” While that may be true for many people, our culture is headed in a different direction.
The other day I was on Facebook and I clicked around to check out their “dating” section, and I found this default built in.
This isn’t Facebook’s “fault”, they’re simply reflecting the desires of the culture, which apparently is to not see people we know as potential romantic partners. Stop and think about that.
You may think I’m being an alarmist, but to me the fact that this has become normal is deeply disturbing. Dating our friends shouldn’t be the exception, dating strangers should be. Even if dating apps are really just for hooking up (which is a whole other essay), casual sex is much more interesting and fruitful (to me) among people I know and care about (again… another essay).
I rarely hook up with people I don’t have a handful of mutual friends with. I’ve invested so much in my local communities and groups of friends, that it doesn’t make sense for me to waste much time with strangers.
It’s either an upward spiral or a downward spiral.
If we take the time to build strong friendships and invest time and energy into our local communities, we won’t be so tempted to spend our time looking for strangers. Our lives will become more abundant, and the fruit from those trees we planted will nourish us, so we won’t have to look elsewhere.
Conversely, if we don’t invest in our local communities and networks of friends, we’ll constantly be seeking a new shiny object — the person that will “complete” us. That search will take us further from our friends and local communities, because those people aren’t shiny and new. Then if we do find someone to complete us, we may become hopelessly dependent on them, because we’ve made them the center of our universe.
Building community and a sense of belonging takes time.
It takes patience.
And it’s hard.
But it’s a lot harder when you don’t.