As a sex and dating coach, I often witness my clients endure the trials and tribulations of app dating with one goal in mind: getting married. They are simultaneously encouraged and overwhelmed by the access dating apps grant them to people they may never have met in their day-to-day lives. These daters have newfound freedom to choose whoever they think will be a great match for their commitment goals.
Time and time again, I notice the primal drive toward indicators of financial security in prospective matches over indicators of compatibility like shared interests, values, and lifestyle. “He’s a lawyer, so that’s good right?” a client might ask me, and then we inevitably talk about whether a lawyer’s schedule would work for them long-term. This can also show up as a preference for someone who owns a house, lives alone, or who drives a certain kind of car, which are things that can be gleaned from profile pictures and the bit of text allowed in most dating apps. I’ve even had clients admit that colleges (specifically where someone went to college) is an indicator of compatibility, even if the match graduated from a university with 30,000 students—a sample this size is too diverse to assume anything about one particular person. What it does signal is earning potential, as college educated folks tend to earn more money than non-college educated folks.
For some of my clients, the hunt for marriage material includes sifting through dating profiles with laser focus on social status and earning potential. The search for something as meaningful as a life partner has been overshadowed by the need for financial security, or at least the dream of an easier life with two healthy incomes. Despite the access we now have, in the era of app dating, we may be relying too heavily on socio-economic assumptions to help us find long-term love. This includes looking for—or even becoming—”marriage material.”
While marriage has historical roots in asset exchange, according to Pew Research, love and companionship top the list of reasons why people decide to marry today. In Mating In Captivity, the sex therapist Esther Perel discusses this evolution. “Marriage used to be primarily a matter of economic sustenance, and it was a partnership for life,” Perel explains. “Mating today is a free choice enterprise, and commitments are built on love. Intimacy has shifted from being a by-product of a long-term relationship to being a mandate for one.” She’s right that we have far more freewill in the process of choosing partners, sexual and otherwise—but economic sustenance remains a top priority as well.
The term “marriage material” itself is materialistic. It reflects a need for concrete, “good on paper” qualities that are socially valuable. But what the notion of someone being “marriage material” misses is that every person is valuable, and dating should be a practice in finding what qualities someone has that are valuable to you and that allow you to fall madly in love with them.
But this is where things get tricky—while we know that value is a relative term, most of us also know what has the greatest value under capitalism: money, status, and power.
The truth is, we want it all. In modern dating, we are sold the idea that this is possible—that we can have love and improve our economic standing all at the same time. And the way we date plays a big role in this belief.
Consumerism pervades the entire dating experience. It’s hard to separate our consumer habits from our quest for love and partnership. From matching through an app—an act sometimes likened to online shopping—to meeting people in real life and hooking up, which is an exchange of time, money, and energy, we are always bargaining. When it comes to settling down with one partner, we may even weigh our “investments” in the relationship to make our final decision. “How long have we been together?” “Is it worth starting from scratch with someone else at this point in our lives?” “Is there a better option who just hasn’t shown up yet?”
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“Bigger, Better Deal Syndrome” abounds as daters wonder if the person they’re seeing is actually the best option in town. I see this in my practice and try to move my clients away from a “What is my date bringing to the table?” mindset to “How do I feel when I’m with my date?” It’s important to follow your curiosity and align with potential partners who may not check all of the boxes for marriage material, but who can co-create really fun, romantic experiences. In fact, so many of us become disillusioned with dates who meet our height, weight, income, and education requirements, because these demographics alone are insufficient data to help people forge the meaningful connection they’re looking for. In most cases, experience is the best teacher, because the world is full of misguided advice about what to look for in a partner or even how we should portray ourselves to be seen as valuable.
There’s internet rhetoric about how to be a high-value man or woman. While the definitions vary, “high value” men and women are those who exhibit the stereotypically desirable traits for their gender, with a new economic twist that reflects our culture’s focus on financial independence. High-value men are meant to be good financial providers with robust social lives. High-value women are self-sufficient (read: financially secure) and provide a high level of emotional care in all of their relationships. Not only is this reductive, it forces people into an impossible bind where just being themselves isn’t enough—they have to be the best, highest-earning version of themselves at all times. And of course, their dating profiles have to show that version exclusively.
The term “high-value” as it’s applied to human beings implies that certain people are just more worthy of love, affection, romance, sex, and even respect. But there is so much more to our value as partners than how we have managed to survive or even thrive in a traumatizing system. The reality is that being “marriage material” reflects our culture’s toxic and ubiquitous focus on work and accomplishment, seeing partnership not as intrinsically beneficial, but as something that must be negotiated for.
Daters with the best intentions of finding a long-lasting, loving partnership, can get caught in the trap of sizing people up by what advantages they perceive someone can give them. And this judgment also falls on their own heads. Many of my clients feel they don’t have much to offer a partner, even if they seem to be doing quite well by most standards.
In today’s hustle culture, it’s hard not to want a partnership advantage. Life is more difficult if you don’t have financial security. The hamster wheel of work combined with our growing tendency toward social isolation, makes dating often seem like a way out. Many people are looking to partners to solve or ameliorate two problems that our culture has yet to solve for us: loneliness and income inequality. That’s a lot of pressure to put on one’s dating life—or even someone else.
But the world is changing. People, particularly women, are reevaluating their relationship to work and the endless churn of life within capitalism, shedding long hours for more qualitative perks like work-life balance. That said, it’s also time to consider how we can separate consumerism and getting the best “deal” from the deep, human need for connection and love. In this age of swipe-and-match, we need a new framework of partnership and marriage that doesn’t place us back in the old paradigm of exchanging or growing our financial and social assets, if what we’re really after is love.
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