Hard pill to swallow: your Hinge algorithm might not be to blame for your epic romantic loneliness. It’s not even the fact that you’re still not on Raya. Like all things, capitalism is the root of this evil.
It starts with how we speak about relationships and even our self-image. How often do you hear and use phrases like, “return on investment,” and “hedging bets.” And we look for people who “know our worth,” ascribing material value to what we “bring to the table.”
Feminism launched a critical conversation about how institutions like marriage are based on property, ownership, and, as Florence Pugh says in Little Women (2019), “an economic proposition.” But it’s not merely marriage. It’s all of our intimate relationships these days. We’re commodifying some of the most precious parts of our lives — and we don’t even realize it.
Esther Perel — a psychotherapist, author, and frequent podcast guest known for her takes on modern relationships and for popularizing the concept of "erotic intelligence" in her book Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence — has coined yet another term: “romantic consumerism.”
“We are doing romantic consumerism,” she told The Cut. “I’m shopping for something, and I have a list of what it needs to be. On the one hand, we want to ask more, which is not a bad thing … but we want to pay less. And just as emotional language has entered the business world — where we talk about psychological safety and vulnerability — business language has seeped into romantic relationships.”
What is Romantic Consumerism?
Let’s start with the basics: consumerism itself. Consumerism is based on the idea that having and consuming more stuff will make you a happier, better, more admired person. It’s the thing you swore off when you watched Fight Club for the first time … before promptly comfort-shopping your worries away.
In the digital age, consumerism is more rampant than ever. Shopping is as easy as a few taps on your phone. You can find what you want and have it, fast. So it makes sense that we’re conditioned to think this way about everything — including our relationships.
Economists view consumption as a desire that fulfills biological wants and needs based on maximizing utility. Esther Perel views the current dating-scape as an attempt to do the same with taps and swipes as a new search for love.
How does technology factor into this? Is this one of those anti-phone Boomer things?
Esther Perel isn’t advocating for you to throw your phone into the East River. But there’s no denying that screen time has changed our brains. Our attention spans are shorter. Our brains are used to instant gratification. And, more importantly, it’s completely changed our culture.
“In the past, you met people on planes, in bars, in a line to a museum, you name it,” Perel said. “And now if you try to talk to people around you, you’re weird. Someone says, “Can I buy you a drink?” and you think they’re creepy. Technology now mediates our relationships. And we have developed a major sense of social atrophy.”
It makes sense our dating habits should adapt to meet the times. But instead of using technology to deepen connection, most of us use it for endless scrolling, shallow validation, and listlessly droning on about how we’ll never find love. But no matter how long your Raya request languishes in the “Pending Review” stage, your luck won’t change until culture does. Morbid.
As Esther Perel puts it, “you don’t come to dating with a history of dating. You come to dating with an entire history of socialization. So if I am embedded in my phone and disregard the world around me, then when I get out of the cab, I forget to say hello, good-bye. Then I enter a building and somebody opens the door for me and I don’t say thank you to that person either, and then I’m in the elevator and I’m in fact talking to somebody on my phone. So how do you interact with the world around you? How do you notice people?”
Transactional relationships are depleting your happiness
But it’s not just in that ever-elusive pursuit of love that capitalism and consumerism besiege us, like specters sabotaging our every attempt at connection. Transactional relationships are pervasive these days.
But wait! You might object. Shouldn’t a relationship be a 50/50 deal, so it works? However, keeping score is not the same as being in an emotionally supportive, healthy partnership. But don’t blame yourself, there are no roadmaps for relationships anymore, says Perel.
“Everything is on us and our partners. You decide if you want to have children if you want to have sex, who’s going to wake up to feed the baby, whose career matters more, whose family we’ll visit for the holiday. All these things were once clearly laid out. Now all of these are negotiations.”
Conversations about teamwork, partnership, and problem-solving are the markers of healthy relationships. Negotiations and transactional decisions should be left in the boardroom, not the bedroom.
So what do we do?
Is there any hope then, to find love in this hopeless place? By throwing out the limiting categories and embracing the pursuit of true connection, rather than trying to build the perfect partner out of a shopping list of personality traits.
This doesn’t mean you should lower your standards, it means heading into potential matches with fewer expectations. It also means embracing the journey of a relationship for what it is, including its conclusion. Not everything lasts. Genuine connection leads to character growth and development for all parties involved — and isn’t that the very thing we’re pursuing in this life?
“I always make the distinction between love stories and life stories. There are many more people you can love than people you can have a life with. There are a lot of people you can meet on a beautiful trip — you come from different worlds, but you have a moment of connection in a particular place. Beautiful, but those are love stories. Just don’t try to turn every love story into a life story.”