As always, cross-posted from Putanumonit.

From Tokyo to TriBeCa, people are increasingly alone. People go on fewer dates, marry less and later, have smaller families if at all. People are having less sex, especially young people. The common complaint: it’s just too hard. Dating is hard, intimacy is hard, relationships are hard. I’m not ready to play on hard mode yet, I’ll do the relationship thing when I level up.

And simultaneously, a cottage industry sprung up extolling the virtue of loneliness. Self-care, self-development, self-love. Travel solo, live solo, you do you. Wait, doesn’t that last one literally mean “go fuck yourself”?

This essay is to tell you: go fuck someone else. Ask someone on a date. At the very least, invite someone to hang out and ask them what they’re struggling with. This essay is not about how to make friends and lovers (a topic I’ll come back to), but an exhortation to actually go and do that. Now instead of later, directly instead of ass-backwards, seek relationships instead of seeking to be deemed worthy of relationships. If you think this is all too obvious to mention, reread the first two paragraphs again.

My argument doesn’t hinge on specific data relating to the intimacy recession and whether the survey counting sex dolls adjusted for inflation. If you’re reading Putanumonit as a brief escape from all the loving relationships smothering you, congrats! If you’re trying as hard as you can to connect and the world isn’t reciprocating, consider this essay as written for those you seek to connect with instead. Reverse all advice as neccessary.

This essay’s epistemic status is whatever The Last Psychiatrist was drinking.

Wherefore all this aloneness? The pink-hairs blame the red-pills who blame the pink-hairs. But really, they’re both in agreement that men and women are natural enemies and any interactions between the two are zero-sum. If you’re stuck in zero-sum thinking you’re probably on the wrong blog, but take this as a first dose of medicine and then go give someone a hug.

One level up from the gender war is the class war. Leftists blame loneliness on capitalism — single people buy twice as many toasters, sex toys, and Netflix subscriptions. Rightists blame socialism — for the state to be your daddy it must first destroy the family. I won’t spend much time on this. If your ability to connect with people depends more than zero on the GDP composition that’s the problem right there. “But in this economy…” Listen, if you’re struggling to build financial capital, maybe now is the time to invest in relationship capital instead?

The famous Atlantic article on The Sex Recession starts by noting that sex is now more accepted than ever:

If hookups are your thing, Grindr and Tinder offer the prospect of casual sex within the hour. The phrase If something exists, there is porn of it used to be a clever internet meme; now it’s a truism. BDSM plays at the local multiplex—but why bother going? Sex is portrayed, often graphically and sometimes gorgeously, on prime-time cable. Sexting is, statistically speaking, normal.
Polyamory is a household word. Shame-laden terms like perversion have given way to cheerful-sounding ones like kink. Anal sex has gone from final taboo to “fifth base”—Teen Vogue (yes, Teen Vogue) even ran a guide to it. With the exception of perhaps incest and bestiality—and of course nonconsensual sex more generally—our culture has never been more tolerant of sex in just about every permutation.
[…] These should be boom times for sex.

So why, in the words of philosopher Julia Kristeva, “everything is permitted and nothing is possible”?

I don’t think there’s a contradiction here. Everything is hard because it’s permitted.

There used to be no shortage of people who would judge you for having sex. Parents, peers, teachers, pastors, even the same media outlets that now claims to be “sex positive”. And when you had to escape surveillance and risk judgment just to make out with someone, it was HOT. The illicit is sexy. Sneaking around created a bond based on a shared secret and merely having sex in the face of restriction was an achievement to be proud of. Having good sex was gravy.

If “the culture” no longer judges you for getting naked, who will? Your partner might. They’ll think you’re inexperienced, or too experienced, or too frigid or horny or vanilla or too weird. This can be a problem, but it’s ameliorated by your partner repeatedly telling you that no, it was good, you’re just what they wanted. You should believe them. If they didn’t like you they’d make like Hamlet and ghost.

The big problem is when you start judging yourself. You can hide from your parents. You can find a partner who doesn’t judge your shortcomings. But you can’t outrun your own insecurities.

It starts by comparing yourself to the internet. Everyone’s dick is bigger in porn, the tits are perkier. Everyone’s dates are more romantic on Instagram, their vacations sexier. People who suck at relationships are a lot less visible online.

It also turns out that society will judge you for looking for romance if your perceived status isn’t up to snuff. Try to date “out of your league” and you’ll be labeled a creep or a thot, depending on gender[1]. People who seek help with dating can run into this judgment and begin to internalize their perceived inadequacy. They start diverting all their energy into acquiring status markers, into being perceived as relationship-worthy by the real or imagined crowd of observers.

There’s no natural end to this process. As people spend more effort on status-climbing and self-improvement they spend less time in actual relationships. Unfortunately, you don’t get better at dating by learning to meditate or doing pushups alone in your room. When people who are obsessed with self-improvement have a miserable time on apps and first dates, they often conclude that problem is lack of self-improvement — surely when two well-developed high-status people effortless love will spark by itself! And so people keep chasing the next personal milestone. Get that degree, lose 10 pounds, learn that skill, read that book…

It’s important to distinguish between life’s necessities and extras. If you’ve just lost your job, are dealing with a health crisis, or moved to a new city where you have no friends then you should probably stabilize these issues before dating. Dating is hard, and acute crises should be solved directly and not by looking for salvation in a partner. But most self-development isn’t addressing real crises even if it pretends to.
Self-development is riskless. Progress is slow but assured, and every step towards your personal goal is rewarded with likes and favs on social media. The pursuit itself raises one’s status. Opening up for connection, on the other hand, is scary. The rewards are great but so is the risk of failure. And real affection is the one thing you can’t brag about in an Instagram story. Intimacy for external consumption is not intimacy.

And so, as the great guru put it: people want to be fuckable more than they want to fuck.

Fuckability is capital. We seek to accumulate capital. Fucking is labor. We seek to avoid labor. And so people are more fuckable than ever, and do ever less fucking.

It gets worse.

The pathological case of becoming obsessed with status and perception is when relationships themselves are subjugated to this end. When the main measure of a relationship is in how it makes you appear. Narcissism.

I see it in rich women who refuse to date a man who makes less money than they do, no matter how severely it limits their mating pool, because it would be beneath them to have a poorer boyfriend. I see it men who refuse to date a woman who is a year older or an inch taller than they are.

It’s looking at accomplished women dropping out of demanding careers to raise kids as sexism. Could it be that someone may prefer to raise a family to grinding 70 hours a week at the office once they don’t need to worry about money? I certainly would! But if the only thing you count is personal status[2] then it would seem to you that these women are being cheated out of something by the evil patriarchy.

Narcissists ask: How does this relationship reinforce my ego narrative brand? How worthy does it make me seem? Ego-poisoned people who are short of narcissism merely ask: Would I be judged of a relationship? These questions are self-focused, and intimacy requires that you relinquish them entirely. Instead, the question that starts all good relationships is: Can I make someone happy?[3]

Making someone happy doesn’t imply forever, or as happy as they can be, or happier than anyone else could make them. A compliment makes a person happy. A text where you share something fun. Being a good listener on a date even if you didn’t blow their mind with electric conversation. A cuddle makes a person happy even if it stays a cuddle. Sex makes people happy even if it’s not PornHub-grade.

Romance is the most complex and rewarding multi-player game that humanity has invented. There are many romantic interactions that are short of your wildest dreams that are still worth having, that make two people happier than they would have been alone. And if you’re starting out, that’s where you should aim for.

Dating and sex and relationships are all trainable skills. You learn by doing. To learn painting you start by making 100 paintings. To get good at tennis you start by playing 100 matches. The first 100 will be mostly mediocre and some will be outright bad, but the 101st one has the chance to be good.

To go on a great date, you have to go on 100 mediocre dates. Or at least, put yourself in the mindset where that is your goal. That is how you learn to date and make people happy to be dating you. You learn how to deal with rejection and breakups and how to bounce back. Just as importantly, that’s where you learn to enjoy dating (see rule 97).

What if you’re not enjoying it? There are bad dates out there, people who are selfish and manipulative and dangerous or who just don’t show up. This sucks, and the only consolation is that with dating experience you get better at spotting them earlier.

But perhaps you are going on dates with lovely people but the dates aren’t going exactly according to the script you envisioned. Or the people who flirt and match with you are not quite what someone with your degrees and BMI and yoga skill deserves. In this case you should go back to self-development: fix your narcissism and figure out what value you actually provide to a romantic partner besides imagining that you raise their status through mere association.

How to tell if you’re in the latter category? If you get a lot of “I can’t believe a great guy/gal like you can’t find a girlfriend/boyfriend” from your friends, that’s a sign. Your friends saying that is not a compliment, it’s a mockery of your misguided self-focus. They’re saying that you have the resources to make someone happy, and that you’re failing to do so.

Unfortunately, dating is a matter of luck and circumstance. All you can do is be proactive and open. There’s no guarantee that you’ll meet the partners you want in a given time frame or for a given amount of mating effort. Exponential distributions are tough: you go through one mediocre match after another, and there’s no way to predict when the positive outlier comes. But still, you’ll always do better the earlier you start.

Perhaps there was a hidden benefit to the premodern mating context when you had roughly one shot at a successful partnering — all you could do is invest in the one relationship you’re given. But now that the option to date without lifelong commitment exists it affects your dating life even if you don’t plan on it. The option is always there for you and your partners. Waiting until you hit some life marker to start dating just means that you miss out on years of learning what other people are looking for, and what you yourself are looking for in a relationship.

And if you’re too busy for dating, actually busy with something that’s more important to you than romance, consider that dating doesn’t have to be a sink of time and energy. A casual date can be invigorating, and a partner can provide the support you need in your struggles.

So go out there and make some people mildly happy by going on mediocre dates[4]

and having mediocre sex and learning to connect with people romantically instead of having your head up your own ass. There are more interesting things to put in there with a partner.

  1. Men get the worst of it, especially those on the bottom of status ladder. Punching down at low-status people is generally contemptible and so people convince themselves that all incels are violent misogynists to justify it. I see having compassion for incels as a good litmus test of basic human decency. ↩︎

  2. I consider it quite unfortunate that being a middle manager (which entails a lot of personal benefits) is considered higher status than being a good parent or partner (which entails a lot of benefits for other people). ↩︎

  3. In case people are confused, the whole business with decision matrices is about choosing a partner (or a house). Once you’ve chosen, the only thing that counts is investing in the relationship, not scoring or comparing it. ↩︎

  4. If you don’t know who to go on a mediocre date with, I’m always available to deliver mediocre romantic satisfaction in person. ↩︎


23 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 4:37 PM
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I really enjoyed this post. The analogy of capital vs. labor really hit home in particular, I realized that’s exactly how I’ve been implicitly treating dating, so I think this post is likely to change my behavior in the future. Thanks for writing it.

I had fun reading this post. But as someone who has a number of meaningful relationships but doesn't really bother dating, I was also confused of what to make of it.

Also, given that this is Rationalism-Land, its worth keeping in mind that many people who don't date got there because they have an unusually low prior on the idea that they will find someone they can emotionally connect with. This prior is also often caused by painful experience that advice like "date more!" will tacitly remind them of.

Anyway, things that I agree with you on:

  • Dating is hard
  • Self-improvement is relatively easy compared to being emotionally vulnerable
  • I hate the saying "you do you." I emotionally interpret it as "here's a shovel; bury yourself with it"

Things I disagree with you on:

  • We aren't more lonely because of aggressively optimizing relationships for status rather than connection; we're more lonely because the opportunity cost of going on dates is unusually high. Many reasons for this:
    • It's easier than ever to unilaterally do cool things (ie learn guitar from the internet, buy arts and crafts off Amazon). And, as you noted, there's a cottage industry for making this as awesome as possible
    • It's easier than ever to defect from your local community and hang out with online people who "get" you
    • This causes a feedback loop that reduces the people looking to date, which increases the effort it dates to date, which reduces the number of people looking to date. Everyone is else defecting so I'm gonna defect too
  • I think the general conflation of "self-improvement" with "bragging about stuff on social media" is odd in the context you're discussing. People who aren't interested in the human connection of dates generally don't get much out of social media. At least in my bubble, people who are into self-improvement tend to do things like delete facebook.
  • If you're struggling to build financial capital, the goal is to keep doing that until you're financially secure. The goal very much isn't to refocus your efforts on going on hundreds of dates to learn how to make others happy.

This advice seems conditional on some minimum threshold of attractiveness (social status and physical attractiveness), enough to find hundreds of people willing to go on dates with you within your social circle or on dating apps. This seems like quite a high threshold, or am I missing something? For example the Atlantic article says:

He had better luck with Tinder than the other apps, but it was hardly efficient. He figures he swiped right—indicating that he was interested—up to 30 times for every woman who also swiped right on him, thereby triggering a match. But matching was only the beginning; then it was time to start messaging. “I was up to over 10 messages sent for a single message received,” he said. In other words: Nine out of 10 women who matched with Simon after swiping right on him didn’t go on to exchange messages with him. This means that for every 300 women he swiped right on, he had a conversation with just one.

Attractiveness comes in many forms. I'm extroverted and write better than I look, so I do well at dinner parties and OKCupid. You can be attractive in dancing skill, in spiritual practice, in demonstrable expertise, in an artistic pursuit... guitar players get laid even if they're not that good looking.

And yet, everyone's first association when talking about "aim for 100 dates" is Tinder, which works only for the men who are top 20% in the one aspect of attractiveness that's crowded and hard to improve - physical looks. This includes men who self-report as unattractive, like this commenter (and presumably, "Simon").

The minimum threshold of attractivenes on Tinder is incredibly high, much higher than almost any other place to look for dates. It's certainly higher than my own good looks — I only turn Tinder on when I leave the country.

This is self-help-books-level advice

I have no idea whether this is intended as a compliment or a criticism.

I am fairly sure it’s criticism (and I agree with it).

You're probably right. It would be 10x more useful if it offered some specifics as to what's bad about the post, though. As it is, it's just a differently-shaped downvote.

I don't mind self-help-books-level advice if it pointedly helps me improve my mental hygene. It did.

I think I'm fairly uncomfortable with some of the language in this post being on LessWrong as such. It seems from the other comments that some people find some of the information useful, which is a positive signal. However, there are 36 votes on this, with a net of +12, which is a pretty mixed signal. My impression is that few of the negative voters gave descriptive comments.

I think with any intense language the issue isn't only "Is this effective language to convey the point without upsetting an ideal reader", but also something like, "Given that there is a wide variety of readers, are we sufficiently sure that this will generally not needlessly offend or upset many of them, especially in ways that could easily be improved upon?"

I could imagine casual readers quickly looking at this and assuming it's related to the PUA community or similar groups that have some sketchy connotations.

This presents two challenges. First, anyone who makes this inference may also assume that other writers on LessWrong share similar beliefs to what they think this kind of writing signals to them. Second, it may attract other writing that may be quite bad in ways we definitely don't want.

I would suggest that in the future, posts either don't use such dramatic language here, or in the very least just done as link posts.

I'd be curious if others have takes on this issue; it's definitely possible my intuitions are off here.

Not offering a general opinion here right now, but I want to briefly respond to the particular phrasing of:

"Given that there is a wide variety of readers, are we sufficiently sure that this will not needlessly offend or upset some of them?"

As stated, this is far too costly of a standard. This is the internet, where an incredible magnitude of people can see your content, all with very idiosyncratic feelings and life stories, and the amount of work required to ensure zero readers will feel offended or upset is overwhelming and silencing.

Did you interpret me to say, "One should be sure that zero readers will feel offended?" I think that would clearly be incorrect. My point was that there are cases where one may believe that a bunch of readers may be offended, with relatively little cost to change things to make that not the case.

For instance, one could make lots of points that use alarmist language to poison the well, where the language is technically correct, but very predictably misunderstood.

I think there is obviously some line. I imagine you would as well. It's not clear to me where that line is. I was trying to flag that I think some of the language in this post may have crossed it.

Apologies if my phrasing was misunderstood. I'll try changing that to be more precise.

I understand your concerns.

I cross-post everything I write on Putanumonit to LW by default, which I understood to be the intention of "personal blogposts". I didn't write this for LW. If anyone on the mod team told me that this would be better as a link post or off LW entirely, not because it's bad but because it's not aligned with LW's reputation, I'll be happy to comply.

I could imagine casual readers quickly looking at this and assuming it's related to the PUA community

With that said, my personal opinion is that LW shouldn't cater to people who form opinions on things before reading them and we should discourage them from hanging out here.

Thanks for the response!

For what it's worth, I predict that this would have gotten more upvotes here at least with different language, though I realize this was not made primarily for LW.

my personal opinion is that LW shouldn't cater to people who form opinions on things before reading them and we should discourage them from hanging out here.

I think this is a complicated issue. I could appreciate where it's coming from and could definitely imagine things going too far in either direction. I imagine that both of us would agree it's a complicated issue, and that there's probably some line somewhere, though we may of course disagree on where specifically it is.

A literal-ish interpretation of your phrase there is difficult for me to interpret. I feel like I start with priors on things all the time. Like, if I know an article comes from The NYTimes vs. The Daily Stormer, that snippet of data itself would give me what seems like useful data. There's a ton of stuff online I choose not to read because it seems to be from sources I can't trust for reasons of source, or a quick read of headline.

I was thinking of people who write comments without reading the post, which pollutes the conversation. Or people who form broad opinions about a writer or a blog without reading. I deal with those people all day every day on Twitter and in the blog comments.

I didn't mean people deciding what to read based on the title. Of course everyone does that! Someone seeing 'Go F*** Someone' may assume that the post will be somewhat vulgar, and will talk about sex. Both things are true. People not interested in vulgar writing about sex shouldn't read it. If I titled it 'A Consideration of Narcissism as it Affects the Formation of Long Term Bonds' that would actually be more misleading, since people would not expect it to be a vulgar post about sex and will get upset.

A bit more thinking;

I would guess that one reason why you had a strong reaction, and/or why several people upvoted you so quickly, was because you/they were worried that my post would be understood by some as "censorship=good" or "LessWrong needs way more policing".

If so, I think that's a great point! It's similar to my original point!

Things get misunderstood all the time.

I tried my best to make my post understandable. I tried my best to condition it so that people wouldn't misinterpret or overinterpret it. But then my post was misunderstood (from what I can tell, unless I'm seriously misunderstanding Ben here) literally happened within 30 minutes.

My attempt provably failed. I'll try harder next time.

Also, when a person who has been building his or her career becomes "staying at home", the person doesn't just lose standing among peers and colleagues. He or she loses peers and colleagues, at all. It is one thing to be known as "someone who is no longer staying at work until nine", but it's quite a different thing to just not be known anymore. It makes you... lonely.

  1. "Wow, new words."
  2. Would that mean that married people are losers, from the discussed point of view, for the simple reason of having married at all, nevermind whom?
  3. You're kind of saying that the only way to not be lonely is to have lover(s). Is it cultural? I mean, I have a female friend with whom I meet as regularly as our kids' health permits us. She is the only person outside my family and relatives who does give a damn about me (enough for a phone call, for an informal invitation etc.) When I think about being lonely (and it happens to married people), I usually think that I should call her or get myself a dog, at last. Not a lover. That seems more about "bored" than "lonely".
Leftists blame loneliness on capitalism — single people buy twice as many toasters, sex toys, and Netflix subscriptions.

I know you aren't saying you agree with this logic, but I'll just point out that in the case of toasters and Netflix subscriptions, there's a much more obvious explanation, which is that a couple living together only needs one toaster between them, so on average they only buy .5 toasters each.

I think the argument is that capitalism is incentivized to keep you lonely so you buy more stuff for exactly the reason you describe.

Ach, nuts. I even spent a minute trying to understand where I'd gone wrong, reasoning that it wasn't all that likely that Jacob's post would contain something as strange as the thing I thought I was seeing. Oh well.

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