Tinder wrapped up the dating trends of 2022 and revealed the top one: many users see situationship as a valid relationship status. A situationship is a romantic relationship that is undefined, non-exclusive, and for the most part, commitment-free. According to Tinder, young people prefer a situationship, as it is “a way to develop a relationship with less pressure.” They get to do activities together, share physical and emotional intimacy, and sometimes be integrated into each other’s social circles without little to no commitment. And while for some, a situationship can be a stepping stone to a relationship, it has long stopped being a mere transitionary phase.
“No-strings-attached” has become the default way of relating to each other. In the name of a more liberated arrangement with our partner, we keep things cool and go with the flow, only to find ourselves in protracted half-relationships with blurred boundaries and unmet emotional needs. The more we postpone putting on labels, the more challenging it becomes to determine the significance of the relationship. The upshot is usually short-lived connections — connections that leave us disgruntled, with no emotional fulfilment and security. But why do we keep (in)voluntarily reproducing these dynamics in modern dating?
While individual preferences play a role here, we must pay attention to the political drivers behind these shifts. Our changing attitudes toward relationships might reflect a collective response to the pressure of being hyper-independent, marketable, and self-reliant.
And neoliberalism can take a lot of credit here.
What is neoliberalism?
Neoliberalism is a political project that has dominated global economies for decades. It came to prominence in the 1970s and is associated with the deregulation of markets, free movement of capital and limited state intervention. The ideology immediately conjures up political figures such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, who concentrated more power in the private sector, promoted competition as the only natural way of organizing human relations, and deliberately weakened social ties.
Under the guise of freedom and meritocracy, welfare programs got undermined, labor regulations got looser, and trade unions were crushed. “Forever renting is the future of housing”, “temporary contracts give workers flexibility”, and similar beliefs have painted over the eroding sense of safety with the “freedom” of not committing. At the same time, we got ascribed the primary role of consumers. The desire to buy and sell has been advertised as the main path to creating a meaningful existence. Amidst commodified housing, speculative healthcare insurance providers, and marketized education, the right to have options and consume has become the only solace for abolishing all security.
Neoliberal thinking has penetrated the social fabric, fashioning itself as a natural order with no alternative. And while there has been some prominent resistance, we have largely made peace with the neoliberal way of organizing our economies… and social lives.
Neoliberalism and relationships
A project as powerful and expansive as neoliberalism could not stay confined to economic boundaries. It extends the logic of market capitalism to all aspects of life, including love. When the promotion-oriented pursuit of personal fulfilment guides our financial lives, relationships are quick to adopt a similar mode of operating.
First, we want to eliminate any “risks” in love. Dating apps make this easy. By carefully examining bios and interests, we invite consumer-driven habits and behaviors into dating. The ever-growing number of filters and preferences promises to match us with the most risk-free options. We want to derive maximum gains from the dating market and safeguard ourselves from any losses. And although we get gratification from the feeling of having absolute control, the primary elements of love and romance get lost. Blocking the space for courage and vulnerability makes forming deep connections impossible. Alain Badiou says, “Love without risk is an impossibility, just like war without death.”
Although dating apps have undoubtedly exacerbated our consumerist tendencies in relationships, they cannot be viewed as the sole source of the shifting attitudes toward relationships. Rather, a whole set of socio-cultural extensions of neoliberalism might have played a role.
In a culture that praises opportunism, relationships start to resemble the gig economy: always chasing the next opportunity, never ready to settle long-term. Sociologists Richard Sennett and Zygmunt Bauman draw a notable parallel between finance capitalism and love: the “no commitment to you” told to the worker translates into “no commitment to you” to the lover, as relationships get made and unmade in the name of a cosy consumerist permissiveness.
The proliferation of neoliberal ideas has stripped relationships of their core elements of courtship, reconciliation, and negotiation. The desire for uninterrupted comfort and safety trumps our willingness to invest in a genuine connection and embrace the immediate challenges that come with it. In pursuit of maximizing personal gains, romance turns into another form of self-gratification: when it doesn’t return the highest yields, it’s time to find something else.
In neoliberal societies, we are told to be our own masters; to advance our interests, even if it comes at the cost of causing great harm to others. We can’t expect solidary relations. We are discouraged and often punished for behaviours that transcend our personal gains and egos. Initially designed to organize economies, neoliberalism has long encroached on our relationships. It has created ideals of ‘normal’ in relationships that fit very few people. By advocating violent individualism, neoliberal ideas have left us paralyzed by a fear of commitment and consumed by anxieties. They have colonized our social reality and psyches.
Toward more liberated relationships
Relationships are complex and multi-faceted. Individual differences, past experiences, and aspirations certainly define how we connect with each other. But if we are to navigate the roadblocks to more meaningful connections, we should go beyond individualizing current challenges.
Neoliberalism has spilt over into our social reality. Therefore, facing its hegemony is indispensable to creating more solidary and liberated relationships — liberated from the tyranny of market logic and the constant pursuit of utility maximization. And while we are organizing against neoliberal economics and policies, we should also start confronting the neoliberal occupation of our psychosocial lives.