Chapter 3.Relationships: Romanticism


Existentialism and Dating

Dating brings us close to a particular strand of philosophy that, the rest of the time, might not seem particularly relevant to our lives: existentialism. One of the movement’s major proponents – Jean-Paul Sartre – developed a set of ideas that help explain, and give dignity to, the anxiety, excitement and at points vertigo we may experience as we go through the dating ritual.

A key concept of Existentialism is expressed in Sartre’s somewhat obscure but useful phrase: “Being precedes essence”. What Sartre meant by ‘being’ are the bits of our life that we are free to choose for ourselves: how we live, what job we do, how we conceive of what happens to us. And by ‘essence’, he refers to things that lie outside our command: our biological nature, the flow of history, the position of the stars…

What Sartre wished to point out to us, in a spirit of wanting to liberate us from certain rigidities of mind, is that ‘being’ should ultimately be thought of as more important than ‘essence’. However much we sometimes like to tell ourselves that things have to be the way they are, there are in fact many radically different possible versions of ourselves available to us; we can choose to an extraordinary extent how things might be for us. But much of the time, Sartre felt, we don’t give this open-ended aspect of our identities enough space in our minds. We assert that the way we live is inevitable and fixed, and imply that we have no agency over our stories. But Sartre argues that this is an illusion: the kind of person we are right now developed as a result of all sorts of small and large decisions: it could have been very different, and may be different again in the future according to the way we exercise of our will upon the raw material of life.  

Surprisingly enough, it is dating that can bring home some of the richness of this dramatic existential insight. It is in our dating years that we feel, perhaps more than at any point before our since, how much our future is undefined, how little is preordained, how many options there really are; how frighteningly free and fluid things can be.

With each date we’re sketching – even if very lightly – a possible future. If our date on Wednesday goes well, we could conceivably be looking at (for instance) a life in which we have relatives in the highlands of Scotland, in which a lot of the people we spend time with are in the technology sector and in which we’ll probably move country several times; we might in time also have a child called Hamish or Flora. Alternatively, if our date on Friday evening goes very well, we could be edging towards a life in which we’ll be spending a lot of time in Amsterdam; we’ll get drawn into the theatre world; if we have a child they might be called Maartje or Rem and they’ll have a former cycling champion as a grandfather and an Indonesian grandmother.

© Flickr/drufisher

Once we make our choice, things may well start to seem as if they always had to be, that there was some essence that we were always moving towards, that we had to end up with little Maartje or sweet Flora crawling on the carpet towards us. But in the dating period, we are closer to a grander and more visceral truth: that there is no single script.

Sartre’s second big point is that properly recognising our freedom can lead us to a state of huge but inevitable and in a way salutary anxiety. Conscious of our real liberty, we take on board that we have to make decisions and yet, at the same time, that we will never have the correct and full information upon which to base them with the sort of perfect wisdom and foresight we might desire. We are steering largely blind, forced to make choices that ideally we’d leave to the Gods but that in a secular world, we have no option but to take on for ourselves.

As we date, we may wonder: who should we settle for? For how long do we keep going? How can we tell whether this one or that one is right?

Sartre’s answer is that we can never properly know but that we are never more properly alive and authentic than when we are turning over such enquiries: the fluidity of our destinies is then palpable, with all the strangeness and wonder this implies.

Too often, the sense of fluidity is lost. We assume that what is had to be and that we have no further choices left open to us. The dating years defy such views.

No wonder if they feel like high stakes. Sartre wished to embolden us for the sort of challenges they present to us. Dating pushes aside the veil of our normal complacency and reveals the sublime, terrifying and, at the same time, thrilling uncertainty of existence. We should, with a host of existential challenges before us, at the very least, not be too bored.

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