Another reason for the blog’s success is that, in a culture where old-fashioned dating seems to be dying out, and the hook-up culture and online dating seem to be taking over, Forty Days of Dating is surprisingly traditional. Tim and Jessie don’t even hold hands until Day 18. And while they are documenting their dating experience online, they aren’t online dating. “We no longer search for our romantic partners; we shop for them,” Jessie writes on Day 10. And she’s right. One-third of U.S. couples who married between 2005 and 2012 met online, according to a recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. There’s nothing wrong with that — many happy relationships are formed through online dating — but it is indicative of a cultural shift.
Of course, Tim and Jessie’s relationship isn’t strictly traditional either. Most couples don’t see a couples therapist during the first week of a relationship (theirs sagely tells them, “Emotions know no project boundaries”), or spend $160 on ginger mojitos for a weeknight date, or consider an afternoon spent illustrating their dating histories together to be a good time. But there’s something refreshing about Forty Days of Dating, and that is that Tim and Jessie are friends and that they go on fun dates, write each other sweet notes, and recognize how important the small things are in a relationship. Further, in a time when vulnerability is often considered a sign of weakness, they’re willing to be honest with themselves and with each other.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the experiment, though, is the way Tim and Jessie analyze their own approaches to relationships in comparison with their parents’ experiences. Jessie’s parents got married in their early 20s and have had a stable marriage for 30 years. Because she wants to have a successful marriage like her parents, Jessie puts a lot of pressure on herself. “What is so wrong about seeking a healthy, committed relationship?” she writes. There’s nothing wrong with that, but Jessie is part of a generation that thinks committed relationships come at the expense of their careers and of “keeping their options open.”
Tim grew up in a chaotic family situation. When his mother was three months pregnant, his father (her boyfriend at the time) forced her to choose between continuing their relationship and carrying her baby to term. She chose her baby. During one therapy session, the therapist tells Tim that his habit of abandoning women stems from his father’s abandoning him, a hard truth which Tim embraces. On Day 28, Tim writes: “My grandparents have been together for 56 years. If there’s ever been hope for me to make a relationship work, it’s the standard that those two have set.”
In the end, Forty Days of Dating is no Jane Austen novel. After a weekend trip to Disney World, Tim and Jessie break up. At that point, Jessie is very invested, even though Tim doesn’t actually treat her that well. Tim decides he’s afraid of the commitment and of hurting her. “I thought of that Bob Dylan song where he says, ‘I gave her my heart but she wanted my soul.’ And I know that what I could offer right now would never be enough for someone like Jessie,” he writes in his final post.
The conclusion of Forty Days of Dating isn’t quite as depressing as the existence of the “Bang With Friends” app, but it’s still pretty disappointing. It’s yet another testament to the fact that relationships and family-formation have been so deconstructed that there’s no longer much of a trajectory to follow. Still, Tim writes: “My whole life has been turned inside out from this crazy experiment. I do want to be in a relationship. I do want something meaningful.”
And so in a very postmodern, very millennial viral blog that will either soon evanesce or, more likely, be turned into a second-rate rom-com, there’s a nugget of truth: Even in the era of modern love, people want to be known and loved, and to be part of something meaningful. They just don’t know how to get there any more.
— Madison V. Peace is assistant to the editor of National Review.