Hookup culture, my Tinder husbands and the Stanford Marriage Pact

Feb. 23, 2018, 1:00 a.m.

Every time we parted ways, Jack said, “Text me later” as he winked. It was part demand, part question, wrapped in charm. Of course, I always did.

As my senior year zoomed by, our ebbs and flows became markers of time. One week, he was “too busy for anything; the next, he was all sweet talk. I sometimes still look at my life during that time as alternating periods of good Jack and bad Jack. Through it all, I bent every which way to appease him.

Jack sits a few inches below me and has dark brown hair.  His voice says nerd with a twist, and his style embodies a constant battle between hipster, preppy and startup bro. It never felt right to demand anything of him. We were, after all, undefined, just hanging out busy teenagers having fun. But often, it felt like more than that to me. He consumed my thoughts, defined my mood, shaped my days: it was more than that to me.

When he ignored me or misled me or betrayed me, I overlooked it for the most part, justifying his missteps and disrespect with the loose lines of our relationship. Since nothing was set in stone, everything was fair game. We did, after many months, finally attach a label to us. One night in his NYU dorm, we deleted our Tinders simultaneously in a moment of cringe-worthy modern courtship. And suddenly, we were dating. It lasted only a few weeks, until the night he texted me that he wasn’t in the right “head space, not right now.”  

But that was already my second Tinder beau. My first one, Mike, was blonde and bold and angry. I fell for him at a time when I felt like I still had to hide him. He hated me for that and convinced me that I was doing something terribly wrong. Lonely and misguided, I became enthralled by him, so I began to believe him. As with Jack, we had ups and downs whose full-time monitoring sucked my energy. Things ended, he disappeared and time passed with meaningless kisses where I sought warmth, until Jack came around a few years later.

The summer before I started college, I spent six weeks in Brazil and, à la “Eat, Pray, Love,” told myself that I was a new me: independent, strong, self-respecting, cool. I told myself that I’d learn to kiss without attachment and flirt without anxiety, that I’d be young and nonchalant. For the most part, that worked in Brazil. That summer, I also tied up my loose ends with Mike and Jack as best I could, and thought that was it. I was in charge now, and in college, I’d start afresh.

Before I knew it, my first quarter at Stanford was coming to a close. My first months here were punctuated by a few short-lived and, of course, undefined connections, but the warmth I had sought in my Tinder loves in high school was still elusive to me. I was, in a way, entertained but unfulfilled.

But then, on the Tuesday of Week 9, a friend of mine texted me a link to the Stanford Marriage Pact, a student project that guaranteed insurance against “marital disaster” through the use of “Nobel Prize winning algorithms and linear algebra.” I, and more than 4,000 other students, decided to give it a shot. I mostly approached the Pact as a joke, maybe as a chance to make a like-minded friend. But part of me quietly hoped I’d get matched with my crush or a random hot senior, and that something would come of it.

After the matches came out, I held out for an hour before I gave in and messaged my match on Facebook. The following Friday, I found myself at a party in his frat house, making small talk. To my surprise, we hit it off, and I saw him again. And again.

But then winter break disturbed our momentum, and when we came back, he disappeared behind explanations of “low emotional energy and a busy quarter and probably something else, but all I could hear was Jack’s “head space and “need time” and “a lot going on.” They’re all so vague that I forget whose lips said what. Even these unsatisfying apologies came only after I ran after information. Proactive communication seems all but dead.

To be clear, I don’t doubt that Mike and Jack and my Marriage Pact match had, in fact, “a lot going on.” And I hope that they’re working through it. I just wish they’d told me sooner, more clearly, more kindly.

When we no longer want to be with someone, why do we opt for ambiguity in lieu of an honest conversation? In all this waiting and back-and-forth, in the absence of clarity, I was left to play guessing games about what could have gone wrong. I alternated between complete nonchalance and deep self-questioning, confused by the latest backpedaling in my love life.

To borrow an analogy from Emma Court’s “A Millennial’s Guide to Kissing,” our generation “treats every liaison as if it is happening on an airplane, as if we have only that one night and there is no tomorrow.” In many cases, our hookups verge on the transactional. Often, and understandably, this attitude is a defense mechanism against attachment and heartbreak, but I wonder if it’s worth it.  

I don’t mean to invalidate our reluctance to commit or discredit hookup culture as a whole different things work for different people. For some, hookups are healthy and fulfilling, marked by open communication and genuine affection. Also, there’s a lot in this domain that we’re doing better than our parents. Our growing conversations about consent are promising, and we’re increasingly tolerant of sexual and gender identities that were previously repressed.

Still, this inherently casual and amorphous culture normalizes rude, inconsiderate behavior that would otherwise be unacceptable. In it, people ghost and belittle and disrespect.

The fact that these are human interactions should, in itself, be sufficient motivation to maintain decorum, consideration and respect, but our moral compass sometimes falters when accountability disappears. To extend Court’s analogy, if you’re not seeing them after you part ways at baggage claim, it doesn’t matter, right?

At the root of this generational ailment lies our obsession with acting cool. I do it all the time. To be blasé, play hard to get, stay detached it’s the first chapter of our collective tacit rule book. I don’t text first, I wait to respond. I avoid eye contact in line at Coupa. I partake in a game of guessing and ambiguity and contrived suspense. I stage run-ins and I avoid run-ins, misplacing my energy and time. This habit follows me follows us from the pursuit to the dissolution of our hookups.

We don’t go deeper because we’re terrified of getting hurt. That’s fair. But when we prize detachment and fear commitment, we’re passing up opportunities for fulfilling, happy, long-term bonds.

When we scatter pieces of ourselves with people who haven’t earned our trust, we incur the damage. To expose yourself, to become emotionally and physically bare, takes courage. Each time our trust is betrayed, something is lost.

The collateral effects of our culture, of our actions, manifest in me as a void that can cause a sharp loneliness. We seem to forget that at the end of each text, each encounter and each conversation is a fellow human, fragile and vulnerable and confused. In a world of virtual swipes and one-night stands (or quarter-long flings), we experience rare moments of high-intensity intimacy followed by periods of uncertainty. These bittersweet encounters pepper our fast-paced lives and leave us spinning. In between these crests of emotional and physical proximity, I am left flailing to reconcile the occasional warmth that envelops me with the isolation that always ensues. At these times, I feel self-conscious, embarrassed and stupid. And I wonder why I’ve done it again.


Contact Lucas Hornsby at lhornsby ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

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