The Pursuit of Status: Modern Dating's Fatal Flaw

“Love can’t be earned, it can only be given.”  -- Donald Miller

“Why did we even start dating?” she looked at me and asked. My girlfriend and I were sitting in a parking lot at 1am, free-falling through the final moments of our relationship. “I thought you wanted to start dating,” I responded, “That’s why I suggested it.” “What!?!” she said. “I only said yes because I thought you wanted to.”  We both sat in stunned silence, knowing things were done.

In the months after we broke up, her question lingered in my mind. Why had we started dating? At first I didn’t know, but as time passed, I was finally able to admit the uncomfortable truth to myself. I’d asked her out, not because our personalities were a great match or we had such a strong friendship, but rather because dating her gave me what I’d be craving since high school: status, and the accompanying feeling of being a somebody.

the beginning of it all

It’d all started my freshman year of high school at the fall homecoming dance. I went to a typical Midwestern high school, and in a world where the girls prized the tall, athletic, and confident guys, 14 year-old Luke was short, chunky, and worst of all, timid. I felt invisible the whole night, relegated to the olive green plastic chairs lined up against the wall, joined by all of the other guys who didn’t measure up.

As I sat there, watching who danced with whom, I soaked up the unspoken message: if you ever want someone like her, you better be somebody like him. “If I could just get a girl like that to like me,” I thought from my sideline seat, “Then I could prove I actually matter.”

This unspoken goal etched itself into my mind, giving purpose to my high school and college years. If I could just achieve enough, academically, athletically, and socially, to be one of those guys, then I could get a girl like that to date me. This seemed like the best way to silence my nagging fears of forever being a nobody.

And so I got to work, spending the next ten years do everything I could to become successful. It  all culminated at 24, with the relationship I mentioned above. When we started dating, I finally felt like I belonged, excited that someone like her would like me. I’d made it, right?

our status driven world

We all grow up in a world that revolves around status, that intangible social standing which invisibly designates who gets the most respect, approval, and social power. No one has to teach us what status is, as we subconsciously pick it up, observing which kids receive the most praise, attention, and affirmation.

While our parents may have loved us unconditionally, the rest of the world doesn’t, causing us to feel the need to use our gifts, talents, and opportunities to show them we deserve their attention. And so, as we observe who and what’s high status, we subtly orient our lives towards these things, using our appearance, aptitude, and athleticism to prove we’re a somebody.

Nowhere, though, is our pursuit of status more pronounced than through relationships. Whether it’s middle school crushes, high school prom dates, or college “hang-outs,” who likes you both displays and creates status. These relationships follow the transitive rule of status, you are who you attract. And so we strive to date as pretty of a person as possible, hoping to solidify and expand our social standing.

why does is it like this?

This culture exists because we all grow up in something called a meritocracy, which David Brooks defines as a “hyper-competitive system where we are all encouraged to focus on cultivating our own talents and skills.” In a meritocracy, status gets distributed according to individual achievement, or merit, which leaves us chasing more and more success.

Before the gradual introduction of the meritocracy in the 18th and 19th Centuries, status was assigned by a strict hereditary aristocracy. If you were born to peasants, you were low status; born to nobles, high. But now, as we assign status to individual achievement and not familial last name, anyone, at least hypothetically can move up through talent and hard work.

With this change came of possibility for the first time of upward social mobility. Today, because of this switch, the successful life requires upward achievement, where you better your social standing through achievement, hoping to improve on your parents and outdo your peers. This opportunity, and expectation for upward social mobility, Brooks writes, creates four key beliefs that rule our culture:

  1. You view life as a competition.

  2. You value the external, not the internal.

  3. You view people according to a social ranking, based on how much they’ve achieved.

  4. You win at life by achieving the most.

These beliefs reside in our collective subconscious, teaching us that our worth and value aren’t tied to who we intrinsically are, but rather to how much we externally achieve.

dating in the meritocracy

While the meritocracy can be seen in every corned of our society, nowhere is its influence stronger than in dating and relationships. In our meritocracy, dating is no longer about trying to find a companion for life, but rather an aspirational search, where we use a relationship to prove our level of achievement and social rank.

Because of this, the groundwork for dating and marriage in our culture is individual achievement, to prove to others that you’re a high status person. You have to be a somebody, after all, if you want to attract a somebody. While what constitutes achievement differs for men and women, it always revolves around easily judged external categories, such as appearance, body type, clothing, academic degrees, jobs, lifestyle, and social media profiles.

And so, we willingly work long hours, spend money we don’t have, and become people we’re not, all in order to achieve and establish as high of status level as possible. Once we achieved as much as we can, we then hope to use our resulting status to attract a person with equal or slightly better status. If we can do this, it will validate our achievements and prove to our parents, peers, and society-at-large that we’re successful, while giving us the happiness and self-worth we think will satisfy.

our current dating mindset

This approach, what I’ll call achievement dating, causes us to completely flip our approach towards relationships. Rather than pursuing a relationship with someone we naturally connect with, we limit ourselves to only those who check off enough achievement boxes, and then try to connect with them. This creates a subtle, yet destructive, flaw seen in much of today’s dating:

You don’t date who you actually like, but rather who you’d like to like.

This flaw causes us to resist people we naturally connect with, but who don’t have enough status for us, to instead try to date the people we’d like to connect, because their looks, lifestyle, and status fit our ideal identity. Pastor John Ortberg puts it this way: our idea of a good marriage isn’t to find the man or woman who will match your soul, but to win the guy or girl everybody else wants.

This approach to dating causes you to date transactionally, where you evaluate every potential date not on who they are as a person, but rather on their ability to help you reach your goals. As you pursue achievement and status, this means you primarily value a person’s looks, lifestyle, and achievements. It’s no surprise then that every dating app allows you to instantly assess each other on these exact things. And so we spend our single years trying to date the highest status people we can, willing to force a connection so we can either create or maintain a high social status.

When I dated like this, I rationalized any lack of connection away, hanging on a few things we had in common, all because I liked how I looked when this person was with me. I thought I liked the other person, but I really just liked how they made me feel about myself. But then, after the inevitable breakup, I’d go back to the girls I had great friendships with to complain about how messed up dating was, never willing to admit the problem might be with me.

why do we date like this?

Given all of the frustration and hurt surrounding relationships today, one would think we’d be more than ready to get rid of achievement dating. But, due to three major reasons, we can’t ever quite let go.

  1. We want to validate all of the work we’ve done: As young people who have sacrificed so much to achieve, we want to finally get a return on all of our hard work. We don’t want to throw away the last 20 plus years of achievement all by marrying someone “below” us, and feel entitled to an equally-statused achiever. So we resist anyone who doesn’t measure up, inwardly stating we “deserve” more.

  2. We want to solidify our social standing for life: Since we know we’ll be judged on the status of our spouse the rest of our lives, we hold out for someone who will prove our status as a high achiever. If we marry a lower status person, we’re afraid our status will drop, relegating us to a permanent place in the social underclass. And in a culture that decreasingly believe in an afterlife, achievement in the here and now becomes everything.

  3. We want to set up our children to win: Aware our future children will grow up in a meritocracy just like us, we hold out for a spouse who will best equip them with the looks, intelligence, and abilities to win at the game of life. We’re afraid that if we settle, we’ll permanently disadvantage our hypothetical children in their pursuit of high status.

These three reasons show why many remain single and hold out for a spouse with the highest possible status. But they still beg the question: why is status so important? Why do we all feel the need to validate our achievements, solidify our social standing, and equip our children to win at this same game?

the real reason for achievement dating

We all strive to achieve high status because we all struggle with the same question: am I important? Born one in a world of seven billion, we all wonder if our life actually matters. Deep down, we’re all afraid that the answer’s no, so we look to others and their perceptions of us as the basis of our identities. We spend our lives trying to impress them, hoping to convince everyone around us that we are valuable.

We become ambitious in our life and dating, thinking that greater achievements will garner greater amounts of attention and love. The problem, though, is that great achievement and the resultant high status don’t happen overnight, or if at all, which causes us to live with what philosopher Alain de Botton calls “status anxiety.” In the uncertainty of singleness, we’re all unsure we’ll attract a high status person, leaving us both insecure and anxious that we’ll ever achieve our relationship goals.

I spent so much of my twenties looking to relationships to take that insecurity and anxiety away, but it never worked. No matter who I dated, I could never silence my inner doubts and fears. There was always a little voice in my head that whispered, especially after breakups, “You’re not enough, Luke, so no one will ever like you.” And if someone did, then I’d struggle with imposter syndrome, leaving me feeling like I was a fraud, sure they would cut ties after they realized I was really just a nobody masquerading as an achiever. So what’s the answer, then?

so what’s the answer?

When I think back to 14 year-old Luke, sitting there at that high school dance, I wish I could tell him to never think that achievement, status, or have the “right” girlfriend could solve what I was searching for. This never works because no amount of an external achievement will solve your inner hurt and fear.

We need something more than what this world can give, something that can satisfy our ambition, yet at the same time take away our insecurity. It’s at this point that God comes to you and whispers something different. You’re important, He says, not because of what you’ve achieved, but rather because of what Jesus has achieved on your behalf. Christ’s achievements, through His life, death, and resurrection are available to you, and can satisfy your ambitions; you no longer have to marry some high status person to prove your successful, and can instead rest in the identity He provides.

On top of this, Christ’s love for you melts your insecurities and fear of not being important. The Son of God left paradise to suffer and die, all so He could spend eternity in a relationship with you. We can’t do anything to earn this love, but rather it is given to us by God’s unmerited grace. Knowing this, you never have to base your importance and value on who you can attract, but rather on the God who, because of Jesus, says this about you: you are my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased!

so what now?

So what does this mean for who we date and marry? What it doesn’t mean is that you can never go out with someone who’s attractive or successful. Of course not. But it does completely change our motives for choosing who and how to date. When you rest in Jesus’ achievements and love, you no longer have to date someone for what they give you or how they make you look, but rather because you’re excited about who they are and what you can be together.

As an ever-recovering achievement dater, I always ask myself three questions when I’m interested in someone, in order to check what my true motives are:

  1. If this person were half as physically attractive would I still be just as interested?

  2. If my friends never saw what this person looked like or knew about any of their accomplishments, would I still be just as interested?

  3. Am I interested in this person because I’m trying to build my kingdom, or because I think that together we can better serve God’s kingdom?

If I answer any of these three questions incorrectly, then I need to reconsider my interest, since it’s most likely based on external status than internal character. The best relationships aren’t a means to mutually assured achievement, but rather a pathway to serving each other and bringing glory to God.

previous essays in this series: