Commentary: Social media makes transactional relationships the norm

It all started with a tweet, a TikTok and a Youtube video essay.

Okay, let me finish. This is not the latest trend you need to get on, a supposedly empowering “fuck him, you could do better” self-help article or a 12-step skin care routine that will magically wash away all of your relationship problems with the help of a Vitamin C serum. Rather, what if I told you we have been brainwashed into perceiving relationships in a certain way?

What if I told you that social media makes this perception worse? 

I, like many other Gen Z-ers, indulge in a TikTok scroll from time to time. Who can’t resist the instant dopamine fix? The funny videos where you think, “OMG that is so me. How did they know?” Feeling incredibly guilty after watching some influencer get up at 5 a.m. and do more in a day than I’ve accomplished in a week. All while taking care of 5 children. And a full time job.

TikTok’s powerful algorithm always seems to know when I’m “going through it.” It was a source of comfort for me when I broke up with my high school boyfriend, and afterwards when I tried my hand at dating and ill-fated ‘situationships.’ 

I would scroll through TikTok after TikTok with women who would tell me I needed to “be more toxic” and play with other people’s feelings in order to forget about the ones who had hurt me. Influencers who would joke about the dozens of guys they were talking to, all in an effort to enact some sort of “revenge” on their cheating ex. Other ‘empowering’ videos about how “if he wanted to he would.” That I should never settle for less than the best. I didn’t even have to communicate my needs, the right guy should just magically know. And buy me flowers every day on top of that. 

All of this was somewhat comforting at first, at least in a hedonistic kind of way. Maybe I shouldn’t be putting all of this effort into dating men. Maybe they were doomed to fail because all men are toxic. Maybe I should just focus my romantic efforts on women. This is what I would say to my girlfriends, as we all complained about our love lives and how men just don’t understand. Maybe we are all doomed. 

And then I watched this video essay by Sisyphus 55, a Youtuber who goes to McGill (and who I matched with on Tinder not too long ago… if you’re reading this let me take you out for a drink). In the video “how we think of love is messed up”, he discusses Simone de Beauvoir’s theory of love in The Second Sex. 

In contrast to ‘ethical’ love, there are forms of failed love, one of them being founded upon narcissism. The relationship of narcissism is described as “loving one self and loving in the other." Many of us have dated someone because we have low self-esteem and the relationship makes us feel good —  their love is validating. You start to depend on that validation — it’s satisfying knowing that someone can know how messed up you are and still want to be with you. As someone who struggles to form secure attachments with other people (thanks mom and dad!), this really resonated with me. One of my fatal flaws is that I’m easily influenced by other people’s opinions of me. When, inevitably, I’m faced with rejection, my self esteem takes a huge blow. 

That person didn’t like me because there must be something wrong with me

By depending on this kind of validation in narcissistic love, maybe we start to expect that our partners should meet all of our needs, all the time. If not, they can be discarded, like objects, until you meet the next best thing. TikTok says that our partners should make us whole — as if humans are inherently broken or empty in the first place.

“If he wanted to, he would.” Well, maybe he just doesn’t have the capacity for that right now. Or maybe you haven’t been communicating your needs properly. 

Another video essay by Youtuber oliSUNvia also touches on this topic. No matter how compatible you are with someone, they shouldn’t have to just magically know what you need or want. While it might seem scary to be honest and vulnerable with someone else, open communication is unfortunately an integral part of long-lasting and healthy relationships. 

While you shouldn’t expect everything out of your relationships, they also shouldn’t be transactional in nature. I saw a tweet recently about how, as an adult, you shouldn’t ask your friends to help you move. Just hire movers instead. This is an unfortunate but common phenomenon in the hyper-individualistic culture present in many Western countries. Why shouldn’t we depend on our loved ones for help? Personally, as someone who admittedly needs a lot of help, my friends have saved my life countless times. They do so without question, without judgement, if they have the capacity

We’ve all fallen into the trap of thinking in ECON 101 terms (not to re-traumatize you). It’s really a cost-benefit analysis at that point isn’t it? How much I’ve done for you vs. how much you’ve done for me. I’ll treat you to coffee because you bought it last time. While seemingly innocent at first, this can be detrimental to others and ourselves.

The reality is that our relationships may never be 50/50, because humans are complex creatures and we all have different needs and capacities. We have different cultural contexts, different financial circumstances. I have definitely indulged in complaining with my friends about everything we do for our partners. Is it really love if you’re doing things in expectation of something in return? 

A similar kind of TikTok preaches about how women should have higher standards and that we should expect men to pay for everything. I’ve joked with friends about how this is ‘reparations’ for the patriarchal society we live in. I’ve listened to friends complain about first dates where the guy didn’t pick up the bill. People are starting to treat dates as a financial trade-off. He bought me dinner so I’ll indulge him on a second date. Obviously, it’s nice to get treated to dinner. But isn’t it harmful to start expecting this out of dating, when supposedly you’re there to get to know each other? I think we all have a role in perpetuating archaic gender norms, and in the name of being ‘equal,’ we reinforce the same heteronormative ideas that people are fighting hard against. 

Of course, this is not to shame others. I recognize the environment we’ve all been dumped into is dire. Dating apps make it incredibly easy to use and discard other people with a swipe of the finger. Isn’t it so much easier to ghost someone instead of just saying how you feel?

Another favourite Internet Thinker of mine, Rayne Fisher-Quann, discusses this idea about how people commodify themselves for the sake of the Almighty Algorithm. Doesn’t capitalism train us into thinking of human beings as commodities?

Disposable. Anything in the name of profit. 

Maybe the dating world is as bleak as I described, or maybe we can start to release ourselves from the chains of hyper-individualism and transactional relationships. Either way, I am a strong believer in the power of love. Love in all forms, platonic, familial, romantic. I can’t overstate how many times love has saved my life. It’s the best part of being alive. It’s the best part of being human. 

Dana Turdy is a fourth year political science and sociology student. 

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