Relationships

The Theory That Explains Why Dating Keeps Getting More and More Difficult

Here’s how you could save yourself a breakup or two.

An image of a moving van with door open, ramp down, and boxes nearby.
LCBallard/iStock/Getty Images Plus

I thought it was the dream: to date a man who owned his own home. Tim’s parents, who wanted to help their children put down roots in their hometown of Los Angeles, had helped him buy a three-story house nearby when he married his first wife. And initially, it was exactly the stability I thought I was looking for. I was in my 20s, and I’d been switching cities every few years. If I stayed with Tim, I could put down roots, too.

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As the relationship progressed, I began to feel less comfortable in his home. I felt ungrateful; it was a beautiful house, just not one I would have chosen for myself. It sat on top of a huge hill, and I didn’t drive. For reasons he never fully explained, he couldn’t get curtains in his bedroom without spending $10,000. I never slept past 6 a.m. in the year that we dated, and my quads were eternally sore. When we began discussing moving in together, I said I might have to sleep in his basement because of the sunlight. He thought it would be weird to have a girlfriend who lived in the basement (fair), so I floated the idea of going elsewhere, either within or outside L.A.

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“It’s just, I’m so entrenched. I’ve been here for 10 years,” he said. “All my stuff is here.”

Of course, that’s generally true when someone has a home. It is the place that stuff goes. But I acknowledged his point—he was far more rooted than I was in the studio I’d subleased several months earlier. Still, I realized Tim was never leaving this shade-less house. I wasn’t ready to commit to making a permanent home out of the place he’d already planted himself, and for this reason (among others), I couldn’t commit to Tim.

After Tim, I found myself in a relationship with a man who was even more attached to his hometown. He was from Richmond, Virginia, and most of his extended family lived nearby. My relationship with Jeff got more serious than my relationship with Tim, but Richmond was a tougher sell.

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For one thing, I wasn’t living there—we met while I was crashing at my parents’ house in New York City while it was under renovation in preparation for a sale. He seemed to think we could date long-distance indefinitely, but I was older than he was, and our ideas of “indefinitely” were not aligned. I knew if I wanted the relationship to work, we’d have to find a way to live in the same city sooner rather than later, which meant I would have to find a way to live in his city. I wasn’t strictly opposed; I found NYC loud and overpriced, and my work is remote. I liked that he had street parking. I liked that he had a backyard. I liked that we could maybe get a chicken coop, in theory. (Chicken coops are one of those things that are better in theory.) Mostly, I just liked him, and I was willing to overlook a great deal of impracticality.

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In my 20s, I was neither rooted nor nomadic. I lived in 11 apartments in three cities in eight years—NYC, L.A., and San Francisco. I find my choice of cities wholly unoriginal, and yet, I still think of myself as someone who would live anywhere. What I feel attached to is the idea of non-attachment—the idea that, under the right circumstances, I’d move. I hit the age of 30 with barely any furniture to my name; I was open to setting off at a moment’s notice. Of course I’d jump into a long-distance relationship, as Jeff assumed I might, or move into someone else’s forever house, like Tim and I discussed. Where else did I have to be?

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And there’s something appealing about a person who has picked where they want to be. There’s a reason why so many Hallmark movies and romance novels feature small-town heroes who help big-city heroines settle down in a “real” town. Our roots are an indication of our values. With both Tim and Jeff, theirs pointed toward qualities I was looking for in a partner—stability, closeness to family, predictability. In my 20s, I dated too many men who seemed unwilling to ever settle down—thrill-seekers always on the hunt for the next big adventure. It was time to date someone who wanted to stay in the same place.

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Unfortunately, I eventually grew unhappy in my relationship with Jeff. It wasn’t Richmond itself that turned me off. It was his assertion that because he was the one with the stability, I could either move into his life or leave. He had pursued me from afar with the expectation that I would come to him. I firmly believe that if you’re absolutely not open to moving, you should not seek out a long-distance relationship, but I didn’t know how committed he was to Richmond when we began dating. I didn’t need him to move to NYC; I needed him to consider moving to NYC. Or anywhere. If there had been room for a conversation, I might have felt differently. But we weren’t building a future together—he’d already done that.

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We are in a unique time when it comes to putting down roots. There are those who feel like they can’t; because of the economy, many millennials and Gen Zers wonder if they will ever own homes. Buying a home isn’t the only way to establish yourself in a place, but, as I learned when I dated a man who owned his own, homeownership is certainly an easy way to argue your commitment is deeper than someone else’s. We also live in the age of the digital nomad: There’s been a 112 percent increase in the number of digital nomads in the U.S. since 2019. There are many who don’t see just one place in their futures at all.

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At the same time, no matter how many #vanlife Instagram accounts there are, choosing to stay in one place isn’t going away. Most people still live near where they grew up, and millennials are actually more theoretically committed to staying in one place than prior generations, with 87 percent of millennials planning to eventually settle down. White and Asian Americans are more likely than Black or Hispanic Americans to move farther from home, but overall, our mobility rates are decreasing because of the increased cost of living. What does all this add up to? American society is going through a rapid change, and the question of whether a youngish adult plans to stay in one place long term is becoming more relevant. I predict that situations like the ones I found myself in are likely to become increasingly common.

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I spoke with a number of people who either uprooted themselves to be with a partner or whose partner uprooted themselves for them. Some described the challenges of such an arrangement. “She showed me the shelf she had cleared out for me. One. Shelf,” says Marc, 46, describing a move to NYC to be with his partner. “With a mix of tension and laughter we made some compromises, including using my favorite mattress, which we both ended up disliking and replacing in the end!” But others—like me—found more serious issues when they sought to bridge the divide. Stephen, 49, describes moving to Sweden to be with his former partner. “In Britain, I was the head of our family, but I wasn’t close either physically or emotionally to my parents, brother, and other relatives. But she was close to her family. So we moved to Sweden, and suddenly I went from being No. 1 to being at the bottom,” says Stephen. “When we separated, I became even more isolated—it was only then that I realized that all of my friends in Sweden were really hers.” Stephen describes the same fear I felt when I considered a move to Richmond—that I wouldn’t build my own life, or even a shared life. That I would instead become an add-on to someone else’s.

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On the flip side, those who have planted themselves in one place have also struggled with dating someone who was theoretically willing to come to them. “He hated my hometown. He complained about the price of housing, traffic, food,” says Jonelle, 43, whose partner moved from Mississippi to Virginia to be with her. “It really put a wedge between us. I took it personally. It felt like he was talking about me.” Our choice of a permanent community feels like part of us, and someone rejecting that community can be a personal affront.

After Jeff, I decided one thing—I was getting my own place in NYC. It’s far easier to fall into someone else’s life when you’re not attached to your own, and I wouldn’t let that happen again. I began to ask what it even meant to “put down roots.” The answer isn’t as objective as “where you own a home” or “where your parents live.” My parents weren’t in NYC any longer, but my sisters and friends were. I knew NYC better than I knew anywhere else, and comfort is its own root. It’s the only place on earth I can navigate without a smartphone. And I’ve lived here long enough that I can picture a future for myself. Arguably, the ability to imagine a long term is the strongest root of all, since that is the necessary condition for commitments of all types.

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At the same time, I worried I might again meet someone in another city. Had I simply reversed my role in the relationship? Was I now the one refusing to move? Was I limiting myself for no reason? But I already knew the answer.

The problem with my past relationships wasn’t that they couldn’t leave. Many people cannot leave their locations for economic, career, or familial reasons, but this wasn’t the case for either of them. It was that they wouldn’t leave. Their commitment to a place represented not only positive values, but also a certain degree of inflexibility and stubbornness. It wasn’t merely that they had stronger ties to their cities than I did; it was that they prioritized those ties over mine.

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It’s a conflict that manifests more broadly than simply what we call “roots,” which are just one of any number of things we can use to prioritize our own needs above someone else’s. I’ve dated men who thought their careers or friends were more important than mine—and I’ve been accused of doing the same. If my partners had shown me flexibility in other ways, I might have been willing to adopt their long-term vision of life in their hometowns.

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At the same time, I could have taken more steps to make their homes my own. I could have learned how to drive so I wasn’t exhausted climbing a hill to Tim’s house. I could have slowed things down with Jeff, to see if long-distance worked for longer than I expected. But I didn’t, and they didn’t. As with most breakups, there was no single cause. They weren’t the right ones for me. In part, I felt like they weren’t making space for me, but in part, I chose not to put down roots in their lives.

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A friend told me recently that she was looking for a partner willing to live in NYC forever: “Not someone who knows without a doubt he wants to stay—just someone open to it.” I echo her sentiment—not because I want someone open to staying in NYC, but because I want someone open to anything. And in that way, the unrootedness of my 20s reflects my values, too.
I’m open to moving locations in the same way I’m open to switching careers, or meeting new people, or trying a new restaurant, or learning a new skill. I couldn’t be with someone whose plans were so definite that they didn’t leave space for me, or room to change. I could build a life with someone in many different places, but I want to make sure I’m doing just that—building a life that’s shared.

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