He might have practiced polyamory, consensual open love.
But John, with his flair for saccharine cuteness and his insistence on treating his conquests like romantic-comedy heroines, didn’t like just to play or cheat, and he certainly didn’t like any of his girlfriends to suspect that they didn’t have his full attention. According to Moira Weigel, the author of “Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), most people are not like John in this respect.
They’re a staple of Jane Austen novels: John Willoughby, who caddishly breaks Marianne’s heart in “Sense and Sensibility”; George Wickham, who reels in both Lizzy and Lydia Bennett in “Pride and Prejudice”; Frank Churchill, in “Emma,” who flirts with Miss Woodhouse while being secretly engaged to her frenemy, Jane Fairfax. As a twenty-first-century guy living in one of the most culturally liberal of American cities, he had options available to him that men in Regency England did not.
He asked her to help him choose a couch and then spooned with her on all the floor models. As we learn from the podcast “Reply All,” which reported the tale, Suzanne was not the only woman on whom John had chosen to bestow his favor.
Six months into their relationship, she discovered that he was seeing half a dozen other women, one of whom he’d been stringing along for two years.
All of them had received the couch-spooning treatment.
John was a champion girlfriend accumulator, the ringmaster of a romantic circus that only he could see.
The monogamy of the booming postwar fifties offered “a kind of romantic full employment,” while the free love of the sixties signified not the death of dating but its deregulation on the free market.
The luxury- and self-obsessed yuppies of the “greed is good” eighties demanded that the romantic market deliver partners tailored to their niche specifications, developing early versions of the kinds of matchmaking services that have been perfected in today’s digital gig economy, where the personal is professional, and everyone self-brands accordingly.
The process of testing out potential mates, and of being tested by them in turn, can be gruelling, bewildering, humiliating.
Using another metaphor, Weigel compares the experience to being cast in a bad piece of experimental theatre: “You and a partner showed up every night with different, conflicting scripts.
In “All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation” (Simon & Schuster), the journalist Rebecca Traister describes the attempts of one establishment, the Trowmart Inn, in Greenwich Village, to address this problem.
Unlike most boarding houses for working women, the Trowmart didn’t impose a curfew, and actively encouraged male visitors. had they a proper place in which to entertain their admirers, would develop into happy, excellent wives and still happier mothers.”What the Trowmart founder had in mind was “calling,” the respectable mode of courtship that had been practiced during the nineteenth century and into the twentieth by the aspirational middle class.
The pursuit of leisure cost more than most single working-class women (paid a fraction of what men were) could readily afford.