The whole idea of dating down or up is horrific. For one, it's a terrible thing to say about someone else's relationship. You don't know what works! One woman's loser is another woman's godsend who just so happens to be going through a rough patch. And yet, it's an insightful corollary for how we measure men and women.

But first let's define our terms. Dating up is scoring someone "better" than you. Dating down is typically apt when a man or woman dates someone else who is considered "not good enough" for them. This unforgivably cruel slideshow of celebrities dating or married to people "uglier" than they are is a perfect example of how the term is used — hot people should not be with less hot people; talented people should not be with nobodies.

Dating down can take many forms: It could be because they are not good-looking enough, or not rich enough, or not cool enough or not ambitious enough, or the inverse. Or, according to my friend, "It could also mean dating someone you don't really even like because you don't want to die alone. Like a Republican." (Other friend response: "I would date a Republican if he were exactly like Jack Donaghey in looks, wealth, and temperament.")

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But I have to say, even when I realized that someone I dated wasn't a good match or didn't want the same things, a.) I didn't think of it as dating down, and b) I would only even realize that in retrospect.

So why do people do it? Lots of reasons. Boredom? Insecurity? Take this interesting essay over at Frisky by Jessica Machado, who recounts a history of boyfriends with less-than-stellar prospects. Machado writes about Jeff, who is eight years her senior, on probation for petty theft, who enjoyed smoking cigarettes and chilling with his friends at a restaurant job long after he was no longer paid for it. He lived with his dad, just like you thought he would and seemed to have no particular plans for anything:

Jeff and I were together for three years. When we first hooked up, I was just beginning my freshman year of college and by the time we broke up, I was juggling two internships, a bartending job, a 4.0 and a pretty serious partying schedule that didn't include him. What kept us together wasn't as exciting as sex or arguments over our incompatibility — but that I could show up at his place at 10 p.m. for a bowl of Cocoa Puffs and a snuggle in front of "Law and Order." There was a comfortable fondness and security. I knew he wasn't going anywhere, literally and figuratively.

Jeff wasn't an anomaly. I have a history of dating guys who couldn't get it together (and to their credit, weren't too stressed out about it, either). My next boyfriend and my next and my next after that were all very good men, with great senses of humor and warm spirits, but they were also some version of lazy, dependent and unambitious.

For her, it was clearly a pattern. She goes onto say she wrote their resumes for them and encouraged them to improve themselves, but that their lack of "personal-admin" abilities is eventually what ended things. Her essay is great because she looks at the root of the attraction to men who needed some kind of help getting their shit together, a desire to mommy them and feel needed and superior, her own family history, and totally owns her own part in it. And who hasn't been there, attracted to someone who, for whatever reason, doesn't want the kinds of things you want, and isn't interested in making the effort to get them, and there you are, doing all the heavy lifting?

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But in the larger more wide-ranging sense, I can't help but think about the gender coded stuff in these determinations. When men date down, it's a woman who isn't good looking enough. When women do, it's a man who isn't of means or ambitious enough. It's nothing personal against Machado's essay, which I think is honest and insightful. It's the nagging sense that we can't escape gender roles even when we want to. They are so deeply ingrained in us, part of the very makeup of our idea of a perfect match. I've known so many women talk about good men who are "thinking of the future," and I don't think I've ever heard a man describe a potential female partner this way.

As women are increasingly autonomous, we must recalibrate our idea of what a good woman is, but also what a good man is, too. Just as we must expect men to not be threatened by a high-achieving or high-earning, accomplished, intelligent woman, we also must be able to see men as something other than only earners or doers who must baseline provide. And Machado gets at the current climate for single hetero female daters:

You could also argue my romantic preferences weren't entirely preferences, but a modern conundrum: Today's average straight, single gal is wading in a dating pool where she outnumbers male college graduates six to four, and where more than one in the six guys she's talking to doesn't have a job (and two-thirds of those unemployed dudes say they're not even looking for one). She is more likely to meet a Jeff than a Zuckerberg.

And she succinctly addresses what is fairly retrograde about measuring a man by his income and prospects, too, at least in terms of how they elevate a woman:

My stepmom confirmed this, in a strange, roundabout way: "Yeah, I always thought the rule was to date up."

While my stepmom's intentions were good, "dating up — and its correlating predecessor, "marrying up" — is an outdated and somewhat offensive idea, invented to encourage women to find a man of means and status who will carry her through because that man is the only way she'll make it in life. Even if I did subscribe to such notions (which, as a 30-something feminist in 2014, I do not), according to those job-gender ratios above, "Real Housewife" aspirations are laughable nowadays (unless you're a model/actress or living in L.A.).

To be fair, grownup should be grownups (no matter what the NYT says about adulthood). Expecting a woman to shoulder the more mundane aspects of domestic relationship upkeep — social calendar, cooking, cleaning, finances and so on — because you'd rather play video games is, of course, a hot load of retrograde shit that no person should tolerate. If a person is too lazy or apathetic to contribute to a relationship, that person is likely a garbage person, male or female.

It's just hard to imagine this complaint lodged against women. I'm hesitant to indict men on principle alone for not being earners with a stable made-in-the-shade future all mapped out, when I think that is a very damaging gendered expectation of them as a whole (just as being good looking is for women), but at the same time, I can't give any dudes a pass who don't do important day-to-day shit in a relationship. #nuance

So, obviously, people should date their equals, whatever that means to them. A Marie Claire piece on the issue by Maura Kelly boldly claims that, as a general rule, the wisdom goes, 9s should date 9s, and 7s should date 7s. (An expert once told her that perennially single people are probably 6s who only want 8s — barf.) However, there are, apparently, four types of people who can get away with dating up. That would be:

  • Guys
  • Anyone rich/powerful
  • Anyone willing to date crazies
  • Creative types

From there, we learn that women are more likely to date down. Men (and sometimes women) with lots of money and wealth can date whomever the fuck they choose. If you're willing to date a hot but crazy type, aim high. And anyone super talented but broke/weird can win hearts and minds with their outsize magnetism.

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I think given these nauseating truths, we can see why women are more likely to "settle." Unless they are knockouts, they have fewer options to date up. That means Machado's story is probably all too common. But at least she recognized this, and ultimately took her stepmom's advice to "date better."

So I set out to be challenged. To be stimulated sexually, mentally and emotionally. To find someone who could hold his own and not get on my nerves. And the learning curve was slow. I went out with a guy who paid all of his bills on time, but who couldn't stand up for himself. Another who was ablaze with self-confidence and sexual magnetism, but whose mom still cooked for him several times a week. I even dated a player type who seemed like he might dump me and he did.

She eventually met, and married, a guy who pushed her to think better and smarter, someone with whom she has a "multifaceted bond," someone who was willing to throw all in, no matter their differences. There is nothing in here about how much money they make or how their resumes compare. It's a matter of chemistry and like-mindedness and shared values. I cannot stress enough, this is what an equal is — you'll definitely know it when you find it, and it will have nothing to do with gender.

Illustration by Tara Jacoby.