The Trouble With a Public 40-Day Dating Experiment

40 Days of Dating never really felt real until it was over.
40 Days of Dating

If, in your Internet wanderings, you haven’t stumbled across 40 Days of Dating, let me catch you up. Two friends with opposite relationship foibles had to date each other for 40 days. Jessica Walsh is the romantic, and Timothy Goodman is the commitmentphobe. The idea is that it takes 40 days to change a habit. They were hoping to mellow each other out, I guess, and in so doing give the voyeurism-hungry internet a glimpse into the inner machinations of a blossoming relationship.

The whole thing was documented on their elaborately designed website.It finished today with the capstone Day 40 post. 

In the earlier stages of the project, Meher Ahmad at Jezebel wrote: “My theory? Their friends wanted to make a trendy website, replete with sooo many cool fonts, and they obliged by closed-mouth kissing each other for over a month.” I’d like to give them the benefit of the doubt. I’d like to believe that their only goal was self-improvement. But with the quirky videos of them sitting stoically in chairs while paint is dripped on their heads (seemingly apropos of nothing but maybe I just don’t get ART), and unnecessary typography gifs sprinkled throughout the posts, it all smacks of something just south of sincerity.

In the early posts there’s a lot of talk about whether or not their relationship is “real.” Is it still real if it’s not physical? (They eventually have sex, so we don’t have to wrestle with that question.) Is it real if they do the experiment just as friends? Why don’t they just actually date?

All of which is sort of missing the point, which is no, it’s not real. There was no way this was ever going to be a reasonable facsimile of a dating scenario. From the beginning, their relationship was designed to be observed, meaning everything they did, they did knowing that someday someone was going to read about it. The only way we could’ve seen them really date would’ve been for a Tinkerbell-sized anthropologist with a tiny laptop to follow them around unseen, covertly blogging their dates. On Day 37, after more than a month of straddling the line between romance and forced rom-com montages, like the video in which they hold hands for an entire day, Tim finally acknowledges this, writing, “This hasn’t been ‘real’ dating, and nothing about this experience has necessarily felt natural.” And if it’s not real dating, well, what is it? Performance art?

I get the sense that if it weren’t for the sake of the experiment, Tim and Jessie never would’ve gone out in the first place, judging by the amount of times they talk about how incompatible they are and how they’re probably better off just as friends.

“This relationship is ruining our relationship,” Tim wrote on Day 15.

“If I like a guy and he’s interested, then that’s great!” Jessie wrote on Day 16. “If not, I move on. I don’t need to chase him. It’s not possible to move on in the context of this bizarre experiment, though. I have to see him for another 24 days, so my mind just wanders in circles.”

What’s more, Jessie at one point quotes Charles and Ray Eames saying “Life is work is life is work is life,” and they’re both designers, so you do the math. Not that there’s anything wrong per se with mining your life for your art but if their goals are to explore themselves and to provide insights about real relationships, it doesn’t seem conducive to be so concerned with the project’s aesthetic and plotline. In the final post, Tim notes that he thinks Jessie wanted a happy story all along. The creators have also signed with a Hollywood talent agency, though Tim told Buzzfeed their goal is not to give the world another bad rom-com.

For Day 40, they posted a video of themselves reading parts of their posts from the last few days, the spiraling downward—fights at Disney World, a silent plane ride home, the final, unsurprising but still somehow sad decision not to stay together after the experiment. Their discomfort is palpable. Jessie stops reading at one point, Tim’s entire head turns bright red. They talk about how much they like each other and all the reasons it’s not working anyway. The video finishes with Jessie asking “Done?” and Tim replying “Done.” And perhaps it’s not surprising that the part of this project that felt the most real was the end.

Presented by

Julie Beck is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Health Channel.

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