Skip to main content

What Relationship Outsourcing Says About Our Culture

Deseret News

July 25, 2023

How many of our relationships can we outsource? Apparently, there’s no end.

A recent article in The New York Times describes a new kind of professional, a “surrogate partner,” who helps people become more comfortable with intimate relationships. 

As the article notes, “Unlike in more traditional forms of therapy, in which practitioners are usually careful to keep clients at arm’s length, a surrogate partner ‘enters into a temporary relationship’ with a client on an intimate level.”

These “intimacy coaches” help anxious people prepare for physical relationships with spouses or partners, the Times article says. The cost is rarely covered by insurance, perhaps owing to the newness of the practice, or the unsettling similarity to a much older form of commerce that in most places is illegal.

While this form of therapy is unlikely to become widespread anytime soon, the impulse here is quite common. We have taken to outsourcing so many of our relationships to professionals that this seems just another evolution. In some cases, even talk therapy can seem a form of outsourcing when a person lacks a network of people with whom they can talk.

I don’t want to diminish the utility of therapy, which has helped countless people, but there is evidence that talking to someone else you trust can be just as effective as talking to a professional. An article from the Harvard Review of Psychiatry earlier this year concludes: “We can point out that much of the relief, comfort, and perspective that we offer as professionals can often come as easily and effectively from a friend. And with certain questions and worries that come up, we can actually suggest, ‘Why don’t you take this to a friend?’”

Of course, the problem with such an approach, as the authors note, is that people seem to have fewer and fewer friends, and certainly fewer close friends than they used to. Friends also don’t always say the right thing or the thing you want to hear. And it’s harder to cut them off when you decide you want to hear something different. 

Family size is shrinking too, which means the opportunity to talk to adult siblings or cousins has also been diminished. Which has itself created more opportunities for outsourcing. It is not just that we hire nannies and babysitters. We are hiring coaches to act as middlemen for every aspect of parenting.

Want someone to teach your baby how to sleep through the night or your kid how to play baseball or ride a bicycle? There’s someone who will charge by the hour. Maybe you want a college counselor, not just to give you advice on your choices but to harass your kid about writing their applications? There’s someone for that, too. Do you want a nutritionist or someone to help your children make better choices about food and exercise? They’ll take Venmo. 

I’m not saying none of these things are helpful or that they are also not the product of living in a society that is extraordinarily rich. But these conveniences also make every future interaction more difficult, at a time where young people are increasingly uncomfortable talking to other human beings because they’re used to texting. One consultant charges hundreds of dollars an hour to help people get over the anxiety of talking on the phone.

In the recently released movie “No Hard Feelings,” a couple of helicopter parents actually hire a young woman to “date” their son before he goes off to college. The boy, who is socially awkward, hasn’t had much experience with women before. While the plot may seem a little farfetched, the situation is not. There are a growing number of teenagers who manage to finish high school without much emotional — let alone physical — experience dealing with the opposite sex. Many are, of course, too busy looking at screens to talk to their peers in real life. Even more troubling, many more are getting their ideas of what a relationship should be like from screens — most notably pornography. 

If we make it normal for 12- and 13-year-olds to avoid speaking to each other, we will end up with a lot more 18-year-olds and even 30-year-olds who need to pay surrogates to teach them how to behave.

Those adolescent interactions are often awkward, of course, but everyone is in the same boat. When we see human relationships only in the context of social media or the way celebrities behave, we get a sense that we must look perfect or know exactly the right thing to say at all times before we can even approach another person. 

We are delaying or cutting off so many human relationships, making it harder to practice what relationships are supposed to be like, and making it harder to accept other people’s flaws, let alone our own. Paying other people to act as surrogates in our relationships with romantic partners, children and friends is only the latest symptom of a growing problem.

Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Deseret News contributor and the author of “No Way to Treat a Child: How the Foster Care System, Family Courts, and Racial Activists Are Wrecking Young Lives,” among other books.

About the Author

Naomi Schaefer Riley