SALT LAKE CITY — Driving to Hatch Family Chocolates for a first date, Emily was full of anxiety.
She didn’t know who would be waiting for her when she arrived. She had never seen her date, nor did she even know his name.
Two minutes before the date was supposed to start, her phone rang. A number she didn’t recognize flashed on the screen.
“This is your boyfriend, Jake,” said the voice on the other line.
Emily burst out laughing, still nervous but relieved. When she pulled into the Hatch parking lot, she saw a guy wandering around. It was Jake.
They ordered ice cream and sat down to talk about the fact that although they knew nothing about each other, they were now a couple and would be spending time together every day for the next 30 days.
The origins of Thirty Day Bae
Christine Cooke, 29, came up with the idea of Thirty Day Bae after watching dating shows like "The Bachelor" and "Married at First Sight" and keeping up with the viral experiment 40 Days of Dating.
She was struck by how these shows turned the basic concept of dating on its head and sparked conversations about what it means to be in a relationship, have chemistry and commit to another person. Cooke wondered if a similar project could be brought to Salt Lake City and began asking friends, “What would happen if we could just get people to agree to date for 30 days?" she said.
Flash forward a year, and the online dating experiment Thirty Day Bae — "bae" is a slang term that refers to one's boyfriend or girlfriend, and stands for "before anyone else" — is entering its second round. Applications opened April 7.
Here's how it works: Applicants apply online to be matched up with someone who will become their boyfriend or girlfriend for 30 days. This year, four couples will be paired up. Couples are required to spend time together every day for a month — five times a week in person and twice a week by FaceTime or Skype. Two of the in-person meetups need to be dates.
In addition, couples need to fill out daily logs, including overall feelings about the date, a ranking of chemistry levels and the relationship in general and things they’ve learned about themselves and the other person. The logs are later published online at thirtydaybae.com. (Couples can post their own photos and videos to the site, but are not followed by photographers or videographers.) Couples also benefit from free weekly relationship coaching sessions with Jordan Johnson, who is a licensed marriage and family therapist.
At the end of the 30 days, couples decide whether they want to continue dating and are free to define the relationship on their own terms.
A group of single friends and coworkers are running the project. In addition to founder Cooke, the Thirty Day Bae executive team includes Kylie Neslen, 28, who is an employee of the Deseret News; Davi Johnson, 27; Jordan Johnson, 34; Kyle Treasure, 27; and Katie Rex, 22.
In an age of dating apps and endless choices, the friends want to explore if “commitment can create chemistry,” as Jordan Johnson put it. “Our goal is to create a revolution in dating by having people make more commitments … and look at relationships in a different way than they’ve been doing,” Jordan Johnson told the Deseret News.
Applications for the first round of Thirty Day Bae opened in October 2018, and within 10 days, the team had received around 250 applications.
Davi Johnson, who is certified in Myers-Briggs and who her friends say has a serious knack for matchmaking, went through the applications — which included a Myers-Briggs test, an attachment style questionnaire and prioritization of qualities in a partner — and winnowed it down to 40 applicants who she thought would be most suitable for the program. Those applicants were then interviewed by the team, and three couples — Emily and Jake, Sarah Haymore and Brian Anderson, and "Jane and John" — were ultimately paired up. (Emily and Jake did not want their last names used on thirtydaybae.com or for this story, and "Jane" and "John" are fake names.)
This year, the experiment will expand from Salt Lake County to Utah County, and four couples will be chosen. Friends will also have the option to self-select — that is, apply as a couple to go through the experiment together. The only catch is they can’t have dated before. All applicants have to be between the ages of 25 and 35.
Thirty Day Bae is a big time commitment, and in some respects it puts pressure on couples because they know their daily logs and the ins and outs of their relationship will eventually be made public, said Taylor Smith, 29, who went by “John” in last year’s daily logs.
“In some ways it’s less pressure than traditional dating, because you’re just getting to know each other,” Smith said. “But at the same time there’s more pressure because we knew things would be made public, and we were assigned to each other. In other circumstances, if things weren’t working out you could end them, but (here) you had to continue for 30 days.”
Nevertheless, “Jane” ultimately decided to end her relationship with Smith after eight days.
“I was totally ghosted,” Smith said. “She stopped talking to me and I didn’t hear from her. … It’s hard to tell someone, ‘I don’t like you, I don’t want to keep doing this.’ It’s easier to ghost someone, but that leaves the other person always wondering. It’s a lose-lose situation.”
Thirty Day Bae is, in many ways, intended to act as an antidote to common side effects of dating like ghosting, fear of commitment and anxiety about defining the relationship by creating an environment in which expectations and the relationship timeline are predetermined, so couples have the freedom to be themselves, get to know each other and see where things go.
It is geared toward single members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but as one of the creators, Kylie Neslen, put it, the difficulties singles face “isn’t just an LDS problem. It’s everywhere.”
Indeed, according to 2018 data released in March from the General Social Survey, 51 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 did not have a steady romantic partner — up from 33 percent in 2004 and 45 percent in 2016 — and a record 35 percent of all Americans did not have a steady romantic partner.
According to a 2017 Pew Research Center survey, the majority of single Americans open to the idea of marriage say they haven't gotten married yet because they haven't “met the right person.”
Commitment and choice
Part of the reason for that could be the difficulty of deciding who the “right person” is.
Thirty Day Bae removes the anxiety of choice, something that everyone interviewed for this article said they grapple with.
“Part of what prevents us from fully committing is that we have too many (dating) choices," said Jake, 27, a participant from last year. “It's like, there could always be someone better out there, someone who has this quality or doesn’t have this flaw. We have a lot of options and we're distracted, and we’ve developed this mentality that it’s scary to commit to any one option.
“There's this idea that when you have more choices, it's harder to make decisions and when you do make decisions, you're unsatisfied with them,” he added.
For Thirty Day Bae co-creator Katie Rex, the overwhelming amount of choices young adults face today can be traced back to dating apps.
“There are so many people readily available to you on Tinder or Mutual or whatever dating app you're on, so if your date did one thing wrong, you just move on to the next person,” Rex said. “Thirty Day Bae is testing the idea of commitment itself — what happens when you stick to one person and see how it goes?”
For Jake and Emily, who ended up dating for about four months after the 30-day experiment ended, choosing to fully commit to each other was key, and has changed their perspective on dating.
In the past, Jake said, he's followed a dating routine where he goes out with someone once or twice before it starts to fizzle. During those first few dates, he's simultaneously trying to get to know the person while also wondering in the back of his mind if this is someone he wants to date long term.
“I never felt like I was getting to know someone to the point that I knew if I wanted to be in a relationship with them,” Jake said. “You're trying to make this decision about whether or not you're a good fit for each other when you're both half invested and half committed.
“I really like the idea of giving someone a solid chance,” he added. “The best way to figure out if you're a good fit is to try out commitment.”
Thirty Day Bae “made it OK for me to be 100 percent committed without being 100 percent confident,” he said.
Emily, 32, who dated Jake during and after their experimental 30 days, said that Thirty Day Bae taught her about the importance of decision-making in relationships and helped her find the balance between “not writing something off too quickly because it's not perfect and not carrying on with something longer than you should because your heart's in it, but logically it's not making sense.”
“I don't believe in commitment for the sake of commitment," she added. "It's important to be mindful about who you're spending time with and how you're making decisions.”
Last round's third couple, Sarah Haymore and Brian Anderson, committed to each other for the duration of the 30 days, but ultimately that commitment wasn't enough to turn their friendship into a relationship.
“It’s one thing to be committed to each other, but you also need to choose each other,” Haymore, 27, said. “If you choose each other and are committed, that’s what helps create successful relationships.”
Thirty Day Bae is a couples experiment, but it's also fundamentally about personal growth.
“The purpose of Thirty Day Bae is not for people to get married,” Neslen said. “The purpose is to give people positive dating experiences so they can learn and grow and progress. Dating is hard, meeting people is hard and we want to facilitate an experience where people can learn about dating and not have the stress of, 'Are we going to break up tomorrow,' or 'Do I see myself going to the temple with this person?'”
All the couples said they benefited from the relationship coaching sessions with Jordan Johnson, in which they were able to work on communication skills, setting boundaries, voicing their anxieties and generally being better partners.
In many ways, Johnson said, having a relationship coach is like having a personal trainer at the gym — you may not think you need one, but when you have one you realize how helpful it can be.
“The personal trainer may not teach you anything revolutionary, but they'll show you where you haven't been doing steps right in the past, and how you could be causing damage to your back," Johnson said. "Similarly, in coaching sessions, couples can work on sore spots in their life they've accrued up to that point and address them with a partner in a super safe place."
Jake, Emily and Smith, all of whom are currently going on dates, and Haymore, who is in a committed relationship, said they have applied lessons from Thirty Day Bae to their current relationships.
Emily said that one of her most important takeaways was the realization that "a relationship doesn't have to last forever for it to be successful."
She also added that Thirty Day Bae has made her more confident and invested in the role she plays in a relationship.
"As women we often get hung up on the concept of being chosen, rather than choosing our partner," she said. "I think I've taken a bit more control of that and become a co-creator of the relationship."
Thinking back on the first round and ahead to the second, founder Christine Cooke said that all she hoped to accomplish with Thirty Day Bae was to "start a conversation and plant a seed in people's minds that maybe dating could be done differently."
If round 1 participant Jake is any indicator, it looks like she's already accomplished her goal.
“It would be so nice to re-create a culture where we spend a lot less time looking for people and a lot more time getting to know people," he said. "If that change happened in our dating culture, I think I'd be really satisfied.”