Previous generations of Americans married the boy or girl next door—literally. According to one study from 1932, one-third of married couples grew up within five blocks of each other. But things have changed. Now, boy and girl are matched by an app; boy texts girl. Girl schedules a meeting. Or she never texts back, leaving him wondering about what could have been. Lacking a settled script for courtship, modern romantics are puzzled about how to proceed.
Stand-up comic and television actor Aziz Ansari is one such modern romantic. Frustrated with the indeterminacy of it all, Ansari enlisted the help of sociologist Eric Klinenberg to look at the radical transformations of love. The resulting book, Modern Romance, explores contemporary relationships, mixing humorous commentary, anecdotes, and observations with social science research. Along the way, Ansari adds some practical (and mostly good) advice. The book isn’t intentionally profound, and it’s occasionally very misguided—but the description of what people claim they want (a soul mate) and how they go about securing it (Tinder) does reveal something profound: Modern romance is complicated because the ends, the means, and our expectations of relationships all conflict.
Modern romantics want a soul mate, Ansari explains, that special person who completes us emotionally, intellectually, and sexually. A soul mate is the “perfect person” who one can “truly, deeply love.” Soul mates have an instant, deep connection: “passionate, or boiling from the get-go.” If things are not passionate from the beginning, “commitment seems premature.” The soul mate model promises levels of fulfillment that previous generations did not expect in a partner. But it also has the highest potential for disappointment. Couples quickly break up when their expectations are not met: if he or she doesn't get your jokes or share your affinity for certain movies, or if the sex isn't mind-blowing.
Modern romantics have high expectations for potential mates but want a low-hassle way to find them. Just like Amazon exponentially expanded consumer options, various dating apps have expanded dating options: No longer limited to the people in your neighborhood, you’re free to find (seemingly) the perfect someone, who could be anywhere in the world. Ansari provides an engaging tour of these dating services. Some websites match singles according to their answers to extensive questionnaires about their background, interests, and career goals. Other websites use responses to provide a searchable database for love. Mobile dating services, such as Tinder, identify singles within a certain geographic radius. Tinder, in particular, made online dating into a game, and finding love is as easy as swiping right.
Online dating has been successful: One-third of couples meet on-line, more than those who meet through work, college, or mutual friends combined, Ansari notes. But the challenge with relationships is not simply meeting someone, but maintaining a relationship with that person.
Modern romantics have a hard time committing. Marriage rates are declining, in some demographics more than others. College-educated people still tend to marry, but those lacking a degree do not. Infidelity, moreover, plagues modern relationships in new ways. With the privacy of a personal phone, one can exchange flirty messages or racy photos with a past lover or complete stranger. Innocent friendships can turn illicit. Or one can coordinate infidelity, as the infamous Ashley Madison advertised.
Since commitment is more difficult today, Ansari suggests we rethink our expectations about monogamy. But modern romantics don't need a defense of infidelity. They need a defense of married life—a vision that acknowledges the hassles, but celebrates the joys beyond the wedding glitz and tax benefits. Ansari fails to provide that vision.
His main argument for marriage is neurological. Brain scans, he reports, reveal two types of love: passionate love and companionate love. Passionate love “lights up the brain’s pleasure centers.” It peaks at the beginning of a relationship, and then sharply declines. Companionate love, by contrast, “is associated with the regions having to do with long-term bonding and relationships” and grows over time. Neurologically speaking, commitment is important because it transforms intense passionate love into stable companionate love.
Ansari's best advice, however, concerns dating not marriage. First, singles need to improve their text message etiquette. A short witty message, with good grammar and spelling, and a firm invitation avoids the pitfalls of looking desperate, generic, or brutish. Second, Ansari encourages readers to go on several dates with the same person rather than many first dates with different people. Getting to know one person well combats the tendency to feel overwhelmed or paralyzed by so many choices. Third, Ansari encourages modern romantics to treat one another as real people rather than disembodied bubbles in phone world.
This advice has merit but fails to address the deeper problem—the disparity between the ends, means, and expectations of romance. Modern singles want to Google their way to a soul mate. But no perfect person exists. People can be good matches or poor ones. Single men and women would be better served looking for a compatible mate than scouring online profiles for a soul mate. All relationships have challenges, and holding out for a perfect person undermines one’s ability to find a good person.
Ansari comes close to denouncing soul mates in his conclusion: “With all these choices, how can anyone possibly be sure that they made the right one? Get over it: You can’t! So you just have to power through and have hope that as you grow and mature, you’ll eventually learn to navigate this new romantic world and find someone who does feel right for you.” Six pages later, however, Ansari gushes that “Online Dating has probably been the biggest game change in the hunt for your soul mate.” Ultimately, Ansari celebrates soul mates as a worthy goal.
Technology has benefited and harmed relationships. Online matchmaking services can be a good resource. They introduce singles to compatible people outside their usual circles, and in different cities, states, or countries. But the temptation remains to treat finding a date like ordering a sweater. If it doesn’t spark joy, dump it. Personal phones help couples stay connected in real time. Yet such access can create a false sense of intimacy. Couples can discuss every topic imaginable, send pictures of their breakfast, and text a running commentary of their days but still wonder whether their relationship can work face-to-face. Our phones have also become another avenue to indulge our baser instincts, from sexting to Ashley Madison.
Ultimately, though, the biggest challenge to commitment isn’t technological but philosophical. Modern Romance struggles to articulate a reasonable defense of marriage. Ansari does not denounce the institution of marriage. He praises his parents—whose marriage was arranged—for their mutual devotion. He acknowledges the social science findings that married men and women are happier, healthier, and more financially stable than their unmarried peers. But his best case for commitment is brain waves, and it is not clear that a license and a trip to the courthouse substantially affects one’s brain scan.
The best case for marriage really rests on the enduring truth that men, women, and children flourish in the family more than in any other setting. Marriage is the foundation for family life. Reason, revelation, and even modern social science attest to this enduring truth. Modern romance may have changed the process and timeline for commitment, but it has not altered this truth. Indeed, modern romantics ignore this truth at their own peril.
Aziz Ansari seeks to help singles navigate modern romance. While he offers helpful tips for setting up an OKCupid profile, he does not accurately diagnose the problems of modern relationships. We want to swipe, click, and google our way to a soul mate. We expect perfection but are unprepared for commitment. In an age of options, commitment is more important than ever. Yet modern romantics’ approach to marriage is ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Modern romance is complicated not because we have phones in our pockets but because we have hearts set on the wrong things.