Lovin’ An Online Dater: Livin’ It Up While the Species Goes Down

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Love is a topic much under discussion these days, and in a wide variety of contexts. 

 The one I currently have in view is the romantic variety.  Or, more precisely, the apparently widespread lack thereof.

 Wherever one looks, people are worried about, fretting over, angry about, frustrated with, jesting at, depressed by, oppressed by, and otherwise squicked out by the non-occurrence of romantic love in their lives.  Entire television series succeed for years on end barely mentioning anything else.  Diaries, journals, and blogs fill with the emotional backwash.  Poetry and fiction — some deeply moving, most never seeing the light of day — meditate, even fixate, on it.

 And about a gozillion websites capitalize on it, in the most literal economic sense.

 One of the more interesting ones is Chemistry.com.  Chemistry is sort of the secular counterpart to eHarmony.com, which has a well-known Evangelical Christian bias in its matchmaking.  Chemistry is based on the work of Rutgers anthropologist Helen Fisher, who studies human romantic love and has written several popular books explaining her research, one of which I read some years ago (and found fascinating).

Fisher’s is a strictly scientific approach.  She uses the tools of anthropology, evolutionary theory, and modern neuroscience to explore the phenomena of human attraction, infatuation, and long-term monogamous pair-bonding.  (Admit it.  You get hot when you read “long-term monogamous pair-bonding.”)  These are, she says, the 3 stages of human romantic love, and we have 3 separate neural subsystems for them.

I’m beginning to wonder, though, if there’s anything — scientific, religious, or otherwise — to be done about the supposed increase in the non-occurrence of romantic love.  (And for purposes of this post, let’s assume the increase is not just supposed, but real.  After all, single adults now outnumber married ones in America.)

It may be that Americans are going the way of the panda: that is, maybe we’re just losing interest.

That’s probably not the best way to put it.  Judging by the outcry over not finding romantic love, we don’t seem to have lost interest.  More precisely, maybe it increasingly just isn’t worth the effort anymore.

I overheard a conversation the other day among a small group of attractive women who seemed intelligent and pleasant and all those things that, generally speaking, one looks for in a romantic lover.  They were exasperated over the dating scene and the quality of the men populating it.  The question that kept coming up was: where have all the good ones gone?

 I harbor no illusions of grandeur, but I like to think that, on balance, I’m a reasonably good one.  I mean, dogs love me and small children aren’t frightened by me, so I can’t be all bad.  And I have several single male friends and acquaintances who, to the best of my knowledge, are also good ones.  So I asked myself: where have I gone? where have we gone? 

The only answer I’ve been able to come up with — and I don’t claim to speak for my friends and acquaintances — is that I think I’ve decided, subconsciously, that it just isn’t worth the effort.  Where I’ve “gone” is “on with my life.”  I have lots of interests and I pursue them.  I “go” where they take me.  If single women aren’t there, so be it.  I mean, women certainly are among my interests, but my other interests are pretty rewarding, and their price of admission is so much lower.  Plus, I see the men who seem to succeed with women, and that’s just not who I want to be. I like me much better the way I am; I think I’m a better person.

I assume much the same is the case among an increasing number of women.  They’ve found they’re happier living their own lives and pursuing their other interests than they would be (or were), pursuing romance.  And they like themselves better than they would if they were the kind of woman who seems to succeed with men.

 So maybe there’s nothing much to be done about the increasing non-occurrence of romantic love.  Maybe people are simply making other choices.  (That doesn’t mean, of course, that they can’t still regret and complain about the lack of romantic love in their lives.)  Or, looked at a more negative way, maybe we’re all more interested in ourselves than in anybody else.

On the other hand, maybe there are new social or cultural barriers to romantic love.  After all, what keeps the men-pursuing-their-own-interests from encountering the women-pursuing-their-own-interests?  Surely there must be some overlap of interests.  And why has the cost — or perceived cost — of romantic love risen?  Is that a social/cultural artifact?  If so, of what?  And in any case, what could religion or science offer to offset that?

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16 Responses to “Lovin’ An Online Dater: Livin’ It Up While the Species Goes Down”

  1. msmiranda Says:

    First of all, JU, thanks so much for getting “Love In an Elevator” stuck in my head almost twenty years later … wow, has it been that long? I feel old now.

    This is a great topic, and I have hope to offer all the unattached “good ones” out there. My husband and I have discussed some of the things you express in your post quite a bit because four years ago we were two of those people who were “good ones” but hadn’t found a partner. In fact, he spent a good deal of his early twenties frustrated that women seemed to prefer jerks and overlook nice guys like him. He even subscribed to magazines like Maxim out of desperation, thinking that perhaps they held the answer to what women wanted. (I forgive this because he was young and stupid). I spent much of my early twenties overlooking guys like him and frustrated that guys did not seem to view me as the kind of woman they wanted to take home to their parents, if you get my drift.

    And then we both grew up, realized what we wanted, and found each other online. I love to tell people that because apparently it’s some sort of taboo to admit that you met online (maybe a holdover from the days of newspaper personal ads?) but so many people do these days. Really, once you finish your education, where else is there to meet people besides work, which has its own hazards? I never would have met David had it not been for Yahoo Personals. So I think that one reason for the decline in romantic love is the increase in time spent working and the concomitant decrease in time spent in the community. We don’t know our neighbors anymore, so you can’t marry the girl next door … etc.

    Another major factor, I believe, is gender equality, for a number of reasons. First, women are less financially dependent — a lot of what passed for romantic love in the past was the need to keep food on the table. Without that, marriages that once would have continued, though miserable, are either ending or never beginning. Second, our culture is set up to eroticize gender inequality — see, e.g., basically all pornography. True partnership and the love that comes with respecting another person is not particularly sexy or thrilling, which is not to say that it isn’t one of the best things in life, because it is. It’s just that the vision of romantic love portrayed in popular culture is wildly unrealistic and probably gives a number of people expectations that a real relationship can’t fulfill. This goes for both men and women — hence the phenomenon of women being attracted to jerks. The key for me was realizing that the feeling of comfort, even if it wasn’t 24/7 drama and “passion,” was what love really is. Everything else is what comes from having watched far too many soap operas as a child.

    Bottom line: there is hope! Good people do find each other. Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with choosing not to pursue romantic relationships. But, I would hate for anyone (especially “good ones”) to sell themselves short if that is really something that they want for themselves.

  2. alsturgeon Says:

    Great post, and great response by Msmiranda. (BTW, does the post on the main page go past the way of the panda for you guys? The last [and in my opinion best] parts of the article only show on my computer when I click on comment.)

    To your last question, I had a strange call a few weeks ago from a single (again) man who blasted churches in general for not opening their doors every weekend for singles to come and, well… check each other out, I guess. He said it was a travesty that the only places to go meet people are at bars.

    He was crude, but he seems to have a religious/cultural point.

    I think.

  3. Coolhand Says:

    As one who has recently become un-single, I can attest to the frustration of being a “good one” who couldn’t find his match. I think one problem I experienced is the lack of a nice, pressure-free place to meet viable candidates, i.e. people who shared my interests and values. I mention the “pressure-free” aspect because, though I was a member of a singles group for a long time, it was hard to casually get to know someone, much less casually date them, without falling under the shadow of the daunting nuptial spectre. (I think that was an MST3K film: “The Haunting Nuptial Spectre.”) I think I eventually reached Juvenal’s point of getting on with my life when a wife more or less fell out of the sky into my lap. But, my original point was that I think part of the success of online dating is that it at least presents the promise of a chance to meet a viable candidate in a relatively pressure-free environment, at least until you get past the online part to the meeting-in-person part.

  4. urbino Says:

    Brief response to Al:

    does the post on the main page go past the way of the panda for you guys? The last [and in my opinion best] parts of the article only show on my computer when I click on comment.

    I put a “more” tag in my post, after that sentence, in order to keep it from eating so much space on the main page. People should be able read the rest of the post by clicking on either the “comments” link or the “Read the Rest of This Entry” link.

  5. urbino Says:

    I’m not sure a lot of people are selling themselves short, miranda. Not once they’re past, oh, 35 or so, anyway. I think they’re just moving on — without the self-blame. More like what Coolhand describes, if I’m reading him right.

    That’s actually part of what I hear a lot, too, besides the “where have all the good ones gone”; people seem to be basically happy with who they are, nonetheless. I consider this a good thing. Too many people have their entire self-worth tied up with whether or not they’re in a relationship and, if so, how it’s going. Insofar as that’s changing, I actually think the uptick in unattachedness is pretty cool.

    I think you, Al, and Coolhand are all touching on the same point about at least one thing:

    Msmiranda: Really, once you finish your education, where else is there to meet people besides work, which has its own hazards?

    Al: …a man who blasted churches in general for not opening their doors every weekend for singles to come and, well… check each other out…

    Coolhand: I think one problem I experienced is the lack of a nice, pressure-free place to meet viable candidates, i.e. people who shared my interests and values.

    Those places — be they physical or social locations — do seem to be missing. Did there used to be such places, though? If so, I can’t think of any off the top of my head. What were they?

    I’m more inclined to an age-based theory. Probably there’ve never been many good places to meet other singles once one got out of college. The difference now is that, whereas it used to be the rule for people to have married before, during, or immediately upon graduating from college, now that’s more the exception. So the lack of places, which has always been the case, has become a problem for a much larger number of people.

  6. urbino Says:

    Another major factor, I believe, is gender equality, for a number of reasons. First, women are less financially dependent — a lot of what passed for romantic love in the past was the need to keep food on the table.

    Agreed. I think there’s another aspect to that, too. Women seem to have many more, and more specific, expectations of men than they used to. Women are career-savvy now, and that is increasingly informing their romantic thinking; an increasing number, it seems, don’t just want a life-partner, they want specifically a career-partner.

    Second, our culture is set up to eroticize gender inequality

    I’m not sure what it means to “eroticize gender inequality.”

    It’s just that the vision of romantic love portrayed in popular culture is wildly unrealistic

    Agreed there, too. But, again, was that ever really not the case, at least in the modern era (say, Victorian to present)? I’m not so sure.

    (And you’re welcome on the Aerosmith earworm.)

  7. mrspeacock Says:

    Great post. I’m a single girl myself (nearing 30…yikers), so these thoughts have definitely crossed my mind. Like JU, I like to think of myself as one of the “good ones.” Yet the only people who seem to notice are random men at the gas station or the guy in Kroger yesterday.

    The truth is, though, that I am incredibly happy as a single person. I do want to get married one day, have some kiddos, all that good stuff. I really desire that. But I don’t believe my ultimate happiness or worth depends on that happening.

    I was talking to a college friend last winter when I had an epiphany, if you will. She was very pregnant, and I was going to visit her in CO shortly after she had the baby. When we got off the phone, I was struck by how genuinely happy I was for her and by how much I truly loved her. It hit me that I didn’t want to spend my time pining for some love that I think is going to be greater than all the other love in my life. I am very full.

    On the other hand, I would like to kiss a boy on a regular basis.

    JU – “I’m not sure what it means to “eroticize gender inequality.”
    I think Ms Miranda is talking about female submission in pornography. She can correct me if I’m wrong.

    AL – About the church as a meeting place. It’s a good theory, but I cringe whenever Singles “graduate” to the Young Marrieds. Ugh. My church doesn’t do that, thankfully, but the concept makes me throw up a little bit.

    MS MIRANDA – I have a slew of friends who are online daters, one of which is about to marry her match in the spring!

  8. Mike Kjergaard Says:

    Great posts everyone! It’s difficult to add much to what Miranda said. And a shout out to Coolhand for the MST3K reference.

    I’m wondering if part of the blame for the always-out-of-reach “romantic love” thing is can be directed toward the unrealistic expectations that people have due to the abundance of “chick flicks” in our culture. If women are looking for Richard Gere in “An Officer and a Gentleman”, or Tom Hanks in “Sleepless in Seattle”, or Hugh Grant in any number of his films, or Brad Pitt or George Clooney, et al., Life isn’t a movie or a Harlequin romance novel.

    That, and the fact that people are more independent, selfish, etc.

  9. alsturgeon Says:

    Mrs. Peacock: My biggest beef with my caller was his presupposed idea that everyone needed to be married. I tried to get him to see that loneliness is a bad thing, but marriage isn’t the monopolized solution. Heck, I know lots of lonely married people, just for starters.

    Mike: I’m with you on any MST3K reference! 🙂 I see your point as to unrealistic expectations, and I think there’s something to that – but mostly from an egocentric perspective. I think the unrealistic expecation is that people exist to make me happy, and movies perpetuate that I’m sure.

    Great stuff from Urbino, Msmiranda, and Coolhand, too…

  10. urbino Says:

    The church-as-singles-hang-out thing could work if done right, under the right circumstances, and the right people were involved. But, honestly, there are a statistically insignificant number of churches that could cover those bases. The result at all the rest would be a very creepy “outreach” ministry.

    Besides, as everyone knows, churches are family friendly.

    A couple of thoughts provoked by these 2 comments and the eroticization of gender inequality:

    Peacock: I think Ms Miranda is talking about female submission in pornography.

    Mike: …the unrealistic expectations that people have due to the abundance of “chick flicks” in our culture. If women are looking for Richard Gere in “An Officer and a Gentleman”, or Tom Hanks…

    First, to sort of carry on with your thought, Mike: …or if men are looking for Jessica Alba or Jessica Simpson or, say, Scarlett Johansson in “Lost in Translation”… Popular culture sells unrealistic expectations to both sexes. (And, on a not directly related point, it also sells them within each sex — i.e., it gives both women and men unrealistic expectations of themselves.)

    Second thought: if pornography for men is the eroticization of female submission, what is pornography for women?

    I put that not in the subjunctive mood (“what would be pornography for women”), because I think a good argument can be made that pornography for women — if it is the gender-appropriate analog of “the eroticization of female submission” — is common in our culture, and largely (relatively completely) unstigmatized.

    This is not an attempt to defend the eroticization of female submission. Frankly, that sort of thing doesn’t do anything for me, so I’ve got nothing invested in defending it. But I’m not sure it’s a sufficient principle to cover pornography for men — IOW, I think there are many reasons men look at pornography, some having to do with submission or superiority, some not. It’s an interesting idea, though, and one that obviously has some currency, so I’m trying to explore it.

    Pornography is a famously slippery (so to speak) concept. We automatically think of it as being about sex — and etymologically, that’s accurate — but it isn’t always. For example, I happen to agree with many critics that Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” was Christian pornography, but it obviously had nothing to do with sex or with the eroticization of gender inequality. One sometimes hears movies referred to as “pornographic in their violence,” and I think that’s a real category of pornography, even though violence pornography has nothing to do with sex or gender inequality.

    Likewise, I think there’s pornography for women that’s fairly common in our culture, and generally uncontroversial. I could be 100% wrong about that, though.

    That’s why I ask: if pornography for men is the eroticization of female submission, what is pornography for women?

  11. urbino Says:

    The truth is, though, that I am incredibly happy as a single person. I do want to get married one day, have some kiddos, all that good stuff. I really desire that. But I don’t believe my ultimate happiness or worth depends on that happening.

    That’s the attitude I was talking about when I said I didn’t think people were selling themselves short. You go, girlfriend!

    For the record, I’m not incredibly happy as a single person, but I wouldn’t be incredibly happy as a married person, either. I’m not sure I have “incredibly happy” in me, but I am reasonably happy.

  12. msmiranda Says:

    if pornography for men is the eroticization of female submission, what is pornography for women?

    My answer is, the eroticization of female submission, clothed in the language of “liberation” and “equality” or some such nonsense. See, e.g., Ariel Levy’s book, dissecting such phenomena as GGW. We all (as a culture, not necessarily as individuals) get off on this setup. [I cannot believe I just said that on a churchy blog. My parents would be appalled.] My theory is that this is especially so at this historical moment because of the increasing equality of women in other spheres of life. These changes happened so quickly, historically speaking, that people are confused about what their roles are, and reverting sexually to a world (even one which exists only within the mind) in which women are submissive is comforting to some men and some women alike.

    Now, I think what you’re talking about is something more concrete — romance novels, perhaps? Celebrity worship? Or maybe something I’m not zeroing in on. Help a sister out here …

    And I agree that there is a broader definition of what is pornographic than just what’s on the internet and in adult movies. When people say that about TPOTC, what they mean is that very inflammatory or provocative images were employed gratuitously. Such images, whether sexual or violent, reach into a place in the mind that is not subject to reason and provoke a response that is by definition automatic and not immediately filtered through our moral lenses. (Or something like that …) For that reason, I think people have a moral obligation to use such images with extreme care, which mostly means not at all.

    RE: the conversation that is more pertinent to the original post, about one’s happiness or worth being dependent on being partnered. I used to say the same thing, and I still believe it intellectually. I was the biggest Sex and the City fan ever precisely because it portrayed positive images of thirtysomething single women and their full, happy lives. But … the problem with it was that it wasn’t a tenable premise, and the way the show concluded demonstrated that. All the women ended up in pair relationships, two of them in marriages with children. And whether this would occur was a constant theme in the show.

    The parallel to this in my life was that while I was tough as nails on the outside while I was single, I always wanted (but would not admit under pain of death that I wanted) to be in a relationship and have children. And I had only halfway successfully deluded myself that I would be happy if that did not happen. So, although my worth as a person wasn’t dependent on it, my happiness absolutely was. And when I met David, and we got married, and I realized how much happier I was, I was so disappointed in myself, like I had cheated, like I should have been able to be completely happy and satisfied with my life without him. It took me a long time to admit that I did indeed need other people in my life to be truly happy, that I could not be all things to myself. Now this is true for me because of particular circumstances in my own life and I don’t presume that it’s true for everyone. But, on some level I know that I felt unworthy of being loved, which is why I said the thing about people selling themselves short — I did it, and I now realize I shouldn’t have.

    Unfortunately, there is so much stigma attached to being single that it is hard for me to say these things without sounding like a Smug Married — which is the absolute last thing I want to be!! I think the stigma is unnecessary and wrong because finding someone to love is so much a matter of luck and has absolutely NOTHING to do with merit. As Clint Eastwood said in Unforgiven, deserve’s got nothing to do with it.

  13. mrspeacock Says:

    “What’s worse than one Smug Married couple? Lots of Smug Married couples!” No worries, Ms. Miranda, you don’t sound like a Smug Married. You just sound like a very honest and happy person.

    I am acutely aware of the fact that I need other people. I’ve even made up a wailing noise for when my roommate is gone. Living alone is not a good thing for me. But I agree with Donald Miller (in Blue Like Jazz) when he says that marriage/romance/etc. is not the opposite of loneliness. It is AN opposite, but not THE opposite. I’m a big believer in community because I see it working for me and my friends. I’m kinda the self-appointed “welcome committee” in my class at church because I believe in it so fiercely.

    But I do recognize my desire to get married and adopt children, and maybe even birth my own (although I’m still traumatized from A Baby Story). I have a feeling this desire is going to grow the older I get. Right now, I’m surrounded by single (and married) friends and life if busy and great. When it starts to slow down, the hankering will likely set in.

    Onto the subject of what serves as pornography for women. I have a friend who would argue to his grave that women’s pornography is the romantic comedy movie genre. In the sense that it creates false expectations and fantasies, I agree with him. I remember being physically depressed after watching Serendipity.

  14. urbino Says:

    I hear you on the self-worth point, miranda. I think the distinction is between happy and happier. I don’t think anybody believes, however happy they are, they wouldn’t be happier with another person in their life who loves them and who they love in return. But there’s no reason a person can’t be happy on their own — you aren’t “nobody till somebody loves you” — and that’s what I think more people are starting to realize. That seems to be what Frau Peacock (shouldn’t that be “Peahen”?) has found to be the case.

    As for “Sex and the City,” it’s one I’ve always seen as basically promoting the “nobody till somebody loves you” point of view, which is just a deeply diseased way to live one’s life. Even in their financial self-suffiency and third-wave feminist, sex-having, self-asserting camaraderie, their story was still all about getting, keeping, or wreaking revenge on a man (or, in some cases, a woman).

    marriage/romance/etc. is not the opposite of loneliness

    Like Al mentioned, the sheer number of lonely married people pretty well proves that.

    I have a friend who would argue to his grave that women’s pornography is the romantic comedy movie genre.

    I probably don’t entirely agree with him, but I think he and I are in the same ballpark.

    Borrowing from miranda, pornography is anything that “reach[es] into a place in the mind that is not subject to reason and provoke[s] a response that is by definition automatic.” Pornography is anything that tickles us in our most narcissistic pleasure center. It’s whatever gives me the ultimate “me” high, so much so that other people lose their identity or become insignificantly small compared to “me.”

    Pornography is crystal methamphetamine in semiotic rather than chemical form. (One could equally say crystal meth is pornography in chemical rather than semiotic form.)

    That’s what I mean when I say TPOTC is Christan pornography, more than the gratuity or inflammativity (is that a word?) of any of the images. In fact, I would argue that those images are not gratuitous at all; they’re the whole point.

    For a lot of men, the “eroticization of female submission” is what stimulates their most narcissistic pleasure center. This is what makes what we commonly know as pornography pornography for them. For other men, what we commonly know as pornography isn’t pornography. Something else is.

    Likewise for women. Whatever stimulates women’s most narcissistic pleasure center is pornography for women. Maybe your friend is right, Peacock, that for a lot of women, the romantic comedy is it. (It does, in contemporary form, have the ingredients such that it could be pornography for some people, probably disproportionately women.) It could also be a tv commercial. Or some aspect of the cult of motherhood. (Not that motherhood in itself is cultic, but it does have something like cultic status in our culture.)

    That’s what I was thinking of, miranda, as pornography for women that’s common and unstigmatized in our culture. Not any one thing in particular. Just all of the things that are prone to do for women what the thing we commonly call pornography does for some, apparently large, number of men.

  15. urbino Says:

    As Clint Eastwood said in Unforgiven, deserve’s got nothing to do with it.

    Yup. And as pithy, hard-bitten philosophers go, Eastwood in “Unforgiven” is exceeded perhaps only by Eastwood in “The Outlaw Josey Wales.”

  16. alsturgeon Says:

    Since the blog world is different from the coffee shop, just thought I’d chime in to say that I’m quietly sipping my cup of joe, enjoying the stimulating (how’s that for a poor word choice?) conversation, and glad to be in the same cyber-room with the rest of you.

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