Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg
Dating in the modern era is fundamentally different than the dating our parents and grandparents experienced. Of course, the tools we use are different, but Aziz and Eric found our desires have also changed, and with it, the underlying goals of dating itself.
It should be noted in the beginning that while this book discusses changes in dating across many cultures, the majority of the research was conducted in the United States. Accordingly, if I don't mention a location, assume the authors are referring to the United States.
Searching for Your Soulmate
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Before recent innovations in technology and transportation, geography was an almost insurmountable obstacle. In previous generations, it was much more likely to end up marrying someone who lived close to them. That's no longer the case. People are much more likely to marry someone from a different area than ever before.
Relationships have changed in other ways too. For example, people today marry much later than people in previous generations.
Today the average age of first marriage is about twenty-seven for women and twenty-nine for men, and it’s around thirty for both men and women in big cities like New York and Philadelphia.
In previous generations, marriage was the first step into adulthood. After high school or college, you would get married and leave the house. Today, marriage is typically one of the later stages of adulthood. And this new period of time, after becoming an adult but before marriage, is called emerging adulthood.
Emerging adulthood is a period of time that "offers young people an exciting, fun period of independence from their parents when they get to enjoy the pleasures of adulthood—before becoming husbands and wives and starting a family."
This period of emerging adulthood is particularly liberating for young women. In previous eras, unmarried women were likely to live at home under fairly strict adult supervision and lacked basic adult autonomy.
They always had to let their parents know their whereabouts and plans. Even dating had heavy parental involvement: The parents would either have to approve the boy or accompany them on the date.
At one point during a focus group with older women, I asked them straight out whether a lot of women their age got married just to get out of the house. Every single woman there nodded. For women in this era, it seemed that marriage was the easiest way of acquiring the basic freedoms of adulthood.
"Marriage, most women quickly discovered, liberated them from their parents but made them dependent on a man who might or might not treat them well and then saddled them with the responsibilities of homemaking and child rearing... Once women gained access to the labor market and won the right to divorce, the divorce rate skyrocketed."
From Companionate to Soul Mate Marriage
The shift in when we look for love and marriage has been accompanied by a change in what we look for in a marriage partner.
Until about 50 years ago, most individuals were satisfied with what is called a companionate marriage, that is, a marriage in which each partner had clearly defined roles. What's more, "most of the satisfaction you gained in the marriage depended on how well you fulfilled this assigned role... You didn’t marry each other because you were madly in love; you married because you could make a family together."
Waiting for true love was a luxury that many, especially women, could not afford. In the early 1960s, a full 76 percent of women admitted they would be willing to marry someone they didn’t love.
In contrast, today, we see getting married as the unity of two life partners, someone we love. But the entire concept of marrying someone out of happiness and love is relatively new.
Until recently, marriage was an economic institution primarily used to establish a bond between two families.
It was about achieving security—financial, social, and personal. It was about creating conditions that made it possible to survive and reproduce.
Considerations about whom to marry were primarily practical.
Two decades later, in the 1980's, 86 percent of American men and 91 percent of American women said they would not marry someone without the presence of romantic love.
The soul mate marriage is very different from the companionate marriage. It’s not about finding someone decent to start a family with. It’s about finding the perfect person whom you truly, deeply love.
Finding Your Soulmate
Young people today are taking more time to develop themselves and date different people before getting married. No longer are we stuck on a predetermined life path; each of us are on our own.
While that sounds pleasant and optimistic, it doesn't represent what many young people are actually doing. Aziz says when he's out in bars today, what he sees is "a bunch of people staring at their phones trying to find someone or something more exciting than where they are."
Having a seemingly unlimited amount of choices can cause people to not make decisions, especially in regards to dating. If you always think that someone better might walk around the corner any second, you're less likely to want to commit to any one person.
For more on the conflict of having too many choices, read The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz
The Initial Ask
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Aziz, Eric, and other researchers conducted hundreds of interviews and focus groups. This section gets into the specifics surrounding the dating techniques used by young people in America today, much of which I've left out of this summary.
Technology has fundamentally changed dating. Not only are methods different but there are new cultural norms to which one needs to adjust. It's clear that young people, who are growing up in text-heavy culture, are more comfortable than ever living out their romantic lives through their phones.
The Rise of the Text Message
Texting is one of the most significant recent innovations in telecommunications. The first text message, or SMS (Short Message Service), was sent in 1992. It took 7 years before text messages could cross from one phone network to another. By 2010, people sent 6.1 trillion texts across the planet, roughly 200,000 per minute."
Since then, it's been smartphones that been revolutionizing the communications sector. From 2010 to 2016, the percentage of people who own smartphones jumped from 17% to 83%.
What Changed with Texting
Texting, as a medium, separates you from the person with whom you are speaking. With this additional degree of separation, people are likely to do and say things differently than how they would in person. Consequently, "texting facilitates flakiness and rudeness and many other personality traits that would not be expressed in a phone call or an in-person interaction."
In a face-to-face conversation, people can read each other’s body language, facial expressions, and tones of voice. If you say something wrong, you have cues to sense it and you have a moment to recover or rephrase before it makes a lasting impact. Even on the phone you can hear a change in someone’s voice or a pause to let you know how they are interpreting what you’ve said. In text, your mistake just sits there marinating on the other person’s screen, leaving a lasting record of your ineptitude and bozoness.
The fact that your interactions on your phone can have such a profound effect on people’s impression of you as a person makes it clear that you basically have two selves now—your real-world self and your phone self.
New Cultural Norms
Unlike phone calls, which bind two people in real-time conversations that require at least some shared interpretation of the situation, communication by text has no predetermined temporal sequencing and lots of room for ambiguity.
"There is no official guidebook anywhere on texting yet, but a cultural consensus has slowly formed in regard to texts." This section then breaks out some basic rules surrounding text exchanges. The "rules" included things like, "Don't text back right away," "The amount of text and the frequency of text you send should be similar to what the other person has sent to you," etc.
What We Do When We Are Interested
In one 2011 survey, more than 80% of millennials admitted to doing online research on their partner before a first date. Many young people said even "relatively minimal content is helpful because it gives them clues about people’s interests and character before meeting them."
This can easily backfire, however. Some singles interviewed described meeting and person and "being unable to enjoy the date because they already had all kinds of preconceived notions that were difficult to block out."
What We Do When We Are Not Interested
When a person isn't interested, there are three main approaches that young people use to convey that disinterest: pretend to be busy, say nothing, or be honest.
Most young people, when in this situation say they use the “pretend to be busy” and “silence” methods. Only a small sliver of the crowd would say they were honest.
However, those same people say that if they were on the receiving end, we would prefer people to be honest with us?
Why do we all say we prefer honesty but rarely give that courtesy to others?
If we’re honest with ourselves, we realize that, however bizarre, we actually prefer to be lied to.
- For more on the impact of using text-based communication, read Alone Together by Sherry Turkle.
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The use of online dating has dramatically increased in the past decade. "OkCupid alone is responsible for around forty thousand dates of new couples every day. That’s eighty thousand people who are meeting one another for the first time daily because of this website."
Of that group, roughly 3,000 of them will end up in long-term relationships, and 200 of them will get and stay married.
The Rise of Online Dating
In the 1980's and 1990's classified ads were a popular medium for singles looking for a new way to connect with one another. However, "over time, e-mail, chat rooms, and ultimately social media would require people to develop online personas. And the idea of using a computer to find dates became completely acceptable."
Match.com was one of the first online dating services and advertised that individuals were matched up via an algorithm in real time.
In 2010, five years after Match.com was invented, 10% of people in relationships had found their partner online. By 2012, "more than one-third of couples who got married in the United States met through an online dating site. Online dating was the single biggest way people met their spouses. Bigger than work, friends, and school combined."
It's easy to understand why online dating has taken off. It provides individuals with a seemingly endless supply of people who are single and ready to date. It gives every person the tools to filter and find exactly what they are looking for. No longer do you need a third party, like a friend or a coworker, to make an introduction. What's more, the sites are on all the time meaning you can engage whenever and wherever you want.
There can still be a social stigma with online dating sites, and people are sometimes afraid to admit that’s how they met their partner...
Their fear is that using an online site means they were somehow not attractive or desirable enough to meet people through traditional means, but in recent years this concern seems to be declining.
Despite all the nuanced information that people put up on their profiles, the factor that people rely on most when preselecting a date is looks. Profile photos drive 90% of the action in online dating.
For women, "the most effective photo angle is a straightforward “selfie,” shot down from a high angle with a slightly coy look... Men actually fare better when they are not smiling and are looking away from the camera."
In their research, they found a "trend of people picking certain templates for their photos—hanging with friends drinking, outdoors near a mountain, etc."
For women, the high-angle selfie is by far the most effective. Second is in bed, followed by outdoor and travel photos. At the lower end, the ones that are least effective are women drinking alcohol or posing with an animal.
For men the most effective photos are ones with animals, followed by showing off muscles (six-packs, etc.), and then photos showing them doing something interesting. Outdoor, drinking, and travel photos were the least effective photo types.
The underlying truth is that the best pictures are the ones that led to the best conversations.
Whereas “cleavage” shots of women got 49 percent more new contacts per month than average, the images that resulted in the most conversation showed people doing interesting things.
Sometimes faces didn’t even need to appear. A guy giving a thumbs-up while scuba diving. A woman standing in a barren desert. A woman playing a guitar. These photos revealed something deeper about their interests or their lives and led to more meaningful interactions.
Meet as Soon as You Can
No algorithm can predict in advance whether two people will make a good couple.
Because the kind of information that appears on a profile—occupation, income, religion, political views, favorite TV shows, etc.—is the only information we know about that person, we overvalue it.
There’s only one way to determine whether you have a future with a person: meeting them face-to-face. So if you get matched up with someone, "avoid reading too much into any given profile and to resist the temptation to start long online exchanges before a first date... Too many people spend way too much time doing the online part of online dating, not the dating part."
It’s a misnomer that they call these things ‘dating services.' They should be called ‘introducing services.’ They enable you to go out and go and meet the person yourself.
Ultimately, meeting in person is the only way to know whether something is going to work.
Swiping with Tinder
Tinder was a radical change in the online dating environment because there were no questionnaires or algorithms. The founders "wanted Tinder to seem like a game, one a user could play alone or with friends. It was low stakes and easy to use, and, if you played it well, you might hook up with someone in a matter of hours—the polar opposite of a tense, emotionally draining quest for a soul mate."
Tinder added a key feature that previous apps didn’t have: the mutual-interest requirement.
Men no longer have to worry about writing a long message only to get dismissed based on his looks. The only people he can message are people who have already indicated interest in him.
On the reverse side, for women, a dude can’t bother you unless you have swiped right on him. Women were no longer getting harassed by an infinite user base of bozos; they were engaging only with people they chose to engage.
Tinder, since it's inception, has been a controversial app. Some call it the "The Shallowest of All Dating Apps" but Aziz thinks this is too cynical. On Tinder you're making decisions about dating based on photos of a person - it's an app that heavily prioritizes appearances. But in contrast, if you walk into a bar how do you decide which person to approach? Appearances.
Choice and Options
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Many of us have the "I need the best" mentality. It usually takes the form of making us do a lot of research before we decide what to eat, where to travel, or what to buy. This "I need the best" mentality can be debilitating.
That’s the thing about the Internet: It doesn’t simply help us find the best thing out there; it has helped to produce the idea that there is a best thing and, if we search hard enough, we can find it.
The "Best" Romantic Partner?
We are no longer the generation of the “good enough” marriage. We are now looking for our soul mates. And even after we find our soul mates, if we start feeling unhappy, we get divorced.
In early adulthood, from college, to finding our careers, to moving out on our own, we are constantly being introduced to new and exciting pools of romantic options.
Barry Schwartz’s research shows that when we have more options, we are actually less satisfied and sometimes even have a harder time making a choice at all. An excess of options can lead to indecision and paralysis.
When looking for a significant other, we tend to look for "the best," our soulmates. Schwartz would challenge: “How many people do you need to see before you know you’ve found the best? ... The answer is every damn person there is. How else do you know it’s the best? If you’re looking for the best, this is a recipe for complete misery.”
When inundated with options, we now compare our partners not to other potential partners but rather to an idealized person whom no one could measure to.
Here is an anecdote of the paradox of choice reprinted verbatim:
In one of her most influential studies, she and another researcher set up a table at a luxury food store and offered shoppers samples of jams. Sometimes the researchers offered six types of jam, but other times they offered twenty-four.
When they offered twenty-four, people were more likely to stop in and have a taste. But, strangely, they were far less likely to actually buy any jam. People who stopped to taste the smaller number of jams were almost ten times more likely to buy jam than people who stopped to taste the larger number.
The Effects of Limited Options
There was a sentiment that arose when discussing the paradox of choice with young people. One guy said, “The point is there’s always going to be something that bothers you, you know? But it’s up to you,”
It was a beautiful thing to hear. The attitude of these guys was to give people a chance. Instead of sampling a bunch of jams, they had learned how to focus on one jam and make sure they could appreciate it before they walked away.
The key, then, is to invest in the other person. Couples that really invest in each other generally have more successful relationships.
Stop Going on Boring Dates
You have coffee, drinks, a meal, go see a movie. We’re all trying to find someone who excites us, someone who makes us feel like we’ve truly made a connection. Can anyone reach that high bar on the typical, boring dates we all go on?
Good dates aren't always super eccentric things, they simply weren't just résumé exchanges over a drink or dinner. "They were situations in which people could experience interesting things together and learn what it was like to be with someone new."
Initially, we are attracted to people by their physical appearance and traits we can quickly recognize. But the things that really make us fall for someone are their deeper, more unique qualities, and usually those only come out during sustained interactions.
People’s deeper and more distinctive traits emerge gradually through shared experiences and intimate encounters, the kinds we sometimes have when we give relationships a chance to develop but not when we serially first date.
There’s something uniquely valuable in everyone, and we’ll be much happier and better off if we invest the time and energy it takes to find it.
Old Issues, New Forms
Sexting, Cheating, Snooping, and Breaking Up
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In the phone world we have an unprecedented, highly private forum for communication that forces us to deal with age-old issues like jealousy, infidelity, and sexual intimacy in new formats that we’re still trying to figure out.
Sexting is the sharing of explicit, sexual images through digital media. Today, with the rise in smartphones, nearly everyone has a "remarkably high-quality camera and video recorder within arm’s reach at every waking moment."
Sexting has become increasingly common. More than 50% of 18-24 year-olds have received a sext and more than 1/3 of older teens have sent a sext. In fact, sexting is increasing in all age groups except 55 and older. Additionally, people who are married or in committed relationships are just as likely to have sent texts as their single peers.
The main reasons people will sext are to build sexual attraction and to share intimacy with a partner. While people have all kinds of reasons to sext, some healthy, others not, taken together, sexting can actually be a healthy and compelling way to sustain a modern erotic relationship.
In many cases, it's used to maintain sexual intimacy over long distances.
Without sexting, these relationships would be much harder to maintain and might not even last. Sexting provided an effective way of coping with a well-established and often heartbreaking dilemma: how to love someone when they are very far away.
For those that are opposed to sexting, the most common opposition is the fear of being exposed. To some, sexting is indulgent, vain, and immature. "The implication was that regular, sexually healthy people do not sext, despite the abundance of evidence to the contrary."
The privacy of social media sites, the ease of access to potential people to cheat with, and the ability to flirt with caution via the medium of chat, combine to form a perfect storm of temptation that is "undeniably a new development."
The advantages of technology that facilitate regular dating (such as the ease of access and the absence of the pressure found in an in-person interaction) also transfer over to cheating.
Also, the privacy of our phones means we have a new place to foster and grow clandestine relationships.
It's hard to know whether or not the prevalence of cheating has increased, but it's certainly easier than ever before.
Breaking Up in the Phone World
Until not too long ago, breaking up with someone required an "emotionally wrenching face-to-face conversation... Of course, no one liked these conversations. But we all saw them as obligatory because they were the decent human thing to do for another person."
However, as should be evident by this point, things have changed. According to a study in 2014, 56% of 18-34 year-olds who had a relationship end in the previous year had broken up using digital media. Texting was the most common method at 25%, social media was second at 20% and 11% through email.
In contrast, only 18% had broken up through a face-to-face interaction, and a mere 15% had split up with a call.
Oddly, 73 percent of those young adults—the very same ones who said they had broken up with other people via text or social media—said they would be upset if someone broke up with them that way.
Many young people in casual relationships would actually prefer to be dumped by these less traditional methods, even though they were less likely to use the method themselves.
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Being Single Can Be Fun
It's a common experience that people feel having so many options for a partner that it can be difficult to settle down with the right person. But on the contrary, having so many options can also be a lot of fun.
In fact, most people have a good time in the casual dating scene. The difference is, that everyone gets tired of it at some point, some just get tired of it earlier than others. Through all the surveys and interviews it's clear that at some point everyone hits the "point of exhaustion."
Settling down offers the chance to fill that void with the dependable, deeper, intimate love of a committed relationship.
Fear of Settling Down, Fear of Settling
Settling down can be a frightening proposition. When we're presented with the opportunity, all we can think about is the glamour of single life and we obsess over other potential options. Aziz and Eric call this is "The Upgrade Problem," that is, singles "constantly wonder whether there is a better match, an upgrade."
As one woman told us, “For guys and girls equally . . . there’s just so many people. And there’s someone around the corner or uptown or downtown who you might like just a fraction better than the person who’s across from you right now.”
Settling down can seem frightening limited. Yes, you have someone great but are you sure they're the greatest?
Passionate Love and Companionate Love
In every relationship there are two phases. There's the beginning of the relationship where you fall in love and everything seems magical, this is colloquially called "The Honeymoon Phase." Then, at a certain point, usually after a couple years, things become less excited and more routine. There is still love, certainly, but it's not like the magic you had in the beginning.
Researchers have actually identified two distinct kinds of love: passionate love and companionate love.
This type of love is the first in a relationship. It's the magical kind of love where every smile makes your heart flutter and every night is more magical than the last.
During this stage, your brain is particularly active and releases all kinds of pleasurable, stimulating neurotransmitters.
This stage is estimated to last about 12-18 months. After that, in good relationships, as passionate love fades, the second kind of love arises to take its place: companionate love.
Companionate love is neurologically different from passionate love.
Passionate love always spikes early, then fades away, while companionate love is less intense but grows over time.
And, whereas passionate love lights up the brain’s pleasure centers, companionate love is associated with the regions having to do with long-term bonding and relationships.
brain scans of then-middle-aged people who’d been married an average of twenty-one years while they looked at a photograph of their spouse, and compared them with brain scans of younger people looking at their new partners. What they discovered, she writes, is that: “Among the older lovers, brain regions associated with anxiety were no longer active; instead, there was activity in the areas associated with calmness.”
Two Danger Points In Every Romantic Relationship
One is at the apex of the passionate love phase. We’ve all seen this in action. People get all excited and dive in headfirst. A new couple, weeks or months into a relationship, high off passionate love, go bonkers and move in and get married way too quickly.
The second danger point is when passionate love starts wearing off. This is when you start coming down off of that initial high and you start worrying about whether this is really the right person.
Do You Need to Get Married?
In the beginning, soon after getting married, you get a shot of passionate love. This boost lasts about two years. Then the passion fades and you have various ups and downs. There is a second common hit of passionate love that comes when the children finally leave the house.
The brutal truth is that no matter how much they love each other, how beautiful the ceremony, how poetic and loving the vows, once they finish their wedding, you know their love is going to get less passionate and their life is going to get more complicated, and not in the most fun ways.
Falling Marriage Rates:
89 percent of the global population lives in a country with a falling marriage rate, and those who live in Europe and Japan are experiencing something more like a plummet.
In the United States marriage rates are now at historic lows. In 1970, for instance, there were about seventy-four marriages for every thousand unmarried women in the population. By 2012 that had fallen to thirty-one per thousand single women—a drop of almost 60 percent.
Americans are also joining the international trend of marrying later. In 1960, 68 percent of all people in their twenties were married, compared with just 26 percent in 2008.
Good relationships, however, prove to be worth it. "Successful marriages can make people live longer and be happier and healthier than single people."
No matter what their dating situation, people are torn between the benefits of a faithful, monogamous relationship and the novelty and excitement of single life.
The idea of trying to maintain a committed relationship while also satisfying our urges for sexual novelty has led to a lot of experimentation over the years with “open relationship”–type arrangements.
The latest data show that 26% of American men and 18% of American women report having engaged in “an open sexual relationship.” This has taken the form, in many couples, of a "monogamish" relationship. Monogamish is a term coined by Dan Savage "to describe his own open relationship with his partner. The gist of it is that the couple is deeply committed to each other, but there is room for outside sexual activity.
Some couples used these kinds of arrangements to facilitate long-distance relationships.... Others understood the rationale behind wanting an open relationship in theory, but they doubted that they could pull it off.
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For the conclusion of this book, I've picked out some quotes from the book that I feel summarize the books main lessons. Below are these quotes, not necessarily in order, and quoted verbatim:
Finding someone today is probably more complicated and stressful than it was for previous generations—but you’re also more likely to end up with someone you are really excited about.
Technology hasn’t just changed how we find romance; it’s also put a new spin on the timeless challenges we face once we’re in a relationship.
Treat potential partners like actual people, not bubbles on a screen.
Don’t think of online dating as dating—think of it as an online introduction service.
With so many romantic options, instead of trying to explore them all, make sure you properly invest in people and give them a fair chance before moving on to the next one.
These days there are a lot of people out there saying that social media and all our new communications technologies are making it impossible for people to really connect with one another. There are an equal number of people saying that our new media makes things better than ever. By now I hope it’s clear that I don’t buy either of these extreme arguments.
Where to Buy
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Even More Great Stuff IN this Book:
- An in-depth look at dating and relationships in Paris, Tokyo, and Buenos Aires.
- The influence of dating apps on people of color, and people looking for same-sex relationships.
- The use of dating apps in forbidden cultures, like Qatar.
- How technology has changed the idea of snooping, and the consequences of doing so when in a relationship
- How different cultures view cheating
- And much, much more!