"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, November 3, 2012

The Decline of Romantic Love In An Age Of Online Dating - Why Have We Become So Practical?

In an article in the New York Times (11.3.12) Richard Friedman writes about the importance of unpredictable love or unpredictability in general. We are programmed to seek out the unpredictable because it is an effective survival mechanism:
The brain’s reward circuit has evolved over millions of years to enable us to recognize and extract various rewards from our environment that are critical to our survival, like food and a suitable sexual mate. Unlike predictable stimuli, unanticipated stimuli can tell us things about the world that we don’t yet know. And because they serve as a signal that a big reward might be close by, it is advantageous that novel stimuli command our attention.
Which brings us to inconstant love. It turns out that human love and attachment are, like the fruit juice in [a recent] experiment, natural reinforcers that can activate your reward pathway. The anthropologist Helen Fisher studied a group of 17 people in the grip of intense romantic love and found that an image of their beloved strongly activated the reward circuit.
If you are involved with someone who is unpredictably loving, you might not like it very much — but your reward circuit is sure going to notice the capricious behavior and give you information that might conflict with what you believe consciously is in your best interest.

Image result for images online dating

All well and good, but the current trend is to remove unpredictability from the dating cycle.  In recent years the number of online dating sites has increased geometrically. As the more traditional modes of sexual connection – e.g. singles bars – become less attractive options because of AIDS, time constraints, professional demands, etc.; the number of virtual dating opportunities have multiplied.  The formula is simple: If you enter enough truthful information about yourself, and if others do as well, you can be sure to find a match. 

Now crowdsourcing, sequencing, and data-mining, the New Wave of prediction analysis are being applied to dating services as well.  The questions asked by the service have been developed based on their predictive power.  A simple example is ‘Profession’ which has significant predictive power because most people start with that criterion.  Questions quickly become more and more specific.
“Are you a smoker?” is a natural; but more advanced queries such as “What sexual positions do you prefer?”; or even “Do you like to be tied up when having sex?” have their place in the algorithm.

The point is that while some would claim that there is no way for an objective, computer-based, statistical model could possibly define the elements that contribute to romantic success (we can never shake the image of Romeo and Juliet), it most certainly can. The more data that these services collect, the better they get at improving the predictability of questions-and-answers.

Even if one does not use online dating sites, social media are often enough to provide at least basic information to help dating decisions.  One can have great success by  simply mining college and university alumni lists; or by joining marches, gatherings, and protests of like-minded, politically-active people; or through membership of arts associations, volunteer organizations, and park service. Facebook can initiate the contacts, electronic information can help to vet and reference-check individuals and groups. Although not as targeted, data-honed, and extensive as dating sites, social media can facilitate the process of meeting a potential mate or lover.

Big data has enabled mega-sites like Amazon and E-Bay to collect volumes of personal information on every user.  It is only a matter of time before they suggest matches between customers based on purchasing preferences. For a fee one will be able to construct one's own dating algorithm, subscribing to those websites which reflect your personality, choices, and preferences.

But what about romantic love? Has it gone by the wayside? 

The idea of romantic love is relatively new, dating back to the 14th century.  Petrarch’s sonnets to his love, Laura, expressed new sentiments of longing, desire, loss, and emotional beauty.  The Age of Chivalry was born, women were no longer considered just mates contracted to produce children and extend the family line.  The were now to be revered, sought-after for their charms and allure, and kept for their own sake.
Romantic Love
with the name that Love wrote on my heart,
the sound of its first sweet accents begin
to be heard within the word laudable.
Your regal state, that I next encounter,
doubles my power for the high attempt;
but: ‘Tacit’, the ending cries, ‘since to do her honor
is for other men’s shoulders, not for yours’.
So, whenever one calls out to you,
the voice itself teaches us to Laud, Revere,
you, O, lady worthy of all reverence and honor:
except perhaps that Apollo is disdainful
that mortal tongue can be so presumptuous
as to speak of his eternally green branches.
Romantic love, of course, was popular only among the aristocratic few.  Peasants had no time for such impractical notions.  For them marriage was an economic contract, and the wife’s role was to work as part of a productive, self-sustaining unit.  Her value was based solely on her strength and ability to work; her health, a key factor in her economic longevity and her fertility, and the ability to produce more able hands for family work.  Marriages were arranged based on economics, and the value of both husbands and wives was calculated on the basis of ability to provide, produce, and maintain.
Romantic Love was equally a construct which thanks to an efflorescence of poetry, a leisure class, and the rejection of dark medievalism, had its day.  Generation after generation has had an investment in continuing the tradition, and today’s Hallmark Card culture is no different.  Billions are to be made on the idea of romantic love, marriages, and big weddings.
Image result for images greeting cards i love you
Marriages stay together not because of love but out of social and economic necessity. In a society which more than ever promotes family – a private, privately-funded institution – there is no way that an older couple with modest funds can or will dissolve a marriage.
Poets and dramatists have been very chary of the idea of romantic love.  Shakespeare wrote only two plays out of 37 which had anything good to say about it - Romeo and Juliet and the less dreamy, melodramatic Taming of the Shrew.   Romeo and Juliet as star-crossed, young, and innocent lovers have a certain sweetness and universal appeal, but Kate and Petruchio are savvy modern lovers who marry because of psychological need and complete intimacy. 
Shakespeare's Comedies all end in marriage, but the marriages are all those of relative convenience. The women have outdone the men throughout the plays, but then must settle.  If the plays were to continue, divorce would certainly follow. 
The marriages in his Tragedies are little better.  Strong women vie for power behind the scenes, are competitors for wealth, status, and inheritance; but never love their husbands.  Caesar's wife may have had a tender affection for him; and even Cleopatra might have at one time felt something more than ambition when with Antony, but for the most part, there is no love anywhere. 
Image result for images eliz taylor as cleopatra
As importantly Shakespeare never trusted women.  Othello claims to the last that he has done men a favor by ridding the world of duplicitous women like Desdemona.  Cymbeline is also about jealousy and the misogyny behind it. We’ve all been told that faithfulness and constancy are desirable and even virtuous, yet we have been warned by our poets and philosophers that it’s an uphill battle against the fickleness of love. It’s been 400 years since Shakespeare warned women that “men were deceivers ever; one foot in sea and one on shore, to one thing constant never.”
Rosalind’s screed against love in As You Like It says it all:
No, faith, die by attorney. The poor world is
almost six thousand years old, and in all this time
there was not any man died in his own person,
videlicit, in a love-cause. Troilus had his brains
dashed out with a Grecian club; yet he did what he
could to die before, and he is one of the patterns
of love. Leander, he would have lived many a fair
year, though Hero had turned nun, if it had not been
for a hot midsummer night; for, good youth, he went
but forth to wash him in the Hellespont and being
taken with the cramp was drowned and the foolish
coroners of that age found it was 'Hero of Sestos.'
But these are all lies: men have died from time to
time and worms have eaten them, but not for love.

Edward Albee hated marriage but felt it was the crucible of maturity. An arranged marriage would never have provided the context within which George and Martha could flay each other to the marrow, to start over, and to have some hope. 

Image result for images who's afraid virginia woolf

Romantic love, as imperfect, idealistic, and impractical as it may be, may be the only way for couples to assess themselves, their ambitions, and their relationships with other.

Friedman suggests as much:
We use conscious knowledge to override our unhealthy or undesirable impulses all the time. Except for a few limited circumstances, we are expected to be in charge of our brains.
Still, it should help us understand those friends who find themselves drawn to unpredictable romantic partners. They are not necessarily gluttons for pain or disappointment; they might be addicted to the hidden pleasure of inconstant love.
Alas, fewer and fewer of us will want to feast at the table of pain and disappointment.  Why should we when romantic satisfaction is but a few mouse clicks away.


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