Our world has become a digital one. And so have our relationships and love life. We have way bigger individual social networks than ever before, “enjoy” the constant digital presence of hundreds of Facebook friends from every corner of the world, and simultaneously chat with ten different people while we are having dinner with someone else.
For many of my fellow millennials it seems easier to snapchat the hell out of something (e.g. last night’s amazing party venue) than having a meaningful conversation about love, life, and pension schemes with their friends and partners. The latter come and go faster than updates to your mobile dating apps. Has the digital age degenerated us into shallow, soulless flesh hunters or merely enhanced our chances of finding true love due to ever-smarter social filtering tools? Or in more general terms: Has romance, the notion of love emphasising emotion over libido, taken a turn for the better or the worse in the digital age?
A lot of soul mates in the sea?
Today, everybody seems to be okay with the fact that there is so much fish in the sea that one should constantly be dating new people. Apparently, this thinking is based on the assumption that we are supposed to find ourselves a soul mate, simply because we have more tools at our disposal to actually meet them – even if it is just meant for a fling. The online-dating industry has managed to capitalise on that trend, having become an over $2 billion industry in the US alone. At the same time, the industry has accelerated the very trend it thrives on by offering numerous customised dating services, thus also peeling away the stigma once associated with it.
Plus, the arrival of more and more mobile applications has further lowered moral barriers young people used to have to try out online-dating. And since these days we get married much later in life and our social networks provides us with plenty of chance to meet new people, our 20s have been degraded to one long decade of unfulfilling tail hunts and meaningless short-term relationships with our “soul mates”.
Is everyone around me crazy or am I just out of touch with modern times?
To me, we are way too quick to call someone a soul mate when he or she clearly is not. The “There is a lid for every pot”-theory, to which I more or less adhere, prevents me from believing in excessive “soul mate-ism”. There is one (give or take) soul mate for me and that person is going to step into my life at some point and most likely has already done so (hi, sweetie). Period.
I ask myself: Why are people searching for soul mates in their 20/30s when they are obviously unwilling or unable to spend the rest of their life with that person? Probably because modern life is making us believe that we stand a better chance at love than ever before by making use of online-dating algorithms. So no wonder youngsters are getting confused searching for “the one” on Tinder.
Some advice by Aziz Ansari
My favourite stand-up comedian Aziz Ansari, best known for playing Tom Haverford on the television show “Parks and Recreation”, wrote an astonishing book on modern romance, a topic that has been part of his stage program for some time now. He argues that all this technology-enhanced dating and relationship patterns may well be changing again: “Our phones and texts and apps might just be bringing us full circle, back to an old-fashioned version of courting that is closer to what my own parents experienced than you might guess.”
That would come as a relief to me, but is he right? I turn to my friends for answers.
Example 1: A close friend of mine recently told me that she feels that as an (admittedly) very attractive 26-year-old university student she needs to be out there and constantly meet new guys. It has been that way ever since her last relationship has gone sour and subsequently ended in break-up. Discussing her unsatisfying tinder hook-ups take up a considerable amount of my free time now. However, this seems to me as a pretty standard behaviour for a girl her age.
Let us take a peek at Example 2: Another friend, she is in her 30s, frequently blogs about her experiences with online-dating, resulting in horrific tales about lame dudes that find it difficult to articulate themselves properly in public (even though they look great on their Tinder pics). She ditched Tinder and met somebody through ordinary means three months later. Now, she is in a happy and stable relationship that might last forever with a guy she met through friends.
Both cases show that there seems to be a time for everything, but in the end dating patterns may not have changed too much compared to what our parents used to do. Research tells us that most couples/romantic partners still meet through friends, which has been the number one factor since the 1940s. And the rise of online-dating as a way to meet one’s partner has stagnated since the mid-2000s.
Digital Age baggage
So, our digital world does not have a great effect on present-day hunting for love after all? Far from it. Only, the impact comes in different shapes.
I, for example, tend to have a hard time accepting the “history” of my girlfriend (no matter how insignificant it may be). I do not handle emotional baggage well – up to the point where I would corrupt an otherwise perfectly healthy relationship. Our digital age does not suit me particularly well, since it leaves trackable bits and pieces of previous boyfriends and other reminiscences of my partner’s past (yes, she is the soul mate I was talking about earlier). I know that it is a childish and highly egocentric reaction. Still, the internet with its unlimited potential for conserving long-forgotten pasts haunts me every once in a while.
Another characteristic of our modern age is the omnipresent “culture of showing-off”. We all post images of yesterday’s roof-raising party and last week’s trip to Portugal on our social network pages, but seldom have I seen a picture of a lonely guy sitting in his armchair hash-tagged #sadtimes or #notinagoodmood. The bad times rarely are part of our digital footprints. It is as if we reduced our digital existence to a mere 50 per cent of ourselves.
Thus, all we see of our partner’s past are the jolly good times (with other people), while the rest is left out. This puts us under a lot of pressure of whether we can live up to that standard. Or, as regards my emotional problem, whether a happy Facebook photo with an ex was actually taken minutes before a big fight that revealed all that was wrong with their (short-lived) relationship. My argument is, I guess, that digital baggage of any kind comes in the form of quantity, while the concept of love is essentially all about quality (which cannot be measured by internet sightings).
So, we millennials might, in the end, not be entirely spoilt by technology’s impact on love. What modern romance boils down to is, I think, the fact that in the internet age our options seem unlimited, no matter if we look for a new pair of shoes or a romantic possibility. We want the best of everything – certified and approved by Google’s algorithms. We put a lot of time into looking for the best – although we might have already found it through non-digital means. Eventually, we realise that and our dating patterns go “back to normal”.
Bottom line: The paradox of choice, the assumption that more choice means better options and greater satisfaction, does not apply to romance.