Last week, I tweeted the main graph from Rosenfeld’s latest, a decision we both mildly regret, because it inundated my mentions and ruined his inbox. “I think I got about 100 media requests over the weekend,” he told me ruefully on the phone when I called him on Monday. (The Atlantic could not secure permission to publish the graph before the paper’s publication in a journal, but you can see it on page 15 here.)
I figured my Twitter audience—entirely online, disproportionately young, and intimately familiar with dating sites—would accept the inevitability of online matchmaking. But the most common responses to my post were not hearty cheers. They were lamentations about the spiritual bankruptcy of modern love. Bryan Scott Anderson, for example, suggested that the rise of online dating “may be an illustration of heightened isolation and a diminished sense of belonging within communities.”
It is true, as Rosenfeld’s data show, that online dating has freed young adults from the limitations and biases of their hometowns. But to be free of those old crutches can be both exhilarating and exhausting. As the influence of friends and family has melted away, the burden of finding a partner has been swallowed whole by the individual—at the very moment that expectations of our partners are skyrocketing.
Once upon a time, wealthy families considered matrimonies akin to mergers; they were coldhearted business opportunities to expand a family’s financial power. Even in the late 19th century, marriage was more practicality than rom-com, whereas today’s daters are looking for nothing less than a human Swiss Army knife of self-actualization. We seek “spiritual, intellectual, social, as well as sexual soul mates,” the sociologist Jessica Carbino told The Atlantic’s Crazy/Genius podcast. She said she regarded this self-imposed ambition as “absolutely unreasonable.”
If the journey toward coupling is more formidable than it used to be, it’s also more lonesome. With the declining influence of friends and family and most other social institutions, more single people today are on their own, having set up shop at a digital bazaar where one’s appearance, interestingness, quick humor, lighthearted banter, sex appeal, photo selection—one’s worth—is submitted for 24/7 evaluation before an audience of distracted or cruel strangers, whose distraction and cruelty might be related to the fact that they are also undergoing the same anxious appraisal.
This is the part where most writers name-drop the “paradox of choice”—a dubious finding from the annals of behavioral psychology, which claims that decision makers are always paralyzed when faced with an abundance of options for jam, or hot sauce, or future husbands. (They aren’t.) But the deeper issue isn’t the number of options in the digital dating pool, or any specific life category, but rather the sheer tonnage of life choices, more generally. Gone are the days when young generations inherited religions and occupations and life paths from their parents as if they were unalterable strands of DNA. This is the age of DIY-everything, in which individuals are charged with the full-service construction of their careers, lives, faiths, and public identities. When in the 1840s the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard called anxiety “the dizziness of freedom,” he wasn’t slamming the door on modernity so much as foreseeing its existential contradiction: All the forces of maximal freedom are also forces of anxiety, because anybody who feels obligated to select the ingredients of a perfect life from an infinite menu of options may feel lost in the infinitude.
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