The Soul-Mate Shuffle

Modern Romance BY Aziz Ansari, Eric Klinenberg. Penguin Press. Hardcover, 288 pages. $28.

The cover of Modern Romance

Once I went to a party at Aziz Ansari’s house. This was the first and only time I’d been invited to a celebrity party, but I tried to play it cool. I brought two friends and a bottle of decent bourbon. When we walked in the door, I instantly regretted bringing the booze. There was a bartender in a suit making signature cocktails. Of course this was not a BYOB event. Stars: They’re not just like us, no matter what Us Weekly says.

I should have known, right? I was invited because I’d met Ansari a few weeks prior. He was about to start working on a book about love and dating in the digital age. Inspired in part by his own romantic travails, he wanted to explain how our courtship rituals have changed, and why everyone is so confused. As he told me about all this, I wondered how representative a famous person’s dating life really could be.

Ansari also seems to have recognized this problem, and he’s solved it by collaborating with the sociologist Eric Klinenberg, the author of Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone. The two intrepid chroniclers of twenty-first-century courtship traveled to several American cities and a few foreign ones to host a series of live events in which they interviewed many non-famous people about their relationship and dating dilemmas. The result, Modern Romance: An Investigation (Penguin Press, $28), is both a social-science book that’s pleasant to read and a comedy book that actually has something to say. In addition to quoting from the public gatherings, the authors consulted a handful of experts to outline some broad trends in dating and mating among heterosexual, college-educated romantic entrepreneurs over the past few decades. (An early disclaimer states that they couldn’t tackle LGBT relationships in depth “without writing an entirely separate book.”)

They summarize several key developments in this relatively privileged subset of the population. We’re all on the hunt for a soul mate—“a lifelong wingman/wingwoman who completes us and can handle the truth, to mix metaphors from three different Tom Cruise movies,” Ansari writes. And we have more options than ever when it comes to choosing whom to sleep with, date, and marry. Indeed, as Ansari and Klinenberg note, the abundance of such choices can lead to a sort of decision paralysis that didn’t exist in the days when people expected to marry someone from their neighborhood—but it also means a better chance of a fulfilling marriage, which is no longer seen as a rite of passage to adulthood but a culminating event after an “emerging adulthood” period in our twenties. To illustrate the contrast with generations past, the authors interviewed a number of older people about their own dating rituals, which involved singles’ bars, traditional dates, and church mixers. “That seems more pleasant than what I see out in bars today,” Ansari writes, “which is usually a bunch of people staring at their phones trying to find someone or something more exciting than where they are.”

Indeed, Modern Romance singles out the smartphone as the chief portal into today’s paralyzing array of dating options. At their research events, Ansari and Klinenberg asked participants to share their text histories and dating-site in-boxes. This, according to them, is where much of the pre-courtship courtship ritual happens, these days. (Whither the traditional phone call? “I often don’t answer, but I like receiving them,” one woman reported.) The emergence of the smartphone as the premier dating filter is not without its downsides, especially for women. “I’ve observed many men who, while hopefully decent human beings in person, become sexually aggressive ‘douche monsters’ when hiding behind the texts on their phone,” Ansari writes. For both parties, message-based flirting creates a prolonged period of ambiguity that just didn’t figure into previous generations’ dating lives. The book features screenshots of a half-dozen text conversations that rapidly fizzle from fun and flirty overtures into a morass of scheduling logistics. And so Ansari offers advice: Rather than send an initial text like “What’s up,” suitors should propose a specific time, date, and place to meet up in person. In other eras, this would have been called asking someone out on a date. Today, Ansari and Klinenberg make it seem like a rare and bold move.

They don’t shy away from the undeniable evidence that a bit of game-playing—pointedly delaying a decision to text someone back, or pretending to be a little bit busier than you actually are—has the effect of making someone more eager to see you. But they do note that this waiting game can also strain a burgeoning relationship to the point where it never reaches a détente. Ansari quotes Natasha Schüll, an expert on gambling addiction, to explain why our brains get excited when we can’t expect a response at a certain time. She compares texting someone you don’t know to playing the slots: “There’s a lot of uncertainty, anticipation, and anxiety.” Whereas leaving a message on someone’s answering machine was closer to the low-suspense ritual of playing the lottery—you knew you were going to be waiting a while, so it was less dramatic. In other words: The more uncertainty, the stronger the attraction.

A post from the blog Straight White Boys Texting, which collects texting screenshots from anonymous contributors.
A post from the blog Straight White Boys Texting, which collects texting screenshots from anonymous contributors. Courtesy

Add to this digitally enabled uncertainty what the psychology professor Barry Schwartz has called “the paradox of choice.” Because the Internet affords us access to so many more people than those we might meet at the corner bar or at a friend’s dinner party, single people today realize they have options—a lot of them. And when we feel like we have infinite choices, we tend to do something unsettling: Rather than compare the pros and cons of the elective affinities in front of us, we’re tempted to hold out for a fantasy alternative that we haven’t yet seen. Ansari asks, “Are we now comparing our potential partners not to other potential partners but rather to an idealized person whom no one could measure up to?”

Probably. And so, as with the sufferers from any addiction or obsessive delusion, serial daters often hit bottom. “The word ‘exhausting’ came up in every discussion we had,” Ansari writes. This was particularly true for people who were going on several dates per week (usually arranged through Tinder or OkCupid) and exchanging texts with a half-dozen people at any given time. They grew tired of making the same job-interview-style small talk on what Ansari calls “boring-ass dates.” These were also usually in cities with lots of fellow singles—New York, San Francisco, and other mating grounds for recent college grads. When Klinenberg and Ansari interviewed residents of smaller towns in upstate New York and Kansas, these people had the opposite problem: They ran out of Tinder options after two swipes, and struggled because they and their dates had too many people in common. The dating complaints Ansari and Klinenberg found in their Tokyo, Buenos Aires, and Paris interviews were, predictably, just as varied. In Tokyo, “herbivore men” are so afraid of rejection by potential partners that they prefer the comfort of paid sex workers and plastic devices. In Buenos Aires, everyone is lining up their next relationship before they’ve even broken up. In Paris, no one expects monogamy.

Maybe because everyone seems a little bored by committed relationships, Ansari devotes fewer pages to exploring what happens as romantic certainty increases. He explains how even when we’re coupled up, our phones offer opportunities to meet new people, snoop on our current partners, and turn slightly flirtatious work relationships into full-blown covert affairs. On a deeper level, the authors make clear that while marriage was once a contract between families, today it’s more likely to be seen as a union of soul mates. But whereas Ansari offers lots of advice on how to text for success and create the best online-dating profile, the advice stops when it comes to figuring out how to live up to soul-mate expectations while collaborating on mundane tasks like keeping the house clean and raising children. He and Klinenberg present the research on passionate versus companionate love—how the soaring passion we feel in the first eighteen months of a relationship usually fades to a sort of super-affectionate friendship—though they don’t offer much advice on how to navigate the transition other than to be patient. Perhaps since Ansari himself is in a committed relationship, but not married, Modern Romance doesn’t really go there. (Klinenberg, for his part, is married with kids, but may be saving the results of his own plunge into domesticity for a follow-up study.)

Mainstream notions about monogamy are a relatively modern phenomenon, experts tell Klinenberg and Ansari. In the dark ages before feminism, men thought of sexual adventure as their birthright, and women were expected to accept it. Sex columnist Dan Savage tells them that the twentieth-century women’s movement changed things—but rather than open up extracurricular sexual activities to both men and women, society veered in the direction of heightened monogamy. Or as Ansari puts it, “Men got preemptively jealous of their wives messing around and said, ‘What? No, I don’t want you boning other dudes! Let’s just both not mess around.’”

Indeed, a clear leitmotif of Modern Romance is that the changed complexion of the dating life doesn’t just come via the advent of iPhones and OkCupid—it’s also the legacy of modern feminism. “My girlfriend has influence on me. She’s a big feminist,” Ansari told David Letterman in October 2014. “That made me think about those kinds of issues. I’m a feminist as well.” In the book, he doesn’t put it quite so bluntly. But several sections end with caveats about how cultural forces and gender differences tend to work against women. It’s refreshing to read a book about heterosexual dating dynamics that supplies even a glancing acknowledgment of just how much ingrained expectations about gender factor into our behavior. And this, perhaps, is the real value in having a celebrity tackle a topic like this: Even if Ansari’s life doesn’t exactly line up with the average single person’s experience, we should nevertheless be grateful to a famous comedian who can summarize modern dating trends and then implore his male-heavy fan base to “step it up, dudes.”

Ann Friedman is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.