Leona’s Love Quest  Modern Romance and the Paradox of Choice

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Happy Summer everyone! This is my favorite time of the year. When I finally get my life together, the first thing I plan to do is move to a beach town where I can enjoy summer weather all year long. I always feel like summer gets away from me in the Northeast and the end of September comes around way before I’m ready to pack up my sundresses and sandals.  At least I managed a trip to the beach early this season when I reunited with some girlfriends at the Jersey shore. We all attended college together and became friends by living in the same dormitory or apartment with another. Most of them had married within a few years after graduation; in fact, I was the only one among the eight of who was without kids and/or a significant other/spouse (sigh.) Despite their various challenges concerning marriage and family they all seemed relatively happy. As far as I could tell, none of them were ready to trade in their problems with the ones I faced with being single and dating in my forties.

It’s strange to find myself experiencing the same romantic difficulties as Millennials when I can easily remember the time when there was no internet, let alone internet dating. For this reason, Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance was at the top of my summer reading list. This book takes the reader on a sociological investigation of dating in the age of technology, as observed through Ansari’s special brand of humor. I knew if I purchased a hard copy, I would have been hearing his distinctive, cartoon-like voice the whole time in my head, so I opted for the audiobook version narrated by the author. There is no question why it immediately hit the New York Times best-sellers list upon release and I would highly recommend this book to readers of all ages if you’re still active in the dating scene. I learned a surprising number of things about dating in the new millennium that I hadn’t really considered before along my quest.

Aziz begins by reminding us that back in the olden days of the 1980s and really most of the 90s, if a guy wanted to ask a girl out on a date, he typically would have to find the courage to speak to her in public, ask for her number, and arrange a time and place to meet. Of course personal ads and some other unconventional ways to find a mate existed back then too, but most couples met through common, face-to-face, social interactions. Once online dating introduced a relatively low-risk method of doing the same thing, it was only a matter of time until it reached its current level of popularity. No more approaching women in bars, or God forbid, the workplace with the fear of rejection looking them straight in the eyes. Plus, they wouldn’t have any of their douchebag bros around to torment them over their failure. For women too, depending on how bold or forward thinking she is, if one man doesn’t respond to her message, she can just roll on to the next possibility. For the single person living in a major city, the selection of potential dates can seem endless.

It can be argued that the greatest challenge to success with modern romance is the paradox that results from the overabundance of choice. In his 2004 book The Paradox of Choice , psychologist Barry Schwartz affirms we become less happy when faced with so many choices that we’re rendered incapable of determining our best option. When Ansari interviewed many couples that married before the 1960s many of them chose a spouse who lived within a five-block radius of their own neighborhood. A lot of women were eager to get out from underneath the thumb of their parents, and readily accepted a proposal of marriage from the first guy who they enjoyed spending time with and would make a good provider. Couples often developed strong bonds of love over time in these kinds of companionate marriages or sometimes were content living together more like friends than lovers. Excluding the brides who found they traded one kind of tyranny for another, most of the women Ansari interviewed reported their only regret was not having more time to enjoy their emerging adulthood. The soulmate marriage certainly has a greater potential for happiness and satisfaction than the companionate marriage, but only if both parties commit to making re-investing in their relationship. (We can debate over what a soulmate is in the comments.)

The Paradox of Choice explains perfectly why success with online dating can be so difficult. Confronted with what seems like limitless options near and far, people are generally less willing to invest in their relationship when it fails to meet their changing expectations. When the lure of a better match might be as close as the app on their cellphone, many lovers begin questioning their current situation. Although I’m a person who tends to overinvest in a budding relationship, when I search through profiles I make all kinds of snap decisions based on bad photos, poor grammar, questionable clothing choices and other insignificant details if I have little else to go on. I typically find that even the ones that look good on paper are really very hesitant to meet in person. I wonder if their ambivalence stems more from a lack of interest or their sheer inability to choose.

The anonymity of online dating not only reduces rejection anxiety for men, but also encourages some of them to engage in a level of boldness that’s considered unequivocally objectionable in person. In Chapter 2, the descriptions of the text messages Ansari found on had me scrambling to the website for more. (If you happen to take issue with the name of this blog, as many do, you can find the creator’s justification on her website.) At first, I was taken in by the complete audacity and hilarity of the posts. They distracted me from any kind of useful productivity for hours as I scrolled through page after page, laughing at screen shots of messages from men offering unsolicited pictures of their junk or requesting sexual acts and nude photos from the recipient. Take, for instance:

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Once the entertainment value wore off, however, I became kind of depressed by the alarming number of women being sexually harassed on a daily basis. Still, I got through twenty-one pages before the malaise set in and I felt compelled to stop.

I feel a little better off than the women of Buenos Aires, Argentina, where the men are so aggressive that the word “no” only encourages them to try a little harder. Here men are often more interested in the thrill of the chase, and women are often cast aside once they allow themselves to be caught. Therefore, if a woman is truly interested in a man, she has to say “no” for a respectable amount of time just to test a man’s sincerity. The upside is that the women of Buenos Aires have no need for online dating as they are constantly approached by men where ever they go. The downside, as Ansari describes, is the high risk of getting your heart broken by Lotharios purporting false intentions. You know you’re in trouble when the mayor of your city publicly defends sexual harassment because all women want to know they’re beautiful! Mercifully, his own daughter implored him to apologize for his ignorance.

In sharp contrast, the younger generations of men in Tokyo, Japan have earned the nickname “herbivores” for their distinctive indifference towards the opposite sex. As the tradition of arranged marriages declined and women became more active in the workplace, Japanese men increasingly lost interest in the pursuit of romantic relationships. The subsequent decrease in procreation through marriage has prompted government sponsored singles events, and the sex industry there has seen a spike in, shall we say, creativity? How else would you describe a place called Soap Land where a man can pay to lie down on a waterproof mattress while a woman slides her naked, soapy body over his? Going to Soap Land is more acceptable than the vanity of such women who would post selfies to an online profile, therefore internet dating in Tokyo is fairly uncommon.

When you look at the statistics, the American metropolis may be following in Tokyo’s footstep. Until just recently, I was unaware there was an official MGTOW (Men Going Their Own Way) movement here. More women have been opting for the single life as well, and after my week at the shore, I was beginning to see their point. Not a single one of my married girlfriends apparently thought to request, (nor did their husbands offer them) a day at the beach free from their kids or spouses. Although some of us had not seen each other for over a decade, two of my friends planned to stay only for an afternoon so that they could return home the same evening. If I were placed in that same position, I think that FOMO (fear of missing out) would keep me at the shore, especially if we had ample time to spend together the other 364 days of the year. The Paradox of Choice along with MGTOW and FOMO could keep a person like me single for a very, very long time. Such is the dilemma of modern romance, I suppose, and a predicament I am becoming to realize I may never fully comprehend.

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