“An engaging look at the often head-scratching, frequently infuriating mating behaviors that shape our love lives.” —Refinery 29
A hilarious, thoughtful, and in-depth exploration of the pleasures and perils of modern romance from Aziz Ansari, the star of Master of None and one of this generation’s sharpest comedic voices
At some point, every one of us embarks on a journey to find love. We meet people, date, get into and out of relationships, all with the hope of finding someone with whom we share a deep connection. This seems standard now, but it’s wildly different from what people did even just decades ago. Single people today have more romantic options than at any point in human history. With technology, our abilities to connect with and sort through these options are staggering. So why are so many people frustrated?
Some of our problems are unique to our time. “Why did this guy just text me an emoji of a pizza?” “Should I go out with this girl even though she listed Combos as one of her favorite snack foods? Combos?!” “My girlfriend just got a message from some dude named Nathan. Who’s Nathan? Did he just send her a photo of his penis? Should I check just to be sure?”
But the transformation of our romantic lives can’t be explained by technology alone. In a short period of time, the whole culture of finding love has changed dramatically. A few decades ago, people would find a decent person who lived in their neighborhood. Their families would meet and, after deciding neither party seemed like a murderer, they would get married and soon have a kid, all by the time they were twenty-four. Today, people marry later than ever and spend years of their lives on a quest to find the perfect person, a soul mate.
For years, Aziz Ansari has been aiming his comic insight at modern romance, but for Modern Romance, the book, he decided he needed to take things to another level. He teamed up with NYU sociologist Eric Klinenberg and designed a massive research project, including hundreds of interviews and focus groups conducted everywhere from Tokyo to Buenos Aires to Wichita. They analyzed behavioral data and surveys and created their own online research forum on Reddit, which drew thousands of messages. They enlisted the world’s leading social scientists, including Andrew Cherlin, Eli Finkel, Helen Fisher, Sheena Iyengar, Barry Schwartz, Sherry Turkle, and Robb Willer. The result is unlike any social science or humor book we’ve seen before.
In Modern Romance, Ansari combines his irreverent humor with cutting-edge social science to give us an unforgettable tour of our new romantic world.
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About the Author
Eric Klinenberg is a professor of sociology at NYU. He's the author of Going Solo (Penguin Press) and has contributed to The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and This American Life.
Read an Excerpt
OH, shit! Thanks for buying my book. That money is MINE. But I worked really hard on this, and I think you’ll enjoy it.
First off, a little about this project. When you have success as a stand-up comedian, you quickly get offers to do a humor book. In the past, I always turned these opportunities down, because I thought stand-up was the best medium for me. In my mind, a book wouldn’t be as fun as just using my ideas for stand-up.
So why did I decide to write a book about modern romance?
A few years ago there was a woman in my life—let’s call her Tanya—and we had hooked up one night in L.A. We’d both attended a birthday party, and when things were winding down, she offered to drop me off at home. We had been chatting and flirting a little the whole night, so I asked her to come in for a drink.
At the time, I was subletting a pretty nice house up in the Hollywood Hills. It was kind of like that house De Niro had in Heat, but a little more my vibe than the vibe of a really skilled robber who takes down armored cars.
I made us both a nice cocktail and we took turns throwing on records while we chatted and laughed. Eventually we started making out, and it was pretty awesome. I remember drunkenly saying something really dumb when she was leaving, like, “Tanya, you’re a very charming lady . . .” She said, “Aziz, you’re a pretty charming guy too.” The encounter seemed promising, as everyone in the room had agreed: We were both charming people.
I wanted to see Tanya again and was faced with a simple conundrum that plagues us all: How and when do I communicate next?
Do I call? Do I text? Do I send a Facebook message? Do I send up a smoke signal? How does one do that? Will I set my rented house on fire? How embarrassed will I be when I have to tell the home’s owner, actor James Earl Jones, that I burned his house down trying to send a smoke signal?
Oh no, I just revealed whose sick house I’d rented: King Jaffe Joffer himself, the voice of Darth Vader, film legend James Earl Jones.
Eventually I decided to text her, because she seemed to be a heavy texter. I waited a few days, so as not to seem overeager. I found out that the band Beach House, which we listened to the night we made out, was playing that week in L.A., so it seemed like the perfect move.
Here was my text:
A nice, firm ask with a little inside joke thrown in. (Tanya was singing the Drake song “The Motto” at the party and, impressively, knew almost all the lyrics.)
I was pretty confident. I wasn’t head-over-heels in love with Tanya, but she seemed really cool and it felt like we had a good connection.
As I waited for her response, I started picturing our hypothetical relationship. Perhaps next weekend we would go see a movie at the cool outdoor screening series they do at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery? Maybe I could cook Tanya dinner later this week and try out that brick chicken recipe I’d been eager to attempt? Would Tanya and I go vacation in Ojai later in the fall? Who knew what our future would be? This was going to be great!
A few minutes went by and the status of my text message changed to “read.”
My heart stopped.
This was the moment of truth.
I braced myself and watched as those little iPhone dots popped up. The ones that tantalizingly tell you someone is typing a response, the smartphone equivalent of the slow trip up to the top of a roller coaster. But then, in a few seconds—they vanished. And there was no response from Tanya.
Hmmm . . . What happened?
A few more minutes go by and . . .
No problem, she’s probably just crafting her perfectly witty response. She started a draft, didn’t feel good about it, and wanted to get back to it later. I get it. She also probably didn’t want to seem overeager and be writing back so fast, right?
Fifteen minutes go by . . . Nothing.
My confidence starts going down and shifting into doubt.
An hour goes by . . . Nothing.
Two hours go by . . . Nothing.
Three hours go by . . . Nothing.
A mild panic begins. I start staring at my original text. Once so confident, now I second-guess it all.
I’m so stupid! I should have typed “Hey” with two y’s, not just one! I asked too many questions. What the fuck was I thinking? Oh, there I go with another question. Aziz, WHAT’S UP WITH YOU AND THE QUESTIONS?
I’m struggling to figure it out but trying to keep calm.
Okay, maybe she’s busy with work. No big deal.
I’m sure she’ll get back to me as soon as she can. We had a connection, right?
A fucking day goes by.
A FULL DAY!
Now my thoughts get crazier:
What has happened?! I know she held my words in her hand!!
Did Tanya’s phone fall into a river/trash compactor/volcano?
Did Tanya fall into a river/trash compactor/volcano?? Oh no, Tanya has died, and I’m selfishly worried about our date. I’m a bad person.
I shared my dilemma with a friend.
“Aww, come on, man, it’s fine. She’ll get back to you. She’s probably just busy,” he said optimistically.
Then I look on social media. I see her logged onto Facebook Chat. Do I send a message? No! Don’t do that, Aziz. Be cool. Be cool . . .
Later I check Instagram, and this clown Tanya is posting a photo of some deer. Too busy to write me back, but she has time to post a photo of some deer she saw on a hike?
I’m distraught, but then I have a moment of clarity that every idiot has in this situation.
MAYBE SHE DIDN’T GET THE TEXT!
Yes, that’s what’s happened, right? There was a glitch in her phone of some sort. Of course.
This is when I contemplate a second text, but I’m hesitant due to the fact that this scenario has never happened with my friends:
“Hey, Alan. I texted you to go get dinner and you didn’t write back for a full day. What happened?”
“Damn! I didn’t see the text. It didn’t go through. Glitch in my phone. Sorry about that. Let’s grab dinner tomorrow.”
Back to the Tanya situation. At this point it’s been more than twenty-four hours. It’s Wednesday. The concert is tonight. To not even write back and say no, why would she do that? At least say no so I can take someone else, right? Why, Tanya, why? I start going nuts thinking about it. How can this person be rude on so many levels? I’m not just some bozo. She’s known me for years.
I kept debating whether I should send anything, but I felt it would just be too desperate and accepted that she wasn’t interested. I told myself that I wouldn’t want to go out with someone who treats people that way anyway, which was somewhat true, but I was still beyond frustrated and insulted.
Then I realized something interesting.
The madness I was descending into wouldn’t have even existed twenty or even ten years ago. There I was, maniacally checking my phone every few minutes, going through this tornado of panic and hurt and anger all because this person hadn’t written me a short, stupid message on a dumb little phone.
I was really upset, but had Tanya really done anything that rude or malicious? No, she just didn’t send a message in order to avoid an awkward situation. I’d surely done the same thing to someone else and not realized the similar grief I had possibly caused them.
I didn’t end up going to the concert that night. Instead I went to a comedy club and started talking about the awful frustration, self-doubt, and rage that this whole “silence” nonsense had provoked in the depths of my being. I got laughs but also something bigger, like the audience and I were connecting on a deeper level.
I could tell that every guy and girl in the audience had had their own Tanya in their phone at one point or another, each with their own individual problems and dilemmas. We each sit alone, staring at this black screen with a whole range of emotions. But in a strange way, we are all doing it together, and we should take solace in the fact that no one has a clue what’s going on.
I got fascinated by the questions of how and why so many people have become so perplexed by the challenge of doing something that people have always done quite efficiently: finding romance. I started asking people I knew if there was a book that would help me understand the many challenges of looking for love in the digital age. I found some interesting pieces here and there, but not the kind of comprehensive, in-depth sociological investigation I was looking for. That book simply didn’t exist, so I decided to try to write it myself.
When I started the project, I thought the big changes in romance were obvious—technological developments like smartphones, online dating, and social media sites. As I dug deeper, however, I realized that the transformation of our romantic lives cannot be explained by technology alone; there’s much more to the story. In a very short period of time, the whole culture of finding love and a mate has radically changed. A century ago people would find a decent person who lived in their neighborhood. Their families would meet and, after they decided neither party seemed like a murderer, the couple would get married and have a kid, all by the time they were twenty-two. Today people spend years of their lives on a quest to find the perfect person, a soul mate. The tools we use on this search are different, but what has really changed is our desires and—even more strikingly—the underlying goals of the search itself.
• • •
The more I thought about these changes, the more I had to write this book. But I also knew that I, bozo comedian Aziz Ansari, probably couldn’t tackle this topic on my own, and I decided to reach out to some very smart people to guide me. I teamed up with the sociologist Eric Klinenberg, and we designed a massive research project, one that would require more than a year of investigation in cities across the world and involve some of the leading experts on love and romance.
Before we get into things, I want to tell you more about our project, so you know what we did—and didn’t—do. The primary source of data for this book is the research that Eric and I did during 2013 and 2014. We conducted focus groups and interviews with hundreds of people in New York City, Los Angeles, Wichita, Monroe (NY), Buenos Aires, Tokyo, Paris, and Doha. These weren’t ordinary interviews. First, we assembled diverse groups of people and wound up having incredibly personal conversations about the intimate details of their romantic lives. Second, and even more intriguing, many of the people who participated in our research volunteered to share their phones with us, so we could track their interactions through text messages, e-mails, online dating sites, and swipe apps like Tinder. This information was revelatory, because we could observe how actual romantic encounters played out in people’s lives and not just hear stories about what people remembered. Since we asked people to share so much personal information, we promised them anonymity. That means all the names of people whose stories we tell here are pseudonyms, as is standard practice in qualitative social science research.
To expand our reach beyond just those cities, we created a Modern Romantics subreddit forum on the website Reddit to ask questions and essentially conduct a massive online focus group receiving thousands of responses from around the world. (I want to give huge thanks to everyone who participated in these sessions, as the book would not have been possible without them.) So in the book, when we mention “the subreddit,” this is what we are referring to.
We also spent a long time interviewing some incredibly smart people, including eminent sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, and journalists who have dedicated their careers to studying modern romance—and who were very generous with their time. Here’s a list that I’m terrified I’m going to leave someone off of: danah boyd of Microsoft; Andrew Cherlin of Johns Hopkins University; Stephanie Coontz of Evergreen State College; Pamela Druckerman of the New York Times; Kumiko Endo of the New School, who also assisted us with our research in Tokyo; Eli Finkel of Northwestern University; Helen Fisher of Rutgers University; Jonathan Haidt of NYU; Sheena Iyengar of Columbia University; Dan Savage; Natasha Schüll of MIT; Barry Schwartz of Swarthmore College; Clay Shirky of NYU; Sherry Turkle of MIT; and Robb Willer of Stanford, who also helped us design some research questions and analyze our data.
In addition to these interviews, we got access to some amazing quantitative data that we use extensively here. For the past five years, Match.com has sponsored the largest survey of American singles around, a nationally representative sample of about five thousand people with questions about all kinds of fascinating behaviors and preferences. Match generously shared it with us, and we, in turn, will share our analysis of it with you. We’ve also benefited from the goodwill of Christian Rudder and OkCupid, which has collected a treasure trove of data on how its users behave. This information has been incredibly useful, because it allows us to distinguish between what people say they want and what people actually do.
Another great source of data was Michael Rosenfeld at Stanford University, who shared material from the “How Couples Meet and Stay Together” survey, a nationally representative survey of 4,002 English-literate adults, three quarters of whom had a spouse or romantic partner. Rosenfeld, as well as another researcher, Jonathan Haidt of NYU, gave us permission to use charts that they’d developed in this book. Big thanks to them both.
With the help of all these people, Eric and I managed to cover a vast set of issues related to modern romance, but we didn’t cover everything. One thing that I definitely want you to know up front is that this book is primarily about heterosexual relationships. Early in the process Eric and I realized that if we tried to write about how all the different aspects of romance we address applied to LGBT relationships, we simply wouldn’t be able to do the topic justice without writing an entirely separate book. We do cover some issues relating to love and romance among gays and lesbians, but not at all exhaustively.
The other thing I want to say here is that most of the research we did involved speaking with middle-class people, folks who had gone to college and put off having kids until their late twenties or thirties and now have quite intense and intimate relationships with their expensive smartphones. I know that love and romance work differently in very poor and very rich communities, both in the United States and in the other countries we visited for our research. But again, Eric and I felt that studying all the variations related to class would overwhelm us, so that’s not in the book.
• • •
Okay, that’s pretty much what you need to know by way of introduction. But before we begin, I do want to give a sincere thanks to you—the reader.
You could have bought any book in the world if you wanted. You could have picked up a copy of Unruly: The Highs and Lows of Becoming a Man by Ja Rule. You could have bought Rich Dad, Poor Dad. You could have even bought Rich Ja, Poor Ja: Ja Rule’s Guide to Sensible Finance.
You could have bought all of those books (and maybe you did!), except for the last one, which, despite my repeated e-mails, Ja Rule continues to refuse to write.
But you also bought mine. And for that I thank you.
Now, let’s begin our journey into the world of . . . modern romance!
SEARCHING FOR YOUR SOUL MATE
Many of the frustrations experienced by today’s singles seem like problems unique to our time and technological setting: not hearing back on a text. Agonizing over what really is your favorite movie for your online dating profile. Wondering whether you should teleport over some roses to that girl you had dinner with last night. (REALLY SKEPTICAL THAT THEY WILL FIGURE OUT TELEPORTATION BY BOOK RELEASE IN JUNE 2015 AS I WAS TOLD BY MY SCIENCE ADVISERS. EDITOR, PLEASE REMOVE IF TELEPORTATION KINKS HAVEN’T BEEN WORKED OUT.)
These kinds of quirks are definitely new to the romantic world, but as I investigated and interviewed for this book, I found that the changes in romance and love are much deeper and bigger in scale than I realized.
Right now I’m one of millions of young people who are in a similar place. We are meeting people, dating, getting into and out of relationships, all with the hope of finding someone we truly love and with whom we share a deep connection. We may even want to get married and start a family too.
This journey seems fairly standard now, but it’s wildly different from what people did even just decades ago. To be specific, I now see that our ideas about two things—“searching” and “the right person”—are completely different from what they used to be. Which means our expectations about how courtship works are too.
DOUGHNUTS FOR INTERVIEWS:
A VISIT TO A NEW YORK RETIREMENT COMMUNITY
If I wanted to see how things have changed over time, I figured that I should start by learning about the experiences of the older generations still around today. And that meant talking to some old folks.
To be honest, I tend to romanticize the past, and though I appreciate all the conveniences of modern life, sometimes I yearn for simpler times. Wouldn’t it be cool to be single in a bygone era? I take a girl to a drive-in movie, we go have a cheeseburger and a malt at the diner, and then we make out under the stars in my old-timey convertible. Granted, this might have been tough in the fifties given my brown skin tone and racial tensions at the time, but in my fantasy, racial harmony is also part of the deal.
So, to learn about romance in this era, Eric and I went down to a retirement community on the Lower East Side of New York City to interview some seniors.
We came armed with a big box of Dunkin’ Donuts and some coffee, tools that the staff had said would be key to convincing the old folks to speak with us. Sure enough, when the seniors caught a whiff of doughnuts, they were quick to pull up chairs and start answering our questions.
One eighty-eight-year-old man named Alfredo took to the doughnuts very quickly. About ten minutes into the discussion, to which he’d contributed nothing but his age and name, he looked at me with a confused expression, threw up his doughnut-covered hands, and left.
When we came back a few days later to do more interviews, Alfredo was back. The staff explained that Alfredo had misunderstood the purpose of the previous meeting—he thought we wanted to talk to him about his time in the war—but he was now fully prepared to answer questions about his own experiences in love and marriage. Once again, he was pretty quick to take down a doughnut, and then, faster than you could wipe the last few crumbs of a French cruller off your upper lip, Alfredo was gone-zo.
I can only hope that a similarly easy way to scheme free doughnuts presents itself to me when I go into retirement.
Thankfully, others were more informative. Victoria, age sixty-eight, grew up in New York City. She got married when she was twenty-one—to a man who lived in the same apartment complex, one floor above her.
“I was standing in front of my building with some friends and he approached me,” Victoria said. “He told me he liked me very much and asked if I’d like to go out with him. I didn’t say anything. He asked me two or three more times before I agreed to go out with him.”
It was Victoria’s first date. They went to a movie and had dinner at her mom’s house afterward. He soon became her boyfriend and, after a year of dating, her husband.
They’ve been married for forty-eight years.
When Victoria first told me her story, it had aspects I expected to be common among the group—she married very young, her parents met her boyfriend almost immediately, and they shifted into marriage fairly quickly.
I figured that the part about marrying someone who lived in her same building was kind of random.
But then the next woman we spoke with, Sandra, seventy-eight, said she got married to a guy who lived just across the street.
Stevie, sixty-nine, married a woman who lived down the hall.
Jose, seventy-five, married a woman who lived one street over.
Alfredo married someone from across the street (probably the daughter of the neighborhood doughnut shop owner).
It was remarkable. In total, fourteen of the thirty-six seniors I spoke with had ended up marrying someone who lived within walking distance of their childhood home. People were marrying neighbors who lived on the same street, in the same neighborhood, and even in the same building. It seemed a bit bizarre.
“Guys,” I said. “You’re in New York City. Did you ever think, Oh, maybe there’s some people outside of my building? Why limit yourself so much? Why not expand your horizons?”
They just shrugged and said that it wasn’t what was done.
After our interviews we examined whether this spoke to a larger trend. In 1932 a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania named James Bossard looked through five thousand consecutive marriage licenses on file for people who lived in the city of Philadelphia. Whoa: One-third of the couples who got married had lived within a five-block radius of each other before they got married. One out of six had lived within the same block. Most amazingly, one of every eight married couples had lived in the same building before they got married.1
Maybe this trend of marrying locally held in big cities but not elsewhere? Well, a lot of sociologists in the 1930s and 1940s were wondering that same thing, and they reported their findings in the leading social science journals of the time. Yep, their findings were remarkably similar to Bossard’s in Philadelphia, with a few variations.
For instance, people in smaller towns also married neighbors when they were available. But when they weren’t, because the pool was too small, people expanded their horizons—but only as far as was necessary. As the Yale sociologist John Ellsworth Jr. said after a study of marriage patterns in Simsbury, Connecticut (population 3,941): “People will go as far as they have to to find a mate, but no farther.”2
Things are obviously very different today. I found out sociologists don’t even do these sorts of studies on the geography of marriage at the city level anymore. Personally, I can’t think of even one friend who married someone from their neighborhood, and hardly anyone who married a person from their home city. For the most part my friends married people they’d met during their postcollege years, when they were exposed to folks from all over the country and in some cases all over the world.
Think about where you grew up as a kid, your apartment building or your neighborhood. Could you imagine being married to one of those clowns?
WHEN GROWN-UPS GROW UP
One reason it’s so hard to imagine marrying the people we grew up with is that these days we marry much later than people in previous generations.
For the generation of people I interviewed in the New York City retirement community, the average age of marriage was around twenty for women and twenty-three for men.
Today the average age of first marriage is about twenty-seven for women and twenty-nine for men, and it’s around thirty for both men and women in big cities like New York and Philadelphia.
Why has this age of first marriage increased so dramatically in the past few decades? For the young people who got married in the 1950s, getting married was the first step in adulthood. After high school or college, you got married and you left the house. For today’s folks, marriage is usually one of the later stages in adulthood. Now most young people spend their twenties and thirties in another stage of life, where they go to university, start a career, and experience being an adult outside of their parents’ home before marriage.
This period isn’t all about finding a mate and getting married. You have other priorities as well: getting educated, trying out different jobs, having a few relationships, and, with luck, becoming a more fully developed person. Sociologists even have a name for this new stage of life: emerging adulthood.
During this stage we also wind up greatly expanding our pool of romantic options. Instead of staying in the neighborhood or our building, we move to new cities, spend years meeting people in college and workplaces, and—in the biggest game changer—have the infinite possibilities provided by online dating and other similar technologies.
Besides the effects it has on marriage, emerging adulthood also offers young people an exciting, fun period of independence from their parents when they get to enjoy the pleasures of adulthood—before becoming husbands and wives and starting a family.
If you’re like me, you couldn’t imagine getting married without going through all this. When I was twenty-three, I knew nothing about what I was going to be as an adult. I was a business and biology major at NYU. Would I have married some girl who lived a few blocks from me in Bennettsville, South Carolina, where I grew up? What was this mysterious “biology business” I planned on setting up, anyway? I have no clue. I was an idiot who definitely wasn’t ready for such huge life decisions.*
The seniors we spoke with simply did not have such a life stage, and many seemed to regret the lack of it. This was especially true for the women, who didn’t have much chance to pursue higher education and start careers of their own. Before the 1960s, in most parts of the United States, single women simply didn’t live alone, and many families frowned upon their daughters moving into shared housing for “working girls.” Until they got married, these women were pretty much stuck at home under fairly strict adult supervision and lacked basic adult autonomy. They always had to let their parents know their whereabouts and plans. Even dating had heavy parental involvement: The parents would either have to approve the boy or accompany them on the date.
At one point during a focus group with older women, I asked them straight out whether a lot of women their age got married just to get out of the house. Every single woman there nodded. For women in this era, it seemed that marriage was the easiest way of acquiring the basic freedoms of adulthood.
Things weren’t a breeze after that, though. Marriage, most women quickly discovered, liberated them from their parents but made them dependent on a man who might or might not treat them well and then saddled them with the responsibilities of homemaking and child rearing. It gave women of this era what was described at the time by Betty Friedan in her best-selling book The Feminine Mystique as “the problem that has no name.”*
Once women gained access to the labor market and won the right to divorce, the divorce rate skyrocketed. Some of the older women I met in our focus groups had left their husbands during the height of the divorce revolution, and they told me that they’d always resented missing out on something singular and special: the experience of being a young, unencumbered, single woman.
They wanted emerging adulthood.
“I think I missed a stage in my life, the stage where you go out with friends,” a woman named Amelia wistfully told us. “I was never allowed to go out with friends. My father wouldn’t allow it. He was that strict. So I tell my granddaughters, ‘Enjoy yourself. Enjoy yourself. Then get married.’” Hopefully this doesn’t lead to Amelia’s granddaughters doing a ton of ecstasy and then telling their mom, “Grandma told me to enjoy myself! Leave me alone!!”
This sentiment was widely shared. Everyone, including the women who said they were happily married, said they wanted their daughters and granddaughters to approach marriage differently from how they had. They wanted the young women they knew to date a lot of men and experience different relationships before they took a husband. “My daughter, I told her go out, get an education, get a car, enjoy yourself,” said Amelia. “Then, at the end, choose someone.”
Even Victoria, who had been married for forty-eight years to the man who grew up in the apartment above her, agreed. She emphasized that she loved her husband dearly but hinted that, given another chance, she might have done something else.
“My husband and I, we understand each other,” she said. “But we’re very different. Sometimes I wonder, if I had married someone who had the same interests as me . . .” She trailed off.
Maybe she was interested in doughnuts and was thinking about a life with Alfredo?
THE LUXURY OF HAPPINESS:
FROM COMPANIONATE TO SOUL MATE MARRIAGE
The shift in when we look for love and marriage has been accompanied by a change in what we look for in a marriage partner. When the older folks I interviewed described the reasons that they dated, got engaged to, and then married their eventual spouses, they’d say things like “He seemed like a pretty good guy,” “She was a nice girl,” “He had a good job,” and “She had access to doughnuts and I like doughnuts.”*
When you ask people today why they married someone, the answers are much more dramatic and loving. You hear things along the lines of “She is my other half,” “I can’t imagine experiencing the joys of life without him by my side,” or “Every time I touch her hair, I get a huge boner.”
On our subreddit we asked people: If you’ve been married or in a long-term relationship, how did you decide that the person was (or still is) the right person for you? What made this person different from others? The responses were strikingly unlike the ones we got from the older people we met at the senior center.
Many were filled with stories that illustrated a very deep connection between the two people that made them feel like they’d found someone unique, not just someone who was pleasant to start a family with.
One woman wrote:
The first moment I truly remember falling in love with my boyfriend was when I was singing Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All” under my breath to myself while we were studying near each other and then he started singing it at the top of his lungs. And we sang the whole song just laughing and dancing around the room. Moments like those where I feel so free and goofy and loved make me know he is the right person. Also I feel like since we’ve been together, I have become the best version of myself. I push myself to try different things and keep learning even though I’m out of school. It’s so much for myself but having his support in my corner has made all the difference.
Another woman wrote:
He makes me laugh, and if I don’t feel like laughing, he stops and takes the time to find out why. He makes me feel beautiful and loved in my most ugly and unlovable moments. We also share the same faith, morals, work ethic, love of movies and music, and the desire to travel.
And one said:
He’s different from everyone because: He’s a one-of-a-kind human being. There is no one in this world like him. He is stunning, and I am amazed by him every single day. He’s made me a better person for having known and loved him. 5 years going strong and I’m still obsessed with him. He is my best friend.
All of these people had found someone truly special. From the way they described things, it seemed like their bar for committing to someone was much higher than it had been for the older folks who settled down just a few generations ago.
To figure out why people today use such exalted terms when they explain why they committed to their romantic partner, I spoke with Andrew Cherlin, the eminent sociologist of the family and author of the book The Marriage-Go-Round. Up until about fifty years ago, Cherlin said, most people were satisfied with what he calls a “companionate marriage.” In this type of marriage each partner had clearly defined roles. A man was the head of his household and the chief breadwinner, while a woman stayed home, took care of the house, and had kids. Most of the satisfaction you gained in the marriage depended on how well you fulfilled this assigned role. As a man, if you brought home the bacon, you could feel like you were a good husband. As a woman, if you kept a clean house and popped out 2.5 kids, you were a good wife. You loved your spouse, maybe, but not in an “every time I see his mustache, my heart flutters like a butterfly” type of way.
You didn’t marry each other because you were madly in love; you married because you could make a family together. While some people said they were getting married for love, the pressure to get married and start a family was such that not every match could be a love match, so instead we had the “good enough marriage.”
Waiting for true love was a luxury that many, especially women, could not afford. In the early 1960s, a full 76 percent of women admitted they would be willing to marry someone they didn’t love. However, only 35 percent of the men said they would do the same.3
If you were a woman, you had far less time to find a man. True love? This guy has a job and a decent mustache. Lock it down, girl.
• • •
This gets into a fundamental change in how marriage is viewed. Today we see getting married as finding a life partner. Someone we love. But this whole idea of marrying for happiness and love is relatively new.
For most of the history of our species, courtship and marriage weren’t really about two individuals finding love and fulfillment. According to the historian Stephanie Coontz, author of Marriage, a History, until recently a marital union was primarily important for establishing a bond between two families. It was about achieving security—financial, social, and personal. It was about creating conditions that made it possible to survive and reproduce.
This is not ancient history. Until the Industrial Revolution, most Americans and Europeans lived on farms, and everybody in the household needed to work. Considerations about whom to marry were primarily practical.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Searching For Your Soul Mate 11
Chapter 2 The Initial Ask 33
Chapter 3 Online Bating 69
Chapter 4 Choice and Options 123
Chapter 5 International Investigations of Love 149
Chapter 6 Old Issues, New Forms: Sexting, Cheating, Snooping, and Breaking Up 177
Chapter 7 Settling Down 209
Books Consulted 265
What People are Saying About This
Modern Romance is just like Aziz Ansari himselfcharming, thoughtful, reasonable, and able to distill the madness of the world into something both sane and wildly funny. --Dave Eggers, author of Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?
It's the voices that will have you reading this remarkable book in one sitting! The voices of old people who married someone who lived in their apartment building or the building next door and the voices of the young people who check out hundreds of romantic possibilities a night, with so much choice that choice becomes impossible. And then there is the voice of Ansari himself, funny, of course, but also deeply compassionate. For after a year of surveying romance across the planet, he finds that all the apps in the world leave us with this human truth: you have to spend time with a person to figure out, face-to-face, if they're the one. And perhaps, just perhaps, it's the fact of spending time that makes them the one. We nurture what we love and we love what we nurture! This book defines serious fun. --Sherry Turkle, author of Reclaiming Conversation
Always-hilarious Aziz Ansari proves you can be smart and funny at the same time. Not only did I laugh my ass off, I really learned stuff. Where was this book when I was 22 years old? --Steve Levitt, co-author of the #1 New York Times bestselling Freakonomics
Ansari and Klinenberg elegantly capture the entirely new ways that singles communicate, court, and find love today. Modern Romance is a captivating read, with deep insight into history, science, and culture, and loads of wit and charm. Along the way, you may even collect some valuable tips for finding a soul mate. --Helen Fisher, author of Why Him? Why Her?: How to Find and Keep Lasting Love
Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Aziz Ansari
The stand-up comedian, television star, and co-author (with sociologist Eric Klinenberg) of Modern Romance would like you to reach out and touch someone: "You don't find the perfect person online. You can find a person online, but to discover they are the perfect person that you need to do in person."
When and where do you write? What does your workspace look like?
Eric and I wrote a lot in hotel lobbies, and that was interesting. There are other people that use these areas as work spaces: it becomes like a weird office with characters. There was one dude who always drove us bonkers cause he'd keep his text alert on, and it'd make this annoying ding-ding noise that became a trigger that invoked rage in us both.
Upon completion of the book's research, were there any cultural preconceptions of love (or commonly held ideas) that you came to find misunderstood or misleading? In other words: are there notions of romance many of us hold that ultimately do us harm?
With every set of interviews, we'd go in expecting one thing, and after speaking with people of their real experiences, discovered we were looking in the wrong place. When we spoke with couples and separated them, we expected to hear stories of the woes of monogamy or fears of cheating. Instead, we stumbled into this huge issue of snooping and spying on each other's social media and basically the issues that come from merging your digital life. When and if you should share your phone password things of that nature.
The revelations that some of the older women we interviewed in the retirement homes were really powerful. These women told me about marrying men at a young age just to get out of the house and have basic adult freedoms. And though sometimes they ended up finding a life partner they loved deeply, at other times they described being stuck with someone that they never felt a special bond with. And they were trapped without careers or passions of their own. It seemed very hard, and their stories were very compelling.
In an age of search engines, what is the one thing you'd like to know about someone before dating them? Likewise, is there anything you adamantly don't want to know beforehand?
I'd want to know if I sat around all day with them just watching a bunch of episodes of a critically acclaimed drama and eating snacks, would I have the most fun ever? And you'll never be able to search that. With all the endless opportunity and the promise of finding someone great online, it's important to remember that ultimately you need to get off your device and spend time with people. You don't find the perfect person online. You can find a person online, but to discover they are the perfect person that you need to do in person.
How did your collaboration with sociologist Eric Klinenberg come to pass? Was there a shared New York University affiliation, or simply a mutual appreciation of one another's work?
I wanted the book to have some academic heft and to work as a sociology book as well as a humor book. I started going through sociology books with my editor, Scott Moyers, to find a potential collaborator, and he suggested Eric Klinenberg. Scott called him, and he was on his way to the train to meet his wife upstate, but luckily he and his wife were familiar with my work and he decided to come back to the city to have drinks with me. Within a few minutes, it was clear Eric understood what I was trying to do and was really inspired by the project. We had a great time working together, and the book would have been a mess without his guidance!
Who in your own life do you view as benchmark models for modern romance? Who would you hold up as an example of amore done right?
I don't know if it's ever safe to assume someone has it all together. I've had several instances where I assumed, "Oh man, those two are so happy!" And then had a drunken conservation where I found out, "Oh shit! They're sad and miserable!" You never know what people are going through beneath the pleasant exteriors we construct for social situations. We all have our problems and issues, I don't think anyone has it figured out. Everyone's relationship is like a Jenga tower; sometimes it's a stable tower, sometimes pieces fall out, and sometimes the whole tower collapses, but it's never a solid mass that's impervious to problems and issues.
June 16, 2015