Perspectives: The Decline of Romantic Love

November 16, 2012


In an article in the New York Times (11.3.12)Richard Friedman writes about the importance of unpredictable love or unpredictability in general. We are programmed to seek out the unpredictable because it is an effective survival mechanism, according to Friedman:

“The brain’s reward circuit has evolved over millions of years to enable us to recognize and extract various rewards from our environment that are critical to our survival, like food and a suitable sexual mate. Unlike predictable stimuli, unanticipated stimuli can tell us things about the world that we don’t yet know. And because they serve as a signal that a big reward might be close by, it is advantageous that novel stimuli command our attention.

Which brings us to inconstant love. It turns out that human love and attachment are, like the fruit juice in a recent experiment, natural reinforcers that can activate your reward pathway. The anthropologist Helen Fisher studied a group of 17 people in the grip of intense romantic love and found that an image of their beloved strongly activated the reward circuit.

If you are involved with someone who is unpredictably loving, you might not like it very much – but your reward circuit is sure going to notice the capricious behavior and give you information that might conflict with what you believe consciously is in your best interest.”

Well, that’s all well and good, but we are doing our level best to remove unpredictability from the dating cycle. In recent years, there has been a proliferation of dating sites which claim to be able to make perfect love matches. As the more traditional modes of sexual prowling – e.g. singles bars – are fewer because of AIDS, time constraints, professional demands, etc., the number of virtual dating opportunities has multiplied. The formula is simple: If you enter enough truthful information about yourself, and if others do as well, you can be sure to find a match.

I have written recently about Nate Silver, crowdsourcing, sequencing, and data-mining as the New Wave of prediction analysis; and these techniques are being applied to dating services as well. The questions asked by the service have been developed based on their predictive power. A simple example is “Profession” which has significant predictive power because most people start with that criterion. The questions get more and more specific. “Are you a smoker?” is a natural; but more advanced queries such as “What sexual positions do you prefer?”; or even “Do you like to be tied up when having sex?” have their place in the algorithm.

The point is that, while most people would claim that there is no way that an objective, computer-based, statistical model could possibly define the elements that contribute to romantic success (we can never shake the image of Romeo and Juliet), of course it can. The more data that these services collect, the better they get at improving the predictability of questions-and-answers.

In the age of the Internet someone looking for love does not even have to go through a dating service. A middle-aged, divorced woman I know had great success mining her college and university alumnae lists. She also found good leads among like-minded “Friend-Groups” convened in cyberspace by Facebook and other social networking sites.

Privacy rights are being eroded daily and just about everyone has access to your personal data. It will not be long before has a dating site to match you with others with the same literary preferences; or E-bay which links you with other lovers of 17th century porcelains. For a few dollars, you can construct your own dating algorithm, subscribing to those websites which reflect your personality, choices, and preferences.

“We’ve all been told that faithfulness and constancy are desirable and even virtuous, yet we have been warned by our poets and philosophers that it’s an uphill battle against the fickleness of love. It’s been 400 years since Shakespeare warned women that “men were deceivers ever; one foot in sea and one on shore, to one thing constant never,” says Friedman.

Even more to the point is Rosalind’s screed against love in “As You Like It”:

“No, faith, die by attorney. The poor world is almost six thousand years old, and in all this time there was not any man died in his own person, videlicit, in a love-cause. Troilus had his brains dashed out with a Grecian club; yet he did what he could to die before, and he is one of the patterns of love. Leander, he would have lived many a fair year, though Hero had turned nun, if it had not been for a hot midsummer night; for, good youth, he went but forth to wash him in the Hellespont and being taken with the cramp was drowned and the foolish coroners of that age found it was ‘Hero of Sestos.’

But these are all lies: men have died from time to time and worms have eaten them, but not for love,” wrote Shakespeare.

Shakespeare wrote only one play which was optimistic about love – “Romeo and Juliet,” a play without villains, suspicions, jealousy, or hate. If it had not been for bad luck, the lovers would still be living happily ever after. In all the rest he told us again and again that people marry for the right reasons (power, money, protection) and get burned for the wrong ones (unseemly passion).

So, now, young people are turning – whether they know it or not – back to Shakespeare and the American version of Indian arranged marriages. Forget the unpredictable, and make a good, objective match. The only difference is that no parents or anticipated dowries are involved, just hi-tech software.

Unpredictability is not the be-all and end-all, says Friedman:

“We use conscious knowledge to override our unhealthy or undesirable impulses all the time. Except for a few limited circumstances, we are expected to be in charge of our brains.

Still, it should help us understand those friends who find themselves drawn to unpredictable romantic partners. They are not necessarily gluttons for pain or disappointment; they might be addicted to the hidden pleasure of inconstant love.”

Alas, fewer and fewer of us will want to feast at the table of pain and disappointment. Why should we when romantic satisfaction is but a few mouse clicks away?

Ron Parlato is a writer living in Washington, DC. He has close ties with Columbus, which he visits frequently.  His writings on literature, politics and culture, travel, and cooking can be found on his own blog,

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