In post-war America, everything was clearly magical. Everyone was happy. The future was bright. Coca Cola cost a nickel. In particular, this was an era of perfect romance: it was the golden age of the Hollywood movie-musical. From Meet Me in St. Louis to Singin’ in the Rain, the formula for love had never been so simple.
The truth is, of course, not so simple, but I’m not really here to talk about that. What I want to talk about is the idea that the formula for love really was simpler (in a sense) back then. Bear with me.
At its core a romantic relationship needs two things to (metaphorically) catch fire: a spark, and fuel. The spark can be any kind of social interaction, any chance encounter, any glance across a room. It’s just one of those weird things about human social behaviour that’s intensely hard to predict individually but is easy to talk about in aggregate. The fuel is a little easier to pin down: shared interests, shared beliefs, a shared worldview. Something to build a relationship upon. This is over-simplified of course, but hopefully fairly uncontroversial.
In post-war America, there were, potentially, a few more sparks than today. Sparks rarely happen when you’re looking down at your phone. Social mixers are less common in the age of Netflix. Still, plenty of opportunities to spark do exist today, so all is not lost.
However, in post-war America, there was way more fuel.
Not only did the pressures of the war drive people together, but it was an age of cultural homogeneity for other reasons as well. New media existed (radio, film, tv, etc) but not in diversity. Everybody read the same news. Everybody watched the same movies. The entire freaking continent tuned in to I Love Lucy on Monday evenings. And those new neighbours you hadn’t met yet? They were almost certainly the same general religion as you, and chances are they were the same denomination too. In short: the odds that you had something in common with that cute guy/girl across the dance floor were actually pretty good. Today though, one of you is a vegan Hindu who likes documentaries and yoga, and the other is a meat-eating Catholic who’s into video games and obscure science fiction.
The modern age does sort of offer a solution to this problem of course. Your “tribes” may not be physically local anymore, but they’re still connected via the internet. Facebook and memes and super-specialized message boards and conventions all keep our various tribes intact and allow this diversity to flourish, no matter the geographic distance involved. Unfortunately, attraction is still a very physical response. Sparks can happen over the internet, but they are rare. The net effect is that while sparks and fuel are both still in supply today, modern technology has… separated them. Fuel is primarily online, and sparks in person, and never the twain shall meet.
“But wait”! I hear you say. “Isn’t online dating a thing”? It is! How perspicacious!
Online dating seems ideal; you fill out a form and let computers sort through the mountains of people in your region to find those with the appropriate “compatibility” (fuel), and then you go and meet them in person, and voila! Reality is somewhat unforgiving of this hypothesis though. For whatever reason, sparks are mostly a function of spontaneity, and they rarely happen in a one-on-one setting. Going on a deliberate coffee date with somebody you met online has to be the world’s worst possible approach for generating that initial spark, no matter how much fuel is present.
I think like an engineer (I can’t say I am an engineer or else real engineers will hunt me down and sue me) so I have come up with a couple of ridiculous solutions to these problems. Among other even more terrible ideas:
- An “offline dating form” for people to fill out when there you spark with someone in real life. It doesn’t actually increase the likelihood of a successful match, but at least it avoids wasting time on a couple of dates until you figure out that you’re just not compatible.
- Blinded online/offline mixers. A dating company holds an invite-only real-life party for groups of its users, with the guarantee that most of the people there will be people you match with really well.
Am I done with this rambly rant? No, I am not. The other dimension I have mostly glossed over so far is the fact that in ye olden days, everybody in your social group was looking for basically the same kind of relationship. Marriage, dog, 2.49 kids, white picket fence, whatever. Today we are much more liberal: you can have whatever kind of relationship you want as long as it’s consensual; you just have to agree on it first.
In a way this just kinda falls under fuel: yet another point of compatibility to consider when filling out the form. But it’s also special, because it’s super-hard to talk about and there’s tons of room for confusion. I don’t have a problem telling a date I’m an atheist, and it’s the sort of thing that might come up in a first-date conversation. If they’re not into that, oh well, moving on. Kids though? Who talks about kids on a first date? But it’s important. Most people feel pretty strongly about it one way or the other, and if you realize six months in that you feel differently, well then… oops?
Even worse, there are so many shades of grey in this that it’s easy to fall into a relationship and not even realize that you’re in different places. Love is a ridiculously overcomplicated word. Rothfuss says it better than I ever will:
Here’s the thing, I’m not a fan of LOVE as a singular concept. It’s a ridiculously broad term that can be applied to pets, sex partners, or Oreos. When a word accretes that many definitions, it becomes virtually nonsensical.
In that second link above, Rothfuss splits “love” into five or arguably six concepts (philos, eros, agape, storge, eleutheria, romance). These are useful distinctions with compelling definitions, but they blend into one another. Where does agape end and romance begin? What about eros, isn’t that kind of a component of the others sometimes? Word definitions are fuzzy abstractions to begin with and language is socially negotiated. When someone says “I love you”, chances are they don’t even know exactly which mix of love-concepts they really mean, and god help anybody else trying to come up with a correct interpretation. It’s kind of a crap-shoot, and not a necessarily a particularly ethical one.
All of this leaves us where exactly? I don’t really know. Clearly, I think too much. I started this thing talking about musicals, so I’ll end it with one too. If you’re looking for love out there in 2017… good luck?