For the moment, leave all romantic notions at the door and – needless to say – we do not believe in fate, either. Let us consider finding romantic love as a matching problem. In realistic terms considering the social environment, because it matters. A lot.
This is not the same as the fantastic xkcd “Soul Mates” idea, which runs the math on the foolish notion that there is only one true love for each of us. We are more realistic and assume that there are plenty of potential matches. And it isn’t the math that interests us, except for a rough estimate. No, the question is: How do you find your loved one?
In a tribal society or in a small village, the answer is very easy: During your early years, you will already have met every potential mate. When the time has come to fall in love, i.e. when your body (and often society as well) pushes you towards selecting a mate, you already know which ones are both still available (because gossip travels fast in small groups) and of interest to you, and often you will also have a rough guess at whether or not they might be interested in you.
As the social environment grows, it becomes more challenging to know everyone. Society came to the rescue, and we know of a plethora of social events in all societies that are basically match-making parties. Dances are the most common in western society, as are social events such as festivals and celebrations where presence was essentially mandatory. Whether it’s the formal ball of the nobility or the easter celebrations of the village people – these events did make sure that you met as many potential mates as possible.
And that is where we, as a society, stopped. Because our brains have not evolved towards even larger groups, and we have largely stopped thinking about match making as a society. This is both due to puritanical thought which forbids all open discussions that include even slivers of sex as well as more liberal thoughts that consider matching partners to be primitive and patriarchal and evil, because true love.
There’s nothing missing in that sentence. The logic is incomplete. It is basically a faith-based assumption that true love needs no help or will work by magic, and basically we shouldn’t think too much about it. The amount of damage done to people thanks to this unholy alliance of the conservative and the progressive will probably never be estimated.
Today, finding a loved one is a randomized event and society is not struggling, but bumblingly stumbling around on the issue. For some years, it works much like it used to, as you have fixed social circles of manageable size – school, later university. After that, you’re basically thrown into the desert and told there’s plenty of oasis around, go and find it.
Remnants of the previous solutions still exist, but don’t work the same way. Going to a dance, i.e. club or disco, today is a much more random event as participants are changing all the time, and the event is not designed towards match making at all. On the contrary, most modern music and dance is actively hostile towards it. Medieval dances, for example, where almost always done in pairs or groups. Many formal ball dances are actually designed so that over the course of the dance, every man will dance at least once with every woman, as pairs are split up and mixed constantly through the dance moves.
The result of all this is what you can see in every disco on the planet every weekend: There is no time nor is there much of an environment for introductions, who you meet is largely random, and everything benefits one kind of approach: The shotgun approach. As you can read in a hundred online sites and forums about “pickup”, the most successful approach to meeting women for a single man in western society is to approach as many as possible and not care about the results. Pick a target without much thought, approach it and make your move, if she rejects you, move on to the next one. This is an algorithm. Not “something like”, it is an algorithm, a series of steps like a computer program.
However, as even the pickup-artists (as they call themselves) admit, this – the most successful approach to meeting women – is aimed at one-night-stands and sexual affairs, not romance and love. Not a surprise, because as a search algorithm for romance and love, this algorithm sucks. It has no strong selection criteria and will stop (for that night) at the first barely adequate match.
The approach most people use is even worse. Going out and looking for clues. Socialise with your friends, dance and drink, and when you see someone you are interested in who also seems to be interested in you, carefully approach. The problem with this algorithm is that the selection criteria are wrong. Aside from some trivial visual clues (body, face, posture, body language, etc.) the primary selectors are all circumstancial and subject to interpretation. That look could mean a hundred things – which will you think it means? Does he notice you, and do you notice him noticing you? How drunk is everyone? What is the state of mind of the potential partners? Is she looking away because she’s shy or because she’s not interested? Is he with friends who keep him occupied or not? How tired is everyone (why do we make our dance events at night, which we know to be a biological downtime)? Essentially, there is way too much noise in the system, and it shows.
Because the modern “solution” to match making is the “try before you buy” approach. Almost everyone in modern western society has several failed relationships before they find someone where it works. Which, in the majority of cases, also turns out to not be true after several years.
Of course, plenty of marriages in earlier times were disfunctional and only kept together by economic need and social pressure. Let’s not kid ourselves about rising divorce rates indicating marriage unhappiness – the opposite is probably true, people can finally get out of disfunctional relationships and they are increasingly doing it. We should consider divorce rates an indicator for the rate of functional vs. disfunctional relationships, and if we do that we can assume that more than half of marriages are disfunctional or become disfunctional over time, and we all know that most married couples had a few short relationships with other people before they met their marriage partner.
What the shift towards “testing” partners in temporary relationships does is change the mix (people who are unavailable today may become available tomorrow) which increases what Gottman calls CL-ALTs – Comparison Level ALTernatives, one of the most dangerous threats to relationships. Basically, the more you compare your partner to others negatively, the more unstable your relationship becomes. This is both an internal issue (how you compare and what you think of your partner) and an external level – how many subjects for comparison are available. With “testing” relationships the norm, it takes a long time until people definitely leave the dating pool, and I believe we all know the friend or two who were in love with someone who was in a relationship with someone else and who basically waited for that relationship to break up. Your chance of finding a different lover in that state of mind? Abysmal. Your chance of keeping them in a functional relationship? Even worse.
That’s a lot of random thoughts on a random subject and I have no answer or solution. All I can offer is a view on the problem, clean of all the Hollywood “true love” bullshit, which we all know doesn’t work like that in real life, but our subconscious mind still has this image because it’s hammered in movie after movie after TV series after book after gossip magazine article. And that’s the worst part of it: We as a society have a shared illusion of how it ought to be that is not only wrong, it is misleading. A dream image that is actually a nightmare, because it makes you do the wrong things while keeping alive that horseman of the apocalypse: False hope.
What we would need is a more realistive view of the matter, and a social environment that uses that realistic view to improve our chances. And as something that almost all of us desire, it is both pathetic and a shame that there is no movement, no demand for nor even a public consciousness towards this goal.