Aziz and Eric Klinenberg Ansari, Modern Romance: An Investigation (Penguin Books, reprinted ed. 2016).
Like any good stand-up comedian, Aziz Ansari is an intuitive student of the human condition. He wrote his book, Modern Romance: An Investigation, after he couldn’t figure out how and when to communicate next with Tanya, a potential new romantic interest whom he wanted to see again. After texting her, Ansari experienced the anxiety that many iPhone users know all too well: “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” (5). He wanted “a book that would help me understand the challenges of looking for love in the digital age,” and not finding one, he teamed up with sociologist Eric Klinenberg to conduct an international research project on love and dating in the modern world. What he found is that the obvious changes in the dating playing field—those of technology and social media—have caused a not-so-obvious change: “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” (6).
Compared to their grandparents, young adults are perfectionists in their search for someone who will complete them. Their marriages are like capstones to their young adult life. Whereas for previous generations marriage offered financial and social freedom apart from one’s parents, contemporary young adults experience a phase that has been dubbed “emerging adulthood,” a period of near-complete freedom and self-discovery. As a result, dating is no longer the means to marriage and adulthood, but instead a fun way to enjoy being with romantic interests that might, at some future point, motivate a long-term commitment. Ansari notes the radical shift from “companionate marriage” in which two people recognize each other as qualified partners and work toward intimacy and love throughout the course of their married life, to a marriage of “soul mates”—that is, two people who perfectly complement each other’s project of self-actualization (22). Economic partnerships with qualified spouses are no longer satisfactory marriages, because what Ansari and his contemporaries are looking for in marriage is a perfect long-term soul mate. Ansari contrasts his own perfectionism with his father’s story. The elder Ansari met his wife as the third possible candidate for an arranged marriage. After confirming that “she was the appropriate height” and chatting for thirty minutes, he proposed marriage and she agreed (123). The ease with which the elder Ansari married (compared to Aziz’s interminable search for a wife) belies a generational shift in the way that marriage lends meaning to our lives. As ties to family, churches, neighborhoods and local social institutions have waned, young people are looking for one person to fulfill the role of a whole community. Aziz Ansari quotes psychotherapist Esther Perel: “So we come to one person, and we basically ask them to give us what an entire village used to provide: give me belonging, give me identity, give me continuity, but give me transcendence and mystery and awe all in one” (25). Rather than choosing spouses as complements to personal narratives that were largely received, young, isolated singles are forced to make radical mating decisions that will restructure their entire lives.
Recent technology has complicated the search for love by combining unlimited options with impersonal means of communication. This at once broadens the visible dating field while removing people from direct, honest communication with each other. Ansari worries that the popularity and ease of messaging allows people to avoid difficult face-to-face conversations and results in stunted social skills (41). This, in turn, forces young people to become even more reliant on texting for communication, making simple phone calls unusual enough to be a source of anxiety for many of them. Face-to face-conversations, especially difficult breakups, force each person to confront the other’s emotions and practice empathy, whereas texting avoids any visceral encounter with the reality of another (195). It also allows people always to present their best side—never rushed or awkward, always composed. Furthermore, with in-person conversations and phone calls, the spoken words are only a small part of the information conveyed. Pitch, timing, pauses, and body language clarify meaning, even if unintentionally, and move the conversation forward. In an information-poor medium like texting, the sole two pieces of information—the content of the text itself and the time lapsed between messages—become excessively scrutinized (47). During the initial stages of a relationship, translating this information becomes a complicated, stressful dynamic in itself..
Dating services are the new matchmakers. Between 2005 and 2012, one-third of couples met via online dating sites. “No other way of establishing a romantic connection has ever increased so far, so fast” (84). Ansari is writing in 2014, as dating apps (rather than websites) are beginning to take off. Now, in late 2019, these apps are ubiquitous among young adults. This change occurred alongside the continued decline of traditional mediators of socialization and dating: family connections, schools, churches, workplaces, neighborhoods and social organizations. People have access to a near-infinite number of strangers, with nothing connecting them except a user interface and algorithm. While this situation grants unprecedented options, it also requires tremendous effort to find meaningful connection. Polls of millennials estimate that they now spend an average of ten hours each week on dating apps. Those apps are designed to turn a profit, not improve their users’ lives, so they embed the same addictive technology that makes social media a black hole of time consumption. Given the powerful human drives involved in dating, it’s unsurprising that visually stimulating apps that dangle the prospect of romantic liaison draw in countless users for significant amounts of time.
Ansari is an observant researcher, and he provides useful tips for avoiding the pitfalls of the emergent dating scene. At the same time, he appears unable to step out of the system and critique activities that are clearly not healthy or normal. He wants every fun-loving single to have their cake and eat it too, which he hopes will only require a slight adjustment of outlook and texting habits. As a result, his concluding advice fails to step beyond obvious slogans: “Treat potential partners like actual people, not like bubbles on a screen.” Ansari’s main message seems to be that “romance is complicated but things seem to work better if you invest a little bit more time.” This is a disappointingly weak conclusion from an insightful survey of a burned-out dating landscape. Ansari’s unwillingness to connect trends of dysfunctional behavior stunts the book’s potential to improve lives. He criticizes the frequency of crude sexual requests on dating apps, but he treats the frequency of teenage sexting (and its companions: sexual manipulation and abuse) as a new, normal step toward adult sexuality. Despite nudges from friends and family toward a conception of relationships premised on self-gift and hopeful commitment, Ansari is too committed to cultural relativism (perhaps because of the stark contrast between his lifestyle and that of his parents) to explicitly criticize the darker aspects of the modern dating scene. It is perhaps not surprising that since writing the book, Ansari was the object of a controversial #MeToo article, in which an anonymous “Grace” described a disappointing date with Aziz, where she felt forced into sexual activity. In Modern Romance, Ansari lays out the practices and interests of young adults looking for romance with great humor and insight. But if readers want incisive cultural criticism from him, they will be disappointed.
Michael Moss graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 2017 and completed his Masters of Arts in Human Rights under Catholic University’s Institute for Human Ecology in 2020. He works as a management consultant in the DC area.