Finding a Mate in the 21st Century
Finding one’s true love can be increasingly difficult in a modern society. University of California at Santa Barbara professor Bella DePaulo complains, “It [pair-bonding] sounds so simple. You just find the one person, you get married, and your whole life path is figured out.”
If only, it were that simple. A 2016 survey found that “never finding love” was the single biggest fear of 42% of English singles ages 18 to 34. Loneliness is not confined to the United States.
Popular literature offers plenty of reasons that today’s singles have difficulty meeting and bonding with that special someone with whom to spend the rest of their lives:
• Too picky. As Dr. Carolyn Kaufman writes in Psychology Today, “There may well e 8 million people in New York City, but most of them won’t do, and that’s an awful big haystack to sort through.” Others claim that having high standards avoids later divorce.
• Access to the pill. Author Aja Gabel notes that women’s ability to delay or exclude pregnancy led to more women seeking careers and earning more, allowing to greater independence. Also, more people are choosing to be childless – a significant reason to get married in the past – the percentage doubling from 10% in 1979 to close to 20% in 2010.
• Financial concerns. Pew Research reports that the lack of financial stability accounts for more than 40% of never-married singles choosing to stay single while another 28% consider it an important, though minor reason.
• Fear. Many see the tragedy and turmoil of failed unions, even if they have not experienced a divorce in their lives. They reject the idea of meeting that special someone and living happily ever after as myths perpetrated by fairytales and Walt Disney. Many question their ability or the willingness of a partner to make a full commitment to the union.
• Lack of opportunity. The median age for marriage in 1970 was 23 and 21 years of age respectively. By 2017, the average age for men was 29.5 and 27.4 for women, according to Pew Research. With both sexes heavily involved in the long hours of building careers, there is fewer opportunity to meet eligible mates. With many businesses restricting employee relationships, the pool of choices shrinks further.
Such pessimism fails to consider that the majority of humans find true love in their lives and remain happily together for years. In fact, the ideal age to get married or form a long-term relationship is between the ages of 28 and 32, according to research by Nicholas Wolfinger for the Institute of Family Studies. Stephanie Coontz, director of research at the Council on Contemporary Families, agrees: “Marrying at an older age generally lowers the risk of divorce.”
Long-term romantic relationships are built upon mutual attraction, trust, honesty, and realistic expectations. Understanding why you want love, the characteristics you need (not want) in a partner, the most likely places to find those whom you seek, and the process to move from casual dating to a committed, loving relationship are essential for successful pair-bonding.
What is Love?
What is Love? Frank Sinatra opined “It is a many-splendored thing” and a “reason to be living.” The Everly Brothers claimed it “makes the world go round.” Thousands of poets from Shakespeare to Maya Angelou have attempted to convey the emotion with words. Love (and its cruder companion Lust) have been depicted in drawings, paintings, and sculpture for millennia.
Research suggests that being in love makes one think differently, often spurring periods of great creativity and great works of art. Socrates explained the meaning of Plato’s Phaedrus as “love is a madness.” People in love are often characterized as being “lovesick,” so besotted with another person they are unable to behave normally.
Lovesickness hinders logical thinking and leads to questionable actions and often, disastrous results for the lovers and the ones around them:
• War. The Trojan War, immortalized in Greek myth, was fought over the beautiful Helen of Troy, so loved by Troy’s Paris that he kidnapped her from her Sparta husband, King of Sparta.
• Rebellion. Rome’s Mark Antony rebelled against the emperor Octavian for his lover Cleopatra. Their tragic ending is immortalized in Shakespeare’s play, Antony and Cleopatra.
• Abdication. King Edward VIII gave up the throne of the British Empire to marry Wallis Simpson in 1936.
• Crime. Two young Texans, 21-year-old Clyde Barrow and his nineteen-year-old, Bonnie Parker, met in 1930 and became inseparable. Their well-publicized crime spree captured the imagination of the Depression-era and ended in their joint deaths in an ambush on a Louisiana country road by law officials in 1934.
While love has its dark side—obsession, jealousy, and pain—there are countless examples of selflessness, sacrifice, and heroism around us each day. The examples illustrate biologist Jeremy Griffith’s definition of love as “unconditional selflessness” :
• The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry is the story of two people relinquishing their most precious assets for their partner’s happiness.
• Mary Raymond donated one of her kidneys to her ailing husband, Sergeant Lyle Raymond of the Los Angles County Sheriff’s Department, despite his objections. John Rexroad of Killingsworth, Connecticut donated one of his kidneys to his wife, Teri, in 2018.
• Sonny Melton died protecting his wife from bullets fired on the mass shooting at a Las Vegas music concert. Three young men (Jon Blank, Matt McQuinn, and Alex Teves) were killed while shielding their girlfriends during a mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado.
Some scientists argue that love—the need for intimate companionship—is a basic human need whose origins can be traced back to our reptilian brains.
The Science Behind Why We Love
Anthropologist Dr. Helen Fisher, a Senior Research Fellow of The Kinsey Institute and an adviser to the online dating site Match.com, has spent her professional career researching sex, love, and marriage. She claims that romantic love is exceptionally addictive with the same psychological kick as cocaine. Fisher says, “Love is in us. It’s deeply established in the brain, and it’s our challenge to understand each other.”
A 2012 study reported in Psychopharmacology concurred that falling in love and being addicted to a potent drug are similar. Each experience delivers powerful feelings of reward and euphoria that creates an almost insatiable desire for more adventures that, in turn, leads to such behavior as “stress-induced relapse, lack of regard for consequences, being unable to quit, and losing track of time.”
Physical tests indicate that the regions of the brain (the amygdala) and neurochemical systems (adrenaline, dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and vasopressin) dealing with reward, attachment, and reinforcement are active in both conditions. Fortunately, the negative aspects of addiction disappear over time as the relationship progresses, according to a 2016 Chinese study.
The Biological Basis for Love
Scientists speculate that the emotion of love in homo sapiens appeared to enable the bigger-brain fetus to pass through the birth canal. The likelihood of the child’s survival was improved when both parents helped with parenting, encouraging monogamy. According to Dr. Robin Dunbar of Oxford University, the intense emotions of passionate love (what some call the “honeymoon”) is associated with sexual desire and lasts about four years after the birth of an infant or the approximate time that the most attention to an infant is needed to survive.
During love’s most passionate state, each parent directs their interest to a single partner, reduces their tendencies to pursue other partners, and seeks emotional intimacy and closeness.
Love at First Sight
Does love happen in a single blinding instant or build slowly to a crescendo like the first movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. Science doesn’t have an answer. William Shakespeare said, “Whoever loves, loves at first sight.”
Magazines with relationship advice exploit the concept that love is sudden, fragile, and often one-sided. Female-oriented periodicals include:
• Elle magazine. The online version features an online advice column dealing with subjects such as “I’m Attracted to My PhD Adviser But the Feeling Isn’t Mutual” and “I Really Like this Guy, But I Don’t Think He Wants a Relationship.”
• Essence magazine. Recent articles in this magazine directed to black females included “Where You’ll Meet Your Soulmate, Based on Your Horoscope Sign” and “5 Signs Your Summer Relationship Will Last Past Labor Day.”
• Cosmopolitan magazine. According to Ranker, Cosmo is the most popular female-directed magazine in the United States. An entire section is dedicated to the physicality of love, i.e., sex.
Male audiences are not neglected. Men’s Health, GQ, and Esquire are among those counseling men on attracting and satisfying women. Whether such advice is credible or helps one find a partner is unclear.
Psychologists claim that the love-at-first-sight experience is due to the “attractiveness halo”—that which is beautiful is also good —underlies the idea that love occurs at first sight. We generally assume that someone who is pleasing to look at will have similarly charming features inside. If you’re lucky in such an instance, the relationship will be intense initially and grow profound (deepening over time).
Unfortunately, looks are rarely an accurate guide to the person beneath the skin. When the initial attraction fades, there is nothing to sustain the bond. On the other hand, profound love begins slowly, flourishes as each party share mutual interests and their inner-most secrets, and ultimately blossoms into a long-term passionate, trusting affair.
Those interested in getting on the Love Train should be aware that the journey usually involves several stops, according to Dr. Fisher:
Stage 1. Appeal
Lust, the craving for sexual gratification, is driven by the sex hormones testosterone and estrogen. Both sexes have qualities of each, although the former is greater in men and the latter in women. The level of testosterone in men begins to fall around the age of 40, dropping around 1% each year. Women have lower quantities of testosterone that tends to remain level throughout life. Estrogen is present in both sexes, but in higher amounts in women. At menopause or removal of the ovaries, estrogen production slows and may cease for women.
According to WebMD, men think about sex more, seek it more aggressively, and think of it as the connection in a relationship. Esther Perel, a New York City psychotherapist, observes that sex is “the language men use to express their tender loving, vulnerable rise. It is their language of intimacy.” On the other hand, sexual desire in women is more sensitive to environment and context. They are more discriminating than males with relationships more layered. Perel claims, “Women want to talk first, connect first, then have sex.”
The lust stage of a relationship can last days or weeks and may end with its demise or progressing to the next step. Therapist Aimee Hartstein says, “We can have lust and passion at first sight, but it takes longer than that to really get to know someone and figure out who they are and how the two of you connect. Love is definitely something that is longer term.”
2. Attraction (Romantic Love)
According to Dr. Stephanie Cacioppo of the University of Chicago, “Love grows out of desire. You cannot love passionately love someone you never desire.” In this stage, the chemicals oxytocin and dopamine flood the brain while serotonin is depressed. Men and women in this stage are crazy in love, neither evaluating their partners critically nor logically. Some people continually seek the highs of romantic love, changing partners when the infatuation leaves and never finding a life-long mate.
A 2013 study by YouGov for eHarmony reported in Counsel & Heal claimed that men took an average of 88 days from first meeting a woman to tell her, “I love you” for the first time. By contrast, women reportedly took 134 days to say the same words. Claire Jarvis, Director of Communications for Siemens Festival Nights, reinforced the timeline, reporting that a company-sponsored poll found that “it took just ten weeks to know that someone if Mr or Mrs. Right.”
3. Attachment (Companionship)
The third and final stage is much calmer and relaxed; dopamine production is slowed while levels of oxytocin and vasopressin increase. Each chemical plays a significant role in the bonding process. Social psychologists theorize that humans have an evolutionary need to form an attachment to a familiar person who provides comfort and protection.
Romantic love gradually transforms into a reciprocal give-and-take relationship between partners (though not always symmetrical). Attachment is evident when one partner seeks proximity to another when under threat or stress. Drs. Cindy Hazan (Cornell University) and Debra Zeifman (Vassar College) found in a 1999 study that attachment to romantic partner takes about two years to establish, but once created persists, even when the partner is “neglecting, disparaging, or abusive.”
While all relationships have ups and downs over the course of time, the general feelings of security, peace, and happiness characterize most long-term love relationships. In 1992, researchers at the Gottman Institute interviewed 52 married couples and predicted with over 94% accuracy who would separate or be together in three years.
According to the survey, couples who are unable to confront a hardship together, believing life is hard and there is nothing a person can do about it, are most likely to separate. On the other hand, couples who faced hardship together, recognizing that the struggle is worth it and the bond between the two would survive, are likely to prevail.
Jonah Lehrer, the author of A Book About Love, notes that partners who have sustaining relationships know that getting together is easy; staying together is hard. They understand there will be conflicts in any union, complaints and fights are inevitable. Lehrer writes that in such instances, the committed couples holds nothing back. “You’re fully intimate. You’ve seen where they’ve got hair, you’ve smelled their morning breath. You’re not holding anything back. . . In a sense, you can look at complaining and fighting in an intimate relationship as just ways of showing you care.”
What We Want in Our Mates
Multiple studies indicate that the key attributes that men seek in women and vice versa have not changed over time.
• Peter Todd, a cognitive scientist at Indiana University, found in a 2007 study that modern humans are no different than his Neanderthal ancestors when it comes to choosing a mate: “women trading off their attractiveness for higher quality men and men looking for any attractive woman who will have them.” Todd asserts that the practice, while not politically correct in the modern world, had an evolutionary advantage in higher numbers of successful offspring.
• Concordia professor Gad Saad did a study in 2014 of hundreds of young men and women to learn what attributes were most important in choosing a mate. While kindness and intelligence were desired by both sexes, the top two characteristics for men was an attractive body (1st) and a beautiful face (2nd). For women, a man’s earning potential was most important along with his ambition.
People are most likely to pair off with someone similar to themselves or their parents – similar levels of education, physical attractiveness, height, weight, etc. – according to a study in the journal Nature Human Behaviour. This fact is not a coincidence, but because people actively seek their mates from those most like themselves.
This phenomenon, called assortative mating, has been documented in nature, including brightly colored eastern bluebirds who choose similarly brightly colored mates, while the duller colored birds tend to stick with each other. Similarly, the Japanese common toad is more likely to select a mate of a similar size. This discrimination in choice provides an evolutionary benefit to the species such as a larger size or higher ratios of the population.
The Importance of Shared Values
Children love the stories of Beauty and the Beast or the frog who becomes a prince. While many believe that “opposites attract,” the old wives’ tale may be true for magnets, but not for people. Bad boys or sexy, voluptuous women can fill one’s fantasies, but don’t travel well. When the novelty wears off, trouble is bound to follow.
Despite the few public examples of successfully married opposites (James Carville and Mary Matalin come to mind), Donn Byrne explains that most people have a need for a logical and consistent view of the world. People who agree with us validate out attitudes; “in fact, the greater the attitudinal similarity, the greater the attraction and linking.” Paul Cutright, author and relationship adviser, claims, “”Relationships are about getting our own needs met, often on an unconscious basis. In other words, we try to find someone who is complementary to us and can help us learn, heal, and grow.”
The Myth of a “Single Perfect Mate”
Many people go through life looking for the single person that fulfills their dreams— the perfect mate—even though they realize they are not perfect themselves. A 2011 poll found that 73% of the respondents believe in a soulmate — one person in the world meant exclusively for them. Is it logical to presume that your preferred partner is willing to accept imperfection when you do not?
Dr. John Grey, author of Becoming Soulmates: Keys to Lasting Love, Passion and a Great Relationship, writes, The myth of ‘soulmates’ is about a relationship that is blue sky forever. Always sunny, and that sunshine pours down on us, brightens us up, lifts us. In a real-world relationship, challenges come. The sky occasionally clouds.” Grey believes that “soulmates aren’t something people find, they’re something people become.”
Psychotherapist Perel claims that there is no single person explicitly meant for another. “There is the one you choose and with whom you decide to build something.” In other words, successful couples accept imperfection in their mates and work with each other to make a better fit. My mother, married for over 50 years, frequently advised her children that the rough-and-tumble early years of a marriage smoothed each partners’ rough edges and defects, leaving two unique personalities to become one.
The tragedy of searching for soulmates is turning down prospective matches while waiting for the ideal mate who will never come. If disappointment and heartache discourage your willingness to seek a loving relationship, remember the words of Alford, Lord Tennyson, “Tis better to have loved and lost Than never to have loved at all.”
Obstacles to Love
Traditional Gender Roles
A looming impediment to finding a mate, particularly for young American women, is the disparity of education. While the number of males in the U.S. is slightly higher than females through age 35, the number of girls attending college and receiving degrees exceeds the number of male college graduates. The disparity is most significant for minority women—64% of black graduates and 60% of Hispanic graduates.
A woman’s higher education generally results in a higher income than a man who does not attend or graduate from college. Women who earn more than their mates conflicts with the traditional gender norms, specifically the belief that men should be the primary breadwinner. A University of Chicago study in 2013 linked the income discrepancy too a drop in marriage rates in recent decades and a 50% increase in the likelihood of divorce.
Can relationships survive where income inequality exists, or traditional gender roles are reversed? Yes, if society and people adjust to the new realities. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women in one-third of marriages earned more than their husbands in 2007, and that ratio continues to grow. Nevertheless, those couples who successfully stay together face unique pressures from those in traditional role relationships.
Sex Ratios and Physical Location
Throughout the nation, there are imbalances in the ratio of single men to single women, particularly those with college educations. According to the New York Post, single women are especially disadvantaged in New York City, Houston (TX), Providence (RI), and Raleigh (NC). Conversely, there are more single men than women in Silicon Valley, San Francisco and San Diego in California and Columbus, Ohio.
The New York Times recommends women looking for men with a job move to Clarksville, TN; Silicon Valley (again); and Beloit, WI. For those employed men looking for women, the proportion of women to employed men is highest in Rocky Mount, NC, and Anniston, AL. CNN reported their own list of the 13 best cities for single people looking for love.
While living in those areas with higher ratios of possible mates theoretically improves the likelihood that one would be successful in finding a relationship, there are no guarantees. No one should move to a city solely because of the gender ratio.
The Best Sources of Life Mates
Singer Johnny Lee’s song “Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places” captured the frustration of many singles as they play the dating game. A 2012 study – “How Couples Meet and Stay Together” – found that the most likely place to find a partner was through mutual friends (30%), followed by bars or restaurants and online (20% each).
A 2017 poll by ReportLinker found that relationships developed through friends had increased to 39% while bars and other public areas had dropped to 12%. Perhaps due to the increased age of the respondents, 15% said they met their lovers at work.
Only 8% reported meeting their partner through an online dating site with over 81% indicated they did not use dating websites or apps. More than one-half of those polled viewed dating sites negatively since misrepresentation is common because answers are rarely verified by the sponsors. In 2016, It’s Just Lunch settled a consumer fraud case for $64.5 million. MoneyCrashers’ Amy Livingston recently posted an article on how to protect oneself from online dating and romance scams.
Those who continue to use dating sites might consider the warning of Lori Gottlieb, a couples therapist and the author of “Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough.” Gottlieb claims that the ability to sift through hundreds of profiles reinforces the idea that a perfect mate exists. “It’s a very American idea that choice is freedom, freedom is choice. But it can really cripple you if you have too much choice.”
Relationship experts generally agree that couples who meet in their daily lives are more satisfied with their relationships and less likely to break up than couples meeting other ways. Places of shared interests, hobbies, or values are excellent spots for meeting a compatible friend and mate. These places include churches, schools, gymnasiums, book clubs, museums, art galleries, music venues, and political campaigns.
Tips for Building Real Love Connections
Dating practices change from generation to generation and culture to culture. Few people go through the dating experience without committing a faux pas now and then. A sense of humor is essential as well as remembering that first impressions aren’t always reliable. Few people enjoy an evening if they feel that they are being constantly judged.
To have an enjoyable evening and leave a good impression, follow these tips:
1. Be on time. Being late is likely to viewed as being more important than the person on time. If you are unavoidably delayed, call your date or the meeting place.
2. Focus on your date. Egoists only want to talk about themselves, not about others. If you are spending the most time speaking, you are probably not making a connection.
3. Ask questions. Curiosity is a great attitude to cultivate. Ask about your date’s thoughts, experiences, stories, and opinions. They will enjoy it, and you will have a basis to determine whether you want to pursue a relationship.
4. Be real. Even good fakes can be discovered. No one likes being manipulated or placated. Unpleasantness is rarely appropriate, whether to your date of the people around you.
5. Turn your phone off. Only physicians and emergency personnel are always on call. Multitasking is for work, not social activities. If you must keep your phone available, explain to your date the reasons for its need when meeting. If a call interrupts the evening, handle it as quick as possible with an apology.
Finding a possible partner is just the first step in the process. True love is built upon mutual respect and trust. You will need to invest time and feelings in the relationship. Open communication is a process that Dr. Margaret Clark of Yale University describes as “reciprocal escalating self-disclosure.”
As each partner reveals vulnerability to the other, mutual trust and intimacy grow. “Feeling understood, feeling validated is something that people like. And they like it so much, it might even lead to love. “
The late Effie Lederer, better known as the columnist Ann Landers, once paraphrased a poem in her syndicated newspaper column, “Love is friendship that has caught fire. It is quiet understanding, mutual confidence, sharing and forgiving. It is loyalty through good and bad times. It settles for less than perfection and makes allowances for human weaknesses.”