Monday, February 19, 2018

Can Dating Apps Save Marriage?

On Valentine's Day last week, the Washington Post carried an article by their technology reporter Drew Harwell that looked into the dating and marriage situation in Silicon Valley—the area around and south of San Francisco where so many high-tech companies have clustered.  What he found was not good.  Despite the proliferation of dating apps with kooky names like Zoosk, Coffee Meets Bagel, and OkCupid, he talked to many single young people who are jaded about the whole idea of relationships between the sexes and the questionable usefulness of dating apps for forming them.

One problem the area has is the demographic preponderance of men.  Some zip codes around Palo Alto and vicinity have 40% more single men than single women.  To forestall a stampede of women out west to catch the next potential Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg (an old-fashioned idea to start with), the reporter cited a common saying among single women who already live in Silicon Valley:  "The odds are good, but the goods are odd."

With six or seven sixteen-hour days considered by many companies to be a standard workweek, it's understandable that young singles out there scarcely have time to sleep and take baths, much less develop a relationship with a potential life partner that could endure beyond the first date.  Unlike eating and sleeping, the sexual aspect of life is optional on an individual basis for the human creature, though universal neglect of this matter would lead to the demise of the species. 

Perhaps what we are seeing is a kind of specialization not unlike what happens among social insects such as bees and ants.  Reproduction is limited to the queen and a few necessary drones, while the vast majority are, well, worker bees to whom sex (and marriage in the case of people) is not a live option, so to speak.  I doubt, however, that Google and Apple would improve their chances of hiring the best and the brightest if they added a requirement of sworn celibacy to their employment requirements.

To those of a religious persuasion who see the norm for most people to be marriage and children, Silicon Valley is an anomaly where devotion to one's job trumps almost everything else.  But the idea of life as a giant winner-take-most competition seems to make sense to a lot of young people, and may explain the popularity of grim fiction such as The Hunger Games.  And it's understandable that the competitive feel would taint even such activities as seeking a mate, with women, especially, setting their standards for a suitable match impossibly high.  But requiring your next date to have the physique of a Superman and the bank statement of a billionaire is a good way to go a long time between dates.

And men don't always approach the problem realistically either.  Back in the 1980s, I knew a single man who most women would have considered highly eligible.  He eventually met a woman whom he fell in love with, but a few weeks before their wedding he expressed doubts to me:  "What if once I get married, somebody else comes along who's really the right one?"  I told him he couldn't be sure that wouldn't happen, but it didn't matter either.  He evidently figured out that marriage is a commitment more serious than any job, or career, or (for some) even life itself.  I am glad to report that they are still married, some thirty years later, so if he ever ran across another woman who might have ranked higher on an online dating score than his present spouse, he must have just kept going.

That couple met long before dating apps were invented, but this is not to say they can't be helpful.  A relative of ours, a widower whose wife died about four years ago, is now plannning his marriage to a woman he met through an online dating service on the first try.  They are from similar employment backgrounds and are both in their 50s, so it's not the young never-married situation that the Silicon Valley folks are typically in.  But it can work, certainly, under the right conditions. 

But a more fundamental problem results when someone expects an online service to transform one's whole life by means of bringing the ideal mate into it.  Some people, such as my friend from the 1980s and our relative, want to make a lifetime commitment.  The traditional Anglican wedding vows read in part, ". . . be faithful to [him or her] as long as you both shall live. . . ."  But many young people today have seen so many such commitments broken by people their parents' age that, while they may think a lifelong marriage is an appealing ideal to use in a romance novel, the chances of it working out in real life are so small that they don't even seriously consider it when they search for someone for a romantic involvement with.

The problem with this attitude is that it dooms whatever relationships they do form to temporary alliances, with both partners keeping one eye on the exit and looking for signs that things aren't working out, so as to leave before they are seriously hurt.  But guess what—even the briefest of encounters can leave lasting wounds, and often does.

As with many other forms of technology, dating apps can be helpful or harmful depending on the intentions with which they are used.  As many happily married couples who met through such an app can attest, they can play a role in increasing the net sum of human happiness.  Or, as many in Silicon Valley have found, they can hold out the illusion of hope for a happily-ever-after which runs aground when it encounters the unfavorable demographics of the region and the short-term mentality engendered by the competitive world of high-tech engineering. 

Especially for women, the problem of how to have both a rewarding career in engineering and how to have a satisfying and enduring marriage can be a hard one these days.  It's not easy for men either.  Dating apps may be part of the answer, but clearly, this is one problem that technology alone can't solve.

Sources:  The article "Why Silicon Valley singles are giving up on the algorithms of love" appeared on Feb. 14, 2018 in the online version of the Washington Post at  I also referred to statistics on marriage presented at  The Anglican Book of Common Prayer quotation is from  And I thank my wife of 39 years for pointing out the Post article to me. 

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