Love is in the air, or at least romance. Or at least the hope of it. St Valentine’s Day rituals have driven the price of a single red rose in Auckland as high as $30 (delivered). According to a report this morning more women than men have been buying roses. Is this another sign of the equality of the sexes? Or the modern woman’s insurance policy against not finding that hoped-for bouquet on her desk at work or in the arms of a courier on the doorstep at home?
Romance, after all, is not the simple thing it was, or appeared to be, fifty years ago. Cities are more thronged with people than ever, women are out in society earlier and on unlimited terms, and there seem to be endless parties, clubs and pubs in which to meet a prospective friend of what used to be called the opposite sex. And yet millions of would-be lovers are turning to the internet in a desperate search for someone compatible to date, perchance to fall in love with.
Online dating sites, for their part, have become scientific about matchmaking. They will, for a fee, collect data about a hopeful and use “algorithms” to come up with someone who has been “pre-screened for deep compatibility with you across 29 dimensions”, as eHarmony puts it. That sounds promising, but a couple of social psychologists writing in the New York Times throw a wet blanket over the idea that data crunching can produce a good match. Their wisdom is a mixture of helpful analysis and unhelpful assumptions.
Eli J Finkel and Benjamin R Karney have reviewed the literature on what makes people “romantically compatible” and find that the dating sites fail to provide, or take account of information they cannot provide in key areas.
Crucial information. The sites gather data from singles who have never met, and yet it is only after two people have met and got to know each other that crucial information emerges: “things like communication patterns, problem-solving tendencies and sexual compatibility…are crucial for predicting the success or failure of relationships,” the psychologists say.
External factors. Dating sites do not take account of “environmental” factors such as “job loss, financial strain, infertility and illness” that tend to decrease satisfaction with a relationship and increase the risk of breaking up.
Information on suitability. Sites may improve the dating pool by eliminating customers who seem emotionally unstable or have other problems, but they provide very little information about individual characteristics that “makes two people suited for a long-term relationship.”
Matching based on similarity. The writers say that “almost all of the sites claim that partners who are more similar to each other in certain ways will experience greater relationship satisfaction and stability relative to partners who are less similar.” While this tends to be true for characteristics such as race and religion, dating sites go on to emphasise “psychological variables like personality (e.g. matching extroverts with extroverts and introverts with introverts) and attitudes” — to types of movies, for example — which similarities do not have much influence on a successful relationship.
The psychologists’ take-home message: Online dating is no better or worse a method of finding potential romantic partners than meeting in a bar or on a subway.
That, no doubt is a useful piece of information. Not so useful is the assumption of a world in which romance leads to long-term relationships but not necessarily anything more, and the implication that testing sexual compatibility would be part of getting to know whether a couple were suited to such a relationship. The psychologists were not setting out to write a tract on marriage, but the word is only mentioned incidentally (in relation to a study) in their piece and this in itself points to a reason why romance eludes so many today.
Most people still want to be married but few are willing to wait, and a reducing number actually do. In this context the real romantics are those prepared to hold out for marriage, that till death do us part commitment that involves a complete gift of oneself. I doubt that dating websites could help much with this — if only because people can tell fibs online — but if a girl or fellow did some of their own screening on this issue it could clarify compatibility like nothing else.
Where or how, then, do they meet someone like this? It almost certainly won’t be in a bar or on the subway. Those who enter adulthood from within a community of shared values centred on the family, church or (private) school have a head start. Mobility that comes from pursuing higher education and a profession may weaken those ties, though faith is highly portable and there are even matchmaking websites geared to Catholics, Muslims and so on.
A person with strong family values, of course, can be effective in the open market. Of two long-lasting and happy marriages among my friends, one began, so to speak, at a political party meeting and the other on a tour bus, and in neither case did the parties share the same faith — although that changed, in both cases. Both couples, incidentally, have large families.
No, not incidentally. Perhaps the ultimate test of compatibility, for a certain type of romantic at least, concerns the prospect’s attitude to children. Can I imagine this man as the father of my children? This woman as the mother of my children? At the end of the day, that’s what really matters.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.