Love has, accordingly, become a pursuit—something we look for and fight for and treat as a fundamental component of a happy and successful life. It’s the “organization kid” ethos, essentially, applied to romantic partnership, and it complicates the dominant, idyllic sense of love as the stuff of Shelley and Shakespeare, as the thing—that warm, soft, trembling thing—that transcends culture and gender and race and class and age and defines, in ways both big and small, what it means to be human.
Lol! From the anthropological perspective, instead, romance is simply a cultural assumption like anything else. And marriage, that symbol of success in one’s search for a soul mate, has become a status symbol—and also, Ansari notes, summoning Esther Perel, a luxury good.
That transformation—the result of, among many other things, the industrial revolution/the women's movement/a good economy/a bad one—has been, in the last couple of decades, complemented by another kind of revolution: the transformation in communications brought about by the Internet. There's the rise of texting, and the related decline of email/phone calls/letter-writing. There's the invention of Match and JDate and Farmers Only and eHarmony and OkCupid and Hinge and Grindr and Tinder, and all those services’ attendant possibilities and paradoxes of choice. Our communications are newly instant and newly distant, and that shift is changing not just the culture at large, but also the way we approach the sparking and the maintenance of relationships.
None of which, as Modern Romance presents it, is a revelation. The stuff explored in the book—the gender differences in approaches to online dating, the social effects of friends-with-benefits-ing, the psychological impact of a swipe-right economy—will feel familiar to anyone who reads magazines and/or is currently single. Ansari quotes all the experts (Michael Rosenfeld, Sherry Turkle, Natasha Schüll, Helen Fisher, Barry Schwartz) you’d expect to be quoted in a book like this. He cites exactly the research you’d expect to be cited. He sums it all up charmingly and winkily and am I rightily, with the same light snark he deploys in his standup. (Telling the story of Tim, an older gentleman who asked his future wife on a date in person, right after meeting her, Ansari points out: “That sounds infinitely cooler than texting back and forth with a girl for two weeks only to have her flake on a Sugar Ray concert.”)
Modern Romance reads like a CliffsNotes to relationshipping as it is currently experienced by (mostly middle-class, Ansari admits, and mostly straight) Americans. It’s the familiar stuff of research and sitcomedy, distilled into a funny, and highly readable, summary.
And while Modern Romance’s revelations aren’t terribly revelatory, their telling is refreshing in an important way: They’re humanized. They operate at the scale of everyday life and everyday experience and everyday emotion. Too often, the data experts have gathered about the nebulous thing that is “modern romance” is presented precisely as that: data. We can read Christian Rudder's Dataclysm, about the way the Internet is affecting how people meet and date, or Eric Klinenberg’s Going Solo, or Michael Rosenfeld’s “How Couples Meet and Stay Together”; what those projects can gloss over, though, are the small joys and also the crushing existential anxieties that the new romantic order can provoke in its participants. The “…” that appears during a text exchange, suspending a conversation—and, sometimes, an entire relationship—in a wave of hidden characters. The sexting. The emoji-decoding. The LOL-sharing. The game-playing. The fact that the commonly accepted rules that had crystallized around the technologies that used to direct coupling—wait three days to call, etc.—have largely been rendered obsolete.