The Paradox of Slow Love

No one formula can guarantee love and lasting commitment, but “taking it slow” may be a losing strategy.

An illustrated upside-down heart as a glacier
The Atlantic

“They were gradually acquainted, and when acquainted, rapidly and deeply in love. It would be difficult to say which had seen the highest perfection in the other, or which had been the happiest: she, in receiving his declarations and proposals, or he in having them accepted.”

So begins Jane Austen’s final completed novel, Persuasion—and perhaps no two sentences describe as succinctly the traditional romantic ideal of falling in love. Rapid and deep, true love, for Austen, leaves no room for doubt; once it is declared, lifelong commitment—barring intervention by ill fortune or meddlesome relatives—will surely follow quickly on its heels.

Many today would recognize the appeal of such a picture, however skeptical they might be about the likelihood of this fantasy coming to life. The way we actually date, though, could hardly be more different. Today, love takes time. When looking for a soul mate, people no longer rely on blind dates or chance encounters. They cast a wider net than ever before—dating across great geographical divides—and test the waters for long periods over text and videochat before meeting in person. They vet partners for financial stability and compatible interests. They have less sex than previous generations. Every stage of the relationship is drawn out: They wait longer to become “official” or exclusive, to move in together, to introduce their partners to their families, to marry and have children. In a 2016 reissue of her book Anatomy of Love, Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at the Kinsey Institute who has served as an adviser for the dating site Match for more than 15 years, gave these new, extended courtship practices a pithy name: “slow love.”

Relationship experts, Fisher among them, have watched with eager fascination to see what effects the pandemic would have on our romantic lives. Anecdotal evidence, as well as the results from the most recent “Singles in America” yearly survey—which samples 5,000 demographically representative individuals—suggests that the pandemic has caused dating to decelerate further. Hesitant about meeting in person, people have been spending more time texting and videochatting before meeting, and even when they move to in-person dates, they have been holding off on physical contact for longer. Relationship goals have shifted, too: Only 11 percent of singles expressed interest in dating casually.

This decline in casual dating is likely to lead to happier, deeper, and more lasting relationships over time, the experts assure us. “Cupid beat COVID by a country mile,” Fisher told us cheerily. As early as May 2020, she became convinced that COVID-19 has been “changing the dating game for the better,” as she declared in The New York Times. The “positive developments” spurred by pandemic dating suggest that Americans are taking a more “intentional” approach to partnership, Sara Konrath, a social psychologist, wrote in The Atlantic later that year. (Incidentally, Konrath is also a “scientific adviser” to an online dating site, OkCupid.) These changes in attitudes toward dating are “a historic change!” and evidence for “post-traumatic growth” in the aftermath of the pandemic, Fisher, a proud Boomer, told us. “You were always an extremely serious generation, much more serious than mine,” she added. “You’re leading the way in wanting a serious partnership. And I think you’re going to take your time to do it now.”

Her argument has intuitive appeal, and echoes the sort of romantic advice often given to young people today: “There’s no need to rush”; “Enjoy your 20s”; “Figure out who you are.” Today, even hard-core romantics bear no illusions about the permanence of lust, limerence, or wedlock. It is common knowledge that roughly one in two marriages fails, and most young Americans have seen divorce up close, in their own or their friends’ immediate families. In a 2015 report on Gen X and Millennial attitudes toward marriage, nearly two in five said that “marriage has not worked out for most people I know,” and nearly half of all singles expressed “pessimism” about the institution of marriage. When deciding to marry, few today truly feel it’s unquestionably forever. We say “I do,” for now. And how better to insure against heartbreak than to hold off on committing until you’re absolutely sure? “For the past 10,000 years,” Fisher has observed, “marriage was the beginning of a partnership; today it is its finale.”

For all the experts’ optimism about these developments and how sensible it might seem to “take your time,” slow love can turn out to be a losing strategy. Not only can it threaten the possibility of finding love—which always involves the sacrifice of opportunities and exposure to chance—but it may be at cross purposes with what many people still hope their relationships might eventually enable: serious commitment and, perhaps, one day starting a family. When it comes to love, it’s not clear that patience is a virtue.

For all its apparent shrewdness, slow love leaves many on the dating market dissatisfied. Like a lot of people in her (and our) generation, Lea Hecht, a single 36-year-old psychiatrist from Philadelphia, resents having to date online. She told us she especially hates the protracted texting period: “I find that if there is too much of a lead-in, then there’s too much of a well-formed idea in their minds of who you are. And then, inevitably, you refute that when you meet them in person.” That’s assuming that an in-person date happens at all. “A few years ago I would go on so many bad first dates. And it’s such a waste of your time and their time,” Julia Capeloto, a 39-year-old senior marketing manager from San Francisco, told us. Now she doesn’t have to worry about taking Ubers to and from a bar, or wasting time meeting someone she might not get along with; it’s far “more efficient” to meet someone first over video, she said. Better for the bad first encounter to happen from the convenience of one’s own home. When we asked Lea about how newly popularized dating formats such as videochat might improve her dating experience, she dismissed the idea out of hand. Video screening, she suspected, would serve only as another barrier to real connection. “It would take a lot for me to actually meet someone in person,” she told us.

For those who survive the gantlet of texting and video dates, the pace of relationships can remain glacial. Slow love is not just a dating tactic; it’s a whole orientation toward romantic life. Commitment is postponed, and as the relationship gets stretched out, it can become brittle. Chantal Lunderville, a 35-year-old physician from Orange County, California, met her boyfriend online during the pandemic. When we spoke with her, she had just completed a round of egg freezing and told us she would like to try to start a family as soon as possible. Ideally, she would prefer not to do this on her own. When she shared her timeline with her boyfriend, he “kind of laughed.” He said he wanted to travel and have a couple years of “just us,” though in reality he ended up spending most of his time at work. They had planned to move in together in December, but he kept delaying their move-in date. They barely saw each other, she said, but “he doesn’t think anything is wrong. He thinks our relationship is perfect. And I’m like, What are we doing here?” She was souring on the relationship and would, she said, most likely end it soon. All the trips and dates in the world couldn’t fix the fundamental issue: “Is the relationship the priority, or is it work, and how long is this going to be?” “There’s romance,” she said, but “there’s no intimacy.”

For Chantal and many other young people on the dating market, slow love stands in direct conflict with their reproductive timelines. Indeed, the adherence to the slow-love paradigm—with its indefinite delaying of relationship milestones—is perhaps nowhere more impractical than in people’s attitudes toward having children. A 2018 study by the sociologists Eliza Brown and Mary Patrick reveals how slow love can put women in a bind. Brown and Patrick interviewed 52 women who at one point had frozen or considered freezing their eggs. Egg freezing, they concluded, was not, as is widely assumed, used in the service of women’s career ambitions, but as a way to “disentangle the trajectory of finding a partner from the trajectory of having children.” The reason for this desire for disentanglement? “Women were fearful that rushing to find a partner with whom to have children was rationalizing their search for a romantic partner,” Brown and Patrick wrote, “making the process calculative and contrived.” In other words, egg freezing has become an instrument employed in the service of the slow-love program. It promises to loosen the tight grip of biological necessity, allowing women’s dating lives to stay on their proper course, one that aims for romance and compatibility, and that is allowed to take however long it might require.

One of Brown and Patrick’s subjects, Chloe, a 33-year-old woman working in product management who was considering freezing her eggs, contrasted her goals with those of her friends, who had attained only “70 percent compatibility” with their partners. “I want 90, 95 percent compatibility,” she told the researchers. But dating with the prospect of a future family in mind would endanger the possibility of maximizing fit: For Chloe, egg freezing was her “way of putting the family thing over here, so that I can focus on the super compatibility, and not feel like, Oh, sometimes you have to give things up in life, and people aren’t perfect. The romantic timeline was far more important than the biological one. Her No. 1 priority, she said, was “to find a play-partner to have a blast with who stretches me … and we can learn, and I’m not willing to give that up to have a family at the right time.”

Women not only worry that they might be forced to compromise in their choice of partner; they also fear that wanting to have children in the near or medium term will render them less attractive. The desire to start a family can, from this perspective, be a liability on the dating market. Another egg freezer, Catherine, a 39-year-old acupuncturist, explained to the researchers: “Just the fact that, you know, you didn’t have to date people thinking, Oh God, I have like a year. Are you right for me? Are you right? It makes you sort of anxious to try to find a partner, because you feel like you have to do it fast.” Finding the right partner must take its natural, measured course. “I don’t know if I was just putting out a vibe,” Catherine continued, “like I need to find someone quick and like make it work so we can do the normal, okay, date for a year and then maybe get engaged, okay, and then like a year from then get married and maybe a year from then have kids.”

Perceiving this tension between their procreative and romantic agendas, some women try to buy more time: As the pandemic has made slow love the ascendant dating strategy, egg freezing is booming (though, despite the rosy promises of the assisted-reproduction industry, egg freezing is by no means a sure bet). For others, the demands of slow love can heighten their ambivalence about starting a family, driving them to prioritize the romantic project over the family one altogether. Small wonder that the sole marker of “seriousness” that today’s singles score lower on than ever before is the desire for kids.

The deepest problem with slow love for those who want children is that finding the right partner with whom to start a family is not simply a function of time. Slow love requires a remarkably passive approach to commitment and the prospect of children, as if we believe that starting a family is something that’s supposed to just happen, if only we wait long enough. It is possible to hit a target without trying, but what are the odds?

It might seem that the logic of slow love is so compelling, its dating norms so pervasive, that there is no viable alternative. Throwing caution to the wind and running off with the next stranger you meet in the COVID-testing line sounds hardly any more promising. But the opposite of slow love is not fast, or reckless, or blind; it’s brave. In Persuasion, Austen contrasts “that over-anxious caution which seems to insult exertion and distrust Providence” with “early warm attachment, and a cheerful confidence in futurity.” What would this look like in practice today?

Meredith McDonough, a 25-year-old doctoral candidate in history at Princeton, had followed the typical dating pattern for the first half of her 20s. She’d meet men online and date them casually until she landed on a longer-term relationship. An unexpected breakup with a serious boyfriend left her feeling hurt and disappointed. But because they were merely “dating,” Meredith felt like she didn’t have a real claim against him. Shocked and confused, she was nevertheless clear on one thing: “I never want to be in this position again.”

Instead of going slower the next time, Meredith resolved to try “failing faster”; henceforth she would try to figure out much sooner whether a match was the kind of person that she would want to be with. This meant abandoning the traditional script for first dates. Forget movies and music, “as if that is going to be the foundation of your life.” First-date conversations now included whether their views aligned on the philosophical meaning of marriage, whether they wanted to have children, and honesty about “dating red flags”—those aspects of their pasts and personalities that might cause a relationship to run aground at a later stage. Meredith let go of the hope that any period of dating—screening, testing the waters, running the life-partner simulation—could eliminate uncertainty. Looking for a partner is not the same as looking for a Wi-Fi router. You can’t just read Wirecutter. Carefully and intentionally analyzing potential matches for compatibility wouldn’t just yield the wrong decision; it was the wrong decision-making process altogether.

In late March of 2021, Meredith logged onto Twitter and happened upon a link to a blog post titled “DATE ME.” The text—at times ironic, other times painfully earnest—described the author’s history with addiction, anxiety, and depression; his tendency to fall hard and fast for people; his relationship with his family; and his loss and recovery of religious faith. The writer, Noah, also said he was looking for love. Meredith responded in the Twitter comment thread, “Swoon (unironically).” They started an intense correspondence over DMs, text, and email. When they finally got on the phone together, in mid-April, they spoke until his phone died, seven hours later. Meredith and Noah met in person for the first time in early May, and immediately signed a lease on a shared apartment. By this point, both of them understood that they would soon marry. They moved in together in June 2021 and have set their wedding date for June 2022. Meredith was aware of what it all looked like. She asked herself whether her relationship was “too good to be true”; she wondered if she was “insane.” She understood why her family might have been alarmed by her quick engagement. “Initially, they were, like, ‘This strange man from the internet … like, What? What is happening?,’ which is extremely fair.” But she refused to succumb to the purportedly self-evident logic of waiting:

There always has to be some kind of blank-check commitment, like richer, poorer, sickness and health. You don’t know about all the things that are going to happen to you over the course of a life. So to me, I couldn’t really accommodate the idea that I should wait for a year just to be sure, because there’s no way to be sure. There’s no way to be totally sure.

As hard as it is to confidently assess the strength of a relationship from the inside, doing so from the outside is nearly impossible. Who’s to say whether Meredith and Noah are right for each other? And it is all too easy to try to explain away their light-speed love story as the response of one very ambitious, very clever young woman who got badly hurt and resolved to avoid repeating history at any cost. But for Meredith, that explanation would not be incompatible with her own. She doesn’t think of her relationship with Noah as a romantic throwback. She had left her “relentless optimism” behind with her previous boyfriend: “I’m not anti–hopes and dreams,” she said apologetically, “but I think I became a lot more pragmatic about these things.” Getting clear on what exactly she wanted—a domestic partnership, marriage, children—and resolving to waste no time trying to get it was not, for her, a hindrance to falling in love. Nothing about the process felt to her “calculative and contrived,” as the women in Brown and Patrick’s egg-freezing study feared it would. For Meredith, realizing what she wanted and being very open about it from the start was the key to falling in love with the man who could make those dreams a reality.

No one formula can guarantee love and lasting commitment. Some people enjoy texting; others hate it. Some want to kiss on the first date; others think it’s better to wait. For some it would be inconceivable to date across political or religious borders; for others, nothing matters quite as much as physical chemistry. But Meredith seems to have one thing right. “There’s no way to make certain that you’re marrying the right person,” she reminded us. “You are responsible for being certain about that. You make your own certainty.”

Commitment does not have to be merely something to hope for. Early, strong commitment could be the fertile ground for the development of intimacy, mutual understanding, and deep love. Perhaps, sometimes, it is their very condition. You cannot engineer meeting your Noah. No one knows how their story will end. But it is possible to rethink the assumption that a good relationship starts with an extended and thorough scan for compatibility, hedging one’s bets, postponing the fateful decision as long as possible. That slow love might lead you astray from your actual goals is perhaps no accident. This approach to love is, Meredith told us, “kind of antithetical to the somewhat radical idea of a lifelong commitment to someone.”

Herein lies the paradox of slow love: The more intentional we think we are about our relationships, the more elusive real commitment can be. What may seem like a mature and thoughtful approach to dating might instead be just another manifestation of anxiety—an overwhelming focus on maintaining agency over one’s romantic life; a reluctance to foreclose one’s options; an attempt to stay in control, protect oneself, and never become the victim of circumstance. It might very well be that caution, far from being the key to successful attachment, is an obstacle in its own right.