A Sociological Look at Modern Dating

by Paul Hollander

Having just published a book about modern American ways of seeking intimate and durable personal relationships, I read with great interest Nick Paumgarten’s “Looking for Someone” in the July 4 New Yorker. While my book (entitled Extravagant Expectations: New Ways to Find Romantic Love in America) is not limited to a discussion of Internet dating, I share his interest in the question whether or not Internet personals help or hinder the objectives pursued. I looked at one such venue (match.com), as well as printed “personals” in various publications and numerous self-help or “relationship books” seeking to enlighten their readers about the best ways to find a compatible partner or mate.

As a sociologist, I was most interested in the connections between the individual needs and aspirations these advertisements reflect and the social-cultural influences likely to have shaped them. I was especially interested in the human qualities most highly valued by those looking for a long-term partner.

I came to the conclusion that the seamless compatibility pursued by the experts (and those they seek to help) is a fantasy not altogether different from the romantic yearnings of the past, which found expression in many novels. I was especially struck by the characteristic American disposition to embrace conflicting values and desires in the course of “looking for someone,” and especially the unstated belief that all good things are compatible. It is an attitude that does not bode well for the compromises and adjustments all durable personal relationships require. American culture has inculcated the belief that we all are unique individuals with inexhaustible potential for growth, creativity, and self-expression, and that these attributes need not conflict with the establishment and maintenance of personal or communal bonds. Likewise, the often-expressed pursuit of new experiences (or “openness to new experiences”) does not easily coexist with the quest for stability and security. Many Americans are seeking romantic bonds, but in a highly pragmatic or rational manner.

Like the author of the article here discussed, I also found that while Americans wish to maximize their choices and options, the abundance of such choices — or their seeming abundance — in the marketplace of personal relationships creates new problems and obstacles for self-fulfillment.

Most of us probably agree that in traditional societies, personal fulfillment was not a high priority in mate selection, which used to be governed by many restraints and social pressures. At the same time, it appears that modernity, freedom, individualism, and the pursuit of happiness have created new difficulties and unintended consequences we have yet to better understand and master.

— Paul Hollander, author or editor of 15 books, is professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and associate at the Davis Center of Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University.