Politics & Policy

Americans’ Bad Romances

Lady Gaga isn’t the only one who’s extravagant.

Paul Hollander, who has previously studied evil, now sets his focus on modern love, or at least the self-centered self-delusion that sometimes passes for love. Our expectations are too high, too unrealistic, he concludes, in the new book Extravagant Expectations: New Ways To Find Romantic Love In America. He talks to National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about what he found when he started reading the personals.


Kathryn Jean Lopez: “Throughout my life and scholarly career I have been interested in — indeed morbidly fascinated by — the conflict between illusion and reality, the apparent and the real. Not surprisingly, this interest has also been linked to the phenomenon of deception and self-deception, both at the individual and the collective (or institutional) levels.” And that led you to write a book on personals ads?

Paul Hollander: As I wrote in the preface, romantic love also involves a combination of illusion and reality (sometimes self-deception) since the love object is idealized — especially in the early phases of the relationship. This interest by itself didn’t lead me to write this book but it contributed to my interest in writing it.

As I also discussed in the preface, the most direct stimulant to writing this book were the “personals” in The New York Review of Books, about which I wrote an article several years ago. I called this interest “morbid” humorously — implying that my reading these ads was a bit like a bad habit, because they are really not worth reading except for sociological or social-psychological purposes. They are extremely repetitive and predictable.

A further incentive to writing this book was my discovery of an anthology of “personals” published in The London Review of Books with a short introduction. I felt that if there was a market for an anthology, then an analysis of the whole phenomenon (including Internet personals) would also be of interest, and my publisher agreed. 


Lopez: “Romantic relationships promise the dramatic alleviation of loneliness while gratifying the individualistic desire for self-fulfillment.” Why is this an important point, especially in an American context?

Hollander: Loneliness or social isolation is a major problem in modern societies, especially the American; therefore it is understandable that romantic relationships are considered a solution of the problem.

The preoccupation with self-fulfillment is another characteristic of American society — that is to say, preoccupation with the self, its presumed uniqueness and numerous needs which demand gratification. To be sure, romantic love is not the only source of self-fulfillment.


Lopez: How does “the gratification of romantic impulses face obstacles”? Doesn’t it always? Shouldn’t it, on some level, in a civilized society?

Hollander: Romantic love has always been associated with some obstacles to be overcome — physical or social distance, social-cultural norms which regulate and restrict the expression of emotional and sexual needs and impulses. Sometimes romantic yearnings are intensified by the “forbidden fruit” aspect — as in a secretive, adulterous relationship depicted in the novel Madame Bovary, or in Goethe’s Werther, who falls in love with a woman who is already engaged and has no interest in breaking her engagement.


Lopez: Why did you find personals in The New York Review of Books so fascinating? That’s a limited, elite, mostly liberal look at the dating world.

Hollander: True enough, the people who advertise their availability in the NYR of B are mostly liberal, middle-aged, or older (many of them academics) — an elite group — but they personify certain trends and values which are influential outside their circles as well.

I found these notices fascinating because they struck me as eloquent and likely misrepresentations of reality, as well as contradictory. (My typical reaction was: If such people exist they would not have to advertise.)

For example, in these ads women of ostensibly feminist persuasion begin with a description of their good looks and fine body parts before moving on to their impressive intellect, abundant spiritual resources, and other attractions

There is a lot of subtle (and not so subtle) bragging in these personals that goes with people trying to sell themselves in what seems to be a highly competitive market.

Another contradiction appears in the highly standardized recurring ideals, aspirations, and personal attributes of people who think of themselves as unique individuals.

I also found these personals interesting because they so clearly mirror certain social-cultural values which can be traced to the Sixties.


Lopez: How is online dating different?

Hollander: I examined only one major online-dating site, match.com, therefore my generalizations have a limited basis. It seems to me that the authors of the online messages I read did not display the kind of illusions — and pretensions — about themselves the authors of many NY Review of Books personals entertained.

Personals in the Harvard and Yale alumni magazines were very similar to those in the NY R of B.

In turn, personals in The Village Voice were different because of their brevity and frequent reference to sex. 

I had the impression that aspiring online daters were somewhat more realistic about themselves. They were also constrained by the format: They were expected to provide certain information about themselves.

There is certainly room for a major comparative study of different online-dating sites and their clients.


Lopez: How is online dating different in Massachusetts, Nebraska, Alabama, and California?

Hollander: Again, this is based only on match.com.

The notices reflected familiar social-political attitudes and preoccupations we associate with these states and the regions where they are located. People in Massachusetts and California were more liberal, less traditional, less religious, and more of them went to college and graduate school than those in Alabama or Nebraska.

The smallest proportion of respondents interested in long-term relationships were the Californians. There was more interest in romantic relationships in Alabama than in the other three states.

Religious compatibility was required by far more people in Alabama and Nebraska than in Massachusetts and California. “Spiritual but not religious” was an attitude most popular with Californians.

Lopez: Has dating become all about consumerism?

Hollander: Dating and consumerism are connected, since people on dates consume services associated with dating, i.e. various entertainments and eating out. Often they also show off their possessions — car and clothing. Sometimes the date is valued in proportion to the money spent.

More generally speaking, people on dates wish to impress one another by their good taste (among other things) and that involves some aspect of consumption. In the NY R of B, those advertising endlessly refer to cozy European destinations as off the beaten track, discovered by and known only to connoisseurs.

Lopez: You write that dating here “incorporates two not entirely consonant goals: the pursuit of romance and intense emotional involvement on the one hand, and on the other a deliberate, self-conscious, rational, trial-and-error procedure of sampling potentially available partners.”

Hollander: I am not sure what I can add to the quote. The contradiction exists between the old romantic notion that romantic love is not fully rational, that finding the perfect partner is a matter of destiny, or results from processes over which one has no control, as opposed to the current belief that it can be attained by calculation and the sober weighing of the pros and cons.


Lopez: Where does the so-called hook-up culture fit into all of this?

Hollander: Hook-up culture, such as it is (I didn’t write much about it) is obviously impersonal and unromantic, focused on short-term gratification that is mainly sexual. It is my hunch that the prevalence of this “culture” is greatly exaggerated.


Lopez: What does this all mean for marriage?

Hollander: That it is more unstable and fragile because of high, individualistic expectations. Most people still get — or aspire to get — married, but at a later age; and a very high proportion of them fail. But people remarry.

The institution of marriage is also getting an unexpected boost from the movement for same-sex marriage.


Lopez: Are our expectations for marriage itself, once entered into, too extravagant?

Hollander: Probably they are. I think that Americans more than any other people believe that romantic love can, and ought to be, sustained even in a long marital relationship, that romance can endure forever, or be revitalized by prudently managing feelings and practical matters. Lately some popular “relationship books” proposed that even in ripe old age people can (and should) have a roaring, robust, passionate sex life.


Lopez: Do women tend to desire economic security, and, if so, is this a real problem for the modern man — as she may earn enough on her own?

Hollander: A lot of survey research I cited indicates that women put a high value on economic security.

I don’t know of research that tells us whether or not they feel ambivalent about earning more than their spouse — when that is the case. Likewise we don’t have survey research — or I don’t know of it — that has information about the feelings of husbands whose wives earn more than they. I suspect that they don’t relish such discrepancies.


Lopez: If more American singles read Robert Nisbet, would modern love make a whole lot more sense to them?

Hollander: I am not sure which Nisbet book you have in mind, probably The Quest for Community, which I cited. But even if Americans read Nisbet, I doubt that it would have a great impact on their attitudes and behavior. There are too many other social-cultural influences that neutralize the wisdom of Nisbet.


Lopez: Would arranged marriage make so much more sense?

Hollander: Some contemporary participants in arranged marriage claim that it has worked for them, and that eventually they came to love the person who was chosen for them by others. But it is hard to think of such marriages in modern societies, since parental authority is weak and insufficient for such arrangements. Psychiatrists, social workers, or therapists would be more likely candidates for helping to arrange marriages. In any event the prevailing individualism precludes the revival of these practices.


Lopez: Would less freedom — fewer choices — be liberating?

Hollander: “Liberating” may not be the right word. “Stabilizing” might be more appropriate.


Lopez: Why do Americans have identity crises, and what role does this play in our “extravagant expectations”?

Hollander: I wrote about this at some length and it is not easy to compress the matter into a few sentences. Basically, identity problems have to do with this being a relatively new, largely non-traditional society populated by people of many different ethnic backgrounds. In such a society, fewer things are taken for granted, including the best ways to raise children and select one’s spouse.

Individualism paves the way to identity problems because the vaunted unique, autonomous individual takes himself/herself far too seriously, has weaker and fewer group ties, and is poorly integrated into a community. Moving around as Americans do doesn’t help to nurture a sense of belonging that in turn helps to maintain a secure sense of identity.

In traditional societies people don’t have identity crises, nor much choice as to what, or who, they wish to become, let alone “reinvent” themselves. Belief in limitless possibilities, and weak familial and communal bonds, further help to account for identity problems.

 Lopez: How much is Hollywood to blame for the state of romantic love in America? How much is Hollywood to blame for Maureen Dowd?

Hollander: Hollywood used to and probably still does portray unrealistic romantic relationships and romantic love as readily available. More generally, it portrays personal relationships in highly unrealistic ways and suggests that everything is a matter of personal choice and up to the individual.

I would add that advertising makes a large contribution to a shallow romanticism — some kind of romantic bliss or warmth is always associated with consuming the products or services advertised.


Lopez: You write about Americans feeling an entitlement to happiness. Has that translated to an entitlement to a romantic relationship with a happily non-sacrificial ending?

Hollander: For many people happiness equals a long-term, sustaining romantic relationship, a “soulmate,” or at any rate a relationship that has retained some romantic aspects.


Lopez: What surprised you the most as you went about your research for Extravagant Expectations?

Hollander: That the vast majority in the online samples considered “sense of humor” or “makes me laugh” the most desirable human quality — rather than honesty, kindness, integrity, compassion, empathy, intelligence, creativity, being responsible, and many others. Of course people who make us laugh are entertaining. A sense of humor also helps to keep interpersonal conflicts under control or to put things into perspective.

There were other indications of an entertainment orientation displayed in these messages: people dwelling on their favorite entertainments or recreational activities and foods. Such matters have a great deal of practical relevance for dating.


Lopez: Do you have advice for single people trying to make sense of this market?

Hollander: This is a tough one. I would tell them to try to be a good judge of character, not to be attracted to somebody because he or she is “popular.” Of course one is also tempted to propose that character and intellect are more important than looks and money (or earning power) but this would be unrealistic advice since looks is not an altogether frivolous concern; it is also a matter of aesthetics. And of course having marketable skills is a legitimate concern, we all have to make a living preferably with the kind of work we enjoy and consider of some value and not only for us.

As to Internet dating, I would advise to use it only as the most preliminary step and to move to real-life encounters as soon as possible, since the latter tell us far more about a person than what he or she chooses to tell about himself or herself on the Internet.

Without championing arranged marriage, I think there are times when the advice of family and friends deserves serious consideration, especially when making important choices in personal relationships.


Lopez: Do you have advice for some of the leaders of mediating institutions that really used to play more of a role?

Hollander: I am not sure what kind of institutions you have in mind. Whoever their leaders might be, I would hope that they would seek to counter the influence of popular culture and advertising and advocate qualities and attitudes that detract from being highly self-centered.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.


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