My friend Gerard recently posted this status on Facebook:
"Just learned that the creators of OkCupid also created Sparknotes and now all I can think about is how OkCupid is the Sparknotes of human personality."
Word up, Gerry. Regardless of how many "successful matches" websites like OkCupid, Match.com, and EHarmony (and more terrifyingly, Christian Mingle and Jdate) claim, they are selling us a truly narrow conception of love. They encourage us to undertake a relentless quest for the "perfect match," to find "the one," or even, most absurdly, our "soulmate."
There is a special place in the Hall of Smarm for the asshat who coined the term "soulmate."
Granted, I am writing from a heterosexual female perspective, and I can only speak from that experience, so extrapolate what you will. And maybe it's a stodgy old person thing to "blame the internet" for society's ills (I write as a drink my Metamucil and Maker's). In all seriousness, I realize online dating wasn't the genesis of this myopic conception of love, but it has reinforced it to a tremendous degree. Here are the chief problems caused by encouraging us to find "the one" or our "soulmate":
1) The odds are ever against you! Remember the needle in a haystack? Try a needle in a pile of six-effing billion needles. It is overwhelming to think that there is one person out there that could "complete me," because it is wildly unlikely that I will ever find him. Even if there were one person in America -- even in New York City -- finding him would be doubtful, regardless of if I rode the L train in a Sysiphean loop with a rose for a bookmark in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, listening to Mumford and Sons on repeat.
2) It turns love into a competition. What if someone finds him before I do? What if she is a big-titted, small-waisted neurophysicist who makes hand-rolled pasta and has That Thing she does with her tongue? We are made to feel that if we haven't found "the one," we are missing something. Not missing something important but expendable, like our earbuds, or the Top Chef finale, but missing a part of ourselves -- our other half. I imagine a terror dome of single women, scaling a mountain of liars and cheaters and weak chin and halitosis-havers, heels and weave flying, to claw their way to this elusive One. Further, how can we compete with couples -- who are presented as the ideal -- in the great arena of happiness?
3) It creates this false formula: lust+romance = love. Haven't you noticed that people on online dating commercials talk about "butterflies" and "that feeling?" Most everyone (myself included) on OkCupid cops to scanning through pictures first, and then reading the profile. Tindr doesn't even bother telling you much of anything about the person behind the pic. It isn't that you can't find a person of substance online -- people can and do. It's that the interface lends itself to superficial judgment, simply by nature of an online simulacrum -- all kissy faces and six-packs and humble brags and innuendo -- before meeting. As Gerry says, it's (uber-flattering) Sparknotes.
I acknowledge that there are people who have forged healthy relationships that began online, but I find that is the exception and not the rule. In general, I find that online dating culture is hiijaking love from those of us who seek it in earnest. Let's lay off the desperate questing and consider this: there are probably hundreds, maybe thousands, of people in the world with whom we could be happy. The "soulmate" is an illusion, and that's good news. Further, love doesn't have to -- and probably won't -- appear in the package we expect it too.
Instead of looking ahead to technology for remedying our emotional needs, we could afford to looking back to the ancient Greeks. They had four primary words for love: storge, eros, philia, and agape, and thus, a broader conception of what we call "love."
Storge is the least pertinent to us here -- it is a natural affection, and most often used in Greek texts in a familial sense.
Eros is what we often limit ourselves to. It's lusty love, it's "butterflies" love -- the easiest kind of love. It isn't hard to love someone this way, in fact, it can even be selfish because of how pleasurable it is. I like sex as much as the next person, and eros is incredibly rewarding in the short term. But the Internet has offered eros a surge in popularity because of something that, for better or worse, goes hand in hand with online dating -- porn.
Now: I have found that the proximity of porn (just one incognito browser window away!) to online dating intertwines the two, and taints them both. I have had three months-long relationships with men I've met online. And two out of the three men continued -- to my surprise -- to communicate romantically with women on those dating sites well into our relationships. Usually in the same browsing sessions that they were checking out porn. This creates two unfortunate associations: it equates online women with sex (not just sex -- fisting! Threesomes!), and it makes it too damn easy. While porn can have a place in healthy romantic relationships, in this context, it offers a release that you haven't had to work for, which is nothing like a real relationship.
Philia is "mental" love, defined by Aristotle as virtuous love. It is close to what we would call "loyalty." It's often absent in modern dating, from the backward harem-like setup of The Bachelor, to my experiences with two out of the three men I've met online. When a kid is in an online candy store of pretty potential partners, how can he be expected to choose just one? Philia dictates a type of love that forces a choice, and that asks us to be steadfast in our allegiance. This can come later than eros, but it should come.
Agape is perhaps the most difficult of all loves, and I believe it is the most important in a lasting relationship. Agape is love in the spiritual sense, an enduring love, a love that is even "sacrificial." This is the type of love that you hope your partner has for you when eros has worn off and the proverbial shit hits the fan. This is the love that gets couples through cancer and chemo, forgiving an extramarital affair (that damn eros!), coping with children who run away from home or become addicts, losing all their savings in the stock market. Less dramatically, agape is the love that prevents you from leaving your partner when he or she is no longer shiny and new. Agape is the love that makes you stay at the breakfast table when the person across from you has bagel seeds in her teeth and is bitching about her boss and forgot to dvr last night's game. Agape is love that asks more of us than we want it to -- agape is given whether it is returned or not.
We know cerebrally that love usually does not come in the form of a knight on a white stallion or Kate Upton on a super yacht. Yet in practice, we still are allowing ourselves to be pressured by a sense of competition and urgency to find the hottest and richest and smartest and BEST that will satisfy us sexually (and not cause too much trouble). And if we don't get that, we are ready to flip back through the profiles online and trade in for a new model.
I'd challenge you this Valentine's Day to put a higher premium on the other types of love, especially agape, whether that informs your current relationship or your dating M.O. Pollyanna? Perhaps. But I am sure that love can be so much more expansive than our limited brains and demanding bodies can fathom from looking at strangers on the flimsy screens of our laptops.