Comedian and actor Aziz Ansari’s fascinating, funny, and practical look at romance in the digital age is a surprisingly wise, fast-paced romp through U.S. sexual and marital history. Part memoir, part sociological study, and part self-help treatise, Modern Romance zeroes in on contemporary dating mores with a perceptive eye toward the shifts that have taken place over the past several decades. Along the way, Ansari addresses how people find a potential consort, whether for a passionate afternoon or for a lifetime of companionship.
It’s a terrific read. But please note: While Modern Romance—out June 16 from Penguin Books— is immensely entertaining, it is not fluff. In fact, Ansari, along with his co-author, sociologist and New York University Professor Eric Klinenberg, spent 2013 and 2014 doing extensive research that included focus groups and in-person interviews with hundreds of people in New York City, Los Angeles, Wichita, and Monroe, New York about their most intimate desires and relationship goals. In addition, many study participants in these cities shared their phones with the pair, giving them full access to text messages, emails, and interactions on online dating sites.
“This information was revelatory,” Ansari writes in the book’s introduction, “because we could observe how actual romantic encounters played out in people’s lives and not just hear stories about what people remembered.” This information was then used to ascertain dating patterns among the many men and women who elected to participate. Though not a scientifically vetted survey, it did reveal some startling anecdotal information about desire, pursuit, and expectations with regard to dating.
Ansari and Klinenberg also created a “Modern Romantics” subreddit forum on Reddit, which itself turned into a massive online focus group, with participants from all corners of the globe joining the conversation. Although the bulk of the book focuses on American dating and mating, insights gleaned from the authors’ international travel—to Buenos Aires, Doha, Paris, and Tokyo—put the myriad ways people connect into political, religious, and social perspective. For example, Ansari writes that French people seem to be more tolerant of infidelity, while young adults in Doha find surreptitious ways to flirt outside the context of arranged marriages.
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Cross-national comparisons are a theme writ large for Ansari, whose own Indian parents married a week after an arranged introduction between their two families. They’d spent 30 minutes talking before deciding they could make it work, he reports. Thirty-five years later, they’re still together and, Ansari adds, seem to be content with the life they’ve built and the time they’ve shared.
Unfortunately, Modern Romance does not interrogate other U.S. couples in arranged unions—fodder, perhaps, for a follow-up text. Instead, the book looks at the search for love among overwhelmingly young, professional, able-bodied, college-educated, men and women, with a smattering of older adults included for context. Most, but not all, are straight and are looking for “The One.”
Technology, not surprisingly, features prominently in these quests, since the average American presently spends approximately 8.5 hours a day in front of a screen. Phones, Ansari writes, are particularly alluring for those in the dating pool since they are basically a pocket-sized “24-7 singles’ bar,” where with the touch of a finger anyone can be “instantly immersed in an ocean of romantic possibilities” via sites like E-Harmony, Match.com, OKCupid, J-Date, or Tinder.
That said, Ansari makes clear that the changes in our romantic lives are not just a result of technological advances. “In a very short period of time,” he reports, “the whole culture of finding love has changed dramatically.” Ansari cites studies from the Journal of Marriage and the Family, noting, “A few decades ago, people would find a decent person who lived in their neighborhood. Their families would meet and after deciding neither party seemed like a murderer, they would get married and soon have a kid, all by the time they were 24. Today, people spend years of their lives on a quest to find the perfect person, a soul mate.”
As recently as the 1960s, Ansari explains, most middle-class folks had rigid gender-based expectations about what a partnership would look like, with men providing financial security and women caring for the home and rearing the children. Love wasn’t a necessary part of the deal. Although there were certainly exceptions, marriage was often about creating the “conditions that made it possible to survive and reproduce.” End of story.
Fifty-plus years later, of course, life is different, a shift for which Ansari credits the women’s movement—a conclusion influenced by historian Stephanie Coontz’s work. “By the 1980s,” he writes, “86 percent of American men and 91 percent of American women said they would not marry someone without the presence of romantic love.”
So how to find it?
According to University of Chicago psychologist and researcher John Cacioppo, who is quoted in Modern Romance, between 2015 and 2012 more than one-third of U.S. couples who got married met through online dating. OKCupid, the book continues, claims credit for 40,000 dates a day, meaning that up to 80,000 people are being introduced to one another during every 24-hour period. What’s more, 38 percent of people who self-identify as “single and looking” have used an online dating site. The figure, Ansari reports, is even higher in the LGBTQ community, where an astounding 70 percent of couples say they met online.
Still, Ansari notes that online dating has numerous downsides, not the least being response fatigue: the exhaustion that comes from having to sift through hundreds of replies, typically all sounding remarkably similar. In addition, there’s the risk that what you say you want on a profile will not correspond to what you actually want on an emotional level. Ansari uses himself as an example of this phenomenon. He writes that he thought he was looking for a small, dark-haired professional women a few years his junior. His current, live-in partner? A tall, blonde who is slightly older than him, and works as a chef. And he couldn’t be happier.
The key, Modern Romance cautions, is not to spend endless time constructing a “perfect” profile or endlessly texting someone who seems like a good fit—or worse, playing the “how long should I wait before responding to a text?” game—but actually meeting in person, since there’s no way to know if there’s chemistry without hanging out with someone. Like other practical conclusions cited in the book, this too has been borne out by research: Ansari references several Northwestern University psychologists who conclude, “No algorithm can predict in advance whether two people will make a good couple.”
It’s also far better, the book advises, for you and a person you’ve met online to do something fun rather than simply having drinks or dinner and engaging in what can feel like an interview. You’ll learn more about the person as you go along, Ansari writes, and will make a better impression by choosing an activity that the other person might otherwise never have considered.
There’s more. “At certain times, the ‘I need the best’ mentality can be debilitating,” Ansari adds. “The Internet has helped to produce the idea that there is a best thing and if we search hard enough, we can find it … We are no longer the generation of the ‘good enough’ marriage. We are now looking for our soul mates. Even after we find our soul mates, if we start feeling unhappy, we get divorced.”
No group, he continues, has ever had more romantic options. In truth, there is likely always going to be someone out there who is smarter, cuter, funnier, and sexier than our current partner. So, when do we say “enough” and stop second-guessing our choices? If we stay with our current squeeze does this mean we’ve settled for mediocrity, or does it reflect the maturity needed to build a life with someone we already know to be a compatible fit?
“If you’re looking for the best, this is a recipe for complete misery,” Anzari advises. “If you are in a big city or on an online dating site, you are flooded with options. Seeing all these options, we are now comparing out potential partners not to other potential partners but rather to an idealized person whom no one could measure up to.”
Columbia University professor Sheena Iyengar’s work, quoted in the text bears this out: Too many options, she found, can lead to indecision and paralysis.
It’s a sobering conclusion. While Modern Romance doesn’t attempt to offer one-size-fits-all platitudes, it does analyze behavioral trends using its focus groups as jumping-off points— topics covered include finding dates on and off-line, texting, sexting, monogamy versus non-monogamy, breaking up, and marriage—presenting common sense ideas about courtship and beyond.
“The endless string of first dates where you just say the same shit over and over again in the same places starts getting tiresome,” Ansari admits. As his own experience taught him “The casual scene was fun but in between the fun, a lot of times there was emptiness.” If there was an initial spark, it is far better to see the same person a few times, in Anzari’s opinion, to determine if something can develop.
Lastly, he reminds readers that there are two kinds of love: passionate and companionate. The first typically lasts for a year to a year-and-a-half, “spikes early, then fades away. Companionate love is less intense but grows over time … There is still passion, but it’s balanced with trust, stability, and an understanding of each other’s flaws.”
As someone who has been in a monogamous relationship for 31 years, I know this to be on point. In fact, my experience tells me that anyone who believes that the romance of the first period can be maintained is deluded, a point Ansari hammers home. At the same time, he acknowledges that there are no hard-and-fast rules for relationships, and points out that each couple needs to figure out what works for them.
Whatever your preferences, Ansari argues that that everyone deserves to be happy in their domestic lives. Nonetheless, the reality check that he has tossed into the mix about not holding out for an idealized person who doesn’t exist reminds us of several longstanding truths—among them, that a successful liaison requires clear communication, respect between parties, and tolerance of difference. Digital communications may have muddied the dating waters, but at the end of the day, love is still a mystery that baffles even as it beckons and delights.