As actor and comedian Aziz Ansari shows in his book “Modern Romance,” both religious settings and face-to-face introductions play a smaller role in romance than they used to — church in particular.
In his new book, Ansari provides both cathartically funny self-help for modern dating and an impressively researched guide to the swiftly changing ways we find love. Though the Internet plays a key role in the book, so, too, does that recent unicorn of romance: the soulmate.
“In a very short period of time, the whole culture of finding love and a mate has radically changed,” Ansari writes. “The tools we use on this search are different, but what has really changed is our desires and — and even more strikingly — the underlying goals of the search itself.”
Where once we married for the reasons central to “Downton Abbey” — retention of land, production of heirs and, maybe, friendship — now we seek someone with whom mutual love feels like destiny.
According to one survey the book cites, couples in 1940 met at church as often as they did through neighbors or at a bar. (For that cohort, only friends and family were more-common ways to meet.)
Yet by 2010, only 2 percent of couples reported meeting at church — the least-common relational starting ground.
Churches’ role in matchmaking may have declined for many reasons, but the likeliest seems our growing lack of interest in religious groups altogether.
According to the latest Pew study, nearly a quarter of adult Americans do not affiliate with any religion. After years when those without religious affiliation hovered right around 8 percent of the population, they started a steady growth in 1990, gaining each year since then, as illustrated in the graphic below.
Ansari and his co-author, sociologist Eric Klinenberg, root this change both in the cultural shifts after World War II and the nature of the Internet. “It doesn’t simply help us find the best thing out there,” they write. “It has helped to produce the idea there is a best thing and, if we search hard enough, we can find it.”
They make a persuasive case for how the Internet got us hooked on the search for the best. But they never really explain how we came to believe that the best relationships also provide the stuff of religion.
In a TED talk they quote, psychotherapist Esther Perel says: “…[W]e come to one person, and we basically are asking them to give us what once an entire village used to provide: Give me belonging, give me identity, give me continuity, but give me transcendence and mystery and awe all in one.”
We don’t expect transcendence from our juicers, our ramen, our folding bikes. How did we come to see it as the mark of true love?
Ansari and Klinenberg’s explanation conflates romantic love with the search for a soulmate. But our spiritualization of love may have more to do with that drastic drop in relationships started at church.
Use of “soulmate” increased right around the same time religious affiliation started to drop, according to Google Ngram data. The poet Samuel Coleridge reportedly first coined the term in 1822, but its use stayed very low for 160 years. Then in the late 1980s, “soul mate” started cropping up in “New York Magazine” personal ads.
“Soulmate” quickly became mainstream in the 1990s.
Alain de Botton never used the word in his internationally bestselling 1993 book “On Love,” but he eloquently explained the concept in his opening lines.
“The longing for a destiny is nowhere stronger than in our romantic life. All too often forced to share our bed with those who cannot fathom our soul, can we not be forgiven if we believe ourselves fated to stumble one day upon the man or woman of our dreams? Can we not be excused a certain superstitious faith in a creature who will prove the solution to our relentless yearnings?”
Film critic and religious studies scholar Margaret Miles found similar themes in Jane Campion’s Oscar-winning film “The Piano.” “In the film, as in twentieth-century secularism, a religion of romantic love has replaced religion as the force that creates and attracts commitment,” Miles wrote in her 1996 book “Seeing and Believing.” “Salvation through romance has replaced Christian salvation and occupies its place in the film’s cultural psyche.”
Some religious studies scholars attribute such shifts to what religion provides people. In “A Theory of Religion,” Rodney Stark and William Bainbridge argue that religion faces competition from “alternate cultural systems that not only provide many rewards beyond religion’s scope but also offer competing general explanations.”
The rise of the nonreligious doesn’t mean one in four adult Americans no longer cares about right and wrong or the meaning of history. It doesn’t mean that a quarter of us have lost interest in transcendence or lives that have meaning.
Rather, many no longer find religious institutions a credible source of those things. In his 2012 book “Religion for Atheists,” de Botton makes a passionate case that religion has long provided many good things — from community, education and tenderness to architecture, wisdom and perspective. But as an atheist, he wants to get those things elsewhere.
Though Ansari and Klinenberg don’t seem to fully recognize this, their book hints that many modern singles have unwittingly turned to romance for things they no longer expect to get from religion.
Is it fair to ask that of love? “Modern Romance” never addresses that.
At multiple points, Ansari admits that we’re making great demands on love, which sets us up for heartbreak and disappointment. He even spends a chapter on the problems with too many choices. But each time he shrinks from acknowledging that we might be asking too much.
“Modern Love” frames romance primarily in selfish terms — and no wonder; almost every tool for seeking love encourages us to do. But if love and romance are all about me, then they also determine my value.
Great love, great value. Little love, small value. No wonder we seek the best possible lover. We need to think we deserve it!
As a long-single woman, I’ve grappled with this value problem for years. Throughout my 20s and some of my 30s, I fell for men aspirationally. Though I never realized at the start of things, I was drawn more to what their esteem and attraction would do for my ego than to the men themselves. That made their rejection and disinterest all the more devastating.
But recently, I’ve been studying long-term happy marriages — both those chronicled in the “New York Times’” wonderful “Making It Last” series and the unions of happily long-married relatives.
What modern singles often consider prerequisites for marriage — good sex, financial security, intellectual stimulation — more often proves the result of long-wed couples’ sustained and sacrificial investment in each other.
My own parents recently celebrated their 38th anniversary together, brimming with a mutual delight of the kind that often dims after the wedding-day glow. They share many common interests, and even a birthday, but I know from years as their daughter how much self-sacrifice, humility and forgiveness went into the enviable bond they share.
They may look like they married their soul mate, but that’s because they both committed to being a great mate.
Anna Broadway is the author of “Sexless in the City: A Memoir of Reluctant Chastity.” Her master’s thesis in religious studies focused on non-institutional religious expression.