It is true, as Rosenfeld’s data shows, that online dating has freed young adults from the limitations and biases of their hometowns. But to be free of those old crutches can be both exhilarating and exhausting. As the influence of friends and family has melted away, the burden of finding a partner has been swallowed whole by the individual—at the very moment that expectations of our partners are skyrocketing.
Once upon a time, wealthy families considered matrimonies akin to mergers; they were cold-hearted business opportunities to expand a family’s financial power. Even in the late 19th century, marriage was more practicality than rom-com, whereas today’s daters are looking for nothing less than a human Swiss Army knife of self-actualization. We seek “spiritual, intellectual, social, as well as sexual soul mates,” the sociologist Jessica Carbino told The Atlantic’s Crazy/Genius podcast. She said she regarded this self-imposed ambition as “absolutely unreasonable.”
If the journey toward coupling is more formidable than it used to be, it’s also more lonesome. With the declining influence of friends and family and most other social institutions, more single people today are on their own, having set up shop at a digital bazaar where one’s appearance, one’s interestingness, one’s charm and sense of humor and texty banter, one’s sex appeal, one’s photo selection, one’s worth, is submitted for 24/7 evaluation before an audience of indifferent or cruel strangers, who are undergoing the same appraisal.