Issue #6: Belonging and Romantic Love

Roses are red, violets are blue....

It’s February, the month of love. I thought I would close out the month exploring ways how belonging might shift over the next decade with romantic love. I’ve fallen down the YouTube rabbit hole more than once, largely for educational purposes. One of my favorite finds is Alain de Botton’s School of Life. The channel is like a philosophical guide to adulting, featuring playlists ranging from pop culture to relationships. While the videos in the relationships playlist feature wide-ranging topics, they all center on a delightful sort of cynicism about romantic love.

The notion of romantic love, that “you complete me” kind of love is a relatively modern invention that simply is unrealistic and unhealthy as one person can’t fulfill all of those wants and needs. Although this anachronistic notion still persists in popular culture, especially every Valentine’s Day in the United States, our romantic relationships are evolving, as we renegotiate the terms and expectations of feeling at home in arguably one of the most intimate relationships a person can have in their life.

The UK affiliate of eHarmony released their report on the future of dating in 2015, exploring possibilities for dating in 2040. A few of the trends that the report highlights:

  • VR dating, an immersive sensory experience that carries all the physical sensations of a date without actually being in the same place

  • DNA sequencing to uncover genetic compatibility

  • Behavior-based matching through IoT surveillance and tracking

  • AI-driven dating feedback

This tech-utopian vision of dating in the future certainly avoids many of the idealistic pitfalls of romantic love while introducing new challenges, namely place and emotional sensations of comfort and safety. These trends also seem to be blissfully unaware of the class, race and other disparities that already exist in dating and marriages. And don’t even get me started on the idea of marrying genetic sequencing with dating as that is sure to make conversation even more awkward.

That said, the ability to date without being in the same location poses interesting questions. In a conversation earlier this week, I tossed out the phrase haptic inequity to describe what I think is the next upcoming digital divide. As technology gets faster and cheaper, all of our interactions will shift to the digital and virtual, making in-person contact and feedback a premium product.

What happens to people who can’t afford to pay for personal contact? How does that change the depth and strength of connection in our romantic relationships when we can approximate the real thing with the use of a headset and maybe eventually only glasses or contacts? Who benefits in a world of dating where proximity is no longer a limitation? What is the potential for harassment or other issues from bad actors abusing an immersive experience like virtual dating?

Despite or maybe because of online dating’s growth and normalization, online daters also encounter the truth problem. Data suggest more than half of users lie about their height, weight or job on dating sites and apps. The Federal Trade Commission claims an estimated 25 to 30 percent of users join with fradulent profiles to perpetuate scams on the dating problem. The agency is now suing the group that owns Tinder, OkCupid, and other dating sites, asserting that these fradulent profiles and messages were used to persuade users into paid plans on the platforms.

Without measures to increase trust, we should expect to see more disengagement within online dating like the normalization of ghosting. Of course, this could be an effect only for millennials and Gen Z who have grown up with online dating as normal. Mature adults from Generation X as well as baby boomers are flocking to online dating in the aftermath of divorces and social circles full of already married couples.

Let’s talk about sex, baby

Sex is never without controversy, and sex tech is no different. Especially for women’s sex tech. Last year, a female CEO made headlines after her company earned an award from the Consumer Electronics Show that was subsequently revoked. The company Lora Dicarlo made the Osé massager, a sex toy that promises a hands free orgasm for women through the application of microrobotics. Although the Consumer Technology Association awarded Lora Dicarlo with a CES Innovation Award during their January convention, a month later the company sent a letter to Lora Dicarlo informing them that the award was revoked and the company would not be able to exhibit at next year’s event. The stated reason was that the product violated CTA guidelines because it was “immoral, obscene, indecent, profane or not in keeping with CTA’s image.”

One year later, a different female CEO faced an analogous situation at an event hosted by Samsung. Liz Klinger, the CEO of Lioness, was asked to remove her exhibit booth from the conference because her product wasn’t related to women’s health. Lioness produces a tech-enabled vibrator that uses sensors and biofeedback to turn orgasms into art. In Lioness’s case, the company presents at healthcare and research conferences, as evidence continues to mount for connections between women’s sexual health and applications such as alleviating symptoms of menopause and improving mental health.

In both cases, there’s an undercurrent of fear or hostility to the notion of women’s pleasure being visible and acceptable. And as the average age at which women continue to marry creeps higher and the call for gender equity grows louder, cisgender, heterosexual women will demand more not just from relationships but also singlehood, a state of being to which women can happily and proudly belong without shame or embarassment.

Married with ?

Depending on who you ask, marriage is dead or it’s in the process of dying. Although there are some signs that marriage has changed, marriage is a institution that always under constant reexamination and reinvention as well as reversions to past iterations. The average age to first marriage is increasing, leading to more adults in long-term relationships with many of the outward hallmarks of marriage like property ownership and children without the vows. Within the relationship, this comes with a distinctive set of stressors as each couple has to make explicit and negotiate many conversations and decisions that may have been automated by societal expectations and historical gender roles.

Famed couples therapist and author Esther Perel poses the choice that committed relationships face:

I think some of us are going to gravitate towards more freedom, and some of us are going to gravitate toward more community, more communion, more belonging, and that by definition means a restriction, a frustration, a compromise, of our individuality.

Of course, this binary obscures the vast choices in the forms of restriction that modern marriages choose to adopt: open marriages, group marriages, marriages in which the partners live in different places, and other arrangements.

Rather than a union for economic security, marriage is shifting to ensure a certain social security as a hedge against loneliness and isolation. You see this shift reflected in emergent trends like group honeymoons or “buddymoons” and also physical spaces for co-housing and multigenerational housing. Having more than one person to rely on and turn to for comfort and safety builds a certain kind of resilience and sense of belonging that cannot be provided by one person.