Fifteen Eighty Four

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Fast Sex; Slow Love – Courtship in the Digital Age

Helen Fisher

Photo by Alex Brisbey on Unsplash

Is technology killing love?  Has the world run wild on sex?  Have romance and marriage gone the way of the dinosaurs? Today, some 66% of single Americans have had a one-night-stand; 34% have had sex with someone before their first date; 54% have had a secretive, uncommitted Friends-with-Benefits relationship; and 56% of singles have lived together with a partner before they wed.  Sounds reckless.  And many people blame the Internet—where, they believe, sex is just one swipe away on a dating app and romance and commitment are ghosts of yesteryear.

But data collected as part of an annual study I do with Match.com and my colleague Dr. Justin Garcia on a national representative sample of over 35,000 single adults (known as Singles in America) has convinced me that today’s singles are not reckless; they’re cautious, perhaps even scared.  Indeed, some 67% of American cohabiting couples today are terrified of the social, legal, emotional, and economic consequences of divorce.  So they appear to want to know everything about a potential partner before they invest their time, money and energy to initiate a formal commitment to him or her. 

As a result, a new courtship process is emerging.   Many singles begin a relationship by “hanging out” as “just friends.”  Next, they move into being Friends-with-Benefits.  Only later do many have an “official” first date.  Then gradually they begin to live together before wedding.  Fast Sex; Slow love:  the pre-commitment stage of the courtship process is expanding.  But romantic love is still in full bloom.  Over 54% of American singles believe in “love at first sight;” 86% seek a committed partner with whom they can spend their life; and 89% believe you can stay married to the same person forever.  Moreover, some reports maintain that 83% of men and 89% of women in America will marry by age forty-nine.

Even modern “dating sites” can’t kill love.  The neural pathways for romance lie in the deepest part of the brain, near factories that orchestrate thirst and hunger.  It’s a primordial human drive–a drive to find life’s greatest prize, a mating partner.  Myths; legends; songs; stories; novels; plays; ballets; operas; holidays: everywhere in the world people still pine for love, live for love, kill for love and die for love.  Romantic love is one of the most powerful brain systems humanity has evolved–and it won’t change as singles meet on the Internet.

In fact, dating sites aren’t even dating sites.  They are introducing sites.  When singles meet a potential partner in person, they smile, laugh, parade and judge this potential mate in natural ways that evolved long before the Digital Age.  The Internet is just the newest way to do the same old human thing:  flirt, court and bond.   But where marriage used to be the beginning of a partnership, today it’s the finale.   

And from the evolutionary perspective, slow love is adaptive—because the human brain is soft-wired to attach to a partner slowly.  Using fMRI, my brain scanning colleagues and I have established that the neural circuits for romantic love can be triggered instantly; but the primary circuit for deep attachment can take months, sometimes years, to activate.   Slow love is in alignment with our primordial brain circuits for romance and attachment.

With this trend toward slow love, partnerships may become more stable too.  Data on 80 societies that I have collected from the Demographic Yearbooks of the United Nations between 1947 and 2011 indicate that the later you marry, the more likely you are to remain married.  A study of over 3,000 married people in the US found that couples who dated for one to two years, (compared to those who dated less than a year), were 20% less likely to get a divorce; and couples who dated for three years or longer were 39% less likely to later part.  And when I asked 1,095 married Americans (polled with my colleagues at Match) whether they would remarry the person they were currently married to, 81% said: “Yes.”

Love is not dead; courtship is not ruined; and sex has not replaced emotional intimacy.  Today’s singles are simply turning inward–taking time to court, pair and wed.  In fact, with the current marriage revolution toward slow love, we may see more happy and enduring partnerships in the Digital Age.

Version of this Blog first published by Match.com, Feb 6, 2019.

Read More:

SLOW LOVE: Courtship in the Digital Age

By Helen E. Fisher and Justin R. Garcia (2019)

In R.J. Sternberg & K. Sternberg (Eds.), The New Psychology of Love (2nd edition).   Pp. 208-222

About The Author

Helen Fisher

Helen Fisher, PhD Biological Anthropologist, is Senior Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute and Chief Science Advisor to Match.com. She uses brain scanning (fMRI) to study the ...

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