Volume 2, Issue 9: September 2018
The All-Or-Nothing Marriage
Quote of the Month
Timeless insights from scientists, philosophers, novelists, and other wise souls
“You can’t shut off the risk and the pain / Without losing the love that remains.”
Five things I'm thinking about this month
1. A major theme in my research career is that technology influences how we find and sustain relationships. I’ve explored, for example, how speed-dating and online dating have altered the process of meeting potential partners, and how the industrial revolution changed marriage. One of the most interesting domains here is reproductive technology, as when the birth-control pill helped to launch the sexual revolution. This to-be-published article investigates the increasingly popular reproductive technology of egg freezing. Whereas the pill divorced sex from pregnancy, egg freezing can divorce pregnancy from relationships. In recent decades, as more and more women have pursued extensive education and worked to build fulfilling careers, the window for becoming pregnant has become narrower. Even among heterosexual women—for whom pregnancy tends to be relatively simple (compared to, say, lesbian women)—there’s no guarantee that this fertile window will coincide with the presence of a relationship partner with whom they would like to make a baby, a potentially heartrending challenge that can be partially mitigated by egg freezing (at least among those women who can afford it). But, of course, the long-term effects of technological change on relationship behavior are often unanticipated, and it’ll be interesting to see whether egg-freezing technology—as it becomes more effective and less expensive—will contribute to a profound restructuring of family life.
2. When I was a freshman at Northwestern in 1993-1994, I would sometimes gander through the “freshman facebook.” Among my reasons for doing so was to scope out potentially attractive women in my class, and I can say with confidence that I wasn’t alone in perusing the book with romantic motivations in mind. Of course, like most of my fellow students, I had never heard of email or the Internet, so the prospect of actually meeting any given cutie was in the hands of fate. But how things have changed! Today, as CNET tells us, “Tinder lets college kids swipe their way across campus.” Yep, Tinder has launched “Tinder U” to help undergrads scope out and contact other students for a movie or hot study break. This is, to be sure, a far more efficient option than was available in the freshman facebook era, although I lament that today’s students are less likely to experience the unexpected thrill of realizing that the cutest person in the book sits next to you in chemistry class.
3. Although I’m often characterized as a critic of online dating—I’ve been called an “industry-scold”—I’m actually a big fan. It’s true that I dislike it when companies make false or misleading claims, but I’ve always been delighted about online dating’s core strength: It broadens the dating pool. We have access to far more potential partners than ever before, and it’s simpler than ever to find somebody new to date. Perhaps my favorite part of this strength is that it’s progressive—the value is larger among people who are likely to find it difficult find a partner using more conventional approaches (e.g., a gay person in a small community or an individual in a wheelchair). Well, I’m happy to report that the industry is increasingly doubling down on its inclusivity, as illustrated by Tinder’s move to create interracial couple emojis, Facebook’s move to include five gender categories as a dating feature, and the launch of a new dating platform for STI-positive people.
4. Social scientists have long known that people who have high-quality social relationships tend to be healthier than people with lower-quality relationships, but it’s been challenging to figure out the biology underlying this tendency—to figure out how relationships get under the skin. This to-be-published scholarly article provides an intriguing new clue: High-quality relationships are linked to slower cellular aging. In the study, 83 ex-POWs reported on their level of social support, assessed as agreement with statements like “There are people in my surrounding that I can speak to openly even about the most intimate things” and “I have friends who will remain real friends even if I get into trouble.” The researchers used blood draws to assess the length of participants’ telomeres (DNA nucleoprotein complexes that sustain chromosome stability and integrity). The ex-POWs who reported greater social support had longer telomeres 24 years after the war ended, a biological effect that may help to explain how feeling connected make us healthier.
5. Regular readers of this newsletter know that I’m delighted by the advent of the #MeToo movement and intrigued to see how it develops over time. This month brought some interesting discussion regarding the links between consent and sexuality. This Modern Love column offers a first-person perspective on the distinction between consent and care. The author talks about her relationship with a man who was remarkably conscientious about consent, but who seemed to use it as an alternative to sensitivity. The man’s repeated use of “Is this okay” made her uneasy: “It seemed legalistic and self-protective, imported more from the courtroom than from a true sense of caretaking. And each time he asked, it was as if he assumed I lacked the agency to say no on my own.” And this Washington Post article provides a first-person perspective on a university’s anti-sexual-assault education program: “This was where it began to strike me as odd, in a way it hadn’t back when I was one of the 18-year-olds in the audience [12 years earlier]. Something was missing from the conversation, which seemed awfully coldblooded. The discussion was all about consent, but it was only about consent. Consent is not a bad thing, of course—a profusion of sexual harassment cases has taught us that much—but consent isn’t enough.” The author offers this assessment: “While consent is a helpful legal framework for risk avoidance, it too often allows us to bypass questions of respect, relationship and care.” Although the arguments offered by these two authors differ in key respects, they align in suggesting that the renewed emphasis on consent—as essential as it is—has provoked a conversation that is too narrow. Both articles are worth a careful read. Actually, do book clubs sometimes deviate from the emphasis on books to discuss newspaper articles? These articles warrant that sort of attention.
A dispatch from the mascot of the Relationships And Motivation Lab (RAMLAB)
Ah, September. The arrival of fall and football, and the scent of a new school year. And, this time around, the absolutely gorgeous wedding of our own Lydia Emery. She wrote beautiful wedding vows, all of which are backed by science. How’s that for romance!?
Eli celebrated the one-year anniversary of the publication The All-Or-Nothing Marriage by recalling with gratitude the amazing group of people who helped launch the book on September 19th, 2017. Amy Cuddy, Paul Coster, Simon Sinek, Esther Perel, and Leland Melvin rallied for him (also note, in this photo, the prepublication copy of Esther’s wonderful new book).