How technology has changed the way we fall in love: Nowak

And also how it hasn't

Love on the run 665

It’s Valentine’s Day, which means it’s time to celebrate just how much we all love each other. We used to equate love with marriage, but that’s not necessarily the case anymore. The development of love, marriage, relationships, sex and even adultery over the course of history are all topics I look at in my upcoming book, Humans 3.0. Here, for the first time anywhere, is a short excerpt on the topic of tying the knot from the just-completed manuscript (the final version, which may of course change):

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, in its usual understated manner, notes there has been a ‘noticeable decline’ in marriage rates since 1970 in almost all of its member states. The decline over that time has been substantial in countries such as Hungary and Portugal and less so in Denmark and Sweden, where it was already low. But, all told, the differences are staggering. In 1970, the OECD average was eight marriages per thousand people, while in 2009 it was almost half that, at five. In the United States, the 1970 average was eleven, down to seven. Also, those people that are still getting married are doing so at an older age. Once upon a time, women would be ostracized and labeled witches if they weren’t hitched by the time they hit twenty, but by 2005 the average American woman was twenty-five before tying the knot.

None of this means people aren’t seeking out companionship – quite the opposite, actually. They’re just choosing to live together longer before getting married, if at all. As the OECD puts it, ‘cohabitation is [increasingly] used as a stepping stone for marriage or as a stable alternative to it… Almost fifty-seven per cent of individuals age twenty and older live in a couple household.’

Even arranged marriages are on the decline in some places. In Japan, close to three-quarters of unions were arranged in the 1930s, but by the mid-1990s that was almost completely reversed, with nearly ninety per cent of people getting married for ‘love.’ Arranged marriages are still big in India, with three-quarters of respondents to a 2013 survey indicating they preferred them to love marriages. The reasons why, however, are closely tied to the overall issue of why marriage is on the decline overall: women’s equality. Most societies where arrangements are prevalent are overwhelmingly patriarchal, with women generally having lower social standing than men. In India, for example, women are under tremendous pressure to ensure their arranged marriages work because of the witch-like stigma that results if they don’t, which is not a pressure that men necessarily face. Similarly, polygamy has been popular in Africa, also because of largely patriarchal social structures. While it’s socially acceptable for men to have multiple relationships and thereby sire more children, that’s not necessarily the case for women.

Back in the developed world, divorce rates have soared. Some countries have seen profound changes, with the likes of Spain and Portugal going from essentially no divorces in 1970 to 2.5 per every thousand people a few decades later. Interestingly, though, the average length of marriages has stayed largely the same – ten to fifteen years – over that same time span. While it’s clear that people aren’t getting married as much as they used to, it’s equally obvious that it’s still taking them the same amount of time to get sick of each other.

There is the danger of blaming some of these trends on the overt side effects of technology, which is what the media did in 2011 with stories that implicated Facebook in playing a role in one-fifth of all divorces. As the argument went, social networks and the internet in general have made it easier for extra-marital dalliances to happen, just as they’ve made it possible for people with oddball interests to connect and become friends.

Ultimately, that’s a straw-man argument that has been made in the face of every new advance in communications technology. As editor Steve Cooper put it in a rebuttal to the Facebook divorce stories, this has been the case since the times of our caveman friend Blaaarggg: ‘I’m sure at some point during the Stone Age a woman was frustrated because her mate wouldn’t step away from the fire and come to bed. More recently, televisions became places of congregation for couples and families.’ He’s right on the money, as a 1966 New York Times article proves. In explaining rising divorce rates at the time, the article noted that neglected ‘working-class wives said their chief rival was the television set.’ Whatever comes along next – wireless-induced telepathy, perhaps – is sure to face the same scapegoat-ism.

Marriage and divorce trends are certainly being affected by technology, but not on the superficial level that has been suggested. People used to get together and stay together for a variety of reasons besides love, such as finances, the need or desire to have children, or religious beliefs. Rising prosperity has largely obviated the first and helped the second, along with changing social mores – people who really want children can do so today without having to be permanently tied to a mate, if they are up to the challenge. As for religion, we’ll return to that in Chapter 8.

If there’s any truth to the idea that Facebook and its ilk is accelerating divorce, it’s probably based in the conventional wisdom that marriage and its delay or demise has traditionally correlated with an abundance of alternatives. Comedian Chris Rock summed it up best by saying, ‘A man is basically as faithful as his options.’