“If I lived in Iowa, I'd be married with four children by now.” Gregg Blatt is the CEO of Match.com's parent company. He's a 40-something bachelor living in Manhattan, and it's not entirely clear whether his wry comment aims to slight Iowa or New York.
Either way, it's clear that overwhelming choice can cripple commitment. Blatt himself wonders whether the glittering promise of online dating—your perfect match is only a click away—encourages us to become never-satisfied consumers of relationships, always looking to upgrade. And if we suspect we can easily find a superior choice on the Internet, how might that knowledge negatively affect the desire to invest in our current relationship, or even marriage? Assuming we one day get tired of compulsive consumption and decide to stop playing the field, will we be able to? Might the intoxication of choice lead to the death of commitment—and contentment?
Dan Slater thinks so. His recent article in The Atlantic implies that online dating, far from making marriage easier, is actually making it harder—by making commitment less likely:
The positive aspects of online dating are clear: the Internet makes it easier for single people to meet other single people with whom they might be compatible, raising the bar for what they consider a good relationship. But what if online dating makes it too easy to meet someone new? What if it raises the bar for a good relationship too high? What if the prospect of finding an ever-more-compatible mate with the click of a mouse means a future of relationship instability, in which we keep chasing the elusive rabbit around the dating track?
Slater's dog-track metaphor is strikingly apt. The rabbit isn't real, it's never caught, yet the greyhound still obsessively chases it. And the multiplying “rabbits” (as provided by the proliferation of online dating services) deceive us into believing that the odds of catching one have improved exponentially. In reality, as our expectations of relational satisfaction have risen, so has the likelihood of disappointment—and with it, the chances that we will keep on compulsively chasing. Of course, this process suits the online dating companies. “[T]he profit models of many online-dating sites are at cross-purposes with clients who are trying to develop long-term commitments,” Slater observes. “A permanently paired-off dater, after all, means a lost revenue stream.” That's why most of the users on Match.com are return customers, coaxed back into activity by plaintive “How could you leave us?” emails, and the consumer's own relational restlessness.
Lowering the Bar
Evidence also suggests that even if we do finally commit to someone, the multiplicity of options makes it less likely we'll stay committed. Psychologist Barry Schwarz, author of The Paradox of Choice, argues that “a large array of options may diminish the attractiveness of what people actually choose, the reason being that thinking about the attractions of some of the unchosen options detracts from the pleasure derived from the chosen one.”
In 2011, Mark Brooks, a consultant to online dating companies, published the results of an industry survey titled “How Has Internet Dating Changed Society?” The survey responses, from 39 executives, produced the following conclusions:
- “Internet dating may be partly responsible for a rise in the divorce rates.”
- “Above all, Internet dating has helped people of all ages realize that there's no need to settle for a mediocre relationship.”
- “Low quality, unhappy, and unsatisfying marriages are being destroyed as people drift to Internet dating sites.”
- “The market is hugely more efficient. . . . People expect to—and this will be increasingly the case over time—access people anywhere, anytime, based on complex search requests. . . . Such a feeling of access affects our pursuit of love. . . . [T]he whole world (versus, say, the city we live in) will, increasingly, feel like the market for our partner(s). Our pickiness will probably increase.”
- “Internet dating has made people more disposable.”
That's frightening. But online dating is surely not the only cause of commitment-phobia. As Slater points out, gender may also play a role, though “researchers are divided on the question of whether men pursue more 'short-term mates' than women do.” Certainly, with young women in the United States much more likely to graduate from college than their male peers, and college graduates much more likely to date other college graduates, men seem to have the luxury (or rather, the curse) of choice.
Then there is the pornography epidemic. It raises (or rather, lowers) the bar on what we expect of a prospective spouse because of its unremitting insistence on physical performance and cosmetic beauty, over and against mental and moral qualities. As Christian men, we may pray unctuously for the Lord to provide a wife of noble character (Proverbs 31:10-31), but our hearts are being continually conditioned to lust after the wife of maximal hotness. “Charm is deceitful,” God protests, “and beauty is vain!” But we dismiss him like one of those impertinent pop-ups that gets in the way of what we really want to see.
The devastating societal results are already being ruefully catalogued. The sexually graphic film Shame (2011) sees a porn-addicted Michael Fassbender sloping from one brief encounter to another. Together in a hotel room with a beautiful woman who believes in monogamy, he is unable to perform. Because his only commitment is to an endless, open-ended lack of commitment, real intimacy eludes him. And by the time the film ends, we're not sure it will ever be regained.
Or take George Clooney in Up in the Air (2009). He plays a character whose aversion to emotional commitment means that, according to his own family, he has essentially ceased to exist. Taken in by the false promises of sexual “freedom,” he has withheld commitment for years. And now that he wishes to give it, he's no longer free to do so. Pointedly, The Velveteen Rabbit appears briefly in the film. It's a children's story about a stuffed toy rabbit who becomes real when he is loved. At one point, the rabbit asks the wise Skin Horse how the process happens.
“It doesn't happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand.”
It's a mesmerizing, sad story about how real love—real commitment—inevitably unmakes us. Perhaps that's partly why we're so afraid of it. But the story also explains why that “unmaking” is such a desirable thing. I
t's how you become “real.”
Truly committing to another human being will certainly be our undoing. It requires substitutionary sacrifice: your life is subsumed in the quest for the other's contentment. In the case of marriage it means each person forsaking all others, which to the world looks like a very shabby prospect.
But this selfless giving of oneself to another human being holds unique power to make both the lover and the beloved truly beautiful. By losing their lives, they have gained them. But we can only taste this if we commit—and allow other to commit to us.
Committing to love at great cost to ourselves is the most desirable choice we can make in God's universe. He demonstrated this love for us on a tiny hill outside Jerusalem. He made the choice to love self-sacrificially. Forsaking all others, he committed himself to a particular people, at a particular time, in a particular place. Even the living God—powerful, sovereign, utterly free, whose triune nature means that he does not depend on others in order to love and be loved—nevertheless committed himself to love one bride.
Will we trade the deceptive and ever-declining thrills of choice-idolatry for the unique pleasures of commitment? We should do it, and soon. Because even if, by God's grace, our chains fall off, even if our dungeon flames with light, we may be powerless to get up and leave, because our hearts have been crippled. We put off commitment and venerate choice, idly believing that we will commit when we are ready. But when that day finally arrives, we may realize with widening eyes that we're no longer choosing sin. Sin is choosing us. We will have become imprisoned by choice.
And for those of us who have experienced this prison first-hand, isn't it strange when the world describes us as “butterflies”? That is too delicate, too lovely. Brothers and sisters, let me propose a more fitting insect: the moth. Drawn to the light but finally unable to enjoy it. Dulled. Restless. All-consuming.