It’s nice to believe that love comes always as a magical thing, a proverbial bolt of lightning across a crowded room. It’s comforting to imagine that this most human of emotions has been with us forever, ageless and unchanging. Yet the history of romance reveals something very different; something driven by the technologies that define our era as much as by the chemicals that fuel our brains.
Yes, we human beings have been falling in love since time began. Yes, we probably feel the same rush of excitement and desire that drove our ancestors to distraction, too. But how we find our loves, how we live with them and mate with them and leave them for another, has changed repeatedly over time. And now, with the future crashing into us at ever faster speeds, the ways we live and love and mate are poised to change again—more dramatically, perhaps, than ever before.
How we got here
Throughout most of human history, love and marriage were only accidentally connected. Beginning with the Agricultural Revolution of around 8000 BC, when marriage as we know it first came into being, young people were paired off by their elders, matched in ways that made sense for their families, their villages, their tribes. Sex was an inherent part of the transaction, since it produced the children who would subsequently farm the fields and inherit them. Romance was not. Instead, for thousands of years, marriage was mostly a business—witness the traditional dowry or “bride price”—and courtship a community sport. If there was passion, it occurred either through happenstance, or outside the bounds of marriage.
Things started to change in the 18th century, as the Industrial Revolution yanked millions of people away from the agricultural economy and into a future marked by factories, railroads, and crowded, burgeoning cities. For the first time in history, young people could imagine their lives unfolding differently from what their parents and grandparents had experienced; for the first time, masses of people could move easily from one place to another, and away from the communities that had once defined them. Land was no longer so important once industry emerged, and children no longer so crucial. And as these changes rippled through society, norms of love and marriage began to shift as well. Young people could find each other outside the confines of their village and beyond the prying eyes of their elders. They could support themselves independently and live in smaller units, what we now think of as the nuclear family. They could afford to fall in love, and to build a new narrative of marriage that included not only sex and children, but affection as well.
In the 20th century, the twin innovations of contraception and assisted reproduction transformed things again, unbundling the ancient package of marriage by enabling people to have sex without babies and babies without sex—both of which have become commonplace. Today, premarital sex has become the norm for most men and women; contraception is enthusiastically encouraged by all but the most conservative groups; and same-sex marriages have become a joyful reality across most of the world. Yes, these developments have been driven in part by changing social norms and the advocacy of dedicated activist groups. But they are also the direct result of technological change.
Fast-forward now to our own era, a time in which growing numbers of people are meeting online and a growing array of our most intimate activities are unfolding across the alien landscape of Zoom. What will happen to love and sex and romance as we increasingly live in a digital world? It’s too early to know for certain, but a number of signs have already emerged.
What will happen to love and sex and romance as we increasingly live in a digital world?
To begin with, the 20th century model of meeting in person is fast being replaced by the algorithms of online dating sites. Already, nearly 40% of heterosexual couples report having met online; these numbers are even higher for same-sex couples, and for individuals pairing off for more casual encounters. Such interactions are bound to surge during the time of COVID, as closed bars and cancelled classes make online courtship the only viable kind.
It’s also clear that the generation coming of age today is marrying later than their parents and grandparents did, having fewer children, and, perhaps surprisingly, less sex. Today, only about half of Americans are married by the time they turn 30. Fertility rates have plummeted to 1.7 (meaning that the average woman will give birth to 1.7 children over the course of her lifetime), well below the natural rate of replacement, and the youngest members of the millennial generation are less sexually active than any generation since those that came of age in the 1960s. According to a recent U.S. survey, more men aged 18 to 34 were living with their parents than with a romantic partner, and that’s before COVID-19 pushed even more of them back to their childhood homes.
New game, different rules
Finally, it increasingly seems that the ease and infinite variety of online dating presents its users with a double-edged deal. The good news is that nearly all people now have an almost unfathomable array of sexual and romantic choices. Rather than being confined by their parents’ wishes, or limited by the number of suitable prospects in a single village or community, anyone looking for love (or lust) can scroll through an endless parade of possibilities, all in the palm of their hand. Their initial encounters, therefore, are easy and risk-free. Their ability to mate and marry across social classes is vastly increased. The bad news, though, is that not everyone matches in this free-for-all, and many of those who do report being numbed over time by the sheer weight of so much choice.
Counterintuitively, perhaps, having so many options for romantic encounters is upping the bar on making these relationships work. Unless people feel an immediate attraction, and a sense that it is mutual, many are choosing to pull away from a connection that might have developed, preferring the dull thud of loneliness to the sting of rejection.
Which isn’t to say that the future is bleak. On the contrary: Having the technical and societal freedom to unbundle sex from reproduction and love gives individuals an unprecedented level of control over their own lives. It’s not surprising that we don’t yet know precisely how to handle these choices, or how to rearrange our social structures around them. That’s what happens during revolutionary times. But even if the structures of courtship are exploding right now, even if the traditional package of heterosexual marriage is morphing into a kaleidoscope of alternative arrangements, love itself—the pings and pangs of dopamine in our animal brains—seems likely to endure. We will find it on Tinder. On Twitter. On Zoom, if we must. And it will shake our days and break our hearts all over again.
Debora Spar is a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School whose research work is focused on issues of gender and technology, and the interplay between technological change and broader social structures. Spar explores these issues in her new book “Work Mate Marry Love: How Machines Shape Our Human Destiny” published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.