The Road to Romance

It can be rocky, but rewarding

"I'm at that age where I'm crossing the threshold from high-school-fantasy concepts of romance to the brutal, painful, hopeless world of adult dating."

~ Sophia Chang '01

SEE ALSO

• "I don't want to be stereotyped."

• "We tend to over-intellectualize everything."

• "It's all shrouded in protective language."

• The Originals: Matching them up

Larry Nagel '89 and his blind date ordered glasses of Pinot Grigio and retreated to the cozy rear room of Drip Café, where 10 other couples were already seated on sofas, "staring intently at each other, having very focused, determined conversations about whether or not they were going to share their last names or phone numbers," he reports. "Nobody knew anyone else, they simply saw their persona as it was listed on a sheet of paper" in the café's thick plastic binders. Such is one trend in contemporary dating. Strangers read up on each other—on paper or on-line—and either e-mail back and forth on a series of "virtual dates" or decide to meet in person, as Larry and his date did, at places like Drip, the coffee house/wine bar-cum-cyber-love-connection on Manhattan's Upper West Side.

Drip Café was founded in 1996 by Nancy Slotnick '89 and today has affiliated spots—where people fill out profiles (scanned into the computers now, no longer slipped into binders) and meet dates —in cities nationwide. It costs $20 to sign up and $3 per date request: Drip makes contact with the potential date for you, so anonymity is preserved. "There are so many single people out there who are interested in having relationships, who are extremely ambitious and successful in every other area of their lives, but who are somewhat clueless about how to go about finding the right person to spend their lives with"—including many Harvard graduates, Slotnick asserts. She wanted to open a comfortable, safe meeting place for them, and has since launched Drip.com, where people can also view on-line videos or photographs of their dates before meeting in person. "I got tired of talking with people about their jobs," says the former corporate headhunter turned modern-day yenta. "I really wanted to talk about their love lives. I was more interested in helping them carve out a life for themselves, in general, and I feel that relationships and marriage are a big piece of that—a more important piece than a career is."

UP_SLOTNICK 2
Nancy Slotnick of Drip Café
Photograph by Robert Adam Mayer

Slotnick counts at least 139 married couples who met through Drip, and more than a few Drip babies. Such success can be viewed as a testament to the increasingly ingenious and multitudinous venues—on-line and off—for dating. Personal ads—once thought laughable or sleazy—now appear in even the most respectable publications (see "Crimson Classifieds,"). On-line personals are also ubiquitous. One clearinghouse, www.Lovesites.com, offers personals for almost every conceivable demographic, including religious (www.Jdate.com, muslimmarriagejunction.com or the Christian www.adammeeteve.com); ethnic or racial background (www.AsiaFriendFinder.com or www.BlackPlanetLove.com); and preference (www.Gayseeking.net). Hoping to marry a healthcare professional? Log on to www.Date-A-Doc.com. Like to stick with the highly educated set? Visit www.rightstuffdating.com, where you can search by alma mater, or click on www.ThoughtfulSingles.com.

If computerized introductions are a turn off, but you don't have much time, there are plenty of new off-line alternatives: LunchDates, an arranged meal or cocktails with a potential mate; or variations on speed dating: www.HurryDate.com and www.EightMinuteDating.com, where couples converse for three to eight minutes before moving on to a new person. Love to eat? Eight for Dinner or Single Gourmet could hook you up with fellow foodies. Or how about a singles museum tour, or even an exotic vacation? Backroads and other travel companies offer singles trips like biking in Hawaii.

Despite such opportunities, dating remains a painful prospect to many people. "They do not love the feelings that come up in dating," says Claudia (Sheftel) Luiz, Ed.M. '86, a psychoanalyst in Brookline, Massachusetts, who teaches relationship courses at adult education centers in and around Boston and created the dating forum www.mydatingreality.com. "Everybody sits there trying to be someone else," she says, "because they think that if they're someone else they won't have to feel the self-doubt that dating causes."

Some interpersonal difficulties reflect the age we live in—a divorce rate that tripled between 1960 and 1980 and continues to stay high means, Luiz says, that young people know marriages frequently don't work out. Women are also more career-minded and less financially dependent on men than they used to be, people move around the globe more readily, and social mores about couplehood have relaxed. Terrorism adds a new level of existential anxiety. "We don't even know if we're going to be bombed tomorrow," Luiz notes. "Relationships and dating are infused with all of this uncertainty."

Speed dating and on-line personals may be so popular because they "demand less of a commitment to another person, and offer less to explore emotionally than lengthy one-on-one dinners—and so they are less scary forms of contact," Luiz says. "These forms of dating parallel what dating used to be 50 years ago—they raise the same pleasures of hope and possibility without the fears and insecurities more intimate forms of dating involve."

Fifty years ago, blind dates generally did not involve intense, personal conversations about the meaning of life; dates were more superficial social events governed by prescribed social rules. But dating in the aftermath of World War II, given the psychic ravages of war and a "man shortage," "was also all about how to find a husband," which is not necessarily the case today, reports Beth L. Bailey, professor of American history at the University of New Mexico and author of From Front Porch to Back Seat: Courtship in Twentieth-Century America and Sex in the Heartland. After the war, "the average marriage age plummeted—47 percent of all brides were under 19," she adds. "It was common for college-age people to be married already." Increasingly, also, the social rules of the period restricted women. "Women," Bailey notes, "were encouraged not to order their own food in restaurants because it might emasculate the man."

By the mid 1960s, young people had begun to rebel against the norms that separated the sexes. Their protest was soon folded into the broader sexual revolution, which in time gave rise to coed dormitories and the contemporary notion that men and women could have platonic friendships. "For young people now," Bailey maintains, "there are a lot of concurrent systems for dating and relationships. It requires a lot more work to find partners because the techniques, the assumptions, the goals are not standard or uniform." Not everyone seeks a heterosexual, legal union, for example. In 2000, according to the U.S. Census, 11 million people were cohabiting—living with a partner of the same (1.2 million) or opposite (9.7 million) sex.

Whether they seek marriage or not, people do seem to want dates. Mainstream on-line dating services like Match.com, Yahoo Personals, date.com, and dreammates.com typically draw 14.9 million visitors a month, says Carolyn Clark, senior analyst at Nielsen/NetRatings, which monitors Internet traffic. That translates into one in 10 of the roughly 128.8 million American Internet users. Many are "sneak peekers"—not subscribers—but the sheer traffic indicates a definite desire for the services. From an e-business perspective, Clark adds, "on-line dating is among the few on-line business models that is showing signs of financial success—which is significant."

UP-sullivan
Tim Sullivan of Match.com
Photograph by Charles Ford
Match.com president Tim Sullivan, M.B.A. '91, says heavy marketing of the dating service within the last few years has paid off. "People's attitudes have evolved to the point where they understand that on-line dating is not a replacement for meeting people at work, through family or friends, or at church," Sullivan asserts, "but it is a natural complement to having an active social life in a big city." Anyone can visit Match.com for free and peruse its eight million profiles with photographs and (sometimes lengthy) personal essays. The database is also searchable by gender, geography, age, and hobbies—with video and sound on the way. Add to that, the ability to communicate with a potential date in real time, anonymously—for which subscribers pay $24.95 a month. For those with web cameras, Datecam.com offers subscribers real-time video encounters via private or public chat rooms, says Grant Simmons, business director of One World Media LLC. "We come under the auspices 'Video doesn't lie,'" he adds. "I can throw up a picture of me jumping into a pool with my perfect-10 body"—but how do you know it's real?

How do you know if anything about your on-line date is real? Because safety and privacy are major concerns, especially for single women, modes of contemporary dating often necessitate anonymity—which is a wholly modern dimension to dating. Both on-line and off, contacts between potential mates are made through intermediaries and machines: people are assigned a number. That system depersonalizes dating, but also "can make that first step toward meeting people much easier than going out in person," Nancy Slotnick says. "But it's not reasonable to expect that, if you haven't had success on dates, just because you go on-line you will. And who has time to weed through thousands of personals? At some point you feel, 'I might as well go back to the singles bar.'"

 

As Slotnick sees it, the relaxing of social norms and the multiple ways to meet people mean that "Anyone can get a date—and that's a big deal for many people. But once you know you can get dates, and you go out all the time with new people, it becomes demoralizing if you realize that you don't like any of them. You think 'I might as well be home eating Chinese takeout on the couch in front of a good movie' and you're right back where you started. It is a painful process." Dating, she says, is often mistaken for an end in itself—not the means to a lifelong partnership.

Rabbi Yaacov Deyo '85 and his wife, Sue Deyo, developers of the trademarked "SpeedDating" in Los Angeles, could not agree more. "Throughout the 1800s and early 1900s people dated to get married," says Sue. But many modes of contemporary dating are a sad waste of time for those aiming at permanency, especially women who want children, says Yaacov. "Short-term bursts, 'hooking up': that's what people are looking for and doing now in dating," he says. "It's not because they don't want more meaningful relationships. I think it's a question of them not knowing how to get there—I think they just cannot figure it out." For one thing, he adds, there are not enough elders to serve as role models for building successful, intimate, long-term partnerships.

SpeedDating, first tested in 1999 and explained in the Deyos' eponymous book, subtitled A Time-Saving Guide To Finding Your Lifelong Love, is a round-robin event in which two people converse for seven minutes before moving on to the next person: one person can meet up to a dozen people in an evening. Chemistry still happens, the Deyos report. "Chemistry can't be orchestrated, but you can do things that will bring it out—make a space where it is possible." That space is not a dark, smoke-filled bar with loud music and tipsy patrons, which fosters dating Yaacov deems "brutal." In SpeedDating, the usual questions that identify or potentially pigeon-hole someone (What's your name? Where do you live? What do you do for a living? How much money do you make?) are prohibited, as is saying whether or not you want to see the person again. (Organizers gather responses at the end of the evening and dole out the good/bad news later.)

"SpeedDating is about marriage, and for people who want to get married," Sue stresses. In the Deyos' experience, it takes an average of three months of dating someone to determine whether a marriage is viable. The years-long nonmarital relationships popular today "are not necessary," Yaacov maintains, "and are, in fact, destructive, because they end up putting peoples' hearts at risk. And while it might not be PC to talk about, women do have biological clocks and they buy into that trap of mistaking the dating for the relationship....They fall into two- or three-year relationships and are right back where they started at the end of them." "Dating," Sue adds, "is the evaluation period—it is not the relationship."

"Just because options are available does not mean there is success," Yaacov says, echoing Slotnick. "Singles are a very active group of people. The same people meet at different events"—single hikers, single yoga classes, single bikers, single gardeners—but there is no clear way to connect with other people. "It's a boon to the organizers to have singles fuel their programs, but it's not serving the singles population." SpeedDating, on the other hand, "is a very empowering approach because it gives the single person more of a sense of control over the situation. Dating is no longer a mysterious situation."

That's true at least for Larry Nagel. Before signing up at Drip, he had dated people he met through friends and family members. "But anything that can help you find the right person is an avenue worth exploring," he figured—correctly, it turned out. Abby, the first and only woman he met at the café, is now his wife.

 

SIDEBARS

• "I don't want to be stereotyped."

• "We tend to over-intellectualize everything."

• "It's all shrouded in protective language."

• The Originals: Matching them up

Harvard Magazine presents "Up Next,"an occasional new section focusing on the lives, interests, and choices of younger alumni. "Up Next" is scheduled to appear again in the September-October 2003 issue. In the meantime, the editors welcome your comments at [email protected].  
       
Read more articles by: Nell Porter Brown

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