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By Comson Cao

Valentine’s Day is here, which means the usual rigamarole of buying flowers and chocolate, going out to a movie, or maybe draining one’s wallet with an expensive dinner. We have a very romanticized (haha) view of love in our contemporary society, but who can blame us? If given the chance, lots of people would probably want their relationships to resemble the great romances: an unbreakable bond between two lovers, unwaveringly dedicated until death separates them, just like in the movies. Unfortunately, there is often a large discrepancy between the ideal of love and reality. Most already know this, so instead of restating the obvious, it’s more useful to empirically explore the state of modern love and shed some light on its hardships.

Many, for instance, struggle to find love. According to a 2023 report from Pew Research Center, young adults aged 18-29 are the most likely to be single. The issue seems to have particularly affected young men, as 63% of men in that age group reported being single, compared to just 34% of women in that age group. A small disparity might not be abnormal, but a gap this large merits attention. Concerningly, from 2019-2022, the percentage of single American adults actually seeking relationships has declined to just 42% in 2022. Single men are—interestingly enough—less likely to report that they are looking for a committed romantic relationship than single women, and we can only speculate as to why that might be the case. Perhaps younger Americans are just substituting efforts at committing to a relationship with having sex, but that runs contrary to the actual evidence. In a 2020 post from the Institute of Family Studies, it was found that using data from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, there was a decline in the percentage of who ever had sex among American high schoolers of all grades and races from 1991 to 2019. Similarly, a 2019 analysis from the Washington Post found using the General Social Survey that the increase in the percentage of Americans not having sex was mainly driven by young Americans aged 18-29. Looking at Americans between the ages of 18 and 30, there was an increase in sexlessness for both males and females from 1989 to 2018, but the increase was much larger for males. It seems that instead of being less committed, young Americans are just straight up not even trying. The last few years have seen the rise of internet subcultures such as Inceldom or “Men Going Their Own Way,” often composed of single men who are often fed up with the current state of the modern dating market, so much so that many of them have grown to be completely hostile to women and have at times developed questionable understandings of the power dynamics in dating. Perhaps some of these single men have simply given up on the prospect of securing a lasting loving relationship. It’s easy to point fingers and call out these bitter people and their malevolent sexism, but at the same time, we should also consider that the problem will get worse over time, if current metrics hold. 

Moving on from single people, romantic relationships face their own difficulties. A 2017 systematic review by Shanhong Luo on human “assortative mating” (i.e. similar individuals forming relationships) demonstrated the similarity of couples on various traits, with the strongest correlations being for height, educational attainment, and religious and political attitudes. We might expect to see strong similarities in personality traits between couples, especially personality traits that contribute to long-term pair bonding. Yet this doesn’t appear to be the case. Luo’s systematic review notes that while there is evidence of assortative mating occurring on personality traits, the effect is weak in magnitude. Concurrent with this, a 2023 meta-analysis by Horwitz et al. found that among 22 traits between partners, couples are more similar when it comes to alcohol, smoking, and drug use compared to traits relevant for pair bonding like agreeableness or openness. In brief, these studies found that although people tend to pair with similar partners, there are often asymmetries in things important for a relationship’s well-being. A 2023 paper by Stavrova and Chopik observed this in action, finding that in unbalanced relationships, the mental well-being of happier partners declined and approached that of the less happy partner while the well-being of the less happy partner either didn’t change or increased only slightly. 

Even more concerning is the future prospects of love. Mental well-being is important for love to flourish. Yet such a thing seems increasingly scarce. To start, in a 2010 meta-analysis by Twenge et al. which analyzes birth cohorts from 1938 to 2007, the authors found an increase of over one standard deviation on the clinical scales of psychopathy, paranoia, hypomania, and depression, with five times as many now scoring above common cutoffs for psychopathology. Likewise, a 2021 meta-analysis by Buecker et al. found an increase of over half a standard deviation in loneliness between 1976 and 2019 using data from the UCLA Loneliness Scale. Loneliness is an issue that is much more complex to solve than one may initially believe. Intuitively, the solution to loneliness is social contact, but in a 2023 study by Stavrova and Ren, the researchers found across three datasets that the negative association between loneliness and well-being is actually stronger among participants who were with others rather than by themselves. In other words, among participants who considered themselves lonely, the ones who had measurable contact with others actually reported worse well-being than those who were alone. Other trends seem to be more recent and mainly affect younger American adults. For instance, another 2019 study by Twenge et al. found a sharp increase in psychological distress, major depression, and suicidal thoughts, plans, and attempts from the mid-2000s to 2017 among young American adults below the age of 26, while the increases were either smaller or nonexistent for older Americans. None of these reported metrics bode well for the formation of solid, lasting relationships, both now and in the future. 

Another issue that is worth considering is “body count,” that is, the amount of sexual partners one has had over time. While there are conflicting findings on whether or not this number has an effect on divorce or marital happiness, one common finding has always been that men and women with no previous sexual partners are generally the most satisfied in their marriages and have the lowest rates of divorce. Thus, the increase in premarital sex over the past five decades correlates with overall weaker relationships. Whether there’s a cause-and-effect relationship going on is unclear, but at the same time, it also doesn’t matter as much as one would think. If causality was involved, it means the culture has changed to become unfavorable towards pair-bonding, and if it hasn’t, it would suggest that the people themselves have changed over the last several decades in ways that hamper their ability to form lasting relationships. Regardless of this correlation-causation debate, the phenomenon still exists, and we wouldn’t be any closer towards solving the problems it causes. 

Finally, there is growing evidence that among young adults across multiple industrialized countries, the political views of men and women are rapidly diverging

Recall that one of the areas in which assortative mating is the strongest is with regard to political attitudes. If men and women are becoming increasingly dissimilar ideologically, however, then it would be harder for both sexes to find a partner who shares their beliefs, as a 2023 analysis from The Atlantic shows that, near 2020, a startling amount of unmarried respondents have no possible same-ideology partner. One possibility could be that more people will start marrying from across the political aisle (the technical term for which is “heterogamy”), but this is just wishful thinking. The Atlantic’s analysis also notes that the willingness to marry across the political aisle is falling, and this can also be observed from the sharp decline in heterogamy among the married in more recent times despite an initial spike in the 2010s.

It’s not unreasonable to see all of this and feel deeply worried about the future. Maybe it’s true that we are living in “the best time to be alive” in all of human history, this is certainly the case materially speaking, but what about beyond that? It seems that when you take a closer look beyond our material Eden, things are gradually starting to come apart.

Love, insofar as we depict it in arts, films, and literature, is something which is uniquely human. Unfortunately, we have done a rather poor job of supporting it in our time. Rather than helping it grow and bloom like a delicate flower, we’ve instead done more to trample and destroy love to the point where the ideal of it seems like complete fiction. Radicals will blame each other for why this has happened, but the truth is that everyone is at fault. Shifting the blame is completely unproductive to any effort in trying to fix the situation. Men and women are made for each other, not against each other. We are two pillars holding up civilization, and civilization requires both pillars to work together to provide a strong foundation for its continuation. To anyone who is actually in a serious loving relationship, on this Valentine’s Day, open up your heart to the one you love and show that special someone how much he or she means to you. If you are fortunate enough to experience something so sublime as love, you should value it dearly and do everything you can to protect it. After all, it’s becoming increasingly scarce. 

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