I have never been in love. But I have always daydreamed of suddenly meeting the perfect someone.The other night my mother called me from India for her usual check up on my sleepless New York City life. “So I’ll start looking for New York based boys for you,” she suddenly told me. I wasn’t sure if it was a question or not. “Don’t say I never told you like your sister did,” she said. I laughed at her, sitting on my dorm room bed, shaking my head and the conversation drifted off.
What my mother was suggesting was to pair me up with a single man who came from a decent family, earned a comfortable living, and lived in New York. In other words, he was the quintessential good Indian boy. But I don’t want an arranged marriage, like my parents did. I don’t even want an arranged date. I grew up with this vision of what love is supposed to be, nourished by Emily Bronte, Nicholas Sparks, Walt Disney and a colorful, highly active imagination. It probably doesn’t help that I’ve never been in a relationship either. However, I was 22 and tapping my foot.
Provoked by my mother’s declaration, I finally decided to go find love for myself. But first I needed to figure out what exactly I was looking for. My single friends around me were swiping left and right on hot new apps bursting with the promise to help you find love. In fact, the use of online dating sites and mobile apps for young adults has tripled since 2013 according to a study “5 Facts About Online Dating” by the Pew Research Center published in February 2016. I used to think that I was skeptical of digital dating because it was inorganic, self-righteously owning the view that apps like Tinder or OkCupid were just for a one night rendezvous and nothing serious. But that was an excuse. In truth, I was just downright terrified. The idea of meeting a stranger, indulging in small talk till you hit an emotional thread, sounded like too much work. But then I suddenly remembered an article that said you could actually do that in 45 minutes.
This was the experiment designed to generate interpersonal closeness in a lab setting. In 1997, a group of psychologists aimed to increase intimacy between two strangers by having the two ask each other a list of 36 questions that progressively became more personal. It went viral when Mandy Catron, English Professor at the University of British Columbia published an article in the Modern Love column of the New York Times titled, ‘To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This.’ She did the experiment with a partner and subsequently fell in love. Catron believes love should not be a passive experience, but something we should actively seek. “We love reading narratives that suggest there is a larger force acting so we don’t have to be doing anything,” she said over the phone from her Vancouver home. “Yes, love is little bit good luck, but the rest is hard work.”
So does registering yourself on a dating app or website count as hard work then? I created a profile on Tinder, one of the most downloaded dating apps in North America, which links to one’s Facebook profile and offers geographical matching. I swiped left after left, a digital flick of rejection that I based on 0.4 seconds of viewing someone’s profile. Eventually, I got a few matches, but just ignored them when the app literally asked if I wanted to “keep playing”. (Here I was trying to find my true love, but apparently Tinder thinks it’s a game).
But does love even play a role in the whole process of digital dating? I asked Dr. Susan Weisser, professor of English at Adelphi University, and a former professor at NYU 15 years, teaching a course called Writing About Love.
“All my students had met so many people on dating apps, and had hook ups,” she said. “Every time I taught that class, they were always trying to sort out which ones meant a lot, and which ones did not.” She shook her head in amusement over a steaming cup of tea while I remembered my own various virtual meetings.
When I Tindered, a few conversations sprouted here and there, every time with the guy initiating the conversation. Mostly it was a profound conversation starter such as “Hey”- a conversation that ended there itself. This often involved me revisiting the candidate’s profile and subsequently trying to understand in possibly what frame of mind I could have swiped right. It was boring. I had high standards. I didn’t care. Until Kay came along.
Brought up in Southern India, Kay was just completing his Masters in Technology and Management at NYU when he “pinged me” (he’ll probably be the only guy I know who says that). Nerdy, funny, 6-feet tall, Data Scientist. Check. Check. And Check. He maneuvered our Tinder conversation in such a way that made it feel relaxed and effortless, and dare I say, ‘natural.’ Until he wanted to meet. In which case I reacted on pure instinct. I got cold feet, told myself I was busy, and promptly deleted the app. I realized I needed to first think deeply about what I wanted. The thought that someone would genuinely be interested in me felt so unfamiliar, I felt more at ease in pushing away the possibility. Just like I did with people in the past.
I looked back up to Dr. Weisser for my answers. Was it something to do with me, or the whole process of online match-making? Weisser surprised me with her belief that love should not be sought, quite contrary to the basic premise of using online dating, for that creates false expectations that end up hurting us. For Weisser love is not even synonymous with marriage. She points out how most of literature followed this template of romantic love with a happy ending, usually marriage. “But love isn’t a simple trajectory, it’s more a zigzag.,” she said. “You cant fit all human beings into the same box,” she said. “And that’s what romantic literature does.
I looked at the 12 historic romance novels piled next to my bed floor up. My ideal man was tall, square jawed, wicked, charming and lived in the pages of fiction from the 1800s . In fact, I had just completed my Amazon purchase of Julia Quinn’s latest novelBecause of Mr. Bridgerton that released this March.
“Sometimes you find love in the most unexpected of places…”was the first line printed on the back of the lilac colored book. I looked over my shoulder to see if anyone was there.
The more I thought about it, the more it became apparent that love was a social construct that I created in my head. Dr. Weisser led me to an epiphany. When I meet someone, I’m not waiting for a specific feeling as much as I am waiting to feel as I think I’m supposed to feel. I decided to delete Tinder because it suddenly became very clear why I rejected so many drink proposals from guys I could not find anything wrong with if you asked me. I grew up picturing the perfect romantic moment (let’s assume that such a thing exists) to involve eye contact, breathlessness, pounding hearts, and most importantly ending in a rapturous joyful union. Love is not just a feeling, but a feeling that is interpreted by our expectations.
Does that mean I may have fallen in love multiple times in the past, but just didn’t recognize it because that’s not how Emily Bronte described that feeling? The idea made me catch my breath and I realized I needed more answers.
So I found myself in the Bell House in Brooklyn, attending a talk titled “ Lust, Romance, Attachment: The Drive to Love & Who We Choose”. I stood alone in the large dark-wooded warehouse with low chandeliers, watching a lady in a body hugging red dress, giving her seasoned speech on how love is just hormones. This was Dr. Helen Fisher, Biological Anthropologist and Research Professor at the Anthropology Department at Rutgers University. She is also the Chief Science Advisor to dating website Match.com and just released her seventh book “The Anatomy of Love” which explains a science-based perspective of love in the digital age.
“Romantic love is universal,” Dr. Fisher said. “Sex drive and romantic attachment are based on different brain systems, but occurrences that are built into us through evolution. Love is based on science, not culture.”
Here was a renowned lady who used science to advise a matchmaking site on how to connect people. Does that mean Kay and I clicked only because our evolved brain circuitry matched and our dopamine levels were high in the moment of using Tinder? Or was it because we were both Indian, went to the same University and loved tech? I could not answer that. However I do know a couple who was introduced to each other based on commonalities like these, met briefly, and subsequently married in two months. That’s how my parents’ marriage was arranged. And it worked.
In fact, this is how matchmaking in India occurred in the past, and even today. I asked Chandan Majumdar, Director of Advertisement at ABP Matrimonial, a matchmaking website in India founded in January, 2016, if love fits into a match made for marriage. “A couple of generations ago, the groom or bride would meet only on the marriage day and therefore there was no option but to “grow to love,” Majumdar said. “Over a period of time parents have encouraged the bride/groom to meet and understand some amount of compatibility before taking the plunge.”
My parents were not looking for love. They were looking for the practicality. Love just happened. But to me, retrospectively their love always started from the very beginning, and grew into my template for what love is meant to be. I just never realized that until now. From literature or real life, I acquired the attitude that the sparks of love happen when you just meet, and that love is meant to last forever. To all the people I never gave a chance to, I saw you through the lens of ‘long-term only’ and tried to match you to the idea of that person in my head. An idea that does not exist. I decided to challenge myself and re-downloaded Tinder.
I scrolled through my messages till I found his name. “Here’s to if you ever get back on Tinder…,’ he said. A message I had not seen until now. He left me his phone number and a proposal for a drink. What if I took his offer up? Even if it didn’t work out, not like we were signing a contract. So there was nothing to lose. I grappled with the thought of my parent’s successful arranged union next to my own paranoia of meeting a stranger for a drink. So I texted him.
Dr. Weisser says love should not be sought because you go in with expectations. Mandy Catron believes love is an action. Helen Fisher disregards all that and insists that romance is based on the dominant hormone that draws you to a person.
“So what brings you back?” Kay replied.
“I decided I needed to get out of my comfort zone,” I texted back. “And I want to explore the romantic ideals in society.”
“Hm, well if you’re using me for your research, then I better get paid,” he joked.
“Haha how about I buy you a drink instead?”
“I’ll take it.”
I have been on several dates in my fantasies. With every other person I meet, I immediately, although subconsciously, conjure a scene in my head. Walking hand in hand, cooking dinner, and laughing together. The gratification from my imagination has consistently fed the romantic side of me all my life to the point that a non-virtual date felt unneeded, unnecessary, and certainly unsatisfactory. But my date with Kay was not like that. It hit the checklist of a successful first date. We laughed, talked, and had fun. But after two hours over Jack and Coke, a familiar feeling bubbled deep inside me.
We had just left a bar in the West Village and were walking through the crisp city air. He playfully put an arm around me, saying how my height made a perfect armrest for him. “Let’s check out another bar,” he said enthusiastically to me. It was a Saturday night, and the East Village was pumping the heart of Manhattan.
“No, I don’t think I can,” I sighed in response. “ I really have a lot to do.”
He looked surprised and tried to insist. Then to negotiate. And finally to understand. He said the bar he had picked was only a few blocks away, it wasn’t even late, and that I should enjoy life a little. Firstly, never tell a workaholic they need to ‘enjoy life’. Secondly, never tell a workaholic who can be committed to work but not to people to ‘enjoy life’ either. I did have things to do that evening. And no, it wasn’t that important to run back for work on a Saturday evening. (I know because I didn’t do any of it). But it felt like a comfort zone to me that a blind date most certainly wasn’t.
“No, I’m really sorry,” I said, truly apologetically as he walked me home. “But maybe we can meet again soon?” I knew we weren’t going to. He probably felt like he wasted his money and Saturday evening on a girl who was too stuck up on her to-do list.
He walked away from me and I walked into my room. I sat on my couch and stared at my laptop screen. I opened a new tab, hoping Google would give me some kind of answer. I didn’t even know what to type.
One of my best friends came over to visit right then with a bottle of wine. I told him that I went on a date and that there was something wrong with me but I sure as hell didn’t know what. He said that people like us just have high standards and how there is nothing wrong with it. We were single simply because we were picky. He also suggested I go to therapy. I didn’t have time for therapy but I made a quick call to “relationship expert” Dr. Wendy Walsh, currently an Adjunct Professor of Psychology at California State University. Walsh holds a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology, and is the author of three books about relationships. She also offers confidential relationship counseling.
“Yes, people have high standards,” she said over the phone from her workplace in San Francisco. I nodded along and told her how intensely I related to that. “But people say that as a mask to protect themselves.” I sat up straight and frowned a little. “People who have high standards usually have a fear of intimacy,” she said, like it was an everyday fact. “They don’t want to reveal their flaws to another person. But we have to not only expose our own vulnerability, but also be able to see the flaws in someone else and accept that.”
What began as a casual date and a light-hearted search for love turned into a convoluted quest inside my own mind. A walk down the romantic fiction isle turned into a twisted journey down a road that traced my fears of commitment to my upbringing, family background, a broken 10-year long friendship and being the youngest member of a household of twenty.
Standards were set by example by my successful family members, and I had to meet them, and go beyond. I became an overachiever with an asymptotic ambition, living in an atmosphere of implicit judgment shrouded by unconditional love and support. I was the youngest, always sitting quietly and observing everyone around me. I never spoke, nor was invited to. This translated into an insatiable need to prove myself, my worth and my existence. It took the form of an ironic co-existence in my dating life, where no guy I meet would ever be good enough for me (because he would never be the best for my family), and I would never be good enough for them, for I never felt enough for my family. It was the impostor syndrome all over again, slipping from my work life into my dating life. A feeling that I would be ‘found out’, that I don’t belong with these other successful people, or my own achievements, and that it was all just a succession of flukes that I had achieved anything at all. Similarly, I felt that all the Kays of my life would find that about me. Look at me long enough, and they would see I’m not pretty, or funny, or smart. Find my flaws, and they would turn away. I will never be good enough them, as they would not for me. Are we ever ‘enough’ of anything?
Oh but we are. Because we have every right to be here as anyone else, both with our achievements and vulnerabilities. And it is those vulnerabilities that will open the door to the possibility of love. As one quest blends into another, I stumble onto answers to questions I never had. I was looking for the perfect man to match the perfect me. But none of those two exist.
I will start a new journey and it will also begin with me looking for love. But this time, he will be enough. And so will I.