FAST SEX; SLOW LOVE: Courtship in the Digital Age

By Helen E. Fisher

Has the world run wild on sex?  Is romance dead?  Has marriage gone the way of the dinosaurs?   Today, some 66% of single Americans have had a one-night-stand; 34% have had sex with someone before their first date; 54% have had an uncommitted, secretive Friends-with-Benefits relationship; and 56% of singles have lived with someone before wedding.  Sounds reckless.  But data collected as part of an annual study I do with Match (and my colleague Dr. Justin Garcia) on a representative sample of over 35,000 single adults (known as Singles in America) has convinced me that this is not recklessness; it’s caution.  Today’s singles appear to want to know everything about a potential partner before they invest their time, money and energy to initiate a formal commitment to him or her.  In fact, some 67% of American cohabiting couples are terrified of the social, legal, emotional, and economic consequences of divorce.   So many begin a relationship by “hanging out” as “just friends.”  Next, they move into being friends-with-benefits.  Only later do many have an “official” first date.  Then gradually they move toward living together before wedding.  The pre-commitment stage of the courtship process is expanding:  Fast Sex; Slow love.  Where marriage used to be the beginning of a partnership, today it’s the finale.

Yet romantic love is in full bloom.  Over 54% of American singles believe in “love at first sight;” 86% seek a committed partner with whom they can spend their life; and 89% believe you can stay married to the same person forever.  Moreover, 83% of men and 89% of women in America will marry by age forty-nine.

Even modern technology—with introducing sites and Internet communication–can’t kill love.  The neural pathways for romance lie in the deepest part of the brain, near factories that orchestrate thirst and hunger.  Romantic love is a drive, a drive to find life’s greatest prize, a mating partner.  Myths; legends; songs; stories; novels; plays; ballets; operas; love holidays: everywhere in the world people still pine for love, live for love, kill for love and die for love.   The drive to love is one of the most powerful brain systems humanity has evolved–and it won’t change as singles swipe left or right on dating apps.

And from the evolutionary perspective, slow love is adaptive—because the human brain is soft-wired to attach to a partner slowly.  Using fMRI, my brain scanning colleagues and I have established that the neural circuits for romantic love can be triggered instantly; but the primary circuit for deep attachment can take months, sometimes years, to activate.   Slow love is in alignment with our primordial brain circuits for romance and attachment.

With this trend toward slow love, partnerships may become more stable too.  Data on 80 societies that I have collected from the Demographic Yearbooks of the United Nations between 1947 and 2011 indicate that the later you marry, the more likely you are to remain married.  A study of over 3,000 married people in the US found that, (compared to those who dated less than a year), couples who dated for one to two years were 20% less likely to get a divorce; and couples who dated for three years or longer were 39% less likely to part.  And when I asked 1,095 married Americans (with my friends at Match) whether they would remarry the person they were currently married to, 81% said: “Yes.”

It’s good news.  Today’s singles are turning inward–taking time to court, pair and wed.  But love is not dead; courtship is not ruined; and sex has not replaced emotional intimacy.  In fact, with the current Marriage Revolution toward slow love, we may see more happy and enduring partnerships in the Digital Age.

You can find the full academic article here:

SLOW LOVE: Courtship in the Digital Age
By Helen E. Fisher and Justin R. Garcia (2019)
In R.J. Sternberg & K. Sternberg (Eds.), The New Psychology of Love (2nd edition).
Cambridge University Press. Pp. 208-222