- The Washington Times - Friday, September 23, 2011

EXTRAVAGANT EXPECTATIONS: NEW WAYS TO FIND ROMANTIC LOVE IN AMERICA
By Paul Hollander
Ivan R. Dee, $27.95, 264 pages

Most single girls have a secret stash of books on dating and relationships. The books are dog-eared as a virtual time capsule marking bad dates, questionable mates, love-life lulls and breakups. The stash is carefully hidden - under the bed, behind proper nonfiction on a shelf - so male visitors are not scared off by the subject matter.

The book “Extravagant Expectations: New Ways to Find Romantic Love in America” only appears to be contraband. The cover has a newspaper personal ad - “Wanted: QUALITY MAN” - over a shiny red heart. The title gives the impression that the key to the ultimate search for true and never-ending love lies just inside the cream-colored jacket. But a reader with that intent is in for a cold awakening.

Rare is a book on dating written that questions the practicality of romantic love. The author, Paul Hollander, writes cooly, “Central to the romantic sensibility is the belief that somewhere out in the world is a uniquely compatible person to be discovered, someone who will gratify one’s considerable emotional needs and will make one’s life fulfilled and ‘meaningful.’” He also puts the terms chemistry and soul mate in quotation marks in the book.

Mr. Hollander, 79, was born in Hungary and is a conservative political sociology professor and author. This is a study of the motivations of Americans in searching for love. He analyzes the specific methods single people use to find mates, including online dating, subdivided by state, matchmaking businesses, print personal ads and self-help books.

Early in the book, it becomes clear Mr. Hollander thinks Americans’ pursuit of romantic love is the cause of much unnecessary emotional pain and societal unrest. The author thinks the complexity in motivations in dating lead to confusion and often failure. He quite rightly points out that “countless Americans seek to carve out a precarious space between the wish to acquire the unique ‘soul mate’ and a realistic search for someone who will meet their carefully calibrated, more down-to-earth needs.”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 95 percent of Americans get married at some point in their lives. So the purpose of dating is to get to the altar. Mr. Hollander thinks marriages based on romantic love cause the angst and divorce in our society. Citing the work of Bertrand Russell, he agrees, that “Only in America has it been seriously proposed that romance be extended indefinitely.”

Mr. Hollander blames an American value inscribed in the Constitution for dating troubles. “Belief in an entitlement to happiness - a pre-eminently American disposition - is closely related to the pursuit of romantic love, which is widely considered a shortcut to happiness,” he writes. However, he explains that the American can-do spirit conflicts with the esoteric search for love. “Americans are not disposed to a tragic view of life; they prefer to be cheerful and optimistic, inclined to the belief that there is a solution for every problem and that one may shape one’s life by well-chosen means and the exertion of will,” Mr. Hollander writes.

Americans often pursue their romantic love through online dating and dating how-to books, neither of which the author finds useful. He studied all the popular dating books written by self-proclaimed relationship experts, including Dr. Phil, Joyce Brothers, John Gray and Dr. Judy. He concludes that these reads, which take up a whole section of bookstores, are all alike. They “are upbeat and cheery, radiate and recycle common-sense propositions, are highly repetitious and didactic.” He adds that the books might worsen situations because of their focus on methods and techniques over specific personal qualities that lead to long-term relationships.

Mr. Hollander spends a good portion of the study looking into the ads on Match.com and concludes that the biggest problem with online dating is that the detailed listings cannot accurately define a person. The nature of online dating forces the participants to brag about their positive qualities and achievements.

The writer asks, “If such people actually exist, why are they compelled to advertise their remarkable attractions? Is their social life so barren that it affords no opportunities to meet compatible people who would appreciate them?” It’s a harsh but fair question. He also points out that online dating is less likely to lead to long-term relationships because it lacks social context, third-party recommendations, visual impressions and reliable information. True, there are no fact-checkers or lie detectors on these dating sites.

America is a romantic country. We created Hollywood, which has given the world romantic stories that drive dreams of true and everlasting love. We are in love with our flag, the national anthem, sports teams, hometowns, prominent figures, the military, monuments and, yes, love affairs.

Despite the high divorce rate, America, more than any other nation, believes that the institution of marriage is still relevant. The sobering idea that romantic love is the cause of dating problems is worthy of discussion. But the hopeless romantics among us will choose to believe that chemistry doesn’t need quotation marks around it and true love is out there for everyone seeking it.

Emily Miller is senior editor for the opinion pages at The Washington Times.