Romance at Arm’s Length by DANIEL JONES FEB. 6, 2014
IN Spike Jonze’s mesmerizing new movie “Her,” a man falls in love with a sultry-voiced computer operating system whose presence in the film is so lifelike you have to keep reminding yourself she doesn’t actually exist. To make it easier for the audience to believe that a computer might be able to mimic human thought, emotion and speech so convincingly, Mr. Jonze sets his story in the not-so-distant future.
I don’t know why he bothers. Other than the sci-fi wrinkle of the woman’s being a microchip, the couple’s ill-fated romance, which involves zero physical contact and relies on electronic communication for emotional sustenance, isn’t futuristic at all; thousands of people are having relationships like that right now. True, they involve a real human being at the other end of the line instead of an operating system, but otherwise it’s the same deal: The romances they pursue are emotionally rich but physically barren. And these kinds of relationships are surging in popularity.
As editor of The Times’s Modern Love column for the past decade, I have been privy to the love lives of tens of thousands of strangers through the stories and letters they send my way. It’s a vantage point that provides a panoramic view of what people are struggling with in matters of love, especially when it comes to how technology is altering our romantic landscape. And among the more pronounced trends I have noticed in recent years is the rise of online-only relationships, a phenomenon I’ve begun to call Soul Mate in a Box.
A Soul Mate in a Box (Smiab, for short) is a person we rarely if ever meet and in some cases never speak to, but to whom we feel closer than anyone else. Maybe the relationship exists through instant messages, or over email, or via Skype, FaceTime and texting. Perhaps Snapchat allows the couple to exchange racy pictures, adding a glimpse of sexuality, if not sex. One couple liked to view each other on Skype but weren’t comfortable talking that way, so they’d instant message instead, watching each other click away at the keyboard as they swooned.
How do these relationships start? Typically with two strangers crossing paths via social media: on Facebook, through dating sites or by retweeting and “favoriting” until tweeting turns to flirting. At the start it’s just harmless fun, a distraction. No need to think seriously about it, because what could happen? He or she lives 2,000 miles away!
Ironically, it’s often this presumed lack of possibility that enables the couple to grow so close so fast. Just as Theodore Twombly, the character in “Her,” grins dismissively at the idea of falling in love with the voice of his new operating system (before doing exactly that), those who meet a potential Smiab online tell themselves it can’t go anywhere. Which then frees it up to go somewhere. And soon their once dismissible flirtation has snowballed into the most obsessive relationship in their lives.
We’re always searching for new ways of finding love that don’t involve having to feel insecure and vulnerable, because who wants to feel insecure and vulnerable? That’s the worst part of the whole love game, putting oneself out there to be judged and rejected. So when we get the chance to hide — whether through typed messages we can edit and control, or by saying whatever we’d like over Skype without expecting the relationship to ever turn physical — we’re freed from much of that anxiety, and we’re fooled into thinking this may be a better and truer way of having a relationship.
These kinds of self-protective impulses were on full display in the thousands of stories I received during the two Modern Love college essay contests I held, in 2008 and 2011. In the first contest, the most common theme among the undergraduates’ submissions was their struggle with the seemingly ubiquitous practice of hooking up — having casual sexual encounters with no