How We Love Now

Long-distance relationships, office romances, and marriages arranged online are new items on the romance menu.

From the WebMD Archives

Your grandfather married the girl next door, and your mother tied the knot with her college sweetheart. But you may very well find your mate through the Internet or in a neighboring cubicle.

What does modern love look like?

Traditional marriages still exist. But in the last half century, we've seen lots of changes: interracial and interfaith couples, gay and lesbian couples, and the older woman with the younger man -- a union that mirrors the older man-younger woman pairing.

Now, according to experts who spoke to WebMD, a 21st century union may involve a couple that falls in love at work, now that the office romance is losing its stigma. Or a couple might be in a commuter marriage, conducting their long-distance relationship through phone calls and web cams. Or an Indian engineer in Baltimore may log on to an Indian matrimonial site and find the woman of his dreams -- a dental student in Bangalore.

With powerful forces -- such as the Internet and a 24/7 work world -- exerting influence on our passions, surprising trends are springing up on the romance front.

Long-Distance Marriages on the Rise

In a landscape of dual careers, Internet romances, and globalization, the long-distance marriage is growing in numbers.

In the U.S., long-distance marriages increased by 23% between 2000 and 2005, according to census figures analyzed by the Center for the Study of Long Distance Relationships. In 2005, roughly 3.6 million married people in the U.S. lived apart for reasons other than marital discord, the center estimates.

On average, couples live 125 miles apart, but some dwell on separate continents. Some visit every weekend, others, every few months. But on average, long-distance couples see each other 1.5 times a month, according to center statistics.

Such pairs include the two married academics who love their jobs and have lived apart for more than a decade; the spouse who accepted a foreign job assignment but didn't want to uproot the family; the high-powered, dual-career couple constantly on the move to advance in their jobs.

Greg Guldner, MD, the center's director, knows about long-distance relationships firsthand. He was doing a medical residency in Southern California when he met his future wife on a trip to Phoenix. The couple survived four years in a two-state relationship before marrying. Guldner also wrote the book, Long Distance Relationships: The Complete Guide.

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Compared to generations past, today's lovers are more likely to meet while crisscrossing the country or globe, he says. "People travel for their work, they commute farther, they generally travel more than we did just a few decades ago. All of these things make it more likely that they'll fall for someone who doesn't live nearby."

The web fuels the trend, too. According to the center's web site, "The rise of Internet dating services predictably contributes to 'coast-to-coast couples' -- those who live on opposite ends of the nation and met on the web, but have a real, not just a virtual, relationship. Society has finally started accepting long-distance relationships as a viable alternative."

Long-distance marriages do have drawbacks, though. Warranted or not, couples do tend to worry more about infidelity. Furthermore, if children are involved, one partner shoulders almost the entire burden of raising them.

Still, "Commuter marriages are becoming a little more commonplace because people are willing to try them," Guldner says. "Part of that is technological. People think that what's out there now -- email and Internet and so forth -- makes it easier."

Office Romances No Longer Taboo

Is the office romance still taboo? Look no further than Bill Gates and Melinda French for the answer, says Patricia Mathews, MBA, president of Workplace Solutions. The founder of Microsoft met his wife, a Microsoft employee, at a company event in New York. "That's an example, perhaps, of a workplace romance that worked out very well," Mathews says.

Once feared for its potential to spark sexual harassment claims, the office romance is losing its stigma. According to a 2006 Workplace Romance Poll by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and CareerJournal.com, restrictions against office dating have relaxed.

"Workplace romance is dropping the negative stigma that was associated with it in the past," the report read. "It appears that employees have become more open-minded about relationships between their colleagues." Most employers now permit office romances, even though they discourage it, the survey also discovered.

And more workers are warming to the notion personally, the same survey found. About 40% of workers polled said they engaged in an office romance at least once in their career, up from 37% in 2001.

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Our career-driven society encourages office romances, Mathews says. "With work being what it is today and people devoting lots of hours to their jobs, sometimes the only place to meet someone is at work."

Furthermore, boundaries between work and personal life are blurring, especially among young people, experts say. And some companies unwittingly nudge the trend along by providing exercise and game rooms on site, as well as other social hot spots. According to the SHRM, people under 40 are the most likely to date a co-worker openly.

Conducting an office romance can be tricky. If both partners don't conduct the relationship in a professional manner, experts warn, it can harm morale, lead to charges of favoritism, and damage careers.

And some types of romances are still frowned upon, such as one between a supervisor and subordinate or any kind of extramarital affair, Mathews says.

Experts warn, too, about the office affair gone bad. "You may have to face a breakup and continue to work with him or her," says Lisa Mainiero, professor of management at Fairfield University.

Still, the office can be a good place to meet a like-minded mate, she says. "You will have quite a bit in common, and commonalities are the foundation for many successful romances."

The Internet Changes Arranged Marriages

In the past decade, Indian matrimonial web sites have revolutionized a time-honored tradition: the arranged marriage.

The tradition remains strong in India, and some Indian-American parents still believe it's their duty to find a son-in-law or daughter-in-law. But nowadays, parents can arrange marriages in cyberspace. Or young people can log on to an Indian matrimonial web site and take the lead in a search traditionally left to their elders.

Before the Internet, when a son or daughter of Indian descent was ready to marry, parents often looked for a suitable match through relatives and matchmakers. Some families used marriage bureaus that screen candidates in person and then make introductions for a fee. Another popular route: placing classified newspaper ads.

But in roughly the past decade, many Indian matrimonial sites have appeared, such as Suitablematch.com, Shaadi.com, Indianmatrimony.com, and BharatMatrimony.com. The sites enable people to search for specific attributes in a mate, including religion, caste, language, education, and profession.

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The sites aren't labeled dating sites, although in practice, some people use them as such. Instead, they are marketed as marriage sites, which are more culturally acceptable to conservative Indian communities.

One U.S.-based site, Suitablematch.com, was launched in Massachusetts in 1996. Its founder was an Indian father, Narain Bhatia, whose daughters had reached marriageable age.

But parents actually post only 5% of profiles, with sons and daughters posting the rest, says Suitablematch.com president Bharat Manglani. At another site, Shaadi.com, parents in the U.S. write 10% of profiles, compared with 35% in India, says Vineet Pabreja, Shaadi's general manager for North America. When parents assume the lead, they vet the candidates before the young people meet.

While such arranged marriages still exist among Indian-Americans, they're becoming the exception, not the rule, Pabreja says. The sites are creating a power shift between parents and children -- a blending of Old World and New.

The sites allow offspring to write their own profiles and to search actively on their own behalf. Furthermore, they can choose their own spouse from a much larger pool than a local matchmaker or well-connected auntie can produce.

It's a change that Indian parents, whose own marriages were typically arranged, are learning to accept, Pabreja says.

"In the U.S. and Canada, parents -- observing the way the American system works -- have come to accept the fact that they may not always have the final decision in whom their kids intend to marry. There will be a select group of parents who will still require their children to comply with their choices," he says. "But what we observe, by and large, they have come to accept the fact that kids will make their own choices.

"But having said that," he adds, "Indian parents do take a lot of interest, even though they realize that they may not have the final decision. They do take a lot of interest in whom their kids are dating and whom their kids intend to marry, and giving suggestions of all sorts."

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Shaadi has made more than 800,000 matches since it began in 1997, Pabreja says.

At Suitablematch.com, Manglani says, "We've had marriages occur virtually within a month." But that's unusually fast, he adds. Other members may meet at least four or five times and marry in three to six months.

One drawback -- as with all matchmaking sites -- is that some people misrepresent themselves, Manglani says. But by streamlining the traditional process, which can take several years, and giving people more options, the sites boost the chances that both parents and children will be happy with a match, Manglani says.

It's an issue that hits close to home. Manglani entered an arranged marriage in 1994, ultimately selecting his own wife with his parents' approval. But he and his parents disagreed frequently after the family began placing newspaper ads in 1991. "What they selected, I rejected. What I selected, they rejected," Manglani says. "It was quite a painful process. That horrifying experience taught me that there must be a better way to make it convenient for people to find each other."

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on February 06, 2008

Sources

SOURCES:

Greg Guldner, MD, director, Center for the Study of Long Distance Relationships.

Patricia Mathews, MBA, president, Workplace Solutions.

Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and CareerJournal.com: "2006 Workplace Romance Poll."

Lisa Mainiero, professor of management, Fairfield University.

Bharat Manglani, president, Suitablematch.com.

Vineet Pabreja, general manager for North America, Shaadi.com.

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