Valentine’s Day is a holiday built on fears, and it’s hard to say which is scarier: The idea that you might never find a “love of your life,” or the idea that you will and then slowly slide into a sexless Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf nightmare. For the first fear, there's always hope that love might be a right-swipe away on Tinder. But can technology make long-term monogamy any easier?
Tech entrepreneurs, long obsessed with making apps to help you find a relationship, have now begun trying to solve the problem of staying happy in one. So far this mostly means offering Groupon-style deals that are packaged as dates. HowAboutWe (a New York magazine partner) has launched a couples-focused site, offering deals on spin classes, a Champagne brunch cruise for $84 (retails for $167), and a D.I.Y. peanut-butter sandwich making kit (seriously). As soon as you sign up, it prompts you to add your significant other. For more personalized recommendations, you can avail yourself of their concierge service. A similar startup called Delightful does much the same thing. Instead of browsing for people to date, you browse for dates with your person. (The services share the same glaring oversight: no help finding a trustworthy babysitter. I’m taking a wild guess that most of these apps’ co-founders are childless.)
If you’re in a long-distance relationship or not turned on by kayaking lessons for two, another set of apps promise to keep you close with your partner through the power of a smartphone alone. Avocado, Couple, and Between allow you share pictures and send each other virtual affection (Couple’s “thumbkiss vibrates your phone when both of you are touching the same spot of the screen”). As if you weren’t already emailing, texting, Gchatting, Snapchatting, and 'gramming your boo. For those inclined toward outright stalking, some apps offer GPS location-tracking.
I know I’m skeptical, but I want these things to work because the dominant narrative about long-term monogamy is pretty depressing. At a time of year previously known for its unrealistic portrayals of romantic bliss, unhappy couples are everywhere. In last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, Lori Gottlieb (she of “just settle for some schmuck” fame) warns that an equitable relationship will kill your libido. Well, at least is correlated with killing your libido. The Atlantic reports on a Marriage 101 class at Northwestern University, which warns that “learning how to love another person well is anything but intuitive.” The Wall Street Journal examines whether monogamy is “natural” and concludes that “we are by nature a profoundly confused species.” And the editor of the Times’ "Modern Love" column, who’s been making the rounds promoting his new book, says that out of 50,000 submissions he's "heard from just a handful of couples who claimed to have maintained sexually charged marriages throughout the decades."
Sexless monogamy is nothing new. In Marriage, a History, historian Stephanie Coontz writes that romantic love was, for many decades in many cultures, thought to be incompatible with long-term relationships. Today more college-educated Americans are getting married. And expectations for romantic partnership are higher than they’ve ever been — which leaves a lot of room for couples to fall short, and a strong market for books and apps when they do. Most of our issues with monogamy are obviously too deep to be solved with a wine-tasting deal or a few “thumbkisses,” but does that mean there’s no way for technology to help?
An impressive 74 percent of couples say the internet has had a positive impact on their relationship, according to new research from Pew. Maybe it’s time to really put it to work. A shared calendar is basically a necessity for couples with kids, but it could also be a way to formally divide the household labor. Most happy pairs say that one person takes care of a certain set of tasks, while the other always attends to the rest — with little or no nagging to get the job done. When one person doesn’t keep up her end of the bargain, the whole thing falls apart. Perhaps an app could provide a nudge, tracking whose turn it is to tackle a particular unpleasant duty.
Date nights are great, but relationship experts say it’s the little acts of kindness that matter more. “We do have pretty deadening routines,” says a happily married friend whose relationship I’ve definitely idealized, thanks to Instagram. “But that being said, we try and do many small gestures rather than the occasional grand gestures. I buy her some of her favorite candy from the store, or come home early and clean the house for her. And she does the same things for me. We hold hands all the time.” An app could make gestures like those a little bit easier.
Then there’s “bed death,” an affliction (unfairly associated with just lesbian couples) affecting most long-term relationships that include a woman. In theory, an app could alert you to the fact that you haven’t had sex in, like, weeks. I’m thinking that it would just start blaring D’Angelo at 10:30 p.m. every night until you’ve gotten it on. “Maybe an app that held you to a sex schedule,” another married friend suggested. “Like, ‘Tuesday night: sex, wine, dinner.' It just gets too easy to put no effort into a relationship when you’re comfortable.”
So far, technology has excelled at helping us find and navigate the new, and pushing us to set and stick to routines. It’s not so great at helping us break out of a rut. There’s no app that’s going to turn a bickering George-and-Martha into a smoldering Jay-and-Beyoncé. But if someone manages to figure it out — and throw in Groupon-like deals for babysitting services — I can guarantee there will be couples willing to give it a try. If only because their therapist encourages them to.