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Lifestyle

Desperately seeking Mr. Right and Lady Perfect

Valentine's Day could be so romantic - if only you had the right person to feel smitten about. A new book looks at the history of dating and says that finding love used to be easier.

DW: Your book "Mr. Right and Lady Perfect" takes a look at the history of dating, highlighting everything from old maids to the cliché of great love. Was it more difficult in the past to find the perfect partner or is it harder now?

Annegret Braun: The expectations have certainly risen a lot. In the past, people used to content themselves with the partner their parents suggested and tried to make the best of the situation. It was the parents' job to find the right person. For those who were being married off in the 19th century, it was easier in the sense that they had a partner assigned to them.

One example that comes to mind is author Henriette Herz, who in her teens was to be married off to doctor and writer Marcus Herz - a man almost twice her age. She wrote that he wasn't good-looking but was considered to be an intellectual. She mentioned that she had imagined him to be attractive like the protagonists of the many novels she had read. So she clearly had to overcome her standards. But in the end she even looked forward to getting married, as it came with certain kinds of benefits like having a greater allowance and getting to choose what she could eat.

There were fewer expectations on men than there are today. People were happy to be married at all, for there was nothing considered to be worse for a bourgeois lady than staying single.

In the 19th century, single women were considered incomplete individuals. Have things changed since then?

Bourgeois daughters were considered lacking if they were not married. The general assumption was that they had not fulfilled their life calling, and that's how they saw it themselves as well. Meanwhile in rural areas, it was completely normal for women to be single. Poorer people could not marry so easily. There were many, many unmarried maids and farm hands, but they were still involved in romantic relationships. That's why so many illegitimate children were born out in the country.

Nowadays, a single person has a lot more options. But I think it's important that people view single life not as some kind of deficit. Each person has his or her own individual personality; you don't just develop all that once you have a partner.

Annegret Braun (Private)

Annegret Braun

Your book is riddled with stories about people on their search for a partner. Where did you do all your research?

I did most of my research at the German Archives for Diaries in Emmendingen, near Freiburg. What I found so touching was how authentic everything was there. I came across a woman who was writing in her diaries around 1920. She was very attractive and had many admirers, but also had a lot of bad luck with them. They cheated on her, and ended relationships with her. In response, she herself started playing around with the men who had disappointed her. And when you read about it in her journals - well, that really had an effect on me.

Since 2014, the number of people who marry has been increasing again in Germany. Statistics from 2015 show that some 400,000 couples married in that year. What makes getting married so appealing in this day and age?

In the 1970s and 80s, people tended to marry based on more rational reasons - like when the woman was already pregnant. Nowadays, people expect to get a romantic marriage proposal, and if possible, a lovely ring to go along with it, and then everything is posted online. Wedding dresses are also expected to be unusual, and old wedding traditions are being resurrected. The romantic notion of love makes getting married appealing and, in addition, a wedding makes more of an impression of commitment than when you just stay together without being married. This desire for commitment and relationship longevity is particularly appealing in this day and age when everything changes so quickly.

Your book not only addresses the subject of marriage, but also looks at affairs, flirting and other rituals, as well as online dating. There are countless sites on the Internet for everything from dating to hooking up, "Tinder" to "Rich Meets Beautiful" to "Match." What's the history of online dating?

It all began in 1965, when accountant Lewis Altfest and IBM programmer Robert Ross developed Project TACT (Technical Automated Compatibility Testing), which was a commercial dating service based on input personal data and algorithms. The client would pay $5 and receive five partner recommendations after having answered 100 multiple choice questions. Those answers were entered into computers - which in turn calculated compatibility. Altfest and Ross also threw parties to make it easier for people to get to know each other. I have read that nowadays one-third of partnerships start on the Internet or online dating services.

Mr. Right and Lady Perfect book cover(wbg-Verlag)

Annegret Braun's book takes a look at the cultural history of marriage and dating

It's not just online dating sites that prescreen candidates. There's the reality TV show "Marriage at First Site," which shows couples who meet for the first time at the registrar's office - where they are married soon thereafter. You write that even the arranged marriages of the past weren't as radical as that. Are such television shows desperate attempts at limiting the endless possibilities of searching and selecting a partner?

Things are done a lot more radically for that kind of show; it's all about effect. But what I find amazing is that there are thousands of candidates who want to participate. I don't think they just want to be on television - there are plenty of other shows for that. In interviews, you see just how disappointed they are by their previous relationships and you hear them saying thing along the lines of: "I haven't been able to rely on my feelings, so now I want to put my faith in science and be more rational in my search for a partner."

A lot of tests are conducted for the shows - who is suited to whom and so on - and there are plenty of questions about their former relationships. The problem is that the emotional expectations remain the same, even as part of such a structured approach. After all, the candidates are still looking for their dream partners and want to be in love with them.

Annegret Braun is a cultural scientist and teaches Folklore and European Ethnology at Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Munich. In addition to "Mr. Right and Lady Perfect," she has written books on the shift in notions about marriage and partnerships, on rural women, and on how women experience happiness, among others.

"Mr. Right und Lady Perfect: Von alten Jungfern, neuen Singles und der großen Liebe," Lambert Schneider Verlag, 232 pages, ISBN: 9783650401953

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