In the modern world we have never been more connected—and in many ways never more alone. The quest for true love is challenged by a changing social landscape—love in the workplace is discouraged, churches are no longer places for shy glances over hymnals, and college romances do not predictably lead to nuptials as young women launch themselves into careers outside the home.
But Nature, in her magnificent consistency, demands an answer. People must meet, pair off and produce families—of whatever description. Nature abhors a vacuum and social media has filled the void left by traditional means of meeting people. The Internet has become a vast meet market, while dating services allow us to examine potential partners with a gimlet-eyed scrutiny worthy of any old-world matchmaker. There are even online sites that advise on how to check out would-be partners “without being creepy.”
If Henry VIII, the much-married monarch of Medieval England, had had such technology, Thomas Cromwell might have kept his head! Henry is a fine example of the perils of seeking romance. He was a strapping, handsome, 17-year-old when he first married Catherine of Aragon and a fat, gimpy, 56-year-old when his death released his last, reluctant, nurse-wife from their marriage.
In all, he took six trips to the altar, a record subsequently topped only by the likes of the late actors Elizabeth Taylor and Mickey Rooney, both married eight times but never to each other. Rooney famously advised, “Get married in the morning. That way, if it doesn’t work out, you haven’t wasted a whole day.” Fortunately for their spouses, neither shared Henry’s propensity for cutting off their mates’ heads.
In addition to his propensity for abbreviating divorce proceedings with the headman’s axe, Henry simplified things by marrying three women with variant spellings of the name Katherine and two with the name Ann—which must have saved many a slip of the lip over the breakfast table.
Henry VIII had obvious advantages over 21st-century swains in seeking a soul mate. An imperial decree to marry was hard to ignore. But in choosing his heart’s companion(s) he shared some currently common complaints. First is finding a suitable person.
With three wives dead, Henry was tiring of the singles scene in 1540 and of picking up girls at festive court frolics. The same old faces kept showing up, night after night.
Seeking to cast his net wider, he engaged in an early form of Internet dating, sending ambassadors to seek out likely candidates. Back they came, carrying painted portraits of the candidates and biographical descriptions of their personal traits.
Henry’s eye fell on a Holbein portrait of Ann of Cleves, who appeared a comely wench. Thomas Cromwell, who had assisted Henry in dispensing with the first Catherine, pushed the match. A deal was struck between consenting parties and Ann left her native Dusseldorf to become queen of England.
It was not love at first sight.
Henry quickly learned the first rule of online matchmaking: What you see may not be what you get. Holbein’s portrait was grossly flattering, she smelled, and the lady’s personality, compared to the vivacious and alluring ladies of the English court, so uninteresting that even her dowry and political allies could not overcome Henry’s distaste. She was lucky; Henry simply annulled the wedding and cut off Thomas Cromwell’s head instead.
It would seem that such a highly publicized and internationally delicate failure in “sight-unseen” dating would have sounded the death knell of matchmaking services, but, indeed, they are flourishing in an age when the world and its peoples are at our fingertips. The need to form political and family alliances has waned, but the press of modern life has taken over. But, even with all the modern questionnaires and personality assessments that are supposed to lead us to our beloved with nary a hiccup along the way, matchmaking mishaps continue to occur. Consider this short, anonymous, compendium of tales of love thwarted:
“We met at a popular meeting place near Hartford. We had talked on the phone and he sounded unorthodox, but the more interesting because of it. When he approached my table he was carrying a large, obviously heavy, bag. He apologized for not leaving it in his car, explaining that it contained 37 pounds of chain mail (the flexible armor worn by knights) that he had been making over the past several months and that he was afraid someone would steal it.”
“We went to a movie. He insisted on staying, even when we found only single seats were left. He sat in the front seat and I sat in the back. When I went to meet him in front of the theater afterward, I saw him walking down the sidewalk with his arm around some other girl.”
“I had a bad case of poison ivy and my face was swollen and ugly. I called him and said I didn’t think we should go out but he said it would be all right. When he showed up and I came downstairs he said my face was swollen and ugly and that we shouldn’t go out.”
“One of my best friends in college had the most handsome brother I had ever seen in my life. I don’t know why I assumed his friends would be like him, but I did. My friend was after me for the longest time to go on a blind date with one of her brother’s friends and finally I said yes. But, oh my God, when I opened the door and he looked just like Dracula—I expected the coat to come off and the cape to go on. We went to a movie, which was fine with me because it was dark. All I thought about was should I go to the bathroom and sneak out or should I finish the date. I couldn’t bring myself to sneak out, so we went out afterward and when he brought me home, he asked me out, right at the door. I said I didn’t make plans that far ahead—it was like a week away. That was my first and last blind date. I hope he found his soul mate, but it wasn’t me.”
“I have been off and on the scene so many times in my life that I did online dating for a while. Having a background as an English teacher, I was able to vet some things—like noticing the date on a picture was from 20 years ago or mistakes in grammar. For the most part, I was pretty successful. It’s not difficult for me to say, ‘Do you want to grab a cup of coffee,’ so one night I was single and bored and it was time to eat and I thought, ‘What harm could there be in meeting this person?’
So I met her and she turned out to be disheveled, dirty and weighed about 250 pounds. She went on and on about taking her ex to court and her two sons who were conduct disordered. She was being very loud and making a scene, so I plopped down some cash and said, ‘I wish you luck with your problems’ and made a beeline for the door. She followed me to the door, talking all the way—and I didn’t even get to eat dinner.”
Sometimes, even old-fashioned ways of meeting new people yield disappointing results.
“One night I was out at a bar, and this girl was flirting with me. She leaned close and said, ‘I can satisfy your every fantasy.’ Unable to control myself, I said, ‘You have a donkey in a clown costume!?’ She faded into the crowd.”
Modern technology can never trump human psychology, so people will continue to meet, to assess each other’s potential and, in most cases, realize they are not a match. But, every now and then, a spark will ignite a flame—a flame that can burn brightly for decades. So, Valentine believers, take heart and keep searching. The risk is worth the reward.