David: It's June. That means that a lot of us are attending some weddings, maybe even having a wedding. Still the rate of marriage remains at historic laws and the median age for marrying continues to rise. That can cause some real anxiety, both for sociologists and for single people who might like to settle down. The Radio Hour's, KalaLea has been looking at a project to alleviate some of that anxiety. It came out of an economics class in Stanford University and it's called The Marriage Pact.
Katie: Hi, I'm Katie.
Miguel: I'm Miguel.
KalaLea: Katie and Miguel are the same age, 23.
Miguel: I am just under a month older.
Katie: I'm also 23. We're the same stars sign, if that makes a difference.
Miguel: Pisces, I think.
Katie: Yes, we're both Pisces.
KalaLea: Katie and Miguel met while in college, around Valentine's day just about a year and a half ago, but they've done a whole lot together in a short amount of time.
Katie: We went hiking and camping in Acadia, Maine.
Miguel: That was our first big trip.
Katie: That was our first trip that we took together, New Hampshire.
Miguel: We went to New Hampshire skiing. We've been to New York city twice.
Katie: That was so fun because we wanted to go.
Miguel: We did it. It was great.
Katie: Super fun.
Miguel: It was a great day. We went to Florida to visit her parents. We went to Costa Rica.
Katie: We went to Ireland.
Miguel: Then we went for, it was actually right around our anniversary.
KalaLea: Just to see a soccer game.
Miguel: That was seven, eight days of traveling together and being together.
Katie: We got a rental car in Ireland, driving on the other side of the road.
KalaLea: It's clear they're in love, or deep like.
Katie: He's my boyfriend, best friend and hopefully going to be my life partner.
Miguel: 100%. She is my best friend, she is my life partner and my travel partner.
KalaLea: When people ask you how did you guys meet, what do you say?
Katie: I am usually a little bit embarrassed to answer this question. I usually we say we met like in an online dating survey. Whenever I tell people that it's called The Marriage Pact, because that's a big that's a big word.
Miguel: I'm not embarrassed by it, but it's definitely a little bit of a quirky way, I think, to have met.
Speaker 1: Something wild is happening at my college and I'm here to give you the tea about it.
KalaLea: The Marriage Pact first came to my attention a couple of years ago, one afternoon I noticed a message similar to this TikTok post.
Speaker 1: Marriage Pact. What this is is you take a survey about yourself that's like 50 questions or something that's almost like a dating profile. Then they match you with someone who's supposed to be the person you make a marriage pact with. "If we're not with someone by the time we're 45, we're so compatible that we should get married." There has been some good PR for this. I'll give them that. The wild thing is--
KalaLea: I once made a pact with a good friend long, long ago. I'm sure you've made such a pact. He and I agree that if we're still single at the age of 40, then we would get together. He probably didn't take it seriously. I remember finding comfort in knowing that there be someone I bonded with who is willing to be with me as I grew old and crusty but this Marriage Pact, it's a lot bigger, more public, more organized.
Liam McGregor: My name is Liam McGregor and I started The Marriage Pact. When we looked at the original Marriage Pact, we looked it and said, you might make a marriage pact with your best friend. What are the odds that your best friend is actually the best person for you to make a marriage pact with?
KalaLea: In 2017, Liam and a classmate designed their own version of a marriage pact survey for an economics class. This survey is done at colleges as a campus-wide event. It happens over the course of one week and is promoted mostly by word of mouth. A friend of Katie's convinced her to give it a try.
Katie: She was like, "You should definitely do this." I was intrigued. I was, when I was filling out the form, very nervous. It does feel very intense when they're asking you your political views, when they're asking you your views on relationships.
Miguel: It does help you get through some of that, "Do we actually get along? Do we have similar views?" I remember I was like, "Wow, that's a really good question."
KalaLea: The Marriage Pact boast that almost 30% of their matches actually meet up in person, compared to just one to 2% in traditional dating apps. Of those who meet up, one in eight date for one year or longer like Katie and Miguel.
Miguel: I tried Tinder and I tried Bumble and all those other things, but I don't know. I realized I wasn't good at that kind of online dating. I didn't go in with like, "I'm going to marry whoever my Marriage Pact is." I was like, "It would be nice to get to know someone and to see if we're actually compatible."
KalaLea: The Marriage Pact was launched nearly five years ago at Stanford University. Since then, a small team of former undergraduates have released customized surveys at more than 75 universities and colleges. They say that more than a quarter of a million students have participated thus far.
Katie: I was very much more enthusiastic about doing it than I probably would've been if it weren't for the pandemic and if it weren't for that feeling of isolation and, honestly, loneliness that I had been feeling since March of 2020 when I got sent home from school.
Are you looking for me?
I'm looking for someone
Where can you be?
Where can you be?
KalaLea: Using technology to find dates is nothing new. A computer program matching couples launched in 1965 and in the '80s when divorce rates were increasing and VCRs were in many households, video dating companies sprang up. No more print ads or blind dates. Single people pay these companies hard earned cash just to find the new love of their life.
Maurice: Hi, I'm Maurice. I'm an executive by day and a wild man by night.
Speaker 2: I'm looking for the goddess. Are you the goddess?
Mike: Hi, my name's Mike. If you're sitting there watching this tape smoking your cigarette, hit the fast forward button because I don't smoke and I don't like people who do smoke.
Speaker 3: One of my favorite foods is pizza and just sugar and spice and all those things that are nice.
Speaker 4: I'm not afraid to get sand on my tuxedo if you're not afraid to let the wind mess your hair up a little bit when I take the top down.
Speaker 5: I do consider myself a refined Valley dude.
Speaker 2: Who is the goddess? The goddess is the woman, is a woman, is any woman, is all women.
Mike: I like an attractive woman. Someone who might look like Christy Brinkley or Jacqueline Smith.
Speaker 3: Particularly attracted to Black women and women of different races. If you like me, give me a call.
Mike: I decided that I'm lonely, but I'd love to go roller skating.
KalaLea: At the start of the internet boom, there was match.com. Grinder launched in 2009. Marriage Pact in 2017. Now personally, I consider myself an expert in old fashioned matchmaking. I've introduced at least two of my friends to their current spouses. Late in the school year, I took the New Jersey transit to Princeton University where The Marriage Pact was taking place over the course of one week.
Maddie: Nice to meet you.
KalaLea: Nice to meet you too. I'm recording. Maddie, it's short for Madison, is a sophomore at Princeton. How are you today?
Maddie: I'm good. How are you?
KalaLea: I'm good. We walk around until reaching one of the many huge tents set up on the edge of campus. This is good too.
Maddie: This is also good.
Speaker 6: I feel like everything just got really quiet.
KalaLea: Maddie sits on a stack of wood pallets and opens her laptop. This morning, an email went out to all of The Marriage Pact participants. Maddie reads it to me.
Maddie: Look around. College is the best place to meet the one, but we're not going to be here forever. The Princeton Marriage Pact is here to give you the perfect backup plan. Take our questionnaire and we'll find your best match on campus. We can't promise you a match made in heaven, but we can promise a match made via groundbreaking algorithms and a little linear algebra. Swoon. If someone better comes along in your 20s, more power to you. We hope you don't need us, but better safe than sorry. Then it says that the responses are confidential.
KalaLea: Some of Maddie's friends arrive and they get started. The first few questions are related to identity.
Maddie: Gender identity and sexual orientation.
KalaLea: Each question is rated on a scale from one to seven, one meaning strongly disagree and seven strongly agree. The questions appear on the screen one at a time.
Maddie: The next question is, "I like drama." No.
KalaLea: Questions that seem pretty straightforward to who you'd like to go on a date with.
Maddie: "I would send back a dish at a restaurant."
Speaker 7: I said almost never.
Maddie: "I generally like to take control during sex," is the next question. [laughs]
KalaLea: You're nodding?
Speaker 8: I think that's an important question. If you guys have competing ideas of what's going to happen if you do get intimate then I don't know. I think that's important.
KalaLea: Then the questions get less obvious and hard.
Speaker 7: I'm looking at, "I would send older relatives to a nursing home," Sand I think that's a tough one.
Maddie: No, I don't know if I would. I don't think I would.
Speaker 7: "I keep some friends here at Princeton because they'll be useful to me in the future."
Speaker 6: That's a good question, especially for people here I think.
Maddie: "Everything will be explained by science." I'm not a religious person so I'd say probably a five.
Speaker 6: That's what I put. "I consider myself to be an adult." I feel like I'm at a five.
KalaLea: After Maddie and her friends leave, I keep thinking about one of the questions. "I would keep a gun in the house."
Elizabeth: This one, I feel like I have more conviction. I'm strongly disagree.
KalaLea: That's Elizabeth Gerson, who leads operations for The Marriage Pact. She works closely with Liam MacGregor, the founder of the pact. Here's Liam, again.
Liam: Is interesting, because we really set out to solve this very specific problem at the beginning, which was if you need a backup plan for a 50 year long relationship, who's right for that? It turns out that a lot of the things that we look for, typically, when we look for people to go on first dates with, are really not what matters in the long run. It doesn't matter if someone's 5'11 or six feet tall, if you're going to spend 50 years with them. Really, what matters often are these deeply held values and convictions and beliefs, and a strong sense of self, that you could never mean personally write down on a profile, let alone have someone else evaluate.
Often they're private things maybe that do matter for long term relationships that you might not want to advertise. Maybe having a gun in a house is something that you're interested in but you don't want that to be your very first impression of someone or have that be someone's first impression of you.
KalaLea: On The Marriage Pact website, there's, the first paragraph starts off, it says, "The tools that were meant to bring us together have failed." Then it goes on to say, "In fact, existing social tools, broadly speaking, actively make things worse for us." Can one of you elaborate on this?
Liam: If you want a short term relationship, there's really nothing better. There's no more efficient marketplace than the dating apps that are out there today. They're really excellent for solving that thing. The thing is, because they're the only tools out there, people have tried to use them to solve these other problems as well.
KalaLea: They're not exactly the only tools, but what's interesting to me is that The Marriage Pact is betting on a way of relating that is long term for a generation of people who are essentially being programmed, if you will, to think short term.
Maddie: As a student who was taking it for the first time, it was so refreshing to be given the opportunity where you're not actually filling out a profile, where you genuinely are sitting down for 10, 15, 20 minutes and interrogating basically your deeply held values yourself.
Liam: I think another interesting thing is that even though The Marriage Pact has a very serious word and its title, like you mentioned the KalaLea, it's not always that serious. When you're making a backup plan, it's about taking the pressure off of some big institution, or some major life decision that maybe you're not ready to make yet. I think what we've found is that Marriage Pact exists in a liminal space between commitment and non commitment.
KalaLea: I thought back to something Maddie had told me, that really surprised me. She was so excited about taking the Marriage Pact, even though she's already in a committed relationship with someone who doesn't go to Princeton. She was hoping to make friends because on this campus filled with thousands of interesting people her age, she often feels lonely.
Maddie: Some of the most lonely times for me have been recently, I would say. This past Friday and Saturday, it was one of the first times that I had called my mom, and was like, "Hey, I feel lonely."
KalaLea: You really said that?
Maddie: Yes. Well, I called her and we were just talking and then I texted her and I was like, "Hey, I just called you because I was lonely." <y team had gone to Ivys so none of them were on campus. Those are the people that I would usually hang out with. I was just sitting in one of the upperclassmen's apartments by myself. My boyfriend wasn't there, my other friends weren't there. It was just like, "Everyone's doing something fun or spontaneous and I'm sitting home by myself watching TikTok."
KalaLea: Is there anything particularly in your mom said that made you feel better?
Maddie: Probably just that she was proud of me and how well I was doing. Then the next I guess it was the next day she and my sister actually came and surprised me. Just to be like, "We're here for you. We're always supporting you."
KalaLea: How did that feel?
Maddie: It felt really good. Honestly.
KalaLea: After listening to Maddie, my mind wandered back to five years ago, when public health officials began to warn Americans about the consequences of being so very disconnected.
Speaker 9: Former Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy tackled a range of public health crises. They included issues like Zika, drug and alcohol addiction and obesity. He also shed light on a silent crisis, the rising number of lonely people in America, he spoke about his concern-
KalaLea: It's easy to blame social media or the internet, but for decades political scientists like Robert Putnam, for example, called attention to the erosion of civic engagement, and the loss of collective activities for Americans that's been going on really since the 1950s. He calls it the Bowling Alone syndrome.
Dr. Murphy: You can't go to a bowling league by yourself unless other people go, that's what it means to be a league. That's a deep fundamental point. This problem of social capital is something you can't produce entirely by yourself, but we've got to do it together. Part of what I'm trying to do, and other people, obviously, there's a lot of other people talking about the loss of community America, part of what we're trying to do is to say, loudly, "Look, we all feel this way. Why don't we just get together more often?"
KalaLea: I definitely heard a lot of talk about being lonely and having these lows and there these gaps and the pandemic bringing on a certain amount of loneliness that I think we're seeing all over the country, actually. What have you learned about the epidemic of loneliness?
Liam: Wow, that's a big question. I think maybe I'll share a little statistic and I think Liz probably has a much better perspective on this.
KalaLea: Go for it.
Liam: 10 to 20% of the people who participate in The Marriage Pact are already in long term, committed relationships. That surprised me on the one hand, but on the other hand, if you've been through The Marriage Pact, in any community, it's obvious because it is such an intensely social experience.
Elizabeth: The first time I ever experienced it was intensely social. I think that the colleges today that have marriage pacts experience it in an intensely social way, especially after something like COVID, with what we've seen in terms of young people feeling very well connected to maybe who they are online, but in real life, I think, experiencing a lot of difficulty and in terms of feeling connected to a community.
Liam: Most dating experiences today happen in a very siloed environment, where it's something that you do on your own. Maybe at some point, you tell your friends about a date you had or you show them a screenshot of a crazy profile that you saw, but it's not really an activity that you can't wait to do with your friends. I think what we've seen is that Marriage Pact wouldn't be complete unless you were doing with your friends. The majority reason why people sign up is because, "All my friends are doing it."
KalaLea: Marriage pact is an algorithm created to help students meet their individual needs, but the innovativeness doesn't come from computer programming. It's the way they enhance the matchmaking experience from a solo affair to a public event. It's a communal experience.
Elizabeth: One thing that Liam and I talk about a lot is why shouldn't Marriage Pact be an enduring tradition at every college community in the country? It's been so meaningful to us at Stanford and to the schools that we've been to so far.
Liam: I think there's three kinds of meaningful relationships we really hope we might serve one day. One of them is obviously your romantic relationships. Also your friendships, your meaningful friendships, your close friends. What are the things that you do with them? How do those friendships add meaning to your life? Then finally, I think one last relationship that we often forget about, which is our relationship with ourselves. I think there's a piece of Marriage Pact that has to do with understanding yourself. I think that if we could use technology to help serve those kinds of meaningful relationships, that would mean the world to us. [music]
David: That's Liam McGregor of The Marriage Pact, which he co-founded with a classmate, Sophia Sterling Angus. He spoke with KalaLea who's a producer for The New Yorker Radio Hour. When the marriage pack concluded in Princeton, KalaLea called up the students she met with named Maddie.
Maddy: Hi, how are you?
KalaLea: Good. How are you, Maddy?
Maddy: They actually released the matches during what we call here breakfast for dinner. They serve dinner in the dining halls from 10 to 11. At least in the dining hall that I was in everybody was talking about it. My match, we were actually in the 98.47 percentile of all possible matches.
KalaLea: That's pretty high.
Maddy: Yes. She said, "Hi. Full disclosure, I'm in a relationship and I participated in the marriage pact thing because I mostly wanted to find a like-minded person I could build a friendship with." I was like, "Wow, this actually really works because I'm in the same exact situation." We bonded about that a little bit.