Young adults in contemporary Western cultures are delaying marriage at record rates. The reasons are many, but one commonality I’ve observed is a paralyzing anxiety that makes dating (and especially marriage) a daunting rather than delightful prospect. Indeed, 70 percent of Gen Z respondents in a recent survey said they were stressed out about their love lives.
It’s the anxiety of a generation that’s grown up hearing the ominous (but inaccurate) statistic that “half of all marriages end in divorce.” It’s the compounding anxiety of the sexual revolution and resulting rampant sexual distortion and gender confusion. It’s the FOMO anxiety and commitment phobia of a digital world of infinite options, distractions, and comparisons. It’s the anxiety of wondering how you can ever know if you married the right person or if someone else out there is a better fit.
Hyperpersonalized dating apps raise the expectations—and accompanying anxiety—of a “perfect match,” as validated by algorithms. Social media and online pornography wreak havoc on dating—creating unrealistic physical expectations and ever-present temptations that leave both men and women anxious about real-world physical intimacy and attraction.
Many in Gen Z (particularly men) respond to this relationship anxiety by opting out of dating. Others seek to minimize risk by (ill-advisedly) living together rather than tying the knot or by embracing new concepts of dating like the #situationship—a gray-area relationship that “solves some kind of need” for companionship but without commitment or any pressure for the relationship to be “going somewhere.”
Two recent films, Apple TV’s Fingernails and Netflix’s Love at First Sight, highlight our cultural anxiety around dating and marriage. These movies differ in tone, genre, and style, but both “romantic” explorations of modern love reveal how our post-Christian culture tries to resolve the tension between longing for committed love and anxiously fearing it.
‘Fingernails’: Can Science Give Couples Certainty?
Fingernails is part sci-fi thought experiment, part Charlie Kaufman–esque surrealist parody. The premise—that a new scientific test can definitively determine whether a couple is in love—is arguably more interesting than the narrative as a whole.
The film—directed by Christos Nikou—follows Anna (Jessie Buckley) and Ryan (Jeremy Allen White), a longtime dating couple who received a “100 percent positive” when they took the test (which requires the removal of a fingernail).
Couples who take the test know it’s risky. A negative result—which can be either 0 percent (neither partner is in love) or 50 percent (one partner is in love but the other isn’t)—almost inevitably leads to a breakup. On the other hand, a positive result can give couples more certainty their love is real and their relationship has a high probability of success.
Yet despite the test “validating” her and Ryan’s love, Anna feels unsure when she becomes attracted to another man, coworker Amir (Riz Ahmed).
Hyperpersonalized dating apps raise the expectations—and accompanying anxiety—of a ‘perfect match,’ as validated by algorithms.
The film’s silly concept telegraphs a real cultural anxiety—a fatalistic, disempowered sense that relationships are unavoidably fragile and risky, prone to end in divorce half the time. Uncertainty about “true love” becomes debilitating. But what if objective assurance via a scientific test were possible? What if we could know whether we’d found our “soulmate”?
Throughout the film, advertisement posters tout the benefits of “the test”:
“Take the risk out of love.”
“Experts agree that getting your love validated leads to fewer divorces.”
“No more uncertainty. No more wondering. No more divorce. Take the test today.”
Early in the film, Anna and Ryan talk about Adam and Eve—history’s first couple, whose hunger for forbidden knowledge led to their downfall. It’s a fitting framing for the film because that’s what “the test” provides couples unwilling to live in doubt about their compatibility. And yet like Adam and Eve after they eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 3), Anna and Ryan end up suffering more as a result of their newfound knowledge.
In the end, Fingernails (rated R for language) concludes that being in love is necessarily unsafe and painful (the film’s last words are “This is going to hurt”). No scientific certificate of “love validation” can change the nature of our deceitful and desperately sick (Jer. 17:9) hearts. The bleak, slow-moving film offers no hope for resolving the relational anxiety that plagues contemporary couples, who are apparently hapless victims of their unpredictable passions.
Even if the film is right to challenge the notion that love can be assured by an empirical “test” (which isn’t far from what dating app algorithms and compatibility questionnaires already attempt), it’s wrong to suggest faithful, confident, committed love is impossible. You don’t “fall” into or out of faithful love; it’s built on each partner’s intentional, disciplined, “for better or worse” choice. It’s the stability of covenant rather than the fragility of compatibility.
‘Love at First Sight’: Can ‘Fate’ Give Couples Confidence?
Netflix’s sincere Love at First Sight differs from the cynical Fingernails. The feel-good rom-com shot to number one on Netflix when it debuted in September. It’s cheesy but far better acted and written than most in the “Hallmark formula” genre.
Directed by Vanessa Caswill, the breezy film follows two college students—Hadley (Haley Lu Richardson) and Oliver (Ben Hardy)—who fortuitously sit next to each other on a transatlantic flight from New York to London. Sparks fly and the story (based on a 2013 young adult novel) plays out as you’d expect (with a few twists that add welcome depth to otherwise thin characters).
If in Fingernails the answer to the anxiety of contemporary dating and marriage is a scientific “test” of compatibility, in Love at First Sight the answer is a belief in some providential force in the universe that weaves lives together in ways we could never script. An omniscient narrator (Jameela Jamil) begins the film by saying, “This isn’t a story about love. This is a story about fate.” This narrator shows up throughout the film embodied as different characters—a sort of guardian angel presence—who intervenes to nudge Hadley and Oliver toward each other at crucial points.
Why is Love at First Sight (rated PG-13 for brief strong language) such a hit? In part, it appeals because of its wish-fulfillment fantasy, in the way every corny rom-com does. But the heavy emphasis on fate or providence as an active force (literally, the third major character) makes the movie especially comforting in this moment of relational anxiety.
In a dating world where so many singles feel stuck, fearful, and unable to commit, it’s appealing to think a higher power is working behind the scenes to orchestrate your love story. Just as a positive test result offers relief for some couples’ anxiety in Fingernails, the uncanny string of coincidences in Love at First Sight helps give Hadley and Oliver—who have their own anxieties about love and marriage—reassurance their connection is “meant to be.”
In both these movies, the stressful pressure of total personal agency (“It’s all on me to find the right person and make it work”) is relieved by some external force that provides confidence and validation. Like popular matchmaking shows (e.g. Jewish Matchmaking and Indian Matchmaking), these films speak to a generation tortured by overthinking romance and longing for a simpler love.
What’s most refreshing about Love at First Sight is that the film’s third act challenges the victimhood narrative and starts to emphasize personal choice: taking tangible, risky steps in pursuit of one another. As much as fate is at work in the film, Oliver and Hadley must still choose each other.
That’s why, in the final moments of the film, Oliver does what the male protagonists traditionally do in these films: he takes initiative and pursues the girl. Audiences love this trope because it’s true to what love is: active pursuit of a beloved, not passive angst that love is outside one’s control. Love isn’t passive happenstance. Nor does it depend on certainty of feeling (are feelings ever certain?). Love is a choice.
Love isn’t passive happenstance. Nor does it depend on certainty of feeling (are feelings ever certain?). Love is a choice.
Love at First Sight recognizes this in the final narration, which describes how Oliver and Hadley go on to enjoy a happy, 58-year marriage and have a daughter. And “none of it would have been possible were it not for a missed flight, a broken seat belt, and a choice to love each other every day.” The film ends not with the traditional “The End” title card but instead with “The Beginning.” However this couple were brought together, the real work of their relationship is just beginning.
Biblical Hope for Relational Uncertainty
These movies are examples of how pop culture gives expression to contemporary longings and common questions among young adults today.
One survey found that among singles who desire marriage, the top two reasons they remain unmarried are “it’s hard to find the right person to marry” and “not ready for the commitment.” In our experiences discipling young dating couples, my wife and I can attest that these hang-ups are pervasive. Given that Gen Z young adults are often risk-averse and struggle with mental health, it’s unsurprising the high stakes of dating and marriage render them anxious.
So how should the church counsel this generation through their dating woes and marriage fears? A big part is casting a more positive, beautiful, Scripture-shaped vision of marriage—one that demystifies fairy tale misconceptions and defuses burdensome expectations (like the necessity of perfect compatibility and finding “the one”). When we counsel dating couples, we often return to Tim and Kathy Keller’s bountiful wisdom in The Meaning of Marriage—particularly their debunking of the myth of “soulmates” and their insistence on the sanctifying, selfless nature of marriage in contrast to the self-fulfillment shape it often takes.
Singles and dating couples should also be around healthy Christian marriages, which happens best in a local church. In an intergenerational church community, singles can witness Christian marriages that may hit road bumps from time to time, yet do not dissolve; couples who stay faithful and committed to one another even through difficult seasons of stress, hardship, or felt “incompatibility.” These examples demonstrate that love and marriage under Christ are less fragile than Hollywood might have us believe.
Movies like Fingernails and Love at First Sight might, by common grace, stumble upon transcendent truths about love and marriage (the latter film especially does). But they also often express and perpetuate the confusion of the age, leaving viewers lonelier and less hopeful about their romantic dreams. A church shaped by Scripture and the love of Christ, however—where biblical marriage is celebrated and even encouraged—can be a compass of clarity amid the confusion, a haven of hope amid the anxiety of our age.