Right before Christmas, I received an email from a company purporting to have created the "anti-Tinder." Where Tinder (and, weirdly, Ashley Madison, which also got thrown into the pitch email's copy) focuses on making partner acquisition a near effortless pursuit, this app—none too subtly named Hero Boyfriend—would tackle the much more difficult task of partner retention. That is to say: while Tinder might help you rack up a series of one night stands, Hero Boyfriend wants to help you hold on to the one, period.
Not surprisingly, my initial reaction to the idea was one of extreme skepticism. This was partly because nearly all of the sex- and dating-related apps that I get pitched are completely and total garbage. But I also couldn't shake a nagging feeling that Hero Boyfriend was treading into territory that I wasn't quite comfortable with. After all, if my partner needed an app to remind them to do nice things for me, were they really a partner I wanted to be with?
I'd never know unless I actually investigated, so I agreed to download a beta version of the app and give it a whirl.
I was underwhelmed.
For all its hype, Hero Boyfriend didn't actually do very much: after a brief intro period during which it asked me a few questions about my "girlfriend" (Hero Boyfriend is very heteronormative, both in assuming only straight couples will use it, and in assuming that it's only the male half of that couple who might need reminders to not be shitty), the service offered up a few cheesy romance tips seemingly scraped from back issues of Cosmo, reminded me it could make restaurant reservations (look out, OpenTable!), and then promptly went silent.
So Hero Boyfriend was a bust. But it did get me thinking about the question of using technology to optimize long term romance. If we're using tech to enhance every other part of our lives—from fitness to nutrition to parenting to work—why shouldn't there be some tech hack to facilitate committed partnerships? (The Four Hour Marriage, anyone?) Surely, there must be some way to use technology to enhance our romantic commitments—one that doesn't cheapen our convictions about love and marriage, or rely too heavily on shitty sex tips recycled from lady and lad mags.
I turned to Twitter, asking if anyone out there was using technology to be a better partner. I'm not exactly sure what I was expecting to hear from people. Some app that helps stave off the inevitable boredom that comes with monogamy, perhaps, or one that offered up creative and fun date ideas. But what I got in response was actually pretty mundane.
People who said they are actively using tech to improve their relationships aren't using apps to automate romance or remind themselves to buy flowers. They're using them to tackle the much more every day challenges of being in a committed relationship. Respondents told me about tech hacks to divide household chores more fairly, or sharing calendars to improve communication and remind one another of important dates. One person told me that apps like Splitwise and SquareCash make sharing household purchases a much easier proposition, reducing squabbles over who owes how much money for what.
The closest I got to anything remotely related to sex were couples who found that using period tracking apps enhanced their intimacy. One person who reached out to me over email offered that keeping tabs on his wife's cycle "gives us a window for sex (we're both not keen on sex during her period; it's not off limits, but it's not either of our favorite time)." Another respondent noted that the added awareness of a partner's hormone levels "allows both of us to adjust behavior and communication based upon cycle"—like, for instance, being more understanding of pre-menstrual moodiness or confusing behavior.
In other words, people using tech to enhance their relationships are doing the exact opposite of what Hero Boyfriend offered. Instead of using apps as romance reminders, or as inspiration for some display of cheesy forced sentiment, the people I spoke with were improving their relationships through better management of the boring, everyday aspects of committing to someone.
If we want an app that really helps couples stay in love, it might need to abandon the chocolate hearts and flowers and bottles of champagne in favor of chore wheels and budget sharing
Which, the more I thought about it, actually made a whole lot of sense. Hero Boyfriend starts from the assumption that showy, romantic gestures are the best way to keep love alive, and that you can somehow power pose your way into being a better partner by cribbing romance tips from a robot. But the death of romance is rarely just about a self-centered boyfriend who forgets to send you flowers. For many of us, it's domesticity—and the friction and fights that arise from sharing a life with someone—that leads to bed death.
By using technology to take the pain points out of sharing a life or a home or a family, it's possible to avoid all those quietly built up resentments that can poison a relationship over time. Even better, reducing the amount of energy we devote to figuring out who takes out the trash or washes the dishes means freeing up more mental space for spontaneous romantic gestures or better sex moves or whatever it is that you and your partner see as an essential part of keeping love alive.
It's understandable why apps like Hero Boyfriend put the emphasis on romance: hot date nights and fancy sex tips are literally sexier than schedule management and paying for toilet paper. But all the Hamilton tickets and elite dinner reservations in the world won't get rid of that sink full of dirty dishes you're both refusing to touch—and over time, those dirty dishes are likely to do far more damage to a relationship than any romantic gesture can repair.
If we want an app that really helps couples stay in love, it might need to abandon the chocolate hearts and flowers and bottles of champagne in favor of chore wheels and budget sharing; automating the mundane aspects of commitment and providing us with the creativity and energy to figure out the showy romance bits on our own. Which, if you ask me, is a much more optimistic vision of tech-enabled marital bliss.