For the Long-Time Single, Dating Can Become a “Tyranny” of Choice: What Emerging Science Tells Us About Love
In the past few months, I’ve had the delight of stumbling across several investigative reports on the topic of dating. In particular, what I loved was each article’s scientific angle.
Can the sharp reasoning skills of the left brain, and our growing foundation of scientific knowledge, actually shed light on the oh-so-right-brained flights of the romantic heart? The science-lover in me likes to think so. And a growing community of scientists increasingly thinks so too.
In the next three columns, I’m going to take a departure from my usual content of answering readers’ letters and share highlights of these three articles.
(Article 2 of 3 in the series)
The July 4, 2011, issue of The New Yorker carried a fascinating investigation into the world of online dating. Titled “Looking for Someone: Sex, Love, and Loneliness on the Internet, writer Nick Paumgarten offers not so much a concise “answer” to the mysteries of love, but rather an outsider’s exploration into its vast terrain.
Unlike my article last week, I won’t be able to boil the article down into concise data-oriented conclusions. To appreciate the full richness of the article, you really need to read the piece itself.
But what I can do is offer some highlights of ideas that really resonated with me. Some of these are ideas reached by the author himself; others are insights from the people he interviewed.
Paumgarten begins his storytelling with a re-cap of the origins of online dating, which he can date back clear to 1964, much to my surprise. Since then, it has grown into a multi-billion-dollar industry. JDate debuted in 1997 and now has more than 650,000 active members worldwide.
Online is now the third most common way for people to meet, and one in six marriages is the result of Internet dating sites.
Paumgarten’s reporting focuses on several dating sites. One of the things his reporting really drives home is how different all of these dating sites are. Each one has its own “personality” or “flavor,” attracting its own unique type of community. In fact, Spark Networks, JDate’s parent company, owns more than 30 niche-oriented dating websites for specific religious, ethnic, special interest and geographical communities.
My conclusion from this is that if you are dating for marriage – and not for the purpose of finding brief flings or one-night stands – you would really do well to utilize a variety of dating services. I usually used three or four at a time, and yes, combing through profiles and going out on dates really can start to feel like an extra full-time job.
The Internet can be a uniquely efficient way of finding Mr. or Ms. Forever because of its reach. “The process of selecting and securing a partner … is as consequential as it can be inefficient or irresolute,” Paumgarten writes. “Lives hang in the balance, and yet we have typically relied for our choices on happenstances—offhand referrals, late nights at the office, or the dream of meeting cute. Online dating sites, whatever their mercenary motives, draw on the premise that there has got to be a better way. … The obvious advantage … is that it provides a wider pool of possibility and choice.”
What really rang true was his observation that the online world re-creates, for adults, that once-in-a-lifetime choice-rich environment of college.
“Dating is an attempt to approximate the collegiate condition—that surfeit of both supply and demand. … A college campus is a habitat of abundance and access. … A city also has abundance and access, especially for the young, but then as people pair off, through profession, geography, and taste, into cliques and castes, the range of available mates shrink. We run out of friends of friends and friends of friends of friends. You can get to thinking that the single ones are single for a reason.”
Boy is that true. I wish I had realized that in my 20s, when I had some new possible guy knocking on my door pretty much on a weekly basis. One day I woke up, and everything had changed, and I wasn’t exactly sure when, or how, it had happened. By the time I was “ready,” everyone else had disappeared, except, often, for those much-older commitment-phobes scouting for that ever-younger arm candy.
Men and women alike really need to get themselves “ready” for lifetime commitments in their 20s. How, exactly, you can do that, if you aren’t “there”? I’m not sure. But if you’re in your 20s, and reading this, I implore you to consider it.
Once You Hit 30, Things Change
Paumgarten doesn’t peg age ranges onto his reporting, but I will. Sometime in the early 30s, the pool starts to rapidly shrink. Then we, as the still-singles (or single-agains), start to face a new reality that no one warned us about. Paumgarten calls it the “tyranny” of choice and compromise.
How do you know which of your partner criteria you should hold out for forever? Which are the ones it’s okay to compromise on? The longer you are single, the harder, I think, it becomes to figure it out.
Paumgarten explains: “If you are eager, to say nothing of desperate, for a long-term partner you may have to contend with something else—the tyranny of unwitting compromise. Often the people who go on the sites that promise you a match are so primed to find one that they jump at the first or the second or the third who comes along. The people who are looking may not be the people you are looking for.”
He quotes one of the founders of OKCupid, who explained it another way: “It’s a selection problem when you round up a bunch of people who want to settle down.” Some people are too picky, and others aren’t picky enough. Some hitters swing at every first pitch, and others always strike out looking. Many sites, either because of their methods or because of their reputations, tend to attract one or the other. (Paumgarten)
Another person interviewed is Helen Fisher, a research professor atRutgerswho specializes in human attraction and attachment. She shared a stunning observation: “Our social and sexual patterns have changed more in the last 50 years than in the last 10,000. Our courtship rituals are rapidly changing, and we don’t know what to do.”
I realize this statement doesn’t answer your dilemma of “what to do.” But it should, I hope, bring you solace to know that your bewilderment and frustration is not because you are stupid. It’s because you, as a long-time single person (or as a re-single person), are in a social terrain utterly alien to most of human experience.
Hey, at least you are not here alone.
Focus on What Matters
Paumgarten’s article spans 12 pages of the magazine. The resounding message I took away is the importance of tenacity, sticking with it, and staying focused on what really matters.
I receive letters all the time from people who are broken-hearted about that one jerk who dissed them online, or the one guy (or gal) who didn’t return their affections. I empathize, I’ve been there and done that.
I also wish I could get back all those years of my life I wasted agonizing over some man who hurt, betrayed or ignored me. Yes, grieving loss is normal, natural and healthy to do. It also, at some point, becomes a waste of valuable time. And your time matters.
If you fall for someone who is giving you all the classic “commitment-phobe” signals, hit the “next” button and move on. If your heart is quickening for someone who has an edge of cruelty or unkindness, sprint in the other direction. Those are the character traits that won’t be a big deal in the honeymoon phase. But once you throw in the life challenges of money, children, work and aging parents, they will rear their ferocious heads.
I’ll conclude with another poignant insight from Paumgarten: “It’s senseless, at last in the absence of divine agency, to declare that any two people were made for each other, yet we say it all the time, to sustain our belief that it’s sensible for them to pair up. The conceit can turn the search for someone into a search for that someone, which is fated to end in futility or compromise, whether conducted on the Internet or in a ballroom. And yet people find each other, every which way, and often achieve something that they call happiness.”
Giving love to another person is a choice. Marriage is a commitment, not just to another person, but to the idea and value of commitment. You don’t need Mr. or Ms. Perfect. You just need Mr. or Ms. Good Enough.
This is part two of a three-part series summarizing recent media articles reporting on scientific research into dating and marriage. To read part 1 of this series, click here. To read part 3 of this series, click here.