I’ve been reading about this new book “The Paradox of Choice” by Barry Schwartz (hear him speak here, especially the part about buying jeans) about – and I’m sure I’m oversimplifying this, because I haven’t read the actual book yet – how too many choices can actually make us unhappy. And one thing has been running through my head ever since I heard about it: that’s what the problem is with dating.
I’ve been dating for about 10 years. Mostly online (heck, Craig Newmark and I should just get married) , but also in the “normal” way (meeting people in dorm rooms, at work, at bars, in social groups, on the hiking trail, on the train). I’ve developed several relationships with men I met online and with men I met in “real” life, so I know the various sides of the coin. I’ve probably been on first dates with upwards of 50 men, some of whom I rejected for various reasons, some of whom rejected me, and most of whom just faded out of my life as I faded out of theirs. No drama, no discussion, no follow-up calls.
Most of those 50 guys were just not going to cut it; I knew from the first ten minutes. I wasn’t attracted, I didn’t feel like he listened to me or cared what I had to say, he wasn’t funny, he didn’t laugh at my jokes, he had a weird rash, or too many kids, or was too charismatic (or not charismatic enough). He invited me over to his hot tub too soon – or not soon enough. He tried to make moves on me. Or he didn’t. There have been as many reasons as there have been guys. The most common reason, of course, the default justification for not seeking a second date: there was no spark. And I’m sure, to the guys who never bothered to call me after the first date, there were reasons I didn’t make the cut: not the right coloring or body type, didn’t laugh often enough, didn’t come with my own rock-climbing gear. Who knows. There’s always a reason.
And I’ve been thinking recently how different it would if we really didn’t have that many choices of people to date; if Craigslist and Yahoo and the plethora of dating sites didn’t offer a daily selection of hundreds and hundreds of people, like some kind of human Berkeley Bowl (seriously, who needs 10 varieties of oranges to choose from?). What if we really couldn’t afford to be so choosy? If we knew the three available and dateable people in our town and knew we had to either choose one of them or move to a different town? Wouldn’t we be happier with the one we chose? Wouldn’t we be more forgiving of his foibles, think him more attractive, consider that we had made the right choice when compared to the other two? I think so.
I’ve actually often thought of how nice it would be, on some level, to just not really have that much of a choice. To have my parents steer me towards somebody, or to live somewhere where there just weren’t that many guys to go around, and so if I wanted one, I had to choose what was available. The way I feel more comfortable shopping at Whole Foods simply because there are only 4 types of apples and not 17. There’s something comforting in this idea that I wouldn’t have to choose from an infinite number of variables. I mean a choice of three is hard enough, but how can you choose between infinity? It’s impossible!
No matter who I’m with, there will always be the possibility of someone “better” out there. I know this is wrong, and unfair, but it’s still true. And then I wonder if this is why I’m still single, and why so many people are still single, not marrying until later, and generally seem disaffected by the whole dating experience. It’s because too many choices are making us unhappy – unhappy being single, unhappy with the dates we find, unhappy with the one we “end up with”, which more and more often means the one we date for two or three years and then break up with. We’re unforgiving of each other because we can always find someone else. We’re a culture of people with dating ADD.
I can see this in how my own mind struggles with the whole bullshit romantic ideal thing: the “soul mate” myth, the “don’t settle” myth. That’s all crap. We’re all humans, and no human is going to be perfect. Holding out for the perfect mate is nothing more than romantic idealization of a very normal and human situation that’s about as far from a myth as it can possible get. Yet I can’t seem to get past it, this idea that there’s some perfect man out there for me, one who will make me shake with desire at the same time that I intellectually admire his value system and commitment to those values; one who knows exactly what to say and when to say it. Sometimes I just wish God or Craig Newmark would just drop down from heaven, plop a man in front of me and tell me to forget all the bullshit and make it work.
Then again, like the joke about God saying "I sent you two boats and a helicopter, what more do you want?" maybe I've already had that chance. Maybe I missed it. Or maybe it's right here in front of me.