Has an excess of choice in our dating lives paradoxically led to a paucity of choice?

‘Why can’t I have them all, Mummy?’

A version of this post first appeared on All Sweetness and Life.

I have an acquaintance — let’s call her Nicky — in her early 30s. Until recently, Nicky was seeing a great guy: handsome, athletic, kind, high-powered job. Then a couple of weeks ago, she ended it. What had scuppered this idyllic relationship, I wondered? Had he cheated? Did he have a drinking problem? “No,” said Nicky. “I just thought his nose was a bit wide.”

My initial reaction was: that’s a bit shallow, but understandable. I mean, she only wants the best for herself. She doesn’t want to “settle”. Isn’t that her right?

If so, it’s a right that more and more of us are exercising. In 1966, the average age at first marriage in the UK was 24.9 for men and 22.5 for women; in 2014, it was 32 and 30. (The equivalent US figures are 22.8 for men and 20.5 for women in 1966, versus 29 and 27 in 2013.)

It’s not just that we’re marrying later. The single population is growing at a giddying pace. The 2011 census showed that single households in the UK outnumbered households with couples for the first time. There are doubtless a number of contributory factors, social and economic, but a large part of it is that we’re all getting fussier about our partners.

Why? Well, technology, in the form of high-speed transport, social media and internet dating, has hugely increased the number of our potential dates and the speed at which we can date them. This, combined with social changes — less stigma surrounding promiscuity, open relationships and divorce — offers us a breadth of choice that no previous generation has known. And more choice is always a good thing, right?

A few years ago, scientists at Columbia and Stanford universities conducted a fascinating experiment. They gave two groups of subjects a selection of chocolates, from which they were allowed to choose one. One group was given 30 different chocolates, the other six. No one came out of the experiment altogether unhappy, of course, but the scientists’ surprising finding was that the people who had 30 chocolates to choose from regretted their choice more than the people who only had six.

Starbucks now proudly boasts that it offers drinks in no fewer than 87,000 combinations. Seriously? 87,000? If you properly weighed up all your options, you’d die of thirst before you ordered. Most of us deal with this information overload the only rational way possible: we order the same thing every time.

When faced with the bewildering array of wines at the supermarket, how do you whittle down your options? You go for a grape that you like, or a country; or, more likely, you choose by price. When you have thousands of people to choose from on an internet dating site, what do you use as a filter then? Height. Earnings. Looks.

Paradoxically, the excess of choice has led to a paucity of choice.

The American writer Alvin Toffler was one of the first people to identify a potential problem. Forty years ago, in his book Future Shock, he wrote: “Ironically, the people of the future may suffer not from an absence of choice, but from a paralyzing surfeit of it. They may turn out to be the victims of that peculiar super-industrial dilemma: overchoice.”

Of course, we’ve always known that an excess of choice is not necessarily a good thing. Consider the phrase “spoilt for choice”. Spoilt, as in “spoilt child”. Spoilt, as in ruined.

For most of its history, mankind lived in small tribes. Even until halfway through the last century, most of us still congregated in tiny rural communities, and rarely travelled far. Bustling cities have only sprung up in the last couple of hundred years, and photography has only been with us since the mid-1800s. In short, until yesterday, from an evolutionary point of view, it was rare for any one person to see much more than a hundred faces in a lifetime. Now, thanks to city living, TV and the internet, we’re confronted with millions upon millions. Are our puny caveman brains adjusting quickly enough?

Some scientists think not. Psychologist Barry Schwartz, in his book The Paradox of Choice, writes: “The more options there are, the more likely one will make a non-optimal choice, and this prospect undermines whatever pleasure one may get from one’s actual choice.” Essentially, when we pick something from a wide selection, we tend to appreciate it less, because we’re more worried about the opportunities we missed than about the thing we’ve got.

And the research of Eli Finkel, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University, has led him to conclude that people presented with too many choices tend to make lazy and often poor decisions.

This doesn’t bode well for our happiness in the dating market. After all, when it comes to chocolates and coffees, you can just choose something different next time you go to the shop. That’s not a luxury you get with life partners.

All this choice has a second, more insidious drawback. Because the mass media aren’t just exposing us to more people than ever before; they’re exposing us to more absurdly attractive people than ever before. Most of the people we see in films, TV shows and adverts are young, clear-complexioned, improbably proportioned gods and goddesses. Beauty’s assault on the media has been swift and decisive: now most children’s TV shows are fronted by charisma-free shop window dummies; female newsreaders are sacked the second they hit 40; and we barely raise an eyebrow these days at the suggestion that a pop act might have been selected for looks rather than talent. Where once we had Michael Fish telling us how terrible the weather was going to be, now we have Sian Welby. For science, we had Magnus Pyke; now it’s Brian Cox. Goodbye David Bellamy; hello Charlotte Uhlenbroek.

It’s already been proven that the diet of improbable bodies is causing body dysmorphia — conditions such as anorexia and bulimia. Might it not also, then, be causing partner dysmorphia? Could this endless parade of washboard abs, hourglass figures and Hollywood smiles be making us more dissatisfied with the girl or boy next door? Judging by the ever growing sales of beauty products and the boom in plastic surgery, something is driving us to make more effort.

There’s a growing body of evidence that pornography in particular can have harmful effects on relationships. Zillmann & Bryant’s 1988 paper found that regular porn users often become less satisfied with their partner’s sexual performance, physical appearance, and willingness to try new sexual experiences. And according to a study by Grov, Gillespie, Royce and Lever in 2010, men who are involved in online sexual activity are less aroused by real sex, and initiate it less often.

The third downside of choice is the flipside of an upside. Say you’ve been with a gas supplier for 10 years. Suddenly, it puts its prices up by 10%; and all the other gas suppliers raise theirs by only 4%. Because you have the freedom of choice, you switch suppliers.

Dating seems to be going the same way. Say your current sex supplier turns out to have an annoying habit. One or two generations ago, you wouldn’t have been aware of many alternatives, so you’d probably have raised the issue, talked it out, or learned to overlook the flaw. But now, knowing that there are myriad potential mates, accessible in an instant, we’re more likely simply to ditch them for another provider. Excess of choice is making us less forgiving. We won’t tolerate imperfections any more, and we won’t work as hard to overcome obstacles.

For proof of the decrease in tolerance, you only have to look at divorce statistics. In 1971, just 1% of all marriages ended in divorce; forty years later, it’s 42%. Infidelity, too, is on the rise. Once upon a time, people split only over irreconcilable differences. Now we do so at the drop of a hat.

It’s a widely circulated statistic that arranged marriages are more stable than “free” ones based on mutual attraction. Most people assume that this is because there’s more pressure on the couple to stay together. But a recent US study found that couples in arranged marriages were just as happy as those in conventional western ones. The sociologists’ explanation is that both parties’ expectations start out low. I’m not suggesting for a second that we all start letting our parents fix us up; just pointing out that even an absence of choice is no barrier to happiness.

In a 2009 study, Denmark was found to be the happiest country in Europe. This was not, the researchers believed, because Denmark has the best weather, or economy, or scenery (it patently doesn’t). It was because they had good social cohesion — and the lowest expectations. Similarly, in the same year, Louisiana came out top in a happiness survey of US states, while New York — the land of opportunity — came bottom. It’s really starting to look as though the less choice you have, the happier you are.

I have another friend — let’s call her Lucy — in her early 40s. She suffers from what she calls “Groucho syndrome”, after the Marx brother’s famous comment that he didn’t want to join any club that would have him as a member. In other words, none of the people she fancies fancy her. Her standards, she says, are too high for her looks.

I tell her, as every good friend should, that she’s gorgeous and that there are loads of amazing people who’d want to be with her; she just hasn’t met them yet. But she hasn’t had a boyfriend in nearly 10 years.

So much for those who refuse to settle. What about those who did?

When I was in my mid-20s, only just out of university, a few of my friends got married. I was astonished. I mean, sure, their partners were lovely, but … they were 25! They’d met maybe a quarter of the people they were going to meet in their lifetimes. How could they possibly know they’d found their perfect someone?

The answer is, they couldn’t. They just knew they’d found someone good. Someone they had a reasonable shot at happiness with. And when I look at them now — nice house, lovely kids, someone to talk to, someone to hold them at night — I’m green with envy.

Let’s not kid ourselves. They bicker, they get on each other’s nerves, and I’m sure they cast the odd rueful glance at a third-party bottom. (Yes, two of them were divorced before the bride’s bouquet had wilted, although they were both safely remarried within a year.) On the other hand, they’re enjoying all the benefits that coupledom brings: physical contact. Emotional support. Sharing the chores. Tax breaks. Someone to look after them when they’re older. Studies have repeatedly shown that married people (and unmarried people in long-term relationships) are happier, live longer, and even earn more than singletons. These friends of mine “settled” because they wanted to reap the benefits sooner rather than later.

I’m betting at least one of your friends, at some point, has pasted William Arthur Ward’s adage into their Facebook status: “The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.” I have an alternative version for the internet age. “The pessimist doesn’t join the internet dating site; the optimist joins the internet dating site expecting to meet The One; the realist joins the internet dating site expecting no more than having a few fun nights out, meeting a few interesting people, and maybe, just maybe, finding someone he can make a connection with.”

The word “settle” has so many negative connotations these days. It’s come to mean achieving less than your full potential; not trying hard enough; accepting defeat. Well, I think it’s time to reclaim it. Remember, the original definition of “settle” is to relax, to calm down, to stop worrying. To get comfortable. Perhaps we shouldn’t see it as defeat. Perhaps we should look at it as quitting while you’re ahead.

Conversely, “keeping your options open” is widely seen as a positive thing. But there’s another way of looking at it: you could think of it as indecision. Cowardice, even.

So what can we do about this? We can’t put the genie back in the bottle. No one’s going to give up all this wonderful choice, even if it does have drawbacks.

Personally, I’d like the powers that be to take the initiative. I’d like to see a more representative range of faces in TV and film. Fewer supermodels, more Dove models. I’d like it if TV and music producers went back to picking talent on the basis of talent. But that’s not going to happen, because these companies are driven by public demand, and the public rarely demand what’s good for them.

It’s down to us, as individuals, to show temperance. And there are things you can do to deliberately restrict your choices — and to stop your standards shooting sky-high.

First of all, guys: don’t watch porn. Seriously. I refer you to the research above.

And girls: steer clear of girl porn. By this I don’t mean sexually explicit material, but the equally poisonous, quick-hit stuff that performs a similar function for you: chick lit, romcoms, glossy mags. They paint pictures that your life will never live up to.

While you’re at it, cut down on what I call “spiritual ass massage”: the you’re-amazing, never-compromise, power-of-you, self-help, horoscope bullshit. They’re the equivalent of taking painkillers when you need surgery. Sure, they make the pain go away in the short term, but they’re only making the underlying problems worse.

By all means use internet dating — it’s a fabulous, efficient, time-saving way of meeting people. But use it cleverly. When you sign up, fix a date in the future (I’d recommend no longer than six months) when you’re going to come off it again. You’ll be much more invested in the dates you go on knowing that your time is limited. And drop a couple of those boxes you want ticked. By insisting on a guy who’s 6ft or taller, for example, you could by denying yourself the 5ft 11in love of your life.

And Tinder? I wouldn’t touch it with a shitty stick. As long as there are thousands of attractive people available at the swipe of a thumb, you’ll never be happy with anyone.

Settle. Give up that pernicious, phantasmagorical notion of The One. No one’s perfect, no one’s perfect for you, and if they were, they probably wouldn’t give you the time of day. Of course I’m not recommending that you marry the first Tom, Dick or Harriet who looks at you twice. But try to be a little less exacting. Don’t rule people out because they wear the wrong perfume or sneeze in a slightly effeminate way.

And if you do find someone, for God’s sake, make more than a half-hearted effort to make it work. Try to overlook, or get used to their faults. Bring problems up, and try to work them out. Because while being in a half-decent relationship isn’t as good as being in an amazing one, it beats the hell out of being lonely.

I realise this message is not going to be a popular one, because it’s not romantic, or idealistic. But that’s my point: we’re fed too much romance and idealism and perfection these days. It’s raising our hopes so high that they can’t help be smashed to pieces when we’re confronted with reality.

And to be honest, I don’t care if this advice is popular. Because it’s aimed at my friends, Picky Nicky and Choosy Lucy, whose long-term happiness is important to me. And above all, it’s aimed at me.

Because I’ve refused to settle too. I moaned on my old blog about being rebuffed or rejected for trivial reasons — but I’m just as guilty of it myself. I’ve been out with three or four lovely girls who things might have worked out with; but they were never quite lovely enough. There was always the chance of something better round the corner. And now I’m now I’m rapidly running out of corners.

It’s not going to be easy to follow my own advice. I internet-date, I love romcoms, and I watch porn. But I know that if I ever want to settle down, I’m going to have to learn to settle.

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