The Paradox of Choice in Romance

In today’s age, a proliferation of choice plagues every aspect of our lives. There are hundreds of brands and models of cars, an assortment of life insurance plans, various cable and internet packages, and grocery store aisles stocked with hundreds of variations of the same goods. In addition to having a large variety of choice with products and services, we have an unprecedented amount of choice when it comes to romantic partners. Today, because of digital technology, we’re exposed to an unrivaled amount of romantic options to choose from. At first thought this may seem beneficial; all of this choice will help us maximize our chance at happiness by finding our “perfect” soulmate. However, this much choice may have a negative impact on our romantic lives and have the possibility to leave us dissatisfied.

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In Modern Romance, Aziz Ansari explains that for past generations, choice was limited while in search for a romantic partner. Not only did they lack the technology we have now, but many became involved in relationships and marriage for entirely different reasons than we do currently. Not only did this impact the number of romantic options, but the idea of having options in the first place. Older generations felt pressured to settle down and start families, and opted for ‘companionate marriages’, in which both partners fulfilled specific roles in the relationship, and married based on personal, social, and/or financial security. Women especially settled and married quickly, in order to gain independence from their families and acquire the basic freedoms of adulthood. According to a statistic listed in the book, “in the early 1960s, 76% of women admitted they would be willing to marry someone they didn’t love” (p. 22). Due to this pressure, and the ultimate decision to settle for “good-enough” marriages, many married locally. It was only when those within their locale were unavailable, that they traveled to further distances, but as John Ellsworth Jr. stated, “people will go as far as they have to to find a mate, but no farther” (p. 16).

It wasn’t until the late 1960’s and early 70’s that the idea of a ‘companionate marriage’ became increasingly rejected — especially by women, who had begun to gain equality and freedom over their lives. “Good-enough” was no longer an option— individuals now wanted a soulmate; that perfect person to fall deeply in love with. According to Andrew Cherlin, and restated by Ansari, “the soul mate marriage has the highest potential for happiness” (p. 25), and “by the 1980’s, 86% of American men and 91% of American women said they would not marry someone without the presence of romantic love” (p. 24).

However, it wasn’t until the rise of the life stage ‘emerging adulthood’ that people’s pool of romantic options began to expand tremendously. This is the stage in a young adult’s life when they leave their parents’ house, and move to other places — attend college or university, start careers, and further develop themselves. Due to ‘emerging adulthood’, more and more individuals are exposed to experiences and people outside of their neighborhoods and towns. In addition to the manifestation of this new life stage, there now exists the technology to connect us to an unprecedented amount of romantic options — in the form of dating apps and websites, social media, and the like; people we may have never met otherwise. However, though many have gained this relatively new romantic freedom, searching for a soulmate can be extremely stressful for some, due to the fact that people are also searching for perfection.

In theory, the proliferation of romantic options to choose from may seem useful, in that it increases the odds that we’ll find our one, true soul mate, and live happily ever after. However, Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice, argues that more options can overwhelm us and leave us feeling unsatisfied. All of the people we’re exposed to through dating apps and the like, allude to the idea that there is a “perfect person” out there — one that encompasses all of the things we desire in a romantic partner. This means that we’re not only comparing different romantic partners to each other, but to an idealized “perfect person.” This can lead us to doubt our romantic choices, and forever have us wonder if there’s someone better. A quote from Barry Schwartz in “A Million First Dates” states, “a large array of options may diminish the attractiveness of what people actually choose, the reason being that thinking about the attractions of some of the unchosen options detracts from the pleasure derived from the chosen one.” As a result, this can cause us to become extremely picky, or worse — neglect life-long commitment, in fear of missing out on someone better.

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Here’s the takeaway from all of this: there’s absolutely nothing wrong with knowing what you want in a relationship, and setting expectations for romantic partners. But in order to address this paradox of choice, there is a need to understand that no one is perfect. Relationships require work, and many couples will face hardships; but part of loving someone is accepting their flaws, and loving them for who they are (except for destructive or abusive behaviour, because that’s unacceptable). Having a large variety of options at our fingertips can be useful, as long as we remember that these faces on our phones and computers are still people, and not to hold them to unrealistic standards created out of fantasy.

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