Why Are You Single? Perhaps It's The Choice Effect

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“It’s impossible not to constantly wonder if there’s something better, someone better.”

My good female friend picked up her third glass of Syrah-Merlot and continued: “If I could only choose between three decent guys, it’d be a done deal. I’d be married already.”

I nodded. Having options–perceived infinite choice–isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. How, then, do you tame indecision, particularly in relationships?

The following guest post, written by Claire Williams, explores some of the more successful approaches… and realizations.

*********

In 2000, Drs. Sheena S. Iyengar and Mark R. Lepper set up a tasting booth at an upscale grocery store in California. On some days, they put out a selection of six types of jam; on other days they set out twenty-four. Although the wider selection attracted more shoppers, more people bought the jam when there were fewer options. It seemed
the more choices people had, the harder it was to make a decision.

The Paradox of Choice explored this infamous dilemma, in which having more options tends to leave us paralyzed and increase our buyer’s remorse. But what does that mean when you’re not just shopping? What about when you’re doing much more important stuff…like picking a job, a house, or – gasp – a life partner?…

If you ever listened to your teachers, talked to your parents, or watched Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, you learned that you were a special snowflake and the world was yours for the taking. But for a generation with more options than ever before, how do you choose when you’ve been taught you can have it all?

Choister?

Today’s twenty- and thirty-somethings approach life and love very differently than past generations. The explosion of choices now available has impacted our desires and expectations, and led us to reconsider traditional decisions. Young men and women are increasingly reluctant to make the ultimate commitment and get married, and much of
that is due to all the other glittery options out there competing for our attention – friends, professional success, 30 Rock, the people in the world you haven’t yet dated.

If you love choices and think the world is your oyster, you’re a choister.

In a world where you might have twenty careers by your 31st birthday, you just might want to cultivate some more stability in your relationships.

The “choice effect” is that pit in your stomach as soon as the waiter walks away with your food order and you realize you wanted what she’s having. It’s a reality, and one that impacts our love
lives.

So how do you overcome this paradox in relationships? For your mother’s sake, take notes.

5 Ways to Tame the Choice Effect:

Use the following “C”-words to make the other “C”-word–commitment–less daunting.

1. Criteria:

Before I decided to settled down with “J”, my now fiancé from Argentina, there were several key moments where I questioned the very basis of our relationship. As foreigners in each other’s lands, cultural and language barriers have been an ongoing theme. It’s taken him years to accept that in my country we eat omelets for breakfast – not lunch – and my visible upset at the break-up of Tipper and Al made him more than pause (okay, maybe that’s not cultural). But one day while I related a particularly hysterical Jon Stewart shtick, the worst happened. He told me it didn’t sound very funny. And that’s when I asked myself: could I really spend a lifetime single-handedly explaining the nuances of The Daily Show to a newbie?

My non-negotiables had been there from the start: internationalism, spirituality, and ambition. Although J matched me well on these fronts, we weren’t carbon copies of one another by any stretch of the imagination. He spends hundreds of hours a year on photography, and I traveled around the world for an entire year without bringing my own camera. I still don’t understand if a bass and a bass guitar are the same thing, but there are apparently three of them displayed in our foyer. I had never heard of Maradona.

We make trade offs in our love lives – J’s cultural “shortcomings” are made up for by key compatibilities. As I’ve come to believe, a man who has never tasted peanut butter can still make an excellent father. So think about what you need. Not a never-ending wish list about how the perfect partner will want to attend Lilith Fair and share your love of Neti pots. Pick the stuff that matters and find someone with those qualities.

2. Concentration:

Like Stephen Stills once sung: “Love the one you’re with.”

When J and I had been dating less than a year, I moved half-way around the world for an MBA program. Suddenly
my wonderful, intelligent, handsome boyfriend was a pixelated photo to Skype with. Meanwhile, real, warm-blooded men played lacrosse around me. This world will pull us in lots of directions, and you need to decide what your prize is and keep your eye on it. Don’t get distracted by every boy or girl that musters the energy for a “how YOU doin’?” Don’t forget your fiance’s cello concert because you’re wall-flirting with your middle school crush on Facebook. I’m all for canvassing your options, but beware the shiny ball syndrome.

3. Common Sense:

Does your ideal life involve a mud hut in Nicaragua with a partner equally thrilled by jungle monkies? Then don’t go trolling for men on what’s left of Wall Street. If you’re a conservative Christian who’s into side hugs, don’t make eyes at the atheist hippie at the local coffee shop. Yes, opposites attract. Paula Abdul said so. But they aren’t a long-term win. Don’t fall into a relationship that checks none of your boxes. Although you may think this is destiny slapping you on the face, this is actually just adrenaline. Probably heightened from the fog of patchouli.

4. Calculation:

Keep an eye on the clock. Not in the Marisa-Tomei-stomping-your-foot kind of way. But there’s being picky and then there’s being paralyzed. So ask yourself – whether you’re choosing a pair of shoes, a healthcare plan, or a spouse – “How long SHOULD this take?” For example – would you agree with the following: you should spend no longer than an hour of your life at GAP deciding between unremarkable fragrances, and no longer than 5 years to decide on a partner? Like my best friend who, after dating her boyfriend for seven years, suddenly thought, “How much more data can I expect to gather?” and suggested they elope to Vegas. You don’t have to adhere perfectly, but it’s good to step back, pick a number (I just might recommend two years), and buy a watch.

5. Choose Already:

If you went into an ice-cream store and saw a child ordering an ice cream cone with 7 different scoops, you’d tell him he was idiot (or not, because that is mean and he is small). Don’t be that kid. You don’t get to have everything.
And, to be fair, you don’t want to. College buffet lines were fun at the beginning, but a plate full of pasta-pizza-ranch-dressing-Fruit Loops loses its appeal after a while. So choose.

What stops so many of us from making a commitment is our fear that once we make a choice we have to close the door on all the other options. If we marry Andy, we will never date Charles. True. If we become an architect, we will never be a ferret trainer. Also true. However, if we do sack up and choose to become an architect, then we have a whole host of new and shiny choices to think about! Should we make a doghouse or a people house? Should the house be blue or red? Should the building be small, medium, or big?

Choosing doesn’t limit choices—it just changes them. So feel free to pick that city, that career, that partner, knowing that even commitment brings a whole new set of options – children/pets/red and blue houses – to be excited (and angsty) about.

By the way, I picked me an architect. (See how I tied that up?)

*********

Claire Williams is co-author of The Choice Effect, which explores overcoming the Paradox of Choice in decisions–big and small–that affect your life. Her previous writing on navigating choices can be found here.

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303 comments on “Why Are You Single? Perhaps It's The Choice Effect

  1. “choice paralysis” i wish this is the reason why i am still single but sad to say its not :( as i have no choices to choose from…

    my case is more like waiting for someone to choose me :P

  2. Yes, I am a choister! Such a good feeling when you know you have a wide selection of things. But sometimes having all these choices makes us more unsatisfied. Why? Once you choose something, you feel like you’re still incomplete so you ended up choosing another one again. It’s a never-ending cyle…a problem i guess.

  3. Hi Tim and community. I love this post and all the comments. In fact, it inspired me to write a little quiz on what it would take for Tim to choose a girlfriend. (It’s on my blog, Aesthetically) The quiz is also for the women out there who believe they might want to literally Tim Ferriss their lovelife.
    All my <3

  4. Hi All!

    Sorry, ..am I the only one giggling?

    I hope I don’t come off as rude for saying this but, part of me can’t help but laugh at the article, because if that’s where our minds are that we’ve defined the reason we’re so many singles (i.e. “not getting laid”), instead of doing something about it (i.e. “getting out there to get laid”), we’re accepting ourselves as choisters as a consolation, for.. let’s just say it, “not getting laid on a regular basis like normal people!’

    I just thought it was funny that we as a society have come to talk about why we’re single and accepting the trade offs for single-hood. Very well written article by the way.

    I think it’s funny, gotta laugh.
    Gloria

  5. I think this article was a great one. I meet women all the time but never really feel a connection. As a single guy in NY, it seems everyone has an agenda. I wish I can find a spot where I could meet a woman who has a like mind.

  6. I am going to respond as if we were having a conversation, and I just listened to what you had to say , and acknowledged you , took a sip of coffee and responded with : My observation after working with hundreds of clients, is that there is yes, no and maybe. And the power of choice is a senior ability that we possess. But doubt can enter into a decision and we can get stuck in a maybe.
    A maybe has a timelessness to it, so unless time is addressed as to the urgency of the decision, then the decision can be put off indefinitely. So in romance, if your partner does not ask you to choose, either partner or both, then he or she is doing you both a disservice. Love the one that wants to be with you.

  7. If you are a man, before you decide to marry or commit for life, do yourself the biggest favor of your whole life and live and date in Asia for at least 4 months. You will look at our world of relationships completely different and you will be set free.

  8. OMG, Jesus-Luizuz. Relationships aren’t that hard.
    How sad that we – mostly in this country – see relationships as a choice rather than what it really is – a basic human need – regardless of whether it’s long or short term. As human beings we were built for being in relationships period. There’s no right/wrong answer. It’s not a mind thing. It’s a heart thing. If you let your mind get in the way, you’ll be single forever. The last thing the mind wants is to be vulnerable emotionally. The mind only seeks certainty.

    This country’s weakness is relationships. This country’s identity is built on progress and advancement economically, not nurturing of the heart thru relationships/family. Hence why this country is the sickest, fattest and most depressed. It’s not a downer, it’s just the current state of things until we choose to change it. In this country we have so many choices, and our head gets in the way.

    We need to just follow our hearts and let in some love.. you know?.. get back to that primal nature,.. you know, where the guy wants to pounce the girl, and the girl wants to be pounced?

    Our indecision is a ridiculous excuse for not asking that female out, or not accepting that man’s invitation to practice connecting, being seen/desired, desiring, etc.. let alone love.

    Forget about rejection, grow up! Go out and date, etc.. MAKE LEMONADE!

  9. I agree with Gloria C., above. Many of my brilliant 30-something peers seem to think of relationships (including family… especially family) in a self-absorbed, optional kind of way. As if these things weren’t necessary. I’ve traveled extensively, lived with families for extended periods all over the world. It was in living with families in Poland and Mexico that I learned the real value of family. In Poland it is normal for extended families (parents, children, grandparents) to live together happily in 2-bedroom apartments. In Mexico, I saw magnificent celebrations in the midst of absolute poverty. These miracles happen because families (and by extension, communities) unite in solidarity. I rarely see that kind of connection here in the U.S. Ironically, I don’t have a family of my own yet…

  10. hmmm… i love the line of Aimee ” magnificent celebrations in the midst of absolute poverty.” As i widely open my consciousness, it’s a normal scenario living in large family inspite of scarcity in my country Philippines. What matters most is that every member of the family is happy. I just can’t see the definition of happiness when they’re all starving to death. Actually, the government does something to alleviate the poverty issue. But it always starts on our self. That is why i choose to be single this time. I need to prepare myself in building a family with stability( emotion, financial, and spiritual)

  11. Today I posed a question on the 5-4hb-buyer conference about Tim’s insights from “hacking” women (that sounds bad ;) / relationships. Missed out on an answer and decided to go looking on the blog, for anything I’d missed.

    Had missed this, and yep. We are sooo deeply driven by cultural conditioning, and today’s world is pretty wacked when it comes to relationships. Too much information, too many choices, too much me and me and me and my boundaries and my priorities and my want-list. the machine at large is currently geared to influence us this way, intentionally or not. it’s hard to pull yourself out of those traps when all around you are urgings to the contrary.

    Plus, many claim that long term monogamy is defunct, but I have yet to see workable, emotionally rich alternatives.

    Reading this post made me remember someone else’s essential 4hww muse, “Project Everlasting”, which I ran into a long while back. I just dug out the the site’s free opt-in “gift” videos from my email box and watched them.

    Highly recommended for those wishing to dig deep and long with a beloved of choice ;)

    http://projecteverlasting.com/

    Would still love to know any other Tim-style heart insights into the romantic natures’ of women and men, and the meeting of the two.

  12. a suddenly irritated ps.:

    hmmm…. on second thought. I think Clarie’s example of her and her partner for this aritcle is actually a bit…nauseating!

    Hot, talented, caring Latin artist-boyfriend vs. Warm-blooded lacrosse players lusted over while receiving an MBA in some far-flung locale???? Not forgetting your lover’s “cello concert”! Really, how many of Tim’s readers truly have handfuls of cultured, successful, hot-bodied model-esque potential mates to choose from and fight off? Who is the target market??? Seems there’s lots of luxury imagery and smart sex selling to us. I am as sucked in as the rest, but still, here we are, background-tantalized with yet more images that the average bear and bearette cannot hope to achieve.

    Not that this readership is average. But to be frank, I bet this readership is far more wannabe than be. Obviously, this is part of 4hww marketing, and this shouldn’t be news to me at all, but it suddenly just struck me as ….not totally nice when I think of the lovelorn and unrealistic. I know this article has depth and great points, but the subtle out-of-reach glamour of it suddenly rubbed me the wrong way.

    oh jeez: just scrolled back to re-read a bit, and saw the side bar ad for “Date the Rich” by elitedating.com. Right on target.

    Wow, this is my first grrrrrrr about this blog.

    Guess I just prefer meditating on the more wrinkled and earthy loves described in the projecteverlasting.com videos.

  13. How can someone who in 15 paragraphs on a topic offers only common sense advice – without data or original insight – have written an entire book about it?

    I agree with everyone that the topic itself is very actual, but the advice belongs in Cosmo.

    Claire could explore the phenomenon in game theory terms for example; that, backed by data, would make for some compelling reading on it, rather than Starbucks banter.

    The readers’ comments are actually more interesting.

  14. The article is cute. I can relate to it! You see at my see right now, I’m 21 by the way I haven’t experienced having a boyfriend not because I’m choosy but because no one dares.haha I always ask my friends of what was wrong with me and i still don’t have a boyfriend. You know what they told me? No one dares because no one qualifies my standards. I mean there are things that I over power men. I can easily sense if someone is just making fun. i believe they are all making fun. And I’m not the type of person who would play with them. I am not a man hater but i think I’m getting there. This is maybe because I haven’t seen even with my dad the qualities of a future husband. I’m not closing my doors anyway. I always believe that things will happen in it’s perfect time. all i have to do is wait..

  15. Funny and intriguing post, Claire. My wife and I have been together for over ten years. We’re in our late thirties and have many single friends often seeking out our advice. Reading your post reminds me of some of their dialogue with us; which makes me cringe at the dialogue that must be going on in their heads. Our advice is often the same: if you want to settle down or be in a committed relationship, then get clear on what you want and be committed. By continuously flip-flopping on our choices, our poor little internal genies must think we’re schizophrenic!

  16. Single is not a problem!! the problem is that if you choose to be married earlier and you became single again after years of living with your partner and just recognize that both can’t really make it till end.Ouchh!!!
    From the first day of your date with opposite sex that time you should know your date first before you show your interest with your date everything should be in process so that the seconds,minutes,hours,days,weeks, months, years you spend together will not just end to nothing!!!

  17. We are all so clever here! :)

    Claire and Tim thanx for post. Good food for thinking. Especially for those like me who is still chasing career, self-improvement and a lot of “self”…)

    If to analyze the marital problen in my country I came to conclusion that more young people who were married at the age of 19-25 are divorcing after two-three years of living.
    In my parents time it was very important to keep a family at any reasons, to find any compromises. But now we are too SELF-oriented and we want evrything in a “FASTFOOD” manner. Ready baked husband with a million dollar in bank account no matter did we helped him to reach this Million or will we stay with him in case he will loose his Million in a day.
    Or wife who have to be multifunctional and all the time has a tanned sexy body and bed-room eyes even if she was working the whole day than have to help children to prepare a school lessons.

    Thanx for tips but I VOTE for main GPS in this type of cases – Your HEART!
    :)

    Rumiya.

  18. This is one of the greatest posts ever, i really enjoyed it and it has highlighted a lot of faults of mine…i have made my choice, which is to marry my girlfriend of three years…Thanks Tim

  19. This was an interesting read and made me think about my own relationship. I have been married to the same woman for over 40 years so this entitles me to consider myself a bit of an expert on great relationships. When you are young, you don’t always know what you want. Love can mask a lot of potential problems and overlook a lot of other factors. Often, you don’t know what you are getting in the long run. I didn’t realize that my wife would develop into a great cook, an amazing mother, an understanding soul mate, a great listener, a person I can be with 24/7 without feeling I have to “get away”. I am one lucky guy to have someone that is so in tune with me that I think about it almost every day. One thing that stands out is the fact that a great marriage is a give and take thing. Sacrifices are sometimes made but the reward is much greater than the act of getting just what you want all the time. If you find that person that seems to have the qualities you want, grab on if they are willing.

  20. Claire, Tim,
    A few years back before I met the lady of my life I read a book by Barbara De Angelis. In the book she offered a huge chuck of information about how to decide if someone is the right person for you. For example, when you are looking for a long term relationship you will want to consider the other person in how they demonstrate the following in their lives:

    Commitment to personal growth
    Emotional openness
    Integrity
    Maturity and responsibility
    High self-esteem
    Positive attitude towards life

    There is a ton of more invaluable tips on how to find out who is the right person for you.
    Barbara’s book is called ‘Are you the one for me?’ It was published in 1992 and it was a best seller then and it is one of my life time favourite books I recommend to people.

    Check it out if you wish,

    All the best,
    David

    By the way Claire excellent article!

  21. Interesting – and well written fun article. I enjoyed it and it made me think – no wait I dont need to think I am definitely a choice challenged person!

    Unforntunately I have met (obviously slightly thick) people who read this sort of thing in an exaggerated form in magazines, and now literally religiously impose 6 month deadlines on relationships!. For example if he doesn’t propose after 6 months its finished. This makes me cringe at the complete and utter misunderstanding of the a males mind works, and the complete and utter disregard for the other persons feelings. A relationship is a two way street after all, not a selfish my way of the highway experiment.

    One would assume honesty, communication and equality to be better criteria for commitment than an arbitrary imaginary deadline. Im not arguing the validity of the suggestion being included in this article however as its entertaining and has relevance in the right situation when not taken literally – much like the bible!.

    The point was I wonder how many people have switched to the other extreme. How many people and now still single, or worse, in the wrong relationship, because they one day they woke up and chose the be non choicest ?

  22. Sort of along the same lines as this post, I learned that in the matters of love, I must really block out other people’s opinions and listen to myself. Of course, I learned this after doing the opposite and finding out how crappy it feels to go against my own judgement.

    Lesson learned, and I feel much better because of it.

  23. Choice makes things harder. That devil’s advocate always asking if this is the best you could do. It’s all simple really.
    Make a list of 5 things that needs to be in a partner of your choosing.
    Then tolerate the rest (if it’s within reason of course).
    I mean if someone is going to try to stab me everyday, yeah that doesn’t work.

    I think an interesting issue is that there’s so much variety out there. But if you make that list, I don’t think it’s that difficult anymore.

  24. I have to say that until I stopped thinking there was someone else and just buckled down – dating was HELL. This article is spot on. I’m married now and I think one of the secrets to marriage is to just acknowledge that you have no more choices – especially if you have a good wife like mine (she just takes care of everything).

  25. Thanks so much for this, I never could get any proper advice for this “condition” of mine, because I’d start explaining what was plaguing me (the yummy potential ‘other-choices’ and all that) and everyone would just look at me as though I was mad! This article really helped :) think I’ll be picking up that book as well!

  26. I’ve had more partners, jobs and homes than I’ve ever wanted at 24. I have been looking and working to find stability since I was super young but the right choices have been there to choose. I suppose I’m a choister because none of the choices I’ve had have been right for me. I can’t date someone who doesn’t want to date and I’m way to loving to not get a little something but it’s not right, just like the jobs and the homes. It’s driving me crazy!

  27. Hey Tim,

    I know this post dates back a bit but I’ve been rummaging through some of your older posts and it’s so true about the abundance of choices. It reminds me of Chandler from Friends. He just couldn’t commit. I get like that. So many choices. But then you think, 2nd best doesn’t cut it anymore. We’re not limited to villages lol. We got a whole world filled with people. And we live longer too. A lot choices with an extended period of time makes a whole lot of choisters.

  28. I have way to many choices. Women throw themselves at me and it is actually bad because I enjoy it and they are attractive and I like it. Problem is I don’t just commit. In ice cream terms I have a lot of quality flavors to choose from and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down, nor is my lust level. It is something I am genuinely working on — as funny as this post must sound to some readers out there I really think I want a committed relationship. People always say you just haven’t met the one but I kind of don’t buy the idea. I think I am a luster more than anything. I am envious of the settling down type in some ways.

  29. If you cannot get to the core of why you cannot be loyal to one person, please please do not settle down or get married (man or woman), it won’t end up good, guranteed. At least be with someone who like you also wants to endlessly have choices; you will be a better match & no one gets hurt (man or woman).

    But if you have had your choices and flavours as a man or woman & you are ready to actually really, truly get to know yourself to the core (I don’t mean in an outer world, physical, success/business kind of way), but to rise to another dimension internally, where the next time you meet a gorgeous, smart person, you are attracted to & get to know him or her, ask yourself, when you quit & leave him or her, if you are running from the relationship, the man/wman, or actually from things within yourself you are running from, that resurface in the next relationship. Once a person is ready with all their soul to not give up on the growth happening within themselves & after they have had enough of the flavours that they want to stick & learn to appreciate the flavour that will show them all they are, without running from it, then they are ready to actually possibly consider to grow individually & together in something long-term together. These days giving up on the vision of what you imagined with another is the issue when relationship fall apart, yes mainly because of the illusion of unlimited choice; choice is good but a lifetime is not an unlimited, infinite time, so once you have enough data, choose & stick with your choice. I have seen couples that did that with no regrets & happy after 30 years, not in a ok I am used to you, or I am scared to star all over, or needy kind of way, but in a crazy passionate I still want you, crave you kind of way, yes after 30 years of marriage that started with love. why? the vision for commitment to being love yourself was never lost & when you are love, you don’t have those demands from the other, and really they love being with you, more likely for a long time. I had to learn these lessons with experience, but now as a single woman in my 30s with passions for many things in life & still a love for freedom & choices & growth, I think I finally get that sticking with one person, actually means I am not giving up on the beautiful vision of what 2 people can build.

  30. Tim,

    I just came across this post and let me tell you, it was awesome! I made the choice to marry (almost) the girl of my dreams, my girlfriend for the past 4 years. No matter what choice you make, you need to “love the one your with”.

    Thanks!

  31. Maybe you’re single because you still want to be single? What’s wrong with not choosing? If you still want to explore, then by all means do it. You should do what makes you happy. When you feel like you WANT to make a choice, then make a choice. It’s your life, do what you want. You need no deadline to make that kind of decision.

  32. Starting to wonder if I’m a “choicter” or if I’m growing PAST love interests. CANEI. Constant And Never Ending Improvement.
    Great article