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.

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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?)

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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.

Posted on: June 9, 2010.

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

  1. I would consider myself a “choister”. It’s too much fun having available options. Like being able to pack all my stuff into one suitcase and moving to Mexico for a month, like I’m doing in July.

    I really like the idea of “Criteria” setting to help making choices. That’s the main thing that helps me commit to serious decisions because if it falls into my set criteria, then it can work.

    Like

  2. Claire, I was wondering how you’d respond to Tyler Cowen considering you wrote the book on it: “In my view, the so-called paradox of choice is one of the most overrated and incorrectly cited results in the social sciences.”

    There is something about it that confirms our intuition about choice but were you able to replicate in yourself?

    http://www.marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2009/11/the-paradox-of-choice-is-not-robust.html

    Like

  3. Aww man… Love this guest post!!

    Claire, your writing style is impeccable and I loved every second of the read. How true it all is… I love the “new choices” directional approach to committing. Very solid perspective and insight.

    Cheers to life, love and commitment :)!!!

    Patrick Hitches

    Like

  4. Wow! Great post Claire & Tim!

    As a lifelong student of human psychology, this is a very intriguing concept. The thing that I wonder is if fear has something to do with the choice. We fear that once a decision is made, someone better will come along. And our fear is the underlining motive for an indecisive and ultimately, single life.

    Like

  5. As a psychology major in University, it blows me away how just the mere perception of choice can dramatically change a human being’s behaviour, emotions, and thought patterns. Very cool post, thanks TIm!

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  6. This hit home with me quite a bit today. I was in a long-term relationship throughout the first 3 years of college and was happy/satisfied/whatever you want to call it. However, over the past year I have really fallen into the choister category I feel like.

    I’ve been curious as to what you (Tim) had felt about relationships because you get to do a majority of the things that once I officially graduate, I will pursue. The problem with this is that there doesn’t seem to be an opportunity for a love life. I’ve been seeing girls for a few weeks/months but it seems like my choister habits kick in and I end up meeting someone new who I feel is better or more interesting. I assume that as I get older (22 right now) I will start to move more towards getting married and serious relationships again.

    Quick question on this…how will I know when it is time to let my choister habits fade away? Do they ever or is it the 5 C’s that must start to come to the forefront and become a part of me? As of now, I’m happy being a choister, but I feel that it’s important for me to plan for my future so I’d like to know :)

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      • hey tim, are you still single? its the first time I ever come across your blog and honestly (I should stop being so honest) I cried at how much you look like an ideal boyfriend, by reading your bio and everything you’ve done and written..so if you’re still single I’d like to know what it is you’d want your ideal girlfriend to be like, and if you’re not what is it about your girlfriend that makes u wanna stay with her (though it might be a bit weird for her to read it)..
        I wish u all the best in everything you do, great knowing there’s someone like u out there (*cries hysterically*)

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  7. Great explanation of the paradox of choice. As someone who can sometimes feel paralyzed by having too many options (who cares what Tyler Cowen thinks? I know it affects *me*) and who sometimes suffers from buyers remorse, I particularly appreciated the breakdown of suggestions for overcoming paralysis and getting to a choice. Good due diligence will get you to a good choice – and we shouldn’t pine for the unattainable ‘perfect’ choice.

    Like

  8. i think you’re missing one of the most important pieces of having a lasting relationship with anyone – that what you’ve got is almost always better than starting over. investing in a relationship, even with someone who might not be your perfect match, is worth a lot more than people give it credit! all the time and effort adds up to much more than another blind “choice”. this is one of the most overlooked points in today’s society, and one reason i think marriages and families fail so frequently anymore – that there seems to be no value in having invested time and effort into anything. everything is easily replaceable and new is always better.

    Like

  9. Great writing. I was laughing all the way through :) In terms of commitment, like the real, long term, live-the-rest-of-our-lives-together-and-beyond type of commitment it appears to not be nearly as strong as it once was.

    And I think your right, it’s because of all the choices. There are so many temptations out there and so many ways to connect and form a deep relationship with someone almost instantly. One thing goes wrong, and it’s just too easy to jump on FB and rekindle an old flame.

    It will take the individual, to make a commitment to LOVE and follow the steps you laid out above. There is a great article called “I will be married to 5 different women in my lifetime” that talks about KNOWING that your partner will evolve and change and you must be willing to fall in love with each “different” woman that comes into your life

    http://samdavidson.net/blog/2010/2/11/i-will-be-married-to-5-different-women-in-my-lifetime.html

    Con Amor,

    ~Mike

    Like

  10. Interesting concept and a welcome one to a person wondering the same things two and a half years into a relationship. Also great to see Nicaragua made it into the post because, well, I’m posting from Nicaragua – but NOT from a mud hut! :)

    Thanks for the tips. Sometimes it really does get complicated when we’ve been raised thinking we deserve the perfect mix of partner, and worse, that that person WILL come along – eventually.

    Like

  11. I think choice overload’s really only a problem if you start out having no idea of what you really want, so you settle for the best of what you find. Which is never really that satisfying and leaves you always looking for something better.

    If you have a clear idea of what you want and trust you’ll find it, whether the values you want in a life partner or the type of jammy flavor that does it for you, it’s so much easier to look at what’s currently available and to hold out for the right one to commit to rather than going through a tiring stream of almost rights (chosen out of fear you might end up with none rather than the right one for you).

    Mmmm … I guess that coincides with Claire’s 1 & 2 …

    Great article.

    Like

  12. Hi Tim & Everyone,

    Following the theme of single, I have just landed in San Francisco from Auckland, New Zealand and would love some local knowledge and/or company – on places to go and things to see. Not really into having a ‘touristy’ experience – but do want to find a Bikram Yoga class, and local music etc.

    Any suggestions greatly appreciated

    Thanks
    Erin

    Like

  13. insightful post Tim & Claire.

    Totally agree – sometimes we’re faced so many choices – that sometimes we don’t even know which way is up!

    Your post actually reminded of the idea around the ‘quarter-life crisis’ i.e. the self-doubt or lack of commitment around life plans i.e. ‘I haven’t reached where I’m supposed to be on the career ladder yet’, ‘I should own this, this and this by now’ or ‘I’ll find my path…eventually’.

    So using your advice on the C-word, make a choice and stick to it.

    will re-visit post when choosing that life partner!

    good luck to you and your Argentinan architect.

    Chloe

    Like

  14. Interesting to see the female’s perspective since in our society they are the sellers, they choose, while men are the buyers, they pick. Thus, I would like to see an article that is more applicable to the male population and perhaps from Tim’s perspective since he has such great insights.

    After all and to start, based on some of the comments it seems that while female relationship(s) are extremely enjoyable, fulfilling and fun there are many alternatives and substitutes available, either professional, hobby, self actualization or the not quite so depreciated model, which do not carry as high a cost as choosing a life-long partner; hence the rub with men choosing to lease rather than buy as the value proposition must not be near equilibrium or the market would be clearing more often and staying settled.

    In other words, when designing one’s lifestyle why include a woman for a lifetime to the exclusion of any others? Surely when living the 4HWW one has the ability to carry on multiple extremely fulfilling and mutually advantageous relationships all over the world. Even if children complicate things the temporal and emotional support needed from a father can still be sufficiently provided. Consequently, where is the value or is it just a relic tradition from an obsolete templated lifestyle age, like the ‘good job’ or 104k retirement account? I suppose, for some, there may be the progeny issue only within marriage but that may be what the bank is for, right Tim?

    Like

  15. Drop your criteria, drop your idea of ‘your ideal life’. That’s all self-centered bullshit, stuff people think will make them happy.

    A relationship isn’t about being happy yourself. A relationship is about being happy together. Even better, a relationship is about being happier together, than you can ever be alone.

    So stop all this ‘I want this, I want that’ talk. It’s not relevant. As long as you’re stuck in this self-centered mindset, you cannot enjoy a real relationship.

    Once you’ve met the right one, you realize all what matters is being together, because that’s when you both are the happiest. You both will be ready to make sacrifices in life, hell it won’t even feel as a sacrifice, or a choice, because you’re only holding on to this beautiful synergy of happiness. There is no better feeling than that.

    Listen to your heart and don’t get confused by conflicting thoughts that the outside world puts in your mind.

    Just take an hour every week, sit back, and REALLY think about your time together. When were you really happy? When you got that awesome promotion? Or when you told him? When you went to that birthday party? Or when he smiled at you when you came back home. When you got an A on your last test? Or when he sent you that sweet text. Really take this time every week, to think and reflect, and you won’t make any of those stupid mistakes so many of us do make.

    Once you’ve found the right partner, you’ll realize it wasn’t about choosing at all. There is no paradox of choices. It’s people, being in the wrong self-centered, individualistic mindset. And it’s a shame really, because they’re missing out on the beautiful feeling of shared love.

    Like

    • To I.M. Wright,

      Thank you, Thank you, Thank you for reminding us that a relationship is about “we” not “me”.

      “A relationship isn’t about being happy yourself. A relationship is about being happy together. Even better, a relationship is about being happier together, than you can ever be alone”. I love this universal truth. It is true in all cultures and ages. If everyone posting pauses to reflect on this we shall see that it is a simple but absolute principal which is all one needs to know what a good relationship is.

      While thinking of finding the right person we should consider being the kind of person worthy of that God/Goddess we somehow have decided that we deserve. If we haven’t gotten the perfect person yet maybe it’s because we aren’t good enough to attract that kind of person yet.

      Thanks again.

      Like