I’m a huge podcast junkie, and yesterday I heard a fascinating one about the theory of ‘optimal stopping.”
This is the idea that, for people who are indecisive or worried they’re going to miss something better if they stop looking, they can evaluate a smaller section of their options–37 percent–and then make a smart decision with the best chance of picking the best choice.
This algorithm was applied successfully to a restaurant search, and it was suggested the same logic might be applied to–gulp!–relationships as well.
To be clear, I think that human beings are way too complex and unpredictable to be governed by an algorithm, and I would never recommend somebody apply this kind of logic to their search for a serious relationship or life partner. There’s just too much at stake.
But it did make me reflect on the challenge of dating and how scary it can be to commit when you’re never sure if a better, more perfect fit will come along.
I live near Washington, D.C., a city full of busy and intelligent single people who don’t want to settle. I used to read a Washington Post feature called Date Lab and marvel. In each section, two applicants were paired based on mutual interests and what they wanted in a partner and sent out to a nice restaurant in the city for a free meal to see if sparks would fly. The dates generally go pretty well, but very often, one or both of the participants will decide something wasn’t quite perfect. The energy will fizzle, and plans for a second date will go unmade.
In some ways, I think the abundance of possibilities and the nagging sense that something better is out there is hurting us. In online dating, which is now fully mainstream, dates seem so transactional, and finding matches is not much more difficult than shopping on Amazon.com. You can compare features and tailor traits to suit your interests. Why settle for a 5’ 10” hiking enthusiast when a six-foot-tall white-water rafter might be just around the corner?
None of this is easy. If you’re searching for a spouse, it’s easily the biggest life decision you’ll make. And nobody wants to settle early and later regret their choice.
While I was dating the man who is now my husband, I struggled with this almost daily. He was kind and gentle and we shared common values, but he wasn’t really who I had pictured myself with. He wasn’t a Type-A personality like I was, and he didn’t have that hint of danger or swashbuckle that many women, including myself, secretly dream about. I found myself falling in love with him, but I secretly worried that some day somebody would come along who checked all my dream boxes, and I’d realize too late that I’d made the wrong choice.
But as I’ve continued to ponder the question of finding “the one” and making that all-important decision, I’ve been struck by how people manage to find happiness, even if they haven’t considered all, or even most, of their options. So many people find their soul mate at their college, or in the cubicle next to theirs, or at their hometown church. Is it a crazy coincidence that “the one” is often so nearby, or is happiness what you make of it?
I made my choice and committed to the quiet man, and we’ve grown together. It hasn’t been long, but neither of us is exactly the same person as when we got married. We’ve challenged each other to grow and change. And the things I worried most about–his stability and consistency and quiet strength–are what I value most about him.
The thing is, there’s probably someone out there who complements me even better, who checks all the boxes, who has every one of the physical qualities on the list I made 10 or 15 years ago as a teen. But that doesn’t matter to me, and it wouldn’t matter if I met him. I didn’t make the decision lightly, and I got lots of counsel and made sure I was confident in my choice, but once I decided that this was the one, my search was over.
Now to be clear, I know sometimes marriages end in heartbreaking ways. And sometimes hidden problems surface that can’t be overcome. Nobody has all the information, and our humanity makes it impossible to predict what the future will hold or what challenges relationships will face. Hindsight is often perfect; foresight is not.
Still, when it comes to dating and the search for love, I believe sometimes the secret to the greatest happiness is knowing that it’s not about the search — it’s about what you find when you come to the end of it. And once you’ve found someone good and right, it’s okay to stop looking.