I still talk about dating a fair amount with my friends. We compare notes. We make lists. And whatever our discussion–comparing paid dating sites to free dating sites, considering the virtues and difficulties of meeting people in person instead, considering what traits in a partner are essential and which simply icing, contemplating profile photos–we always tend to hit on one consistent idea: that dating can be really freaking difficult.
There’s this sense of indignation about the whole thing, this semi-random process that is supposed to help you discover this compatible someone. It seems so inefficient! It seems so random! It’s painful to be rejected and it’s painful to be doing the rejecting.
But then I think about what many of us want dating to achieve–to find a life partner–and I’m not surprised it feels complicated and difficult. I am almost more surprised it works at all. It feels like a tall order.
Ferrett wrote a great post about dating last month–The Abandonment Rate, Or: Date More, God, Date More–in which he said:
“It took me fifteen years of constant dating before I found the love of my life, and I consider that to be a pretty lucky catch. You? You’re trying for life-changing things. That’s good. Life-changing things involve a lot of perseverance. So keep at it.”
Fifteen years? That’s a fair amount of effort.
My friend has this theory that it is important to know the three things you most want in a partner. It can only be three, and it includes everything from personality traits to likes and dislikes to basic life information. Only three! I was skeptical, but it didn’t matter because I still had to figure out my three. I spent a lot of time coming up with and rejecting and ending up with more than three.
And now, I can’t even remember what I finally settled on. I’m fairly confident one of the three was kindness, but the other two…um….maybe intelligence? I don’t know. The whole exercise felt like boiling something complex down into something so simple it no longer held any meaning.
So then I wrote a list of what I was looking for in a partner, and I let myself write down as many items as I wanted. I put a lot of stuff I thought was important, but I also let myself put down things that seemed silly or trivial or like low-hanging fruit but I still wanted: things like “knows how to dress self for different occasions” (I live in Silicon Valley so this is an actual perk), “has an overlap with my musical taste,” and “not intimidated by Shakespeare.” (Yes, I really put those on my list.)
I put 59 items on my list. Yes, fifty-nine. A far cry from three. But reading my list now, I keep nodding and saying, “Um, yeah, of course I want that. And that. And that.” It’s not that I felt I needed all 59 things to be perfectly true, and a bunch of them are low bars, but even so. I did want a majority of them.
59. Not really all that simple.
Strangely, I found making that list to be liberating. Because then dating did not have to be simple. It validated my actual experience, which was that finding someone compatible to date wasn’t that straightforward, that there was no algorithm that took all the guesswork out of the equation, that the only real way forward was to meet a bunch of people, and most of them wouldn’t be right, and that would be tiring, and all of this was perfectly normal.
I’m not saying there aren’t things you can do to simplify and streamline the process, or to improve your chances of success. But online dating sites sometimes make it seem like dating is straightforward shopping; you flip through a seemingly infinite catalog of biographies and jokes and photos, you are presented with an array of options, there are percentages and matching protocols that are supposed to help you narrow things down. All very clean until you hit the next part of the process: actually communicating with another human being, a person who can’t be completely boiled down in a few paragraphs and photos and multiple choice questions.
Looking for a life partner is anything but simple. You’re going to spend A LOT of time with this person. You’re going to make major life decisions with them. You’re going to be influenced by them. You’re going to get to know them very well, and they’re going to know you very well. Your life is going to be changed by being with them. And the process of dating is going to reflect the importance of this decision.
No list, whether of three or of fifty-nine, is ever going to be able to accurately reflect the reality of that decision. Instead we have to get our hands messy and do the work of getting to know other people, and maybe even more importantly, getting to know ourselves.