Choosing a Partner: The Hows, Whys, and Whats of Our Search

7 min read

Many of us feel some degree of decisional paralysis when faced with making a choice that may be nestled among an array of attractive alternatives, especially when the choice involves finding a romantic partner. This is particularly the case when the number of choices is large, and many appear to have similar or equivalent desirability. It even happens in matters of lesser consequence where our choices are few and the upshot of a “bad“ or a “good“ choice is relatively insignificant, like selecting a new pair of shoes or what to snack on.

However, where our choices count the most, we sometimes hesitate and become confused and frustrated as we strangle on our options. Likewise, we can feel stripped of the simple pleasure of making a choice because we stammer and stall indecisively in a mire of over-choice while grappling for the right choice or the even more elusive, perfect choice. Equally distressing, at the critical moment of truth, when we are about to pull the decisional trigger, we second-guess ourselves: “Is this the best choice I can make? Would any other be better for me?“

Worse, when confronted with a difficult, complicated, or controversial decision, like choosing a partner, we sometimes lean so heavily upon the opinions and/or advice of others that we may question whether our choices are our own or someone else’s. Hopefully, it’s only on rarer occasions that we become so tongue-tied, bewildered, and hamstrung that we defer entirely to someone else to do our bidding. And who are we minus our self-defining, individual choices? Compounding these concerns, online dating services continuously and with blind indifference, shotgun us with a diversity of prospects to choose from. And, surely, our most consequential and potentially far-reaching choices are: Who shall we spend our time and resources dating and, more perplexing, who shall we pursue for a long-term partnership, the special someone we may spend the rest of our lives with?

A Blurred Dividing Line

Complicating matters, where is the dividing line between wisely seeking advice from others, whose input may be beneficially objective, including impersonal “others,“ like digitized dating algorithms, and the self-affirming pride that springs from acting on our own? Don’t most of us, on occasion, wrestle with striking the right balance of objective, helpful input from others weighed against our own personal reasoning, preferences, and previous experience? As expected, it can be a challenging juggling act with some choices posing more complications than others. Clearly, the internet’s indisputable advantage and its potentially mind-numbing disadvantage lies in its heaping abundance of potentially eligible choices.

A Difficult Application

Despite its advantages, sorting through a massive amount of information can create a decision-making headache, even a nightmare of potentially crippling proportion. So, understandably, when it comes to who to date, many users simplify the problem by singling out potential partners who share similar interests. But this method also has its pitfalls. For example, in a recent couple’s therapy session, a disillusioned partner revealed reminiscently:

“We were so excited when we found each other on “” and discovered what we thought would be a decisively powerful and unifying compatibility—our shared and almost fanatical passion for movie-going … As huge film buffs, we thought we had struck gold, that we would blissfully spend our lives together in movie-goers’ heaven … But as time went on, choosing a film we both had interest in seeing became a drudgery that easily turned into a heated conflict, like a hand grenade, pin pulled and ready to be thrown … He loves docudramas and histories depicting violence and war … I have zero appetite for violent films … I love lighthearted, upbeat and heartwarming films, especially romantic comedies about relationships …”

Regrettably, the couple’s presumed “powerful and unifying compatibility“ had morphed into a liability.

Over-Curated Characterizations

Another layer of complexity consists of a long-standing, common, even hackneyed precaution: All too often, personal photos are outdated, photoshopped, or otherwise manipulated or enhanced. Likewise, personal descriptions or bios are sometimes exaggerated—bloated with self-flattering embellishments. Expectedly, those “advertising” themselves online, are, by the conventions of dating, putting their best foot forward as a part of marketing themselves. However, among wiser shoppers, these overly curated, flattering self-portraits and descriptions are too familiar and arouse a healthy skepticism. The old maxim, “buyer beware“ is precautionary advice well worth heeding. Further, according to an uneasy and growing number of users, the online dating niche is awhirl with mistrust because of a minority of users who misuse, even abuse its clear advantages—the relatively quick and low-risk means by which to find a partner and assess their potential candidacy or eligibility.

Gender Polarization

Ironically, some wary users of online dating services complain that social media has created a schism among online daters that makes romantic and long-term relationships more complicated, not simpler. For example, one emerging trend among some users is to post the dating habits of those they choose to go out with. Specifically, their online postings reveal where a particular person typically takes their dates—if it’s a restaurant, how prestigious it is, and how much money is spent. Such postings create an unanticipated, unwelcomed, even disturbing online compendium of who’s good to date and who’s not, that can intimidate and polarize digital daters instead of bringing them together. Further, these postings can spread a false and contagious impression that, without exception, all users conspire to make lists of who’s date-worthy and who’s not. As you might imagine, there are numerous problems that complicate the plusses of digital dating.

Beyond Compatibility

The quest for partner compatibility—via digital dating or by traditional means—would seem to be the sole, and most rational option for pursuing a partner—after all, who wants an incompatible partner? Perhaps surprisingly, though, some researchers reason that falling in love isn’t always a higher-brain, rational process but rather is mediated by lower-brain, unconscious processes. Moreover, there’s another caveat that begs our attention: How exactly is compatibility defined? Should it be left to a digitized algorithm? And, assuming the definition of compatibility is the usual one—matching traits—then which traits are most critical? Which ones are most likely to ensure relationship stability and happiness? And do they vary from one couple to the next? Notwithstanding these valid concerns, internet-assisted dating remains an ever-popular tool for finding a compatible partner.

Contrarily, turning to the science on couple compatibility, it is largely inconclusive, meaning it is not entirely understood. For instance, research has found that some couple relationships have formed and thrived even where compatibility is minimal or seemingly lacking altogether, which raises the question: What is love’s relationship to compatibility?

Who vs. How

Granted, compatibility, perceived or actual, is commonly thought to be central to selecting the “right“ partner. However, consider yet another huge caveat via a personal example: In treating couples, I frequently hear partners complain, “This is not the person I married … They’ve changed … We’ve grown apart … etc.” Curiously, our judgments about who our partners are and if we share compatible traits are most often made during the initial, romantic phase of our relationships, the time when we least know them. While who we choose is important, how we generate love for this person may be even more important, especially given that—perceived—partner compatibility is fluid and certainly not set in concrete. I often encourage couples to consider that the how of loving ought to take precedence over who they love. As overly self-centric as this might first seem, I’ve found that when individual partners take responsibility for effectively managing the personal needs each one brings to the other, an enviable mutuality of respect develops, which can then promote an ongoing breadth and depth of communication vital to healthy relationships. (See earlier posts for more information on “Need Management Therapy.”)

A Welcomed Relief

With this shift of emphasis from who to how, there can be a welcomed relief from the bewildering uncertainties and burdens of shopping for a partner, online or off. Now, the challenge falls directly upon us to become the right person instead of finding the right person.

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