I am thrilled to welcome Andy Bodle to my blog, author of the fabulous www.womanology.co.uk here to share with us his thoughts on the curse of modern day dating. Think that an abundance of choice when it comes to picking a partner is a good thing? think again ...
I have an acquaintance - let's call her Nicky - in her early 30s. Until recently, Nicky was seeing a great guy: handsome, athletic, kind, high-powered job. Then a couple of weeks ago, she ended it. What had scuppered this idyllic relationship, I wondered? Had he cheated? Did he have a drinking problem? "No," said Nicky. "I just thought his nose was a bit wide."
My initial reaction was: that's a bit shallow, but understandable. I mean, she only wants the best for herself. She doesn't want to "settle". Isn't that her right?
If so, it's a right that more and more of us are exercising. In 1966, the average age at first marriage in the UK was 24.9 for men and 22.5 for women; in 2012, it was 30.8 and 28.9. (The equivalent US figures are 22.8 for men and 20.5 for women in 1966, versus 28.and 26.6 in 2012.) The 2011 census showed that single households in the UK now outnumber households with couples the first time. There are doubtless many contributory factors, but a large part of it is that we're all getting fussier about our partners.
Why? Well, technology, in the form of high-speed transport, social media and internet dating, has hugely increased the number of our potential dates and the speed at which we can date them. This, combined with social changes - less stigma surrounding promiscuity, open relationships and divorce - offers us a breadth of choice that no previous generation has known. And more choice is always a good thing, right?
A few years ago, scientists at Columbia and Stanford universities conducted a fascinating experiment. They gave two groups of subjects a selection of chocolates, from which they were allowed to choose one. One group was given 30 different chocolates, the other six. The surprising result was that *the people who had 30 chocolates to choose from regretted their choice more than the people who only had six*.
When faced with the bewildering array of wines at the supermarket, how do we whittle down our options? We go by grape, or by country, or by price. Similarly, when offered thousands of potential matches on internet dating sites, we filter by height. Earnings. Looks. Paradoxically, the excess of choice becomes a paucity of choice.
For most of its history, mankind lived in small tribes. Even until halfway through the last century, most of us still lived in tiny rural communities, and rarely travelled far. In short, until incredibly recently, from an evolutionary point of view, it was rare for anyone to see more than a hundred faces in a lifetime. Now, thanks to city living, TV and the internet, we're confronted with millions upon millions. Can our puny caveman brains cope?
Some scientists think not. Psychologist Barry Schwartz, in his book The Paradox of Choice, writes: "The more options there are, the more likely one will make a non-optimal choice, and this prospect undermines whatever pleasure one may get from one's actual choice."
This doesn't bode well for our happiness in the dating market. After all, when it comes to chocolates and coffees, you can just choose something different next time you go to the shop. That's not a luxury you get with life partners.
It doesn't help that there's a distinct bias in all these faces we're seeing. Because the mass media aren't just exposing us to more people; they're exposing us to more *absurdly attractive people*. Where once we had Michael Fish telling us how terrible the weather was going to be, now we have Sian Welby. For science, we had Magnus Pyke; now it's Brian Cox. Goodbye David Bellamy; *hello* Charlotte Uhlenbroek.
It's already been proven that the diet of improbable bodies is causing body dysmorphia - conditions such as anorexia and bulimia. Might it not also, then, be causing partner dysmorphia? Could this endless parade of washboard abs, hourglass figures and Hollywood smiles be making us more dissatisfied with the girl or boy next door?
There's a growing body of evidence that one particular form of entertainment is having harmful effects on our relationships. Zillmann and Bryant's 1988 paper found that regular users of pornography often become less satisfied with their partner's sexual performance, physical appearance, and willingness to try new sexual experiences. And according to a study by Grov, Gillespie, Royce and Lever in 2010, men who are involved in online sexual activity are less aroused by real sex, and initiate it less often.
The third downside of choice is the flip side of an upside. Say you've been with a gas supplier for 10 years. Suddenly, it puts its prices up by 10%; and all the other gas suppliers raise theirs by only 4%. Because you have the freedom of choice, you switch suppliers.
Dating seems to be going the same way. Say your current sex supplier turns out to have an annoying habit. One or two generations ago, you wouldn't have been aware of many alternatives, so you'd probably have raised the issue, talked it out, or learned to overlook the flaw. But now, knowing that there are myriad potential mates, accessible in an instant, we're just as likely to ditch them for another provider. Excess of choice is making us less forgiving. We won't tolerate imperfections any more, and we won't work as hard to overcome obstacles.
For proof of the decrease in tolerance, you only have to look at divorce statistics. In 1971, only 1% of all marriages ended in divorce; forty years later, it's 42%. infidelity also seems to be on the rise. In the beginning, people split only over irreconcilable differences. Now, it seems, we do so at the drop of a hat.
In a 2009 study, Denmark was found to be the happiest country in Europe. This was not, the researchers believed, because Denmark has the best weather, or economy, or scenery (it patently doesn't). It was because they had good social cohesion - and the lowest expectations.
I have another friend - let's call her Lucy - in her early 40s. She suffers from what she calls "Groucho syndrome", after the Marx brother's famous comment that he didn't want to belong to any club that would accept people like him as a member. In other words, none of the people she fancies fancy her. Her standards, she says, are too high for her looks.
I tell her, of course, that she's gorgeous and that there are loads of amazing people who'd kill to be with her. But she hasn't had a boyfriend in nearly 10 years.
So much for those who refuse to settle. What about those who did?
When I was in my mid-20s, a few of my friends got married. I was gobsmacked. I mean, their partners were lovely, but ... they were 25! They'd met maybe a quarter of the people they were going to meet in their lifetimes. How could they possibly know they'd found their perfect someone?
The answer is, they couldn't. They just knew they'd found someone good. Someone they had a reasonable shot at happiness with. And when I look at them now - nice house, lovely kids, someone to talk to, someone to hold them at night - I'm green with envy.
Let's not kid ourselves. They bicker, they get on each others nerves, and I'm sure they cast the odd rueful glance at a strange bottom. (And yes, two of them were divorced before the bride's bouquet had wilted; although they were both safely remarried within a year.) On the other hand, they're enjoying all the benefits that coupledom brings: physical contact. Emotional support. Sharing the chores. Tax breaks. Someone to look after them when they're older. Studies have repeatedly shown that married people (and unmarried people in long-term relationships) are happier, live longer, and even earn more than singletons. These friends of mine "settled" because they wanted to reap the benefits sooner rather than later.
The word "settle" has so many negative connotations these days. It's come to mean achieving less than your full potential; not trying hard enough; accepting defeat. Well, I think it's time to reclaim it. To revert to something closer to the original definition of "to settle": to relax, to get comfortable. I don't think we should see it as defeat. I think we should see it as *quitting while you're ahead*.
Conversely, we generally think of "keeping your options open" as a positive thing. But there's another way of looking at that, too: you could call it indecision. Cowardice, even.
What can we do about this tyranny of choice, you ask? We can't put the genie back in the bottle. No ones going to give up all these wonderful options, even if they do have drawbacks.
Well, there are things you can do to deliberately restrict your choices - and to stop your standards shooting sky-high.
First of all, guys: don't watch porn. Seriously. I refer you to the research above.
And girls: steer clear of girl porn. By this I don't mean sexually explicit material, but the equally poisonous, quick-hit stuff that performs a similar function for you: chick lit, romcoms, glossy mags. They paint pictures that your life will never live up to.
By all means use internet dating - it's a fabulous, efficient, time-saving way of meeting people. But use it sparingly and cleverly. When you sign up, fix a date in the future when you're going to come off it again. You'll be much more invested in the dates you go on knowing that your time is limited. And drop a couple of those boxes you want ticked. By insisting on a guy who's 6ft or taller, for example, you could by denying yourself the 5ft 11in love of your life.
Most of all, *be prepared to settle*. Give up that pernicious, phantasmagorical notion of The One. No one's perfect, no one's perfect for you, and even if they were, they probably wouldn't give you the time of day. Of course I'm not recommending that you just marry the first Tom, Dick or Harriet who looks at you twice. But try to be a little less exacting. Don't rule people out because they wear the wrong perfume or sneeze in a slightly effeminate way.
I realise this message is not going to be a popular one, because it's not romantic, or idealistic. But that's my whole point: we're fed too much romance and idealism and perfection these days. It's raising our hopes so high that they can't help be smashed to pieces when we're confronted with reality.
And to be honest, I don't care if this advice is popular. Because it's aimed at my friends, Picky Nicky and Choosy Lucy, and I want them to be happy in the long term, not the short term. And above all, it's aimed at me.
Because I've refused to settle too. I keep moaning, on my blog (www.womanology.co.uk), about being rebuffed or rejected for trivial reasons - but I'm just as guilty of it myself. I've been out with three or four lovely girls who things might have worked out with; but there was always the chance of something better round the corner. And now I'm 43, I've lost my hair, my circle of friends is dwindling because they've all found someone and moved away, and I'm less dateable with every passing week.
It's not going to be easy to follow my own advice. I internet-date, I love romcoms, and I watch porn. But I know that if I ever want to settle down, I'm going to have to learn to settle.
Follow Andy on twitter @_Womanolgy_ for more fascinating insights into the world of modern day dating.
Follow Andy on twitter @_Womanolgy_ for more fascinating insights into the world of modern day dating.