Choosing a Romantic Partner
When many are too much and too many are not enough.
Posted Oct 17, 2017
“We have too much of everything and still we do not seem to have enough.” —Peter Kurzeck
“Too many bitches, not enough queens.” —Marilyn Monroe
Most people desire many more things than they have. More money, houses, chocolate, likes on Facebook, exciting experiences, and romantic options. This wish, which appears to be natural, is also problematic. As Barry Schwartz persuasively shows in his book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, there is a price to pay for having too many options. One is that when we are faced with an abundance of choices, we are less likely to feel satisfied with the option we do have. I apply Schwartz’s view to romantic love and show that the romantic realm provides ample illustrations of "more is less."
Maximizers and satisficers
“Either I love someone completely, totally, and madly — or not at all!” —Avijeet Das
Schwartz distinguishes between people whose main propensity is to maximize and those whose tendency is to satisfice. Maximizers are those individuals determined to make only the best choices; satisficers are those whose main wish is to make satisfying choices. Accordingly, maximizers engage in more product comparisons than satisficers, and it takes them longer to decide on a purchase: “Maximizers spend more time than satisficers comparing their purchasing decisions to the decisions of others. Maximizers are more likely to experience regret after a purchase ... Maximizers generally feel less positive about their purchasing decisions
In our restless society where love is always in the air, the abundance of alluring romantic options makes Schwartz’s view highly pertinent. Indeed, if we replace Schwartz’s word “purchase” with “romantic partner” in the above passage, we would have an accurate description of the different propensities of people who are looking for a romantic partner.
Romantic maximizers are determined to find the best romantic partner; romantic satisficers focus on finding a good-enough, or satisfactory-enough, partner. Accordingly, romantic maximizers spend more time making comparisons than satisficers do: They compare their current romantic decisions with partners they have had in the past, with other existing romantic options, and with the romantic partners of others. Romantic maximizers are more likely to experience regret after a romantic “purchase” and to spend time deliberating about hypothetical romantic alternatives. They also feel less positive about their romantic decisions than satisficers do.
Schwartz has constructed a scale that diagnoses people’s propensity to maximize or to satisfice. His studies show that people with high maximization scores experienced less satisfaction with life, were less happy, less optimistic, and more depressed than people with low maximization scores. This is equally true of romantic maximizers, whose futile search for the best partner makes them restless, less satisfied with life and with their current romantic relationship, and less happy and optimistic than satisficers are.
Schwartz concludes that maximizers pay a significant price in terms of personal well-being. This applies also to romantic maximizers, who often feel that they have made a romantic compromise.
Objective and subjective value
"Weirdly, I want the unpleasant situation between me and my husband to change. But then again I would not have an excuse for a hot lover. Just being honest..." —A married woman
Schwartz claims that whereas maximizers might do better objectively than satisficers, they tend to do worse subjectively: The maximizer can have a partner who is objectively “better” in external appearance, education, and social status. However, as maximizers always feel that they have relinquished something in making their romantic decision, they tend to feel worse in the relationship, thereby reducing its overall quality. As Schwartz rightly says, what matters to us most of the time is how we feel about the decisions we make: “So while objective experience clearly matters, subjective experience has a great deal to do with the quality of that objective experience” (p. 89). Romantic satisfaction has to do with being happy with your romantic lot, and this is what continually eludes maximizers who keep on looking for a better romantic option.
Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, in their delightful book, Nudge, also note the problems that arise from the wish to constantly have more options. They criticize the basic principle in economics and ordinary life that assumes that you can never be made worse off by having more options, because you can always turn some of them down. They argue that the inadequacy of this principle is apparent when you take into account issues such as self-control, temptation, and the conflict between short-term desires and long-term welfare.
Schwartz criticizes maximizers who wish to have more, because their constant desire for more leads to constant dissatisfaction and reduces their sense of well-being. Thaler and Sunstein criticize the wish to have more mainly because it usually entails many superficial short-term desires that ignore or neglect their fewer profound, long-term needs. Both criticisms are apt.
When many are too much, and too many are not enough
“Roses that are left unpruned can become a tangled mess of old and new canes, all competing for air and light.” —Elizabeth Roth
There are indeed many circumstances in which it is damaging to have more or to be searching for more. This is often expressed in sayings such as “More is less,” “Less is more,” and “Too much of a good thing." Although all these expressions denote an opposition to having too much, they often focus on slightly different aspects of the negative effects of overabundance. I will now briefly indicate their relevance to the romantic realm.
More is less, and less is more
“My idea of sexy is that less is more. The less you reveal, the more people can wonder.” —Emma Watson
The claim that “More is less" often refers to a decision-making process. In the romantic realm, it refers to the current abundance of romantic options, which puts people in an ongoing process of choosing, thereby hindering their ability to establish profound, long-term love. Such circumstances often lead to frustration, sadness, and feelings of loneliness.
The claim “Less is more” has a similar meaning. In focusing on fewer romantic partners, you can achieve greater profundity and meaningfulness. In this sense, less romantic quantity — that is, fewer romantic partners — is often associated with greater quality and romantic profundity.
Too much of a good thing
“I love you much too much, I've known it from the start, but yet my love is such, I can't control my heart.” —Dean Martin
"Too much of a good thing is wonderful.” —Mae West
In the romantic realm, “Too much of a good thing” implies, as in the words of Mae West, many superficial sexual affairs with many partners, which can disrupt the establishment of profound, long-term love.
Superficial, pleasant activities, such as casual sex and watching television, might be enjoyable even though they do not contribute much to our long-term flourishing. However, when we engage in an excess of such activities, they can be harmful and addictive, leading us to neglect other, more profound and valuable activities. Romantic intensity, but not romantic profundity, can be excessive. Thus, the lover’s intense passion might prevent her from noticing, or at least admitting, that her partner’s attitude toward her is humiliating, or that their relationship has very little chance of surviving in the long term.
We cannot speak, however, about an excess of romantic profundity. Profound love involves a process of intrinsic development that does not generate boredom or deactivate human capacities; on the contrary, such intrinsic developing promotes the agent’s capacities and flourishing. As an engine of human flourishing, profound love's benefits run deep. Just as we would not fault an author for writing a book that is too profound, we would not criticize a lover for loving too profoundly. Like other flourishing experiences, profound love is valuable, as it resonates with the lover's character and unique circumstances. Hence, the issue of harmful addiction does not arise.
Too many are not enough
"We build too many walls and not enough bridges.” —Isaac Newton
The expression “Too many are not enough” also refers to an imbalance in our various activities, for instance, between profound and intense, or between promoting and preventing. Tory Higgins (1997) distinguishes between promotion-focused behavior, which is concerned with profound ideals and hopes, and prevention-focused behavior, which is concerned with strong “oughts” related to protection and safety. The romantic promotion mode focuses on nurturing behavior, which develops one's potential and helps expand one’s self, whereas the romantic preventing mode focuses on obviating one's potential non-normative romantic behavior, which might include, for example, extramarital affairs. Promoting activities are a matter of degree; hence, they are more complex. Preventing activities typically refer to a specific activity that is assumed to be normatively unacceptable in all situations. Preventing behavior is easier to define and detect, as it usually has clear boundaries.
I believe that while romantic love involves both types of behavior, promoting behavior is of greater significance in maintaining long-term, profound love. In this sense, we have too many preventive romantic behaviors and not enough promoting ones (Ben-Ze’ev & Goussinsky, 2008).
“Life is like riding a bicycle. In order to maintain balance, you must keep moving.” —Albert Einstein
More and less, as well as too much or too little, are domain- and context-dependent. Aristotle believes that the most important aspect of an activity is not its quantity, but whether it is appropriate, which means how suitable it is in the given circumstances. Similarly, in choosing a romantic partner, the issues of romantic quality and profundity are of greater significance than romantic quantity and intensity. Finding the appropriate balance here is the key to romantic flourishing. In order to maintain such balance, one must keep developing.
Ben-Ze'ev, A. & Goussinsky, R. (2008). In the name of love: Romantic ideology and its victims. Oxford University Press.
Higgins, E. T. (1997). Beyond pleasure and pain. American Psychologist, 52, 1280-1300.
Schwartz, B. (2004). The Paradox of choice: Why more is less. HarperCollins.
Thaler, R. H. & Sunstein, C. R. (2009). Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness. Penguin.