Why Searching for the “Perfect” Partner Can Leave Us Lonely
It’s better not to settle, but impossibly high standards can hurt us too.
Posted Mar 30, 2017
Settling for less than what we really want in a romantic partner can lead us to stay in unhappy relationships and miss out on better opportunities. (See this post for more.) But going to the opposite extreme can have its downsides, too.
Research suggests that those who are focused on making the best possible choice (“maximizers”) can get stuck in a quagmire of dissatisfaction and self-doubt, while those who stop searching once they’ve found something good (“satisficers”) tend to fare better.
Even if maximizers are more objectively successful in their pursuits, they’re not necessarily happier with their outcomes. In one study, maximizers in their senior year of college landed higher-paying jobs than satisficers, but tended to be less satisfied with their jobs and to experience more stress and anxiety during the job search process. In another study, maximizers won more money than satisficers in an economic game involving bargaining, but were less pleased with their earnings.
Why are maximizers less likely to be happy even when good things happen to them? One potential explanation is that they tend to ruminate about what might have been, which can fuel regret.
They also tend to be more concerned with what others think and with where they stand in relation to their peers. Research suggests that maximizers are more threatened by others’ success, and may question their abilities if someone outperforms them, even if they’ve performed well themselves. They’re also more likely to rely on external sources of information, such as rankings and recommendations, when making decisions. The problem is that options that are highly regarded in a general sense won’t necessarily be a good fit for specific people.
What does this mean for relationships?
Just as a job at a top company might not be fulfilling for someone who isn’t passionate about the work, dating a high-status person who checks off all the boxes doesn’t necessarily lead to a satisfying romantic bond. Supporting this idea, maximizers report being less happy in their relationships, and are less likely to get married and more likely to get divorced.
Because of their concern with considering every possible option, maximizers may also at times have a wandering eye. Research has shown that when people believe that there are better alternative partners available, they’re more likely to have difficulty committing to their current partners. Feeling like there are more fish in the sea is useful when a relationship isn’t working, but it can also poison a perfectly good partnership, leading maximizers to zero in on their significant others' shortcomings.
Many celebrities, for example, might (justifiably) feel like they have their pick of potential romantic partners, which seems like an enviable position. But having lots of options can make it harder to commit to just one — and therefore harder to reap the benefits of a stable relationship. Among other reasons, the temptation of alternative partners might help to explain why divorce rates appear to be so high among celebrities.
Maximizers may prefer to keep their options open in case something better comes along, which may seem like a rational strategy. But research suggests that we tend to be more satisfied with decisions when they’re final, as compared to when we feel that they’re more easily reversible. Keeping one foot out the door might protect people from feeling like they’re missing out, but it can also lead them to miss out on the relationship they’re in.
It would be a mistake to interpret research on maximizing and satisficing as suggesting that we should stop aiming high and instead settle for mediocre. The lesson is not so much that great partners are unattainable, but that the mindset of seeking and expecting perfection in a partner inevitably leads to disappointment. Even someone who seems perfect at first will eventually reveal flaws, sending a maximizer into self-doubt.
Maximizing can be useful in situations where it’s possible to evaluate all the available options, such as comparing the success rates of different medical treatments. But relationships are different: It’s impossible to meet every person on the planet, and even if we could, there’s no one clear criteria for determining who would make the absolutely best partner.
Settling is a problem when it comes from social pressure or a fear of being alone, and when we do it for a relationship that in our gut doesn’t feel right. But when it means letting go of the relentless pursuit of the next best thing so that we can embrace the good things that are right in front of us, it might not be so bad.
Gilbert, D. T., & Ebert, J. E. J. (2002). Decisions and revisions: The affective forecasting of changeable outcomes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 503-514.
Iyengar, S. S., Wells, R. E., & Schwartz, B. (2006). Doing better but feeling worse: Looking for the “best” job undermines satisfaction. Psychological Science, 17, 143–150.
Schwartz, B., Ward, A., Monterosso, J., Lyubomirsky, S., White, K., & Lehman, D. R. (2002). Maximizing versus satisficing: Happiness is a matter of choice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83 (5), 1178–1197.