Do You Ever Really “Choose” a Romantic Partner?

You can't choose to fall in love — it just happens, if you let it.

Posted Mar 12, 2018

7741975/Pixabay, CC0 license
Source: 7741975/Pixabay, CC0 license

Everyone has words or phrases that drive them up the wall. Many people are irked when somebody uses “literally” to mean “figuratively,” or “impact” as a verb, or “less” when “fewer” is correct. These are issues of grammar, style, or usage about which writers tend to be more sensitive (and vocal).

Some pet peeves are more conceptual, including my topic today: describing the search for romance and love as “choosing a partner.” Maybe it’s just me, but this gets under my skin, especially when used by scholars such as psychologists, economists, or philosophers (even on this site). It’s a convention of academic language that may not be meant literally — a kind of verbal shorthand or jargon that soon starts being taken seriously as a description, and thus distorts discussion and study going forward.

The phrase “choosing a partner” vastly oversimplifies the process and likens it to shopping for a new shampoo, in which we survey the various options and then select the one that best meets our needs. This framing is appealing to economists, of course, who model the formation of romantic relationships as consumer decisions in “the marriage market.” In this model, people engage in an optimized process of extensive search (getting information on more options) and intensive search (getting more information on a certain option), after which the best option is chosen (assuming he or she is still available, a consideration that is worked into the optimization of the length of search). We see similar language in the work of some psychologists who use the term “mate selection,” focusing more on the biological results of romantic coupling — procreation and reproduction — than the process by which people are coupled (and the fact that many times they don’t actually procreate) or the significance thereof.

Here’s why talking about “choosing a partner” is so inaccurate. We don’t choose partners to love. Instead, we find love, we discover it, we are surprised by it (and are grateful for the providence). To be sure, we can take steps to make this more likely — we can put ourselves out there, either in person or online, and keep an open mind and heart — but then we wait for it to happen.

What makes this language of choice in love seem more natural is the advent of dating sites and apps that present us with countless options to pick from. This is the context of philosopher Aaron Ben-Zeév’s recent post, which valuably applies the work of psychologist Barry Schwartz (The Paradox of Choice) on the cognitive burdens of choice to the search for a partner in an age when we can swipe over countless potential matches on our phones.

But using dating sites or apps to meet people isn’t “choosing a romantic partner” — it’s just a way to meet people. We may choose to go out with them and see what happens, but we don’t choose to fall in love with them. Falling in love isn’t something you do, it’s something that happens. (I’ve written about this, in the context of the Taoist concept of wei wu wei, or acting through inaction.) Again, you can do certain things to increase the chances that love happens, but you can’t make it happen.*

Once it happens, you can choose to see where it goes, but this is a negative sense of choice — you’re not choosing to make it happen as much as you’re choosing not to stop it from happening. (Think of the saying “you can pull a string, but you can’t push it”: You can’t choose to make love happen, but you can choose to hold it back.) This is an element of choice that is too often neglected: After finding a partner, we can choose whether to stay with them, or to leave and try to find someone new.

The Serenity Prayer teaches us to acknowledge what we can change (or control) and what we cannot, and that lesson applies to choice in romance and love. Despite the language used by many, we can’t choose when or with whom we fall in love — that just happens. But we can choose whether to let it happen, and we can choose whether to continue to see someone that we start to fall for. By focusing on the choices we can make, and not fooling ourselves about the ones we can’t, we will be less frustrated with dating, romance, and love — and that’s a choice we can all agree on.

     * There is a difference between finding love and finding sex. The language of choosing is more appropriate to finding a sexual partner, where a mutual coincidence of wants is pretty much all that’s required. But even if such a liaison leads to romantic love, this later step would happen, not be chosen.

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