Why Finding a Life Partner Isn’t That Simple
Why operant conditioning can make dating tough, and what to do about it.
Posted Apr 17, 2013
I felt compelled to respond to Dr. Frederic Neumann’s recent post “Why Some People Can’t Find Anyone to Marry.” In it, Dr. Neuman mentions some of the very real challenges faced by people who want a partner, particularly people out of their 20s, who often find that many if not most of the people they’re meeting are already married.
At the end of the day, however, the gist of his post is this: “It seems to me obvious that the more people you meet, the more likely it is that you will meet and marry someone appropriate. If you really want to meet and marry someone.”
Ouch on that “if you really want to meet and marry someone” (emphasis mine).*
But these things stick in my craw, because the implicit message is that the single person just needs to try harder. That is, people who would never dream of telling a depressed person to “just try harder,” to pull herself “up by the bootstraps,” or to “just get over it” have no problems telling single people exactly that when it comes to finding a life partner.
While it may seem just that simple from the married side of the fence (just the way it does from the non-depressed side of the fence), it’s not. If it were, there would be fewer single people wishing they could find a partner and more people finding partners.
Let’s think about what we know about operant conditioning. Thorndike’s Law of Effect says that when a behavior is followed by pleasant consequences, it’s likely to be repeated, while a behavior followed by unpleasant consequences is not. If someone says they do not like dating, or some aspect of dating, or if they are anxious about marriage, something (or many somethings) about the courting process have acted as punishers or negative reinforcers, thereby reducing the likelihood that the person will continue to seek mates using the same techniques he or she has in the past.**
Further, unpleasant experiences can stunt the creation of or damage feelings of self-efficacy. Singles may lose their confidence, believe there’s something wrong with them, and have more trouble recovering from setbacks.
However, this does not mean that the person does not still want a relationship, possibly including a life or marital partner. The problem is that everything she has tried so far has not been reinforcing because it hasn’t worked. Telling her to go out there and do more of what has not worked for her may be practical—there are only so many ways to find potential partners—but of course she’s going to balk. In some ways, you’re telling her that her not-reinforcing experiences are less important than your (fortunately) reinforcing experiences.
Everyone who gets married hopes their relationship will be one for the storybooks. Yet many marriages end in divorce. What’s the trick? Do people who stay married just know better how to pick partners? In some cases, perhaps, but I’d argue that at least some percentage of the time it’s just dumb luck. You were lucky enough to pick someone who ended up being a good (or at least tolerable) match for you. Whatever revelations came after the “I Do”s were things you could live with. And the benefits outweigh the costs, at least for now.
At the end of the post, Dr. Neuman talks briefly about how people who worry that marriage will be unpleasant or find the process of looking uncomfortable or demeaning, saying that these problems “are an outgrowth of certain inaccurate ideas some people have developed about themselves and about the world.” While he does mention psychotherapy in passing, the emphasis is “If people can be persuaded not to be proud and not to be fearful, there are plenty of opportunities to find someone to share their lives.”***
If someone has had bad experiences with dating or with a previous marriage, are their ideas about future experiences inaccurate? After all, just because someone has a phobia of elevators because one malfunctioned while they were on board doesn’t mean they should be afraid of all elevators. (Unless you’re the sister of one of my students, who has had three elevator traumas.) Realistically, though, dating is not always fun. (And for some people, it’s usually not fun.)
Some people are introverts, or socially anxious, or have experienced rejection or disapproval for things they can’t control (e.g., a disability, having children). They may just not like getting coffee with strangers. Maybe they find coffeehouses boring. Add to that the fact that dating is time consuming. When you have a busy job or children, for example, there may be barriers to going out with every potential match you meet.
And even if these singles do go out with many, many people, at what point are they choosing a relationship not because the potential partner in question is an excellent match, but because they just want to stop the discomfort of dating?
Dr. Neuman says, “[Some people] really do not want to get married; they want to maintain a fiction of aspiring to marriage; but it is only a fiction.”
I’m not sure exactly what that means, because I’m not sure for whom the fiction is being maintained. For family members who wish the individual would just get hitched? Or for oneself? People can certainly maintain fictions to avoid unpleasant situations or experiences (for example, once in a while someone will attend therapy religiously to maintain the illusion that they are going to change their lives when they really have no intention of doing so), but if it’s for oneself, isn’t that an interesting fiction to choose?
Coupled people may not always realize that singlehood can also be incredibly reinforcing. Singles often enjoy their autonomy—for example, they don’t have to share financial decisions, they can come home whenever they like, and they can maintain their own space exactly the way they want it. Giving those things up—especially if someone has had bad experiences in the past—can be tough.
It’s not an either/or issue—you’re either dying to get married or you’re damned if you’re going to give up singlehood. We live in a coupled world, and many people are so afraid of being alone that they don’t know how to be alone. Yet when a single who enjoys being independent (regardless of how much she also wants a partner) wants to find a partner who is more reinforcing than that autonomy says that she’s having trouble finding a good match, the statistics come out. There may well be 8 million people in New York City, but most of them won’t do, and that’s an awful big haystack to sort through.
And Internet dating may actually be a hindrance for some people. Glamour magazine has an interesting article out this month called “Why You Should Stop Googling Your Dates.” In it, author Samantha Henig argues that online information about potential dates can be problematic.
"Technology makes it very easy to eliminate people on the basis of what, in the grand picture of a relationship, might end up being a pretty negligible point," says Nicole B. Ellison, Ph.D., an associate professor of information at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, who explains that the treasure trove of data available via social media sites has encouraged people to treat their dating options like a shopping experience. I've certainly been guilty of the picky-shopper approach: Some nights I have two tabs on my computer open at once—Anthropologie for clothes and OkCupid for guys. I toggle between them, clicking and evaluating. This sweater is too cropped. That guy is too short. Too conservative a neckline. Too conservative a profile. Mama's boy? Dry-clean only? Too high-maintenance. Next.
"You're trying to suss out: Will this person and I have a connection? Actually, there is no evidence that we can assess that online," says Eli J. Finkel, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, whose research on online dating shows that misconceptions are rampant. "You think you know what you want, but what you really need is to sit across from each other and get a beer."
Yes, good online dating leads to sitting down and getting a drink, but it’s easy to rule out potentially wonderful partners based on negligible facts. You never really know if you have chemistry until you meet.
Maybe rather than telling singles they just need to try harder, we should try harder to help them. Don’t tell them to stop being picky or make more of an effort. Honestly, those things can create so much defiant anger in the single person that it becomes a barrier to looking. Rather, appreciate that there are a lot of benefits to being single and that they may have trouble giving those up. Empathize. Help them build their self-efficacy by encouraging them. Remind them how good they are at facing other challenges in their lives.
Realize that they may want to go new places and try new things to meet people, but they’re uncomfortable doing it alone or can’t afford a regular babysitter. So offer to take a class with them or watch their kids while they go on a date. If you really think they’re hung up on something—low self-esteem, having trouble putting their best foot forward—offer to role-play with them or suggest that therapy might help. And when they’re ready to try putting themselves out there, you can support them just by being willing to listen to the ups and downs of being out there.
If their previous experiences with dating haven’t been reinforcing, remind them that it may not necessarily be the dating itself that’s so unpleasant—it may be that they’re uncomfortable with particular aspects of it. Some people hate meeting strangers for coffee, and others find that walking up to an attractive individual is difficult for them.
Let's do some problem solving. What changes can they make to reduce the punishing aspects of dating? If they’re frustrated with online dating, have they tried different types of searches? Have they tried different sites? Different sites attract different kinds of people, and sometimes the paid sites are a better bet than the free ones because they throw out scammers and people who behave inappropriately. What about attending singles events? Some dating sites have started offering these types of events, which are focused on an activity like cooking or learning to ballroom dance. What about speed dating? Blind dating? Help them come up with other creative ideas.
What about the people who are avoiding dating because they’ve had bad experiences with marriage? Remind them that they’re not getting married to anyone they date right out of the gate. They can take any relationship as slowly as they want, testing the waters along the way. There is, of course, a potential for conflict and pain in any new romantic relationship, but that’s also true of other close relationships—family, friendships—that are worth having. And if the single decides to hold off on marriage for a while or comes to the conclusion that marrying even someone they love and trust is not for them? That’s totally okay.
I certainly see the value in “feeling the fear and doing it anyway,” and sometimes that’s good advice. But if the single truly feels stuck, trust me, it’s not that simple. True, they may need to try some different approaches, but to the people who want to help them—maybe so do you.
* I want to acknowledge that in many cases Dr. Neuman and I are saying similar things, the difference being that he said them in passing, while I’m making them the focus of my post. There’s only so much you can say in a blog post, and we all decide what to emphasize and what to mention only in passing. It’s also easy to read into things other people have written online. I doubt this was intended to be an “ouch” statement.
** For the sake of brevity and consistency, I have used the pronoun “she” in most cases. By no means is this meant to imply that the above does not apply equally to males.
*** Dr. Neuman did write another post in response to a reader e-mail he received, addressing the reader’s feelings of low self-worth. If you’re interested in how therapy might be able to help someone who is held back by negative feelings about themselves, check out his Low Self-Esteem post.
Finally, for writers—relationships can be tough. How can you show the struggles singles face in your stories?
Dr. Carolyn Kaufman is the author of The Writer's Guide to Psychology: How to Write Accurately About Psychological Disorders, Clinical Treatment and Human Behavior.