In my introductory post I said that 1. people are too unique for any general theory or advice about dating to be universally applicable and 2. that I was going to break that rule immediately. I stand by both statements, though the rule breaking is more nuanced.
In one of the least-romantic descriptions of dating and marriage ever written, Nobel Laureate Gary Becker reduces the entire dating process to a simple cost/benefit analysis:
According to the economic approach, a person decides to marry when the utility expected from marriage exceeds that expected from remaining single or from additional search of a suitable mate. Similarly, a married person terminates his (or her) marriage when the utility anticipated from being single or marrying someone else exceeds the loss in utility from separation, including losses due to physical separation from one’s children, division of joint assets, legal fees, and so forth (Becker, 1976:10).
In plain English, Becker understands that people get married when there’s more to be gained by getting married than by staying single, and the same is true for divorce. This follows what some economists call the “rational choice theory,” in which every decision is based on someone deciding a course of action based on the “best” of all options. The problem of course is we have no idea how our decisions in the present will play out in the future. If anything, we’re heavily biased to project either our past experiences or our current emotional state onto the future such that our predictions are rarely accurate.
So what really drives us to make the Big Decisions?
In a word, “hope.”
More specifically, it’s the hope that our lives will be better if we decide on a certain course of action than any alternative.
Following Becker’s approach, I suggest that dating is no different. The one thing everyone is looking for in a relationship is that somehow life will be better with a particular person than without. Exactly how life will be better will not only depend on the individual, but on the specific circumstances of that person. Some may find hope in a life of stability, while others appreciate the excitement of constant adventure. Maybe the hope for a better life includes having many children, or perhaps the greater hope is found in the potential freedom to pursue one’s interests. It’s why abstract concepts like “love” or “connections” may be a higher priority for some over others, or why everyone’s definition will be different. Normally, these sorts of questions are framed in the context of “life goals” or “checklists,” but essentially everyone is just trying to improve their lives, hoping for the best, and the criteria for doing so is often subject to change.
I also think this approach explains why dating seems harder for some people. Assuming that all relationships take effort and involve some “cost” of time, money, freedom, and emotional energy, the more someone has adjusted to living alone, the more “hope” that person would need to disrupt the status quo. If the people you happen to meet aren’t “worth” the cost – that is, the prospect of putting in all those resources outweighs any benefits one hopes to receive out of the relationship – you’re probably going to be disinterested in pursuing a relationship with that person. I’d further suggest this is particularly applicable to older singles, especially the emotionally healthier ones who have acclimated and adjusted to living life on their own. It’s not that singles get more “selective” as they get older as much as they’ve learned to live a satisfying life on their terms. In which case, older singles require a proportionally greater “hope” for a better future with any given person. It’s much easier to hope when you’re young because you can still dream of possibilities, even if they might never come true, but the longer someone experiences life, the less such dreams of a better life seem plausible.
It’s possible that viewing relationships from the perspective of “hope” may be helpful in the dating process in that we can ask ourselves when we find ourselves attracted to someone what we hope life with this person will bring us (and the same is true when we’re disinterested). If we’re finding ourselves equivocating or wondering why we fall into the same bad habits, then perhaps focusing on what we’re hoping for, and why, might produce some interesting and helpful answers.
Economic imperialism FTW.
Another appropriate model would be Becker’s model of rational addiction. Becker models positive hobbies as returns from positive investment – for example, the more you play piano, the better you get, and the more utility you get from playing even more piano. Meanwhile, Becker models addiction as diminishing returns from an investment. For example, the more you use a drug, the more of that drug it takes to achieve the same high as it used to. What Becker wanted to do was provide a rational economic model for hobbies and addictions that did not require invoking, “different strokes for different folks” or “de gustibus non est disputandum”.
Perhaps we can say that some singles have invested more in their single lifestyle while others have yet to invest as much. Those who have invested more in being single will obtain more utility from remaining single than they would otherwise, with less investment. Therefore, in order to induce them to marry, the prospect of marriage must offer enough expected benefit to exceed the benefit they obtain from their investment in singledom.
I’m not sure I’m describing it quite right, because I’d have to reread the article.