In my late twenties, a lot of my friends started getting engaged. You know the drill: more social media posts than the eye can see. Engagement photos. The whole nine.
I didn’t realize how much silent social pressures, and the behavior of those around you, influences our behavior. We like to think that we’re in charge of our behavior, but ultimately, we often have no idea how much something is influencing us until we make a drastic change.
Our brain begins organizing its idea of how the world works from birth, taking on cues from the groups we need to get along with in order to survive. The first messages matter the most because they stamp in our idea of normal, and they’re often Disney cartoons, fairy tales, quips from our grandparents. So as much as you might think “things are changing, the next generation won’t have any of our beliefs on sexuality/gender because what they’re exposed to is so different,” our beliefs of what feels like “normal” are a product of how frequently we’ve been exposed to something, and when we heard those messages.
You might hear 80 messages when you’re young that are in line with very traditional messages about gender norms: What a spinster! You’re already 27, why aren’t you married yet? I can’t believe she’s waiting so long. They were a very “nontraditional family.” They were a smart, nice couple and settled down when they were both young; it’s so nice to hear great stories like that.
The last messages were more progressive: there is no deadline for getting married! Having a family is optional, and can be done at any age! There are no rules for who should make how much money, or what the roles should be!! Humans are ultra-social creatures, and regardless of how much you like to think that your thoughts and decisions are only influenced by your contemporaries, they’re not. We’re the product of everything we hear.
Guess who got married when she was 29?
And guess who got divorced a few years later, after she realized that she made a huge mistake?
“Choices do more than reveal preferences; they also reflect subtle, yet often quite reasonable, dependencies on the environment.”1Rieskamp, J., Busemeyer, J. R., & Mellers, B. A. (2006). Extending the bounds of rationality: Evidence and theories of preferential choice. Journal of Economic Literature, 44(3), 631-661.
We often don’t realize how much social norms influence us until we go through a huge change. After I got divorced and moved back to New York, I started befriending a lot of women who were in no hurry to settle down. They were just happy doing their own thing. Densely populated areas create a shift in group mating behavior. Because there’s more competition for a good mate, people wind up spending more time investing in themselves: they’re more likely to go to grad school and invest money. They get married later. Or… not at all.
I invested in myself. I learned all that I could about relationships to try and avoid making the same mistake. We’re likely to commit to something if we think that it’s the best choice around. So when we’re thinking about who to settle down with, you’re more likely to be happy in a relationship if you’re happy being single. If you’re unhappy being single, you’ll settle out of fear of winding up alone.2Women might even be happier without kids or a husband.)
I’ve started dating again because I want to, not because I feel like I need to settle down.
Just imagine that you have infinite time. That you might not find “your person” until you’re 80 and in a nursing home. Or, that instead of one lifelong partner, you’re going to have 3 more amazing long-term relationships over the course of your life: each will be very different, surprising, and fulfilling.
When I think in terms of “no deadline,” I’m happier. When we feel constrained, it’s incredibly easy to make a subpar decision. Our brain is remarkably efficient at factoring in real world constraints, without even realizing it. When you know that any choice is better than no choice, you stop collecting data and start zeroing in on an option, ultimately choosing whatever the best option seems to be—out of whatever options you think you have.
Why else would so many online retailers put up banner ads, counting down how many hours are left in a sale? (Do you really think that Banana Republic isn’t going to sell you that sweater tomorrow?) I’ve seen many friends wind up in relationships best described as “meh” because they’ve fallen victim to the false ticking of their biological clock. We look at someone, think “this is a human who has agreed to spend time with me,” and try to make it work. You might end up taking a subpar job that sets your career back. Out of loneliness, you might become friends with people who don’t share your values. You get that shirt that you never end up wearing again, simply because you needed something that would cover your tattoos the next day and you really hate shopping.
I make the best decisions when I’m not actively looking for something. Most of us do. That’s when we stop unknowingly limiting ourselves to “the three options that happen to be in front of me right now.”
Instead, we’ve waited until something is so great that it grabs our attention, distinguishing itself from everything else in the environment.
To make the best choice? Stop actively looking. Think about “things you’d like to do someday” (hire, date, furnish your living room, take a class), and let that simmer in the back of your mind. Don’t pick something because you feel like you need it: pick something that you really want. Let the thing find you.