Twelve years ago when I was 27, 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.
So, at the time, I started looking at the relationships around me, and reflecting on the decisions of everyone I knew who was married. What a coincidence that just about everyone I knew met their spouse when they were in their mid-to-late 20s! The pressure to “settle down” and find a mate in your 20s is especially pronounced for women. 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. 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. The things that we hear early on—Disney cartoons, fairy tales, quips from our grandparents—often have the most staying power. 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—our family.
Think of it this way: say you hear 100 messages about marriage over the course of your lifetime: stories of friends and family members getting married, advice columns, questions from friends, and even just mentions in passing from stories throughout history. Let’s be generous and say that 20 of those messages were liberal and 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!! This means that the first 80 messages you heard would still be 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 subtext is that getting married is the kind of thing you have to do when you’re in your late 20s. 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.” (source)
We often don’t realize how much social norms influence us until we go through a huge change. In my case, that change was my social environment. 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. If women think that there aren’t any suitable mates, they’re more likely to invest time in their careers. (Since we’re so good at automatically focusing on rewards in our environment, we’re also good at being genuinely happy with our life options and choices, even if other people can’t understand them. We are inclined to like whatever is out there because it keeps us sane.)
In the past few years, I’ve studied relationships, and what it actually means to be in a great one. We’re likely to commit to something if we think that it’s the best choice around. So, think about it: one of the alternatives to being, say, in a relationship with Hank isn’t being in a relationship with Brian. Or Ted. Or Nolan. When we’re thinking about who to settle down with, or who to pursue a long-term relationship with, remember: one of our options is simple: to not be in a relationship at all. (Women 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 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.