Why Are You Single? Perhaps It's The Choice Effect

“It’s impossible not to constantly wonder if there’s something better, someone better.”

My good female friend picked up her third glass of Syrah-Merlot and continued: “If I could only choose between three decent guys, it’d be a done deal. I’d be married already.”

I nodded. Having options–perceived infinite choice–isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. How, then, do you tame indecision, particularly in relationships?

The following guest post, written by Claire Williams, explores some of the more successful approaches… and realizations.

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In 2000, Drs. Sheena S. Iyengar and Mark R. Lepper set up a tasting booth at an upscale grocery store in California. On some days, they put out a selection of six types of jam; on other days they set out twenty-four. Although the wider selection attracted more shoppers, more people bought the jam when there were fewer options. It seemed

the more choices people had, the harder it was to make a decision.

The Paradox of Choice explored this infamous dilemma, in which having more options tends to leave us paralyzed and increase our buyer’s remorse. But what does that mean when you’re not just shopping? What about when you’re doing much more important stuff…like picking a job, a house, or – gasp – a life partner?…

If you ever listened to your teachers, talked to your parents, or watched Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, you learned that you were a special snowflake and the world was yours for the taking. But for a generation with more options than ever before, how do you choose when you’ve been taught you can have it all?

Choister?

Today’s twenty- and thirty-somethings approach life and love very differently than past generations. The explosion of choices now available has impacted our desires and expectations, and led us to reconsider traditional decisions. Young men and women are increasingly reluctant to make the ultimate commitment and get married, and much of

that is due to all the other glittery options out there competing for our attention – friends, professional success, 30 Rock, the people in the world you haven’t yet dated.

If you love choices and think the world is your oyster, you’re a choister.

In a world where you might have twenty careers by your 31st birthday, you just might want to cultivate some more stability in your relationships.

The “choice effect” is that pit in your stomach as soon as the waiter walks away with your food order and you realize you wanted what she’s having. It’s a reality, and one that impacts our love

lives.

So how do you overcome this paradox in relationships? For your mother’s sake, take notes.

5 Ways to Tame the Choice Effect:

Use the following “C”-words to make the other “C”-word–commitment–less daunting.

1. Criteria:

Before I decided to settled down with “J”, my now fiancé from Argentina, there were several key moments where I questioned the very basis of our relationship. As foreigners in each other’s lands, cultural and language barriers have been an ongoing theme. It’s taken him years to accept that in my country we eat omelets for breakfast – not lunch – and my visible upset at the break-up of Tipper and Al made him more than pause (okay, maybe that’s not cultural). But one day while I related a particularly hysterical Jon Stewart shtick, the worst happened. He told me it didn’t sound very funny. And that’s when I asked myself: could I really spend a lifetime single-handedly explaining the nuances of The Daily Show to a newbie?

My non-negotiables had been there from the start: internationalism, spirituality, and ambition. Although J matched me well on these fronts, we weren’t carbon copies of one another by any stretch of the imagination. He spends hundreds of hours a year on photography, and I traveled around the world for an entire year without bringing my own camera. I still don’t understand if a bass and a bass guitar are the same thing, but there are apparently three of them displayed in our foyer. I had never heard of Maradona.

We make trade offs in our love lives – J’s cultural “shortcomings” are made up for by key compatibilities. As I’ve come to believe, a man who has never tasted peanut butter can still make an excellent father. So think about what you need. Not a never-ending wish list about how the perfect partner will want to attend Lilith Fair and share your love of Neti pots. Pick the stuff that matters and find someone with those qualities.

2. Concentration:

Like Stephen Stills once sung: “Love the one you’re with.”

When J and I had been dating less than a year, I moved half-way around the world for an MBA program. Suddenly

my wonderful, intelligent, handsome boyfriend was a pixelated photo to Skype with. Meanwhile, real, warm-blooded men played lacrosse around me. This world will pull us in lots of directions, and you need to decide what your prize is and keep your eye on it. Don’t get distracted by every boy or girl that musters the energy for a “how YOU doin’?” Don’t forget your fiance’s cello concert because you’re wall-flirting with your middle school crush on Facebook. I’m all for canvassing your options, but beware the shiny ball syndrome.

3. Common Sense:

Does your ideal life involve a mud hut in Nicaragua with a partner equally thrilled by jungle monkies? Then don’t go trolling for men on what’s left of Wall Street. If you’re a conservative Christian who’s into side hugs, don’t make eyes at the atheist hippie at the local coffee shop. Yes, opposites attract. Paula Abdul said so. But they aren’t a long-term win. Don’t fall into a relationship that checks none of your boxes. Although you may think this is destiny slapping you on the face, this is actually just adrenaline. Probably heightened from the fog of patchouli.

4. Calculation:

Keep an eye on the clock. Not in the Marisa-Tomei-stomping-your-foot kind of way. But there’s being picky and then there’s being paralyzed. So ask yourself – whether you’re choosing a pair of shoes, a healthcare plan, or a spouse – “How long SHOULD this take?” For example – would you agree with the following: you should spend no longer than an hour of your life at GAP deciding between unremarkable fragrances, and no longer than 5 years to decide on a partner? Like my best friend who, after dating her boyfriend for seven years, suddenly thought, “How much more data can I expect to gather?” and suggested they elope to Vegas. You don’t have to adhere perfectly, but it’s good to step back, pick a number (I just might recommend two years), and buy a watch.

5. Choose Already:

If you went into an ice-cream store and saw a child ordering an ice cream cone with 7 different scoops, you’d tell him he was idiot (or not, because that is mean and he is small). Don’t be that kid. You don’t get to have everything.

And, to be fair, you don’t want to. College buffet lines were fun at the beginning, but a plate full of pasta-pizza-ranch-dressing-Fruit Loops loses its appeal after a while. So choose.

What stops so many of us from making a commitment is our fear that once we make a choice we have to close the door on all the other options. If we marry Andy, we will never date Charles. True. If we become an architect, we will never be a ferret trainer. Also true. However, if we do sack up and choose to become an architect, then we have a whole host of new and shiny choices to think about! Should we make a doghouse or a people house? Should the house be blue or red? Should the building be small, medium, or big?

Choosing doesn’t limit choices—it just changes them. So feel free to pick that city, that career, that partner, knowing that even commitment brings a whole new set of options – children/pets/red and blue houses – to be excited (and angsty) about.

By the way, I picked me an architect. (See how I tied that up?)

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Claire Williams is co-author of The Choice Effect, which explores overcoming the Paradox of Choice in decisions–big and small–that affect your life. Her previous writing on navigating choices can be found here.

The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 500 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

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335 Replies to “Why Are You Single? Perhaps It's The Choice Effect”

  1. Before I decided to settle* down. (?)

    Great article. I write this comment from a hostel on the last night on a dream trip to Japan and I finally feel my own waters are beginning to settle.

  2. So I notice this was originally posted back in 2010 and what a difference 5 years can make. We are on the precipice of paradigm shift in relationships and relating emotionally in general. Our options no longer have to be limited to either/or but, can be this and also that. Granted it takes a high level of emotional intelligence but, if done ethically and authentically, our relationships can be inclusive rather than exclusive (if we feel that it’s what right for us). There are also a number of people who are invested in breaking free from this limited programming that you can only be, have, or choose one thing, career, or person. It’s not the 1950s anymore and the world is full of endless possibilities; you should know that, you wrote 3 books to teach people how to get them. I completely reject the idea that we can’t have it all or that being a “Choister” is negative just because not everyone has the ability to manage it.

  3. Hahahaha “Does your ideal life involve a mud hut in Nicaragua with a partner equally thrilled by jungle monkies?” loll.. That was a good one! And that definitely does include me, yes :p haha or the “If you love choices and think the world is your oyster, you’re a choister” hahah I am a choister! haha

  4. I read this article a couple of times to make sure I am getting it right. Because somethings bug me about it.

    “But one day while I related a particularly hysterical Jon Stewart shtick, the worst happened. He told me it didn’t sound very funny. And that’s when I asked myself: could I really spend a lifetime single-handedly explaining the nuances of The Daily Show to a newbie?”

    If that doesn’t sound obnoxious, I don’t know what does. I had relationships with people from different nations. English, German, Australian, American, Irish. I have a collection like you, Tim Ferriss. 😛 Differences on sense of humor and manners have always been the “fun” part for me and for them, not troubles at all. They made me learn and grow.

    “We make trade offs in our love lives – J’s cultural “shortcomings” are made up for by key compatibilities. As I’ve come to believe, a man who has never tasted peanut butter can still make an excellent father.”

    Cultural “shortcomings”? Are you kidding me? This article was shared in 2010. They might be doing great now. Regardless, this lady sounds shallow and egoistic. If she intended to be funny, it is not funny at all. It is ignorant. Maybe my sense of humor doesn’t get it ?

    She said “internationalism” was non-negotiable but then she referenced some cultural differences as an example for shortcoming. (?1?!) It is like saying “I want ice cream but I don’t want it to melt on my fingers, because , you know, I am important.” Cultural differences are not shortcomings, they are treasures and smart people make the best of them. If anyone ever sees them as troubles, she/he shouldn’t attempt to have a relationship with someone from a different nation for the sake of being “edgy”.

    The final message is good but examples are not good. I am glad none of my exes did write/talk like this about me. I know they wouldn’t. They also knew having raised in an unorthodox family, I am not a representative of my native country’s culture. Anyone who set some expectations based on that culture was in for disappointment, or if they had worries, well they were in for a surprise. I have my own code of conduct. In today’s society, relationships are shallow everywhere. Not just USA. It is all about “image” everywhere. I think we should constantly ask ourselves “if there was nobody else in the world to judge me, what would I do?”

    Best x

  5. The question still remains unanswered though…What’s the benefit in today’s society in “choosing” just one person for the rest of forever? In a more connected globalized society, doesn’t it actually make more sense for some people to have multiple partners that each fill certain needs we may have where we spend our time?

    I spend the majority of my time traveling…I don’t live in one permanent place…and I’m not compromising that. Hence, attempting a relationship with just one person quickly becomes an exercise of just how much loneliness I can handle. Not to mention the loneliness of my partner.

    To me, monogamy is simply a vestige of a religious ideal, based in the bronze-age where women cared for children in the hut while the man hunted all day with a spear. We’ve evolved well past that, and I don’t really see the utility in it anymore, unless you’re trying to birth and raise a bunch of kids maybe.

    I posit we would have a much healthier society overall if instead we approached relationships in an “added value” manner. We should ask ourselves, “do I add value to my partner’s life, and does my partner do the same?” For me, that’s the more relevant metric for choosing who I spend my time with.

    My other issue with monogamy and the theory of “settling for one” is that it makes the (incorrect) assumption that love is a finite resource that diminishes with use. “If you love Jane, there will be less love for me.” WHY?! Maybe I love Jane because of her own unique traits, just like I love Mary for her unique traits.

    It’s silly to assume I’ll feel less positively about one person simply because I feel positively about another. I don’t like Tim as a friend any less than I like James, just because I’m friends with James.

    Love is just a type of positive feeling, albeit still with some strong biological impulses passed down from our evolutionary past. It’s not some mystical, divinely handed down “thing” that’s in short supply. If it were, then we would all only ever break up one time after being “in love”, because all our love would have been used up. Sounds ridiculous, but that’s essentially the mindset behind monogamy.

    Perhaps my approach is too pragmatic for some (or most even)…but if people could better check their egos at the door of the relationships they enter into, I think they’d find a much deeper and meaningful experience of love than they would have otherwise.

  6. Nice article. I really enjoyed it and it’s given me something to think about, as a polyamarous serial dater in his early thirties, I am giving great consideration to finding the ‘right’ one and settling down. This has been good insight for me. Thank you.

  7. Did anyone see that recent episode of The Good Place? So many choices…

    I found that I had this issue at first with dating, especially with online dating. What I find happening over the past few years is that there is a lack of authenticity now. People aren’t up front with who they are and what they’re looking for. As soon as I figure that out about a guy, it’s move on dot org. I’m glad this article talks snooty having criteria. Ever since I defined that for myself several years ago, I know what I am looking for in a relationship and don’t need to waste my time on people that don’t meet that short list (with common sense of course).

  8. Insightful and wise. I was expecting to breeze through this and click out halfway through, as I do for most of the writing I see online about this type of topic. I really appreciated seeing your wit and perspective.

  9. When considering just Women, Women do have a lot more pressure than men, and it is both nature and nurture. Women have a time issue, need to find a suitable mate for the reproductive clock.

    They also have the familial and societal pressure with finding a mate. They have the choice of sex, and with sex they have the consequences: stds, getting pregnant. Condoms and BC help prevent these consequences, but if one chooses BC, a number of women have trouble conceiving later when they actually want to get pregnant. Then they have the societal pressure of not being perceived as promiscuous.

    On top of that, they have a natural desire for motherhood, at some point. This goes back to the time issue, and a natural longing. In today’s world, women are not expected to just be a wife and mother. They are expected to get an education and provide for themselves. So this change creates an internal dilemma.

  10. Well since most women nowadays aren’t like the good old days anymore which has a lot to do with it why so many of us good innocent men are still single today as i speak, and not by choice.

  11. Yo creía realmente en la pareja, pero he aprendido a vivir sola y soy feliz. Puede que la felicidad dependa de cada uno. No se puede generalizar una respuesta. Vivimos y ya. Cada vida o experiencia de vida es la que te da la elección. Es hermoso amar a alguien y compartir pero siempre desde la individualidad . No creo que fuese feliz con una familia ahora. Con veinte años puede que sí. De todas formas, es la vida y tú visión de esta lo que te hace decidir en cada momento. No olvidar que evolucionamos constantemente

  12. I don’t know…it sounds to me like Claire feels like she settled, and this is a bit of a justification for it. Not that it’s a bad thing–I think this is what most people do, and it’s fine. But some of us are romantics, and need more.

  13. I like this. Speaking of choices …Tim, fancy a date if you’re currently single? I’m an ex-lawyer who gave it all up to start my own business & then found myself in another type of work-aholic prison cell, so currently re-adjusting life to i can live in Bali part time/New Zealand the rest. All before i read your book The 4 Hour Work Week….which i’m now devouring & loving (thanks for the pearls of wisdom). The South Island of NZ is an adventure hub, so please factor this into your next mini-retirement and i’ll take you out for dinner. All about taking action right? Bridget xo

  14. Maybe part of the reason Tim Feriss is still single is because he goes drinking with single “good female friends” who for some reason, have not chosen him. I wouldn’t want to be with a man who does this.