I’ve argued before that modern dating has never looked more like “The Bachelor” or “The Bachelorette” than it does today. When the show debuted in 2002, putting 25 fabulous suitors in front of a single contestant was a novel premise; today, anyone can amass 25 matches on apps such as Tinder, Bumble or Hinge after a short time swiping. Still, the show’s prevailing script has not changed in more than 15 years: Contestants meet, fall in love, date for two months, get engaged and declare near-impossible certainty about each other.
This is why, of all the couples ever to emerge from the Bachelor franchise, Jared and Ashley feel perhaps the most real — precisely because it took them three years of confusion, indecision and doubt to get to where they are today. Sound familiar? Here’s why experts say that “confused” feeling is increasingly common while deciding whether to commit.
As relationship options have increased, daters have become less tolerant of early ambiguity and uncertainty.
Confusion and indecision are hallmarks of modern dating. Alexandra Solomon, a clinical assistant professor in Northwestern University’s psychology department, says the seemingly endless pool of dating options now make us “less likely to tolerate ambiguity” early on.
In their joint video, Jared says he was “confused” even after knowing he had strong feelings for Ashley. Ashley said on her podcast that Jared wanted to feel “100 percent sure” about her before initiating a relationship. Solomon says the ability to generate new matches quickly has a similar effect on regular daters. “If I’m feeling unsure about a potential love interest, it’s so easy for me to start to think, ‘Well, if I’m not totally sure about them, I will keep trying until I find someone I feel 100 percent sure about,’ ” she explains. In this scenario, you could theoretically be more sure about someone — and there’s always another in the queue — so you end up choosing no one, as you trade in option after option.
The abundance of choice also makes it less likely to progress in a relationship, says Marisa T. Cohen, an associate professor of psychology and co-founder of the Self-Awareness and Bonding Lab at St. Francis College. “Research on speed-dating concludes that when people have more choice — a greater number of people to choose from, or more varied characteristics among them — they are less likely to make a decision and get to a formal date at all.” Cohen also says daters with an abundance of choice are “more likely to rely on superficial characteristics.” (Perhaps this is why Jared ignored his early comfort and compatibility with Ashley, thinking she was too “emotional” for him.)
Never has a generation had less pressure to settle down, make a choice and commit to one person.
“We live in a world with less social pressure to couple off and have kids, and men and women are entering the workforce at roughly the same rates,” says Art Markman, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. “All this changes the calculus a little bit.” Societal changes have extended daters’ ability and, sometimes, desire to remain free of obligations.
Even if singles claim to want love, there are still strings attached that make us doubt it’s worth the trade-offs, Markman says. “While single or in the beginning of a new relationship, you have fewer goal conflicts,” he explains. “When it comes to commitment, now it’s not just feeling 100 percent sure about a person, but feeling sure you want to enter into a life stage with a lot more compromise.”
The responsibility and compromise make people more ambivalent. “The fact that the word ‘adulting’ even exists” shows that people often “want to put off responsibilities” or shirk hard choices, Markman says. So, even if you meet someone you really like, an impending serious relationship might lead to doubts about whether you’re ready for love’s less exciting or more serious obligations.
We’re still under the impression that we need to choose the ‘best’ option.
Cohen thinks there are two primary reasons daters are crippled, but both boil down to unrealistic expectations. “First, the increased number of potential partners offered by dating sites makes it seem like the possibilities are endless,” she says. “Second, there’s a pressure on social media that relationships must be perfect — think #relationshipgoals — which may be why we are more hesitant to commit and to continually search for the next best thing.”
But according Markman, there’s “danger” in searching for more and more, or thinking you could even find one “best” or “right” match in your pool of romantic choices. “Herb Simon, who won the Nobel Prize in economics in the ’70s, came up with this term ‘satisficing,’ ” he explains. “This means that, in a pool of perfectly good options, you don’t need to pick the best one. You simply need to choose an adequate one.”
While “adequate” might sound unromantic, Markman says it’s just realistic. “It’s better to reframe the need to find ‘the best choice’ as the need to choose someone you can be very happy with,” he explains. However, it’s hard to remember that when pop culture is sending us other messages.
People worry when things aren’t working out perfectly near the beginning.
When you’re forced to compare options quickly, as daters are today, you’re naturally aware of flaws faster. “You might see a more realistic picture of the potential relationship and start to weigh whether or not a red flag is something that you can overlook, or you wonder if it will eventually fracture the relationship,” Cohen says.
In this way, we often think of choosing a partner like selecting a car. “But choosing a partner is nothing like buying a car,” Markman says. “When you buy a car, the car is the best it will be the day you drive it off the lot. When you choose a partner, instead, these relationships are works in progress.” Not only will you get better at becoming teammates, growing together and joining life trajectories over time, but you will also get to know this person better and better every day.
It’s “tempting to compare” your partner with past relationships and potential relationships, instead of “living within the relationship,” Markman says. “But when you choose to settle down, you’re not living out all relationships,” he explains. “You’re living out the one relationship. It’s more like choosing an apartment. You’re not comparing all the ways in which it’s better or worse than all the other apartments but making it more your own all the time.”
So how do you choose one good match for a relationship?
Although it seems there are a million dating options out there, choose just one among the smaller pool with whom you have chemistry and are compatible. All the while, keep a couple things in mind: Problems are normal, as are doubts. “To say it in the most straightforward way, choosing a partner is choosing a set of problems,” Solomon explains. “But I believe two things to my core: Relationship problems are 100 percent inevitable, and they are also vehicles for greater intimacy if both partners are committed to being curious, collaborative and empathic.”
When doubts creep in, remember that it would probably be stranger if you didn’t have them, Markman says. “A good relationship is not about having no doubts,” he says. “It’s about whether or not you feel you can talk to your partner about those doubts.” An undoubted sign you’re on the right track.