Everybody has dealbreakers, right? You won't date a vegetarian who doesn't drink, a Republican who likes active rock, anyone seriously into SUP yoga. But then you find yourself falling for someone in spite of these egregious errors of existence, wondering where your cherished list went. Guess what? Apparently everyone does this.
Over at Science of Us, Samantha Joel tells us that everyone is bad at maintaining their dealbreakers, and looks at why such highly prized ideals about who we think we should be with never seem to matter all that much when we meet someone new. Seriously, why did you even get with him?
Some time ago, I wrote a post about how single people can readily call to mind all of the traits and features that they are looking for in a mate, yet these preferences seem to go right out the window when people make real-life dating decisions. Research consistently shows that what people say they want in a partner has virtually no bearing on who they actually choose to date in a laboratory setting. And yet, once people are in established relationships, they are happier with those relationships when their partners match their ideals. In other words, we all know what we want in a romantic partner, but we often fail to choose dating partners based on those preferences.
If we had to guess why this was true, we'd probably say things like:
My attraction was more powerful than his lack of interest in challenging films.
We had so much fun together, so I forget that she voted for McCain.
And that is true to an extent: The post Joel links above says the big thing that gets in the way of your ability to evaluate the person in front of you against the checklist in your head is…wait for it… your stupid involuntary feelings: Chemistry, attraction, rapport can all quickly annihilate the scorecard you meticulously devised about what you want and have always wanted and have honed over the course of your entire dating life and maybe even actually put on a real list somewhere in a hope chest in your heart, that is how much it meant to you.
Because of that, you ignore the fact that he's actually bad at telling a good story, or sometimes, I dunno, entirely rewrite their personality to omit the glaring red flag sitting across from you smoking cigs and avoiding adult responsibility.
This is all going to catch up to you later, though, when you realize you are incompatible and break up and suddenly in retrospect see every trait and its inevitable destructive impact on the relationship like some kind of view from command ops. But what is to be done? Eliminate everyone who doesn't meet the criteria regardless of spark?
Yes, says Joel:
In order for a person to select only dates who meet their ideals, they have to filter out allthe other available and interested dates who don't meet their ideals.
That is no easy feat. You're really siphoning your own pool of potential dates unless you rejigger this list. As a friend who said she could be talked in or out of kids, but not so much politics and religion, put it:
I'm an atheist, that's like one percent of the population. I wouldn't mind dating someone who believed in God, but please don't be a weirdo about it. Don't even go to church, actually. So now I've expanded my options to about 10 percent.
Ten percent! That is rough because I agree with Jerry Seinfeld that only five percent of the population is even datable in the first place.
ELAINE: "So what you are saying is that 90 to 95% of the population is undatable?"
ELAINE: "Then how are all these people getting together?"
Alcohol, yes, but there is another factor at work here. In more current research, Joel and her colleagues found another interesting reason people end up with ill-suited significant others: Not wanting to reject them. She writes:
However, human beings are prosocial animals: we don't like to reject people, and we don't like to cause other people pain. Rejecting undesirable dates may be quite difficult to do — perhaps harder than we anticipate — and this desire to avoid hurting others' feelings may be part of what leads people to start to build relationships with people who don't meet their ideals.
The way they tested this hypothesis was interesting — in one study, they paired single undergrads with prospective dates by way of an "unattractive photograph." In another, they paired them with a profile that was essentially a composite of their own dealbreakers they'd revealed beforehand. Sometimes they were asked to imagine the person was there for a date with them if they said yes. Other times they were told the person was actually there waiting for the potential date if they accepted. The result? Only 16 percent of study 1 participants said they'd go on the date with the not-really-there and unattractive person, while nearly 40 percent said they'd go with the dealbreakeriffic date allegedly waiting for them right there in the lab.
Hahaha, ugh. THIS IS NOT HOW IT IS SUPPOSED TO WORK YOU GUYS, AKA, my worst nightmare. The last thing I would want is a pity date, you know? The idea of someone feeling too bad to say no to you, and agreeing to go out with you knowing from the start that they hate your love for the band Phoenix is just too much. (Yes, my dealbreakers are music, feminism, refusal to try to new foods, inability to act goofy, lack of a sense of humor, unwillingness to read books/watch long/difficult movies, bad tippers, and anyone who has too many feelings, what of it?)
If everyone would just be more honest both with themselves and about the shit they want and like — assuming that is shit we really want and like and would be good for us — we could just save ourselves a lot of trouble, you know? Also: If we are happier when we are in relationships in which our ideals are met, is it because we are really happier, or because we think we would be happier and therefore can never quite lean all in when there is a so-called dealbreaker present? Because what about the studies that say we are also bad at knowing what will make us happy? There is a whole freaking book about that.
Obviously, there is a fine line here — between having your ideals met in a relationship and existing in the actual world we live in where you don't everything you want because you're just a person, and one who likes some terrible bands if we're being honest. That doesn't mean you don't deserve love. And here's the thing, most relationships don't work out anyway, so the upside is that it doesn't matter if your SO was also into obscure horror films or not — they were terrible at saying they were sorry, and remember that was the real dealbreaker anyway?
Here's what I think: You're better off not having that many dealbreakers anyway. Clearly this is the answer. There are some good ones to have for sure, like stupidity or Scientology or homophobia. But too many is shitty too. Would it kill you to be with someone otherwise great who happened to actually write poetry? I am thinking now of the famous scene in grunge-core rom-com Singles — the best movie you don't love yet and I don't know why cuz the jokes, man, the jokes — when Bridget Fonda's quirky coffee shop character named Janet lists everything she used to want in a guy and how she had to scale it down. From a Hello Giggles tribute:
Janet: Well, when I first moved out here from Tucson, I wanted a guy with looks, security, caring, someone with their own place, someone who said "bless you" or "gesundheit" when I sneezed, you know. Someone who liked the same things as me but not exactly. Someone who loves me.
Steve: Tall order.
Janet: Yeah, I scaled it down a little.
Steve: Well, what is it now?
Janet: Someone who says "gesundheit" when I sneeze. Although I'd prefer "bless you" – it's nicer.
You know I'm right.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.