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Coupling

Shopping around

Are too many choices spoiling our chances for finding love?

By Marianne Jacobbi
May 2, 2010

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I get oodles of choices in my in-box every week from Match.com, dozens of top new matches sent to help me rev up my love life. It’s not just me. Match sends this many profiles to everyone. There’s the guy with the departing hairline who’s athletic and toned, the one with the full of head of hair who says he’s a great listener, and the bald guy who probably won’t want more kids, which sounds sensible, as he’s 58. (Men much older than that answer “Not Sure” to the question of kids. It leaves their field of choices wide open.) No one strikes my fancy today, and I press delete.

My trash bin is a blur of faces and profiles, because most of the time I don’t act. A few years back I read Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, and in it he says that choice is a good thing, but we pay a price for too many choices in our lives. An overload can leave us feeling stressed and dissatisfied, even depressed, says Schwartz. It can prevent us from choosing, because we fear something better might come along. And it sometimes makes us regret the choices we have made.

When I arrived in the dating market three years ago (not exactly by choice), online dating had pretty much become the way for singles to meet. While I’m someone who likes to shop on occasion, I soon discovered I didn’t much like shopping for a mate. It’s not that there aren’t lots of opportunities to start something up with someone in cyberspace. There are. You can trade winks and IMs and flirty e-mails 24/7. There are more than 1,400 online dating sites to choose from, according to Hitwise, which tracks online use, and new niche sites (like Zoosk) are appearing all the time. Boomers, people my age, are certainly warming up to dating sites; Hitwise reports that visits by people 55 and older increased 45 percent in the last three years.

But the thrill of shopping for love online wore thin pretty quickly for me, despite the lineup of choices. I’d open the profiles each week and start to feel overwhelmed, like when you’re at a superstore without a shopping list and wander the aisles because you can’t remember what you need or want. (It’s like that scene at the end of The Hurt Locker where he’s so disoriented by all the choices in the cereal aisle that he just grabs the closest thing.) Shopping for love online can leave you just as weary. You have to know what you’re looking for and have the stamina to go after it. You have to be willing to try on lots of merchandise, including seconds and remainders. You need to be prepared for the shopaholics you’ll meet along the way (daters hooked on the hunt). You need to take a break every so often, as shopping can burn you out.

Shopping for love like this makes me wish for simpler times, for when choices and expectations were fewer and more realistic. In The Art of Choosing, Sheena Iyengar describes a study comparing couples in India whose marriages had been arranged and those who had married for love. The couples in the two groups had been married for anywhere from a year to 20 years and were surveyed to see who was happiest over time. In the first year of marriage, the love couples were happier than the arranged couples. To be expected. But at the 10-year mark, arranged couples scored higher on the marital bliss scale. “Is it possible that love marriages start out hot and grow cold, while arranged marriages start cold and grow hot . . . or at least warm?” Iyengar asks. “So why not hand over the reins to your family members, maybe your friends, and trust them to lead you to the right partner?”

Sounds like a plan to me. I’m leaving the online shopping scene for good. I plan to ask the people I trust to be my matchmakers and to leave the rest to chance. Maybe my three adult kids know someone they could bring home for dinner (for Mom). I could ask my spinning instructor if she knows someone, too. I have no idea where this will lead. But maybe narrowing my choices will open up all kinds of possibilities.

Marianne Jacobbi is a regular contributor to the Globe Magazine. She lives in Cambridge. Send comments to coupling@globe.com. Story ideas: Send yours to coupling@globe.com. Please note: We do not respond to ideas we will not pursue.

  • May 2, 2010 cover
  • may 2 globe magazine cover
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