Why we date

On one of my alumni lists, there’s been a quite interesting discussion in recent days about the longevity of marriage and divorce, and whether the traditional model of marriage is outdated in this day of longer lifetimes and faster change. This was all tripped off by one of our classmates, Sandra Tsing Loh, who since her days at Caltech has become something of a national media commentator and playwright. She is divorcing after 20 or so years of marriage, and has been blogging about it and appearing on talk shows, and has incited something of a response in the op-ed pages of various newspapers.

All of which is somewhat beside the point, though the opinions of my fellow Caltech grads have been very interesting, ranging from the economics of families over time to gender roles to the role of affairs in divorce. We’re just old enough at this point that many of us too have had long-term marriages (and divorced), some to the point where their kids are getting married and divorced – and just geeky enough that there’s a strong interest in analyzing the parameters.

The most thought-provoking bit for me from the entire discussion was this – if people go into relationships to gain something, they are likely to fail. And if people go into relationships to make another person happy, they are likely to succeed. While most people have both motivations, it is the balance of the two that’s important – if your desire to make the other person happy is greater than 50% (being Techies, there was a need to quantify the issue), then the love exceeds the selfishness and the relationship is likely to improve or at least succeed over time. It was his contention that if the balance was even a little to the opposite side, that little bit of extra selfishness would slowly erode the relationship until, over a long period of time, it would fail.

I felt that was an important insight into the nature of relationships. I’ve been thinking recently about my adventures with Match.com and whether they’re really worthwhile. It’s not even so much a matter of whether one could find someone – I’ve met enough nice people that way that I’m starting to think you could, eventually. It’s more a matter of why – why exactly do people go on Match.com? The answer seems clear – to fulfill needs that they have.

I’m not at all saying that it’s a bad thing to have a need or desire for a deep and fulfilling relationship – only that the act of going online to meet strangers to try to fill that need is an entirely one-sided act. It is all about finding what you need. Of course you might grow to love a person you meet. But it seems more likely that people would date until two people met who seemed to fill each other’s spaces, needs, or criteria, and then they would get married (or whatever). I’ve written before about feeling like I’m being interviewed for the position of “wife”. Which is exactly what I’m talking about.

So in light of the balance being spoken of above, how likely are these relationships to succeed? Lately I had already been thinking that I just need to live my life and see who I meet. If I don’t meet anyone, I’m not getting out enough. And if I’m not happy not meeting anyone, then I’m not doing enough of the things in life that I love. And lately I’ve been finding myself more and more happy, just happy living.

I know one or two people that I feel the other way about – what I really want is to be a part of their lives so I can contribute to their happiness (and my own). Unfortunately, they’re not available for that kind of relationship. So I’m thinking, I just need to wait until I meet someone else that I really feel that way about, where the overriding impulse is that person and their happiness.

No matter how nice the guys are on Match.com (or any other dating venue), they’re looking for someone to fulfill their needs, and they’re going to judge me by that criterion. And so will I, since I won’t know them well enough to love them yet. So any relationship we start will have started on a basically selfish act by both parties, and if our love and marriage commentator is right, that’s not the best place to start.

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3 thoughts on “Why we date

  1. “that if people go into relationships to gain something, they are likely to fail. And if people go into relationships to make another person happy, they are likely to succeed. “…it is the balance of the two that’s important…”

    That’s an interesting conclusion you’ve come to and one that resonates with me. I’ve never thought about it that way but you’re right. Wow! What a God Breeze today. Thank you.

  2. flit says:

    That is really, really, insightful.

    I think that women being able to be something *other* than wives and mothers has changed the dynamics of marriage entirely, too. It’s a lot more complicated now.

  3. JAC says:

    The best, most fulfilling relationships I’ve seen are those where both people are mature enough to create their inner day to day happiness. If you are not experiencing happiness and fulfillment that comes from your inner resources, no one else can give you that no matter how much they love you. And it is virtually always a mistake to believe that our love and care can make another person happy who is not able to provide emotionally for his or her own needs. Two already happy people who come together with a basis of mutual respect and interests are likely to find joy in a relationship where neither neediness nor selfishness will be an issue. It often takes quite a lot of years of living and experience to grow to this stage.

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