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The Illusion of Choice

Seven years ago, I was alone at a wedding in a refurbished barn wearing a red lace dress, when a Jane Fonda-esque woman looked me up and down and asked “are you single?”

When I responded ‘yes,’ she abruptly grabbed my wrist and trotted me across the room like a Standard Poodle in the Westminster dog show.

“You have to meet my son.”

For someone that didn’t know me, she sure did nail my type: tall, athletic, a genuine smile, and a posture that projected confidence.

The story would be a Hallmark classic if I told you “and now he’s my husband!” But that’s not exactly how it went.

While we did go on to seriously date, ultimately this wasn’t the right person for me for a variety of reasons that I could’ve only possibly learned through experience and time.

I mention this story because for most of my life, I was always a “yes” kind of person. I’ve never had trouble meeting people, but my most toxic trait was that I prioritized chemistry over connection and found myself repeatedly unfulfilled. That quixotic high I would feel whenever I met someone new would eventually plummet with the same intensity in which it arrived.

Like many, if a relationship didn’t start with that over-the-top magnetism and excitement, I would think it meant it wasn’t a good fit. I always excelled at dating, but rarely at relationships. It took me years to understand that building and maintaining a healthy relationship is actually the difficult part of dating, but it's the part that’s worth it.

You see, meeting people is the easy part of dating. There are literally people everywhere - even during a pandemic. This is why the dating scene is often an illusion of choice. To the untrained eye it appears to be a sea of endless options. For men especially, this makes it difficult to settle on one person because there is always the fear that you might be missing out on something “better.”

However, the joke is on you if you play the game long enough because you’ll quickly realize that all of these “options” rarely convert to leads or anything of promise. This becomes increasingly apparent in your 30s. And here’s another 30s development for you: often that good-looking person you happen to walk past, they're wearing a wedding ring.

That leads to an equal but opposite problem: the feeling that there is no one left and “all the good ones are taken.” Some people will jump at the first chance to partner up with someone for the fear of being alone. Or worse, some people may even stay in an unhealthy relationship because they feel as though there is no one else that would love them or put up with them.

Too much choice says - “It’s ok to be picky! This person is replaceable!”

Too little choice says - “There is no one left! I have to make this work!”

If you look very closely at both of these ideas, you will recognize that both are flawed in their own wrongful ways, hence why choice becomes an illusion.

The danger of too much choice means that we never fully invest in who we are with. We keep one foot in and one foot out protecting our vulnerability and freedom at all costs.

The danger of too little choice means we suffer in the wrong relationships. We sacrifice our happiness because starting fresh is too painful. Why would we want to start fresh when we can fix what we have?

So how do you find the middle ground? What I’m about to say is going to sound obnoxious and unsexy but instead of trying to find the other person, the person you need to work on finding is YOURSELF. You are the only person who can do that. Not only is self-work an inside job, but it is the most imperative part of dating. And I’ve got news for you all: it’s an ongoing job because the one person you can never give up on is yourself.

Often we date because we want someone to solve the problems we don’t want to fix ourselves. We want someone to occupy the emotions we don’t want to feel, or to create the emotions we wish we had. In other words, we rely on our partner to fulfill our emotional needs.

A difficult lesson I recently learned is that the only person who can fulfill your emotional needs is YOU. It is ok to want your partner to meet your needs, but the minute you expect them to meet your needs, you have set yourself up for failure and disappointment. It’s ok to desire that your partner makes you feel a certain way, but you can neither demand nor require it.

Once you can make this mental shift, your relationship (with yourself and others) will look and feel much different because you will not be relying on your partner for your happiness. You will place that responsibility solely where it belongs: in your own hands.

Seven years later and I am much more of a “no” person when it comes to who I give my time to, but the person who gets all the yeses now is the person I rely on most: myself. Choice is an illusion and you will always see what you focus on, but remember: you can only choose someone when you don’t need them. And in order to choose wisely, your life must have meaning and purpose...from what you give, not what you get.

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