About four years ago, I decided I wanted to find a life partner. Primarily because I was socially oblivious and didn’t know any different, I took an analytical approach to do this—as we all do with other important areas of our lives. The entire process took me a matter of weeks and I have since been in a committed relationship for four years.
For a long time, primarily because of the fact that my method was so unorthodox and unheard-of, I largely imagined that the normal way of doing things was the best method, and I was a lucky fluke. But a number of recent conversations and some reading has led me to consider that maybe I’m one of the only people who does this right.
Before I dive into this, let’s establish a key point: if you’re going to get married, it is absolutely the most important decision of your life. While your choice of career dictates how you spend a good portion of your life, who you marry dictates how you spend all of your life, because it dictates who you spend your life with. The best recipe for misery is a bad marriage, and the best recipe for greatness is either no marriage or a great one.
John T. Reed, author of Succeeding, wrote about both the great importance of marrying the right person, and the haphazard way that many people take to get there. He writes, “The divorce rate is about 50% in the U.S. The median duration of marriages is seven years—just enough time to have some kids and acquire property so that the divorce really screws things up. […] Why are so many people screwing up the most important decision of their lives? Look at how they go about it. I read a book once that said most Americans feel the correct way to meet your spouse is ‘chance proximity’. […] ‘Some enchanted evening, you will meet a stranger across a crowded room.’ Ask an old maid or old bachelor why they never married and they often tell you that the right person never ‘came along’. ‘Came along’! You gotta be kidding me! People make more effort to buy the right used car!”
And he’s right! Why, of all our important life decisions, do we fudge this one?
My best guess at a reason is this: habit is a powerful force, and societal habit is even more so. This way of coming at meeting spouses began when communities were small enough that putting forth much of a deliberate effort was unnecessary, and it’s perpetuated itself into modern society on our collective force of habit.
Nowadays, though, there are so many more people, and so many more ways to meet those people, that a systematic approach to dating is in order. Read Succeeding for John Reed’s method; below I’ll detail my own.
First, create a list, as comprehensive as you want to make it, of every important trait you want in a partner. This is physical traits (i.e., a beard), personality traits (i.e., wanderlust), or anything else you can think of. Once you’ve made this list, rank-order it, from most to least important.
Now, make a similar list of everything you don’t want in a partner. Be specific, but feel free to be obvious – while “emotionally manipulative” is an obvious anti-want, it might still be useful to put it on the list. Once you’ve made this list, rank-order it.
After you’ve done both of these, now it’s time to do some market research. What kind of dating pools exist? While answering this question, be sure to keep in mind which of these you’ll be willing to utilize. If you live in the U.S. and lack the budget or inclination to travel, it might be out of the question to try to find a date at a convention in London. If you’re considering internet-based dating pools, make sure you think about whether you’re willing to be long-distance for an extended period. Make a list of some potential dating pools and rank-order the list by feasibility.
Now it’s time to merge all these lists. Figure out what kind of person you’re mostly going to find at each of these dating pools and compare that to your lists of wants and anti-wants. Re-rank your list of dating pools against these criteria, then compare your list of dating pools ranked by plausibility of candidates against your list ranked by feasibility. Whatever dating pool is ranked highest in both (feel free to bias your ranking toward whichever you think is more important for you), make plans to go there.
Let’s go through my own story as an example. My list of wants included someone who is sensitive, who is okay with going against the grain, and who could adapt to my hectic lifestyle. My list of anti-wants included someone who is overly pompous or self-centered. I was young and very broke, so my options for dating pools were financially limited, but I also didn’t mind distance (I’d never really been taught that it was supposed to be hard, so I didn’t think it would be; and now, after having “suffered” two years of distance, I maintain that view). Based on my specific desires, dislikes, and difficulties, I was able to put at the top of my dating pool priority list a convention in Baltimore that ran three days in August.
This process is not over once you arrive at your dating pool: aimless drifting is still not a good plan (though it’s a better plan here than it would be elsewhere). No, now were going to systematically look for possible candidates.
To start with, walk around and scan crowds, finding people you find physically attractive. This is easy to judge from a distance just by a look, so do that first. Second, walk up to some attractive people and have conversations.
Think of this like going to a used car dealership. First, you look around the lot to see which cars are aesthetically pleasing. Then, you go around to some of the ones you think look nice enough, and you sit in the driver’s seat. You can find out a lot about a car just by sitting behind the wheel – just like you can find out a lot about a person just by having a conversation. And just like you don’t need to take every car in the lot on a test drive, you also don’t need to take every candidate on a date.
This variety of speed-dating has the benefit that you don’t mess with anyone’s heart—theirs or yours. You simply have a list of traits to compare this person against, and all you’re doing is comparing.
An important thing to do as you continue conversing with people is to take notes from your conversations and update your lists accordingly. If you started with a list item saying you want to meet people who do X, but when you actually met several people who did X they didn’t seem appealing to you, modify the list! If initially you thought that people who did Y were unbearable, but you met some people who did Y and they actually were fine, modify the list! Make sure to also modify the priority order of things if necessary.
These lists are not set in stone. In fact, it would be silly to have your actual experience with real people take second place to what you dreamed up about what real people might be like.
Once you’ve gone up and talked to a bunch of attractive people (my benchmark was 25, but you can do more or less, depending on what you think will work for you), you’ll likely have a small set (2-3) of people who you like the best. Ask them on formal dates. Once you’ve spent a few hours alone with each person, you’ll almost certainly have a winner.
Pretty good, eh? The only thing we still need is to account for feelings. It’s all well and good to meet a person you think would be perfect, but you both need to fall for each other. How do you account for that? Very simply, actually. If you start to feel something good for them as you’re talking, keep talking. And, as you usually do when you date the conventional way, look for signs that they like you back. If you’d like to improve your chances, you can try to ask some or all of the questions on this list. Humans are hardwired to fall in love: it doesn’t take too much of a push.
Now, if by the end of your first venture into a dating pool, you don’t have a life partner yet, don’t worry! Just go on back to your lists and find your second choice for a dating pool, then rinse and repeat. It may also be possible that your criteria are too broad, or too narrow, or you were wrong about what kinds of people frequent what places. If so, don’t sweat, just go back and revise your lists with your new knowledge. Then go on back into the world and keep at it! Having a systematic approach will work so much better than just waiting for someone to “come along”, and it will feel better, too. You’re being way more productive!
Obviously, this is a very different approach than the conventional one. But if you step back and think logically about how people should go about making this choice, it’s a much more reasonable approach. I’m sure there will be people saying it’s “not romantic”, but approaches like these have resulted in lasting relationships: my father took a similarly systematic approach to dating and my parents have been together for thirty years; John Reed followed a similar approach and was married for much longer. You don’t need to take my four-year relationship as your only data point.
Furthermore, “romantic” should mean “spontaneous”, not “stumbled into”. Too often, people confuse the two. Romance doesn’t have to be about random chance.