How The Paradox of Choice Is Affecting Relationships

When too many choices leads to fear, anxiety and indecision

Amy Yew

When it comes to dating, many singles will tell the same tale. It often starts with online dating where each party enters a conversation. At this point , if you are attracted to the other person, reality will give way to what I’ve termed attentive delusion when you are both engaged in a conversation with each other. You start to envision a future together and convince yourself that this connection is so real, he/she cannot possibly be talking to anyone else. In reality, both parties are often engaged in several conversation and the starting of a relationship with multiple parties on the dating app is common. I find that the more attracted you are to the person, the greater the delusion that you will perceive him or her as a “good person”; it’s what psychologists call the Halo Effect. 


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People I’ve spoken to often encourage the idea of dating app or dating sites. It’s “just what people do these days”, they say. Anything else you might as well just wait for a miracle. Advocators of dating apps often claim there is little difference in process between dating apps and meeting someone in real life. I am not completely convinced of that. For one, if I’m on a date with someone, I will certainly be able to tell if they are messaging or talking to another person when I’m on the date with them. On a dating app, it is more likely than not they are talking to multiple people and often at the same time. This actually lowers the chances of actively evaluating if the person is a suitable match because the division of your attention is spread between so many potential options. 


Scientists who study human behaviour have a lot to say about the excess of options. During the Ted Summit this summer, anthropologist Helen Fisher presented on how technology has changed love. Through studying the brain, Fisher has been able to pinpoint attraction between certain types of personality dimensions. Fisher states that the primitive need to love will always be constant despite the advent of technology and online dating. However, technology presented some problems for modern love through a rise in an inability to choose due to an overload of options according to Fisher. She revealed that our brain can juggle between 5-9 alternatives but anything beyond that will push us into cognitive overload where we tend not to choose any option. Inherently, choosing an option means a loss of other possibilities and it is this paradox of choice that keep certain singles in a looped cycle of never moving forward pass a certain point. Fisher also pointed out another interesting finding in her study that 67% of couples are living together but not married. Has getting married become unfashionable just like meeting someone offline? Fisher discovered that couples are actually terrified of the social, economic and emotional impact of divorce. As a result, couples are more cautious and taking more time to find out everything about their partner before taking the plunge. This cautious kind of love and relationship building is called “slow love” and more of us are engaged in this with the rise of egalitarian relationships. 


While the need and drive for love is primal, context does have an effect on how we define love and how we go about finding love. Researcher Esther Perel has looked at modern love, specifically, the power of context in development of relationships. While most people relish the novelty and playfulness of options, most people are unable to cope with it. Theoretically more options sound great but in practice, it tends to create more problems. For example, how do you know when you’ve found someone you like? To know this definitively, we will have to date every person in the world to find that answer. Perel claims that this creates a feeling of FOMO (fear of missed opportunity) and this pushes us into a state of what she calls stable ambiguity where a person is too afraid to be alone but not willing to engage in intimacy building. This plays out in three typical tactics. The first is icing and simmering where one partner prolongs the uncertainty of relationship but uncertain of breaking up. The next is stalling where you are positioned in a holding pattern. The undefined nature of the relationship allows for comfort but with boundaries that prevent development of a deep emotional connection. There is an equal part of ego and anxiety built into this behaviours since being wanted feeds the ego and self worth while the fear or anxiety of being alone is at play. The final is ghosting where one partner simply disappears (not literally) to evade the guilt of a breakup. There’s no doubt that these behaviours signal a lack of empathy and increased selfishness where there is a lack of consideration on how it impacts the person on the other end.


So what does this all mean? Are we all paralyzed by too many options and fear of failure? In some sense yes. Our primitive brain positions us towards love and when our attachment system is engaged, it drives or motivates us to go out and search for a partner. However, once we get there, our fears and exhaustion take over and we simply turn around only to start in the same place. The key to this paradox is to be an active and engaged dater. The success of finding a meaningful relationship is not in the numbers but rather an active choice to engage. Dating apps and sites as Fisher outlined is less a dating site but rather than an introducing site. We have to recognize the limits of dating apps and play within it. We have to be actively aware that the option to find something new will always seem alluring but creating a deep attachment is an intentional and active process. At the end of the day, love is for the brave and those who are willing to risk that happiness in a relationship is what you make of it. The paradox of choice is less about loss but rather choosing and committing to what we truly want.


Amy Yew is a registered clinical counselor and relationship therapist. She is also the author of a fashion and lifestyle blog Style Du Jour. Tell us what you think and submit any questions you have to

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