Do You Ever Really “Choose” a Romantic Partner?

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Source: 7741975/Pixabay, CC0 license

Everyone has words or phrases that drive them up the wall. Many people are irked when somebody uses “literally” to mean “figuratively,” or “impact” as a verb, or “less” when “fewer” is correct. These are issues of grammar, style, or usage about which writers tend to be more sensitive (and vocal!).

Some pet peeves are more conceptual, including my topic today: describing the search for romance and love as “choosing a partner.” Maybe it’s just me, but this gets under my skin, especially when used by scholars such as psychologists, economists, or philosophers (even on this most august of websites). It’s a convention of academic language that may not be meant literally at first, a kind of verbal shorthand or jargon, but soon starts being taken seriously as a description and distorts discussion and study going forward.

The language of “choosing a partner” vastly oversimplifies the process and likens it to shopping for a new shampoo, in which we survey the various options and then select the one that best meets our needs. This framing is appealing to economists, of course, who model the formation of romantic relationships as consumer decisions in “the marriage market.” In this model, people engage in an optimized process of extensive search (getting information on more options) and intensive search (getting more information on a certain option), after which the best option is chosen (assuming he or she is still available, a consideration that is worked into the optimization of the length of search). We see similar language in the work of some psychologists who use the term “mate selection,” focusing more on the biological results of romantic coupling—procreation and reproduction—than the process by which people are coupled (and the fact that many times they don’t actually procreate) or the significance thereof.

Here’s why talking about “choosing a partner” is so inaccurate. We don’t choose partners to love. Instead, we find love, we discover it, we are surprised by it (and are grateful for the providence). To be sure, we can take steps to make this more likely—we put ourselves out there, either in person or online, and keep an open mind and heart—but then we wait for it to happen.

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