Do You Ever Really “Choose” a Romantic Partner?

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What makes this language of choice in love seem more natural is the advent of dating sites and apps that present us with countless options to pick from. This is the context of philosopher Aaron Ben-Zeév’s recent article “Choosing a Romantic Partner” on this site, which valuably applies the work of psychologist Barry Schwartz (The Paradox of Choice) on the cognitive burdens of choice to the search for a partner in an age where we can swipe over countless potential matches on our phones.

But using dating sites or apps to meet people isn’t “choosing a romantic partner”—it’s just a way to meet people. We may choose to go out with them and see what happens, but we don’t choose to fall in love with them. Falling in love isn’t something you do, it’s something that happens. (I’ve written about this here in the context of the Taoist concept of wei wu wei, or acting through inaction.) Again, you can do certain things to increase the chances that love happens, but you can’t make it happen.*

Once it happens, you can choose to see where it goes, but this is a negative sense of choice—you’re not choosing to make it happen as much as you’re choosing not to stop it from happening. (Think of the saying “you can pull a string but you can’t push it”: you can’t choose to make love happen, but you can choose to hold it back.) This is an element of choice that is too often neglected: after finding a partner, we can choose whether to stay with them, or to leave and try to find someone new.

The famous Serenity Prayer teaches us to acknowledge what we can change (or control) and what we cannot, and that lesson also applies to choice in romance and love. Despite the language used by many, we can’t choose when or with whom we fall in love—that just happens. But we can choose whether to let it happen, and we can choose whether to continue to see someone that we start to fall for. By focusing on the choices we can make, and not fooling ourselves about the ones we can’t, we will be less frustrated with dating, romance, and love—and that’s a choice we can all agree on.

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