The Illusion Of Options: Why We Think We Have More Romantic Options Than We Do

The rise of social media and dating apps has offered us more romantic options than ever before, but did we actually need more options in the first place? Or has this growing variety of potential partners just made it harder to find love?

By Keelia Clarkson4 min read
Pexels/Mikhail Nilov

“There are plenty of fish in the sea!” is a phrase we have all heard many a time, typically when attempting to heal from a heartwrenching breakup or forget about a love that might have been. And it’s not exactly untrue. There are, in fact, many eligible bachelors out there for the taking – a comforting thought for the girl who is newly single or hasn’t yet found the right guy after a number of bad dates – and the best part is that they’re readily available to you, thanks to that nifty cell phone in your pocket, considering the fact that we’re all online these days.

The majority of U.S. adults ages 18-29 have used dating apps to find romance. 143 million Americans are on Instagram, which has grown into something of a dating app itself as more and more singles slide into each other’s DMs. These numbers create in us the belief that there are endless romantic options out there for us. And a quick scroll through Instagram, along with a few swipes on Bumble, boasts galleries of attractive, single people that are all relatively accessible to us. All we’d need to do is come up with a cute opening message, send it out to enough suitors, and surely we’ll reel something in eventually.

It’s exciting to feel as though there are always new possibilities, new people to match with on Hinge and follow on Instagram, but is this how we were meant to find love? Like hungry shoppers browsing fully stocked aisles at the grocery store, taken by the countless potato chip flavors that are each somehow more intriguing than the last? Or is our supposed neverending list of potential boyfriends actually hindering our chances of finding love? Let’s find out.

Before Dating Apps and Social Media, How Did Couples Even Meet?

Meeting people through dating apps and social media has become commonplace. A 2019 study conducted by Michael Rosenfled, a Stanford sociologist, concluded that couples today might be more likely to meet online than in person, finding that 40% of couples meet via dating apps. But just how successful are the relationships that meet online? Well, of the couples that do meet on a dating app, a OnePoll/Forbes survey found that 70% of people said the connection grew into a long-term, exclusive relationship. With figures this high, we might wonder how people even used to meet before the likes of Tinder and social media took over the dating scene.

In 1940, most couples met through family, church, their neighborhood, or school. In 1995, the most common way for couples to meet was through friends. Aside from that, couples would meet at bars, at work, or at school. Whether we’re looking at 80 years in the past or just a couple of decades ago, what we see is that couples had far fewer romantic options than we do today. Rather than being offered a neverending supply of singles’ profiles specified to their tastes to sift through and captions to decode from the comfort of their bed, they were given the limited options of the people they met through friends, at church, or at work, and out of them, picked someone to spend the rest of their days with.

When we’re offered more choices, we’re more likely to have a difficult time deciding and to feel dissatisfied after making a decision. 

To the 21st-century single who is used to having more than just one buffet of other singles to choose from, this might sound limiting. We might feel like we’re lucky to have more options than ever before and as if we’re all the more likely to find our soulmate. But this line of thinking doesn’t quite match up with what the stats say; according to a Pew Research Center report, the percentage of U.S. adults ages 25 to 54 who are married decreased between 1990 and 2019, from 67% all the way down to 53%. This begs the question: Is it really a good thing to have more choices, or is this actually keeping us from finding love?

Why Believing There To Be Endless Options Will Make It Harder To Find Love

There have certainly been cultural shifts that have left many in the younger generations disenchanted with marriage, so much so that over the last 50 years, marriage rates in the United States have dropped by 60%. But this might be a symptom of another, deeper issue: We have far more dating options than ever before, and it’s actually our increased choices that have made it all the more difficult to find someone to settle down with.

Psychologist Barry Schwartz’s 2004 book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, dives into the phenomenon known as “option paralysis.” Schwartz asserts that when we’re offered more choices, we’re actually more likely to have a difficult time deciding and to feel dissatisfied after making a decision. And studies back up this claim. A 2011 study found that individuals who were given many options of potential partners were less likely to make a decision at all. Why is this, though? Why would it be that having more variety would lead us to make fewer decisions?

Being faced with more and more variety of potential partners every single day feeds into our need to find the “best” mate possible, and it also causes us to question whether we’ve really found the right person for us. Is he really the most handsome, loving, successful guy we could get? What if there’s someone else better? Someone else that we would be more fulfilled with? Someone else we’d be even more attracted to? Not to mention, knowing just how easy it is to get matched with a new guy can cause us to lean into our pickiness, hoping to find a guy who checks off every box instead of just the majority of them. This leaves guys who are undeniably good catches feeling as though they might be discarded for someone new at any moment.

What else can more variety do to us? When we’re presented with our potential mates through social media and dating apps, by means of what might be heavily retouched and filtered pictures, we’re given a misguided understanding of what human beings actually look like, which is how we end up with degrading, disheartening threads on X about how Margot Robbie is “mid” or how Emilia Clarke has “hit the wall” for the crime of aging, despite both being beautiful, highly desirable women. This leaves the women who aren’t movie stars and influencers wondering where they might possibly fit into men’s standards for women’s physical attractiveness.

How Many Choices Do We Have, Actually?

Knowing that over half of young adults in America have used a dating app and that millions of U.S. users log on to Instagram each day, it’s understandable for single men and women today to believe there to be, well, plenty of fish in the sea. But here’s why this kind of thinking is flawed, and we might not actually have quite as many options as we’ve been led to believe.

It’s common knowledge that many guys (though not all guys) follow all kinds of Instagram models and swipe right on far more profiles than women do. It’s also common knowledge that many women receive numerous matches or DMs on the regular. But what they each might not realize is that these numbers don’t actually equate to getting dates and finding their one true love.

One survey found that half of Tinder users weren’t even interested in meeting up offline.

Getting a match on Bumble hardly means we’ve landed an actual date, given that a poll by Whisper found that 66% of people have matched with someone on a dating app but then never messaged them. “They either wouldn’t reply, or the convo wouldn’t go past four messages, and I wasn’t scaring them off either, just normal convos,” said one app user named Davey about his recent experiences on apps like Tinder.

And assuming you do get past the initial messaging stage, there’s still no assurance that your week-long messaging stint with a match will lead to a real-life date, considering that one survey found that half of Tinder users weren’t even interested in meeting up offline.

The reality is, while we’re shown far more options than singles in decades past, we don’t actually have access to every person we swipe right on or follow on Instagram. We’re simply more aware that there are, in fact, many pretty/successful/interesting people whom we will never meet, which feeds into our desire to keep on looking for the “right” person – but which also keeps us unhappily single.

Closing Thoughts

While finding love through a dating app certainly isn’t impossible, it might behoove you to look to real life to find your future spouse, like they did in decades past, through friends, church, or work. You might find that limiting your options a little bit actually frees you up to make a decision that you’ll ultimately be happier with.

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