The Choice Effect by Amalia Gibbon, Lara Vogel, Claire A. Williams

The Choice Effect

RATING: 7/10…READ: September 15, 2012

Explores the mindset of those in their 20s facing indecision in their relationships and careers. The book focuses specifically on women, but I found it very relevant to men as well. Many case studies of women who put aside meaningful intimate relationships in favor of lots of friends, getting ahead in their career, and exotic travel…yet many are still unhappy.

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And according to some, our hubris doesn’t translate well in the realm of romance. To put it more bluntly, “That kind of grandiosity eats relationships,” says therapist Terry Real, in an interview with The Daily Beast. The article’s author, Hannah Seligson, continues, “Twentysomethings not only expect to waltz into high-level career positions right out of college, they also expect partners who have . . . the comedic timing of Stephen Colbert, the abs of Hugh Jackman, and the hair of Patrick Dempsey.”

One thing is clear: Marriage and commitment are no longer a measure of maturity, or a necessary checkpoint on the road to happiness or adulthood.

In 1959, 47 percent of all brides were under nineteen. And according to The New York Times, the median age for first marriages has risen dramatically in the last thirty-five years, “from 23 for men and 21 for women in 1970 to 27.5 for men and 25.5 for women in 2006.”

People are marrying later or not at all, people are breeding later or not at all, and people are dating around in ways even our free-loving parents can’t get their collective mind around. We seem to be baffling everyone. We have an unprecedented chance to make everything easy—women are (more) equal; minority opportunities are (hopefully maybe) on the rise; everyone’s making more money (until recently); the unofficial caste system with its severe English undertones has broken down. Our moment has come! Time to live the dream! And then we throw everyone off by popping the Pill and hoping Johnny doesn’t propose.

For some women, the choister way is a natural calling, while others had first loves they would have married if given the chance. The latter group was too busy doodling hearts to think about “options.” But then some commitment-phobic boyfriend decided he wanted to be an ex-boyfriend, and suddenly there we were. What began as a coping mechanism—“Oh fine, I’ll go on this date just to get my mind off my one true love”—turned into a way of life—“What true love? I like me some dates!” It could be either curiosity or young heartache that threw you into the arms of your partners, but either way men have laid down some pretty thorough choister groundwork when it comes to a fear of commitment. Add to that the modern societal blessing to take on a bit more of those previously male behaviors, and bam! you’ve choisterized the last woman standing.

With armies of people focused on making sure we were not only excelling but also loving every minute, we got their message loud and clear: You are not mediocre. Every step of your life should serve the purpose of providing meaningful joy and/or getting you somewhere amazing. We caught on quick: Happiness is what happens on your way toward achievement.

Our parents are all over the map. At least with our grandparents the rules were simple: (1) If you sleep with a guy you are loose forever, and (2) Be married by twenty-three, or you are a spinster. Easy to understand, if not to follow. You knew where you stood. But when our mothers say “How’s the chemistry?!” and “He doesn’t come all the way to the door?” in the same breath, it’s more difficult to find  your balance.

After years of glorifying her mother’s job as a Hollywood director, twenty-six-year-old Jackie D. didn’t know how to recalibrate when her mother said, “Try to stay at home with your kids. That would be ideal.” But what about all the glory? What about having it all? I was ready to make sacrifices for work, thought Jackie, and you’re telling me work should be the sacrifice?

It’s not that we’re some amazing new set of adventurers going where no woman has gone before. It’s just damn easier to fly these days. While our parents were the first generation to grow up with access to commercial airlines, we are the first to really use and abuse it.

People’s main problem with long-distance was the way it stunted a couple’s growth. A relationship needs energy and attention if it’s going to move forward. And if you’re always packing for your next business trip or recovering from your last one, it’s hard to muster up the energy to care that Johnny’s feeling stressed. But it does make it easier to find Johnny’s knuckle-cracking habit more tolerable—turns out everything’s adorable when glazed over by a grateful-to-finally-have-physical-contact-again fog. Such fogs have an expiration date of about five days—after which point plenty of long-distance choisters are back out the door. Is that relationship growing? Not really, no. It’s just sort of . . . stuck.

The other problem for a relationship is what happens at the other end of the flight—whether traveling for work or recreation, choisters are falling in love with more destinations and imagining what their life could look like if it happened in front of a different backdrop or in a different language. Suddenly home’s not a haven, it’s a holding cell, and your relationship gets either a new shot of distance or a new source of strain.

There’s certainly a case to be made that we travel more because we’re not married, but are we not married because we travel more? It’s hard to invest in someone when you only see them in four-day spurts.

When we talked to choisters about romance, every single person—100 percent—said work was the main competitor for their attention, whereas only a measly 15 percent of those people said their boyfriend was their main time suck.

“The Next American Frontier,” ours has become “a nation in which the dominant paradigm is entrepreneurship . . . entire careers built on perpetual change, independence and the endless pursuit of the next opportunity.” That’s just the choister definition put into business-speak.

Gone are the days of working for a single company your entire life, and in their place are nights spent strategizing job changes. What was once a decision expected to last until retirement now expires in two to three years. Which means we spend a lot of time thinking about work, strategizing about work, and making pro/con lists a bout work.

The founder of what would become Planned Parenthood, Margaret Sanger, said in 1920, “No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother.”

The nature of the computer is that there is no commitment. No one even has to know what you were just looking at—we erased the history! We can’t even fathom banging out a paper on a typewriter. Amalia cops to having been working on a painting recently and having the impulse to hit Ctrl+Z when she made a mistake. Pity her.

Ask Jenny S. about how she balances all the opportunities around her. “I feel distracted by all the things I could be doing every single day. I could be volunteering, I could be traveling, I could be taking vacations, I could be in a serious relationship, I could be applying myself more to my career, I could be going out more instead of working late, I could be a better friend, I could be at the gym tonight. There are a million of these thoughts that go through my head on a daily basis, to the point where it is so overwhelming that I feel paralyzed and do none of it. I feel immense pressure to be more accomplished by thirty than I am, and I have a lot of self-loathing about that.”

It’s like being a kid in a candy store—except you’re allowed to taste everything.

Those who felt totally okay being alone in the past were an exception, not a rule. Today, it is so comfortable to be single that visions of the unattached lifestyle have begun haunting smug, monogrammed, and berobed couples everywhere.

An search for “finance” books published before 1980 gave an impressive 35,000-plus results. Books on “finance and women” before 1980? 135. Books on “finance and women” since 1980? Nearly 10,000. Just sayin’.

As the infamous Mr. Big said to Miranda, Charlotte, and Samantha in one scene of Sex and the City: “You’re the loves of her life. A guy’s just lucky to come in fourth.” Granted, he was sucking up to the ladies at the time, but it’s true: A romantic relationship is not the only way—or even the best way—to stave off loneliness. Thankfully, bands of BFFs are now giving boyfriends a run for their money when it comes to a choister’s emotional and social fulfillment.

–As Allison P., twenty-seven, says, “I can’t imagine my life without my friends, whereas I feel like I would get by fine if I didn’t have a boyfriend. In fact, I have. The first two relationships I had postcollege never progressed because I couldn’t transition to being completely in a relationship. I was in the mind-set—‘I want to go out with my girls tonight—why should I feel guilty?’ Oh . . . right, because he wants to hang out, too.”

Indeed, many twentysomethings these days actually end up choosing to be single because there simply is so much going on. Meaning they have such a rich social life that adding on a mediocre boy toy seems like one too many weekly Krav Maga classes.

“Adults who have always been single are more likely to visit, contact, advise, and support their parents and siblings than are the currently or previously married. Singles are also more likely to socialize with, encourage, and help their friends and neighbors.”

Today’s single means never having to say “I feel lonely” without someone to listen to you and give you brownie batter off the spoon.

Virginia H., also twenty-five, tells us, “Living with friends in particular is probably another way we can put off settling because you don’t feel lonely.”

In a ten-year study of people aged seventy and older, scientists at the Centre for Ageing Studies at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, found that a group of good friends is more likely than close family relationships to increase longevity in older people. The scientists concluded that “those with the strongest network of friends and acquaintances were statistically more likely to be alive at the end of the study than those with the fewest.”

As teenagers, most people couldn’t take themselves seriously enough to try out the let-me-borrow-my-dad’s-car-and-then-awkwardly-lean-over-the-gearshift-to-grab-some-sweater approach. So, they explored other options. They either became über-friends with someone of the opposite sex, and then after months of denial and 24/7 contact, they magically! shockingly! realized they “like liked” each other; or they did the normal thing—got drunk and fell on someone’s face in a basement or at a concert. This then spread to college (more drinking, more face plants, varied venues), and soon you had a pattern of behavior that didn’t stop with the cap and gown.

The point is, we’ve built all sorts of underground shortcuts to relationships and feel utterly unfamiliar with this “formal dating” territory. In 2008, Joel Walkowski wrote a great article for The New York Times titled “Let’s Not Get to Know Each Other Better.” In it, he recounts his own brush with the puzzle that is courtship: “A few months ago I liked a girl—a fairly common occurrence. But being slightly ambitious and drunk, I decided to ask her out on a date. This was a weird choice, as I’m not sure I know anyone who has ever had a real date. Most elect to hang out, hook up, or Skype long-distance relations. The idea of a date (asking in advance, spending rent money on dinner and dealing with the initial awkwardness) is far too concrete and unnecessary.” He adds, “Riding my bike home, I realized I didn’t even know what a real date was, beyond some vague Hollywood notion.”

HOOKING UP: We are not going to try to create some definition for the phrase—it can be sex, it can be less, it can be more (more?). It can be under the shirt, over the bra, in the dark, or just about in and out of anything. You can hook up with a person just once or enjoy repeated sessions over a period of weeks, months, or years. It’s really up to you. It’s an inspired, amorphous term meant to titillate, obscure, and reveal everything while saying nothing. In other words: It’s a linguistic Dita von Teese. According to Kathleen Bogle, a professor at La Salle University, hooking up has spread like an epidemic because, as she’s quoted in The New York Times, of “the collapse of advanced planning, lopsided gender ratios on campus, delaying marriage, relaxing values and sheer momentum.”

So what do we get from these interludes? It’s the quick fix—you don’t have time for a boyfriend, but a girl’s gotta eat. And from a psychological perspective, it feels better to have three guys instead of one (not necessarily at the same time) say, “Mmm, you’re hot.” A friend of ours once said that she no longer felt validated every time her boyfriend put a move on her because it was a battle won long, long ago and, as she said, “Of course he wants me. He’s my boyfriend.” At a certain point, we agree. The boyfriend’s wandering hand is a little bit like your mother saying you’re beautiful. It’s not objective, you’ve heard it a thousand times, and it can’t compare to when the makeup artist at MAC says the same thing. Somehow a new guy copping a feel is fascinating feedback—really? I’m hot?! Tell me more. . . . Whereas your boyfriend reaching for your ass is old news because you know his needs and you also know when they were last met. In that so many of us never tire of hearing that we’re desirable, there’s something about conquering new conquests that lets you feel like you’re collecting important data.

Premarriage checklists used to include things like high school degree, ability to make pot roast, and light petting (such a gross term). Nowadays, the suggested skill set has not only expanded but diversified, too. The list of modern single expectations includes new rites of sexual passage: foreigner with accent, same-sex dabbling, regrettable night followed by walk of shame, first love, passionate love with wrong partner, one-night-stand-turned-relationship, older man/younger woman, lead guitarist.

It doesn’t take a viewing of YPF (Young People Fucking) to convince a choister that sex is complicated and that having just one partner forever (forevaeva) might just be a whole lot easier on your psyche and your physical well-being. Every choister knows all this, but we’re still out there hedging our bets, and most are winning by a landslide. Perhaps some of the new hunger for varied sexual experience comes from the fact that we talk about it so damn much. Ignorance is sexual bliss. When your best friend tells you that she met a guy who did the strangest and most brilliant things with his tongue, you begin a hunt of your own.

“When I was dating Drew, we shared everything together, loved the same things, confided in each other. But I felt like I was the dominant one in the relationship, and I lost respect for him  over time. The next man I dated, Demitri, was the exact opposite. He was the definition of an alpha male, dominant, masculine. But, we didn’t share the same interests, and there was an age gap of fourteen years. I have always thought if I could combine Drew—with his artistic sensibilities—and Demitri—with his success and sexual appetite—I would have the perfect man!”

Simone G., twenty-six, says, “When dating around in my twenties, I ended up falling for a lot of assholes, like everyone does, but they weren’t all like that. A lot of them were just wrong for me. But it was amazing to date someone wrong for me and to find this whole sheaf of qualities that actually were important to me in that person. Turns out I don’t need career goals as much as I need kindness and an ability to prioritize family. All that only happened when I stopped dating the guys I thought I wanted on paper and ended up falling for the guy I would never even consider.

In the end, dating around is a way to find out who you are and what you want, and you can’t do that just by watching your single friends act like idiots—you’ve got to make a couple of whopping bad decisions (and a few good ones) yourself.

DePaulo goes on to argue that many married couples “look to their partners to be their everything—their best friend, confidant, household planner, sex partner, vacation planner, coparent if there are kids, travel partner, and everything else. That can be fine for a while if the marriage is great, but it leaves such people very vulnerable. If the relationship sours or is ended by death, then you are left with no best friend, no confidant (not even someone to talk to about your loss), no travel partner, and so forth. When single people attend to a whole network of friends (and again, not all of them do), they don’t have that same vulnerability.”

There’s a routineness usually reserved for marriages that has now been claimed by folks merely dating. Nice coup, guys. But in truth, life isn’t sexy. And we know that when you’re six months pregnant and throwing up, you’ll be glad your boyfriend has already chosen not to leave you all the other times you were ill, weepy, and angry at the world.

D. explains, “I suppose if I had it my way, it would be like baseball; I would trade the players every few years and sign new contracts. Some years I hit a home run, some years I don’t, but at least I’m not stuck with Joe DiMaggio twenty years after his expiration date.”

It sounds so negative to ‘settle,’ but you can also think of it as shutting up the voice that tells you you can always find someone better.”

When Simone G., now twenty-six, broke up with Scott, she said it was hard to explain to her mother why they had parted ways. “My mom kept asking, ‘Did he do something wrong? Do you not love him anymore? Did he dump you? Did you cheat on him?’ But it wasn’t anything like that. I really loved Scott, and we were obviously compatible. I just really needed to be alone and to see what was out there.”

-Basically, Simone had a choister moment: Simone loved Scott, but since when was that enough?

After having tried to do everything later-later-later, what if we wake up one day and realize “later” has arrived but we still feel eighteen?

In terms of having too many choices, the biggest mistake women make is trying to take qualities they liked in various people they’ve dated and wanting to find all of those qualities in one person.

Looking is hard, but finding what you want can be worse. This is the Oscar point in full—you work and work and work to get something—the perfect guy, the perfect job, the perfect life—and even if you find it, you have probably built it up so much that there’s no way to be content with it.

The general choister plan, as we know it, is to sleep around with the hot thighs of our twenties, find meaningful careers in our thirties, and still wake up with Mr. Right and a brood of Right-lets in our forties.

In the end it seems that the choosing the world wants from us and the delaying we’re pushing for all lead to the same goal: your happiness. So stop taking away the happy part and just enjoy your options. Get married, quit your job, stay a virgin, break the lease, travel, adopt baby after baby . . . try it all! Revel in these chances. Toss things into fountains to keep the good luck coming. Twirl around in the confetti of choices, and let the resulting dizziness be the worst of your problems.