Op-ed: Romantic Relationships in Development
Choosing a romantic partner: settle for “good enough” or wait for the best?
By Lynn Muldrew
Relationships can play on our minds a lot, whether we’re single, in a committed relationship, or just simple looking. Valentine’s Day can sometimes be a painful remind of this seemingly long-lost search for ‘the one’. But, how do you know when you’ve found ‘the one’ and how do you go about the search? It may seem far-fetched, but your shopping methods may say more about your quest for a romantic partner than you think.
When shopping online for something new, are you more likely to search for long periods of time, making sure you’ve reviewed all your options before making your final choice or are you more likely to search until you’ve found something that seems good enough for now? Do you have a long list of criteria you want to see in a partner or is your list short and brief with only the essentials? If you’re the type to search extensively or to have a long list of criteria, you’re more than likely a maximizer. A maximizer is someone who wants to review all their options before making a choice. This may mean doing extensive reviews before selecting a product and it may also involve some worry that, once the decision is taken, you may have stopped the search too early and missed out on a better option. Maximizers may be bothered by thoughts such as: “maybe if I just kept look I could find something better”. Satisfiers, on the other hand, aren’t looking for the best possible option, they’re content enough stopping the search once they’ve found something good enough (Schwartz et al., 2002).
When it comes to school, maximizing can be very helpful; maximizers tend to get better grades, they may study longer hours to make sure they don’t miss any material, and research has shown that they fail less than satisfiers. Satisfiers are happier just passing the grade and doing “good enough” (Stohs et al., 2016). However, when translated into the world of relationships, the tables tend to turn. Maximizers and satisfiers have different approaches to selecting a partner. Satisfiers select based on satisfaction and acceptability. On online dating apps, they may swipe and swipe until they find an acceptable choice they’re satisfied with and then initiate contact or suggest a date. A maximizer, on the other hand, may feel the need to swipe continuously, maybe endlessly, making sure all the good options are weighed alongside potentially better options. They want to see all their options before selecting one. In the end, who makes a better choice and who ends up happiest?
Maximizers typically don’t end up as happy in their relationships; driven by the need to continue the relentless search for the best possible option, the searching process can lead to feeling overwhelmed with an information overload. Overwhelmed, maximizers can make poorer relationship choices as they make arbitrary choices in a state of feeling at a loss with so much information. How does this happen? And can you even have too many choices really? Schwartz identified three major concerns associated with this information overload: 1) with so many choices, it’s difficult to get enough information about each one to make an informed decision; 2) the more we add choices, the higher our standards go making it more challenging to be satisfied with our choice in the end as there may always be a better one out there and; 3) it’s easier to blame yourself if something doesn’t work out because you had so many choices to choose from - how could you have gotten it wrong with an abundance of choices? There may be lingering regret for the ideal that’s somewhere out there and still within reach (Schwartz et al., 2002). Maybe you just need to wait a little longer?
Maximizers and satisfiers also ask different questions when making decisions: a maximizer wants to know “is this the BEST outcome?” whereas a satisfier wants to discover “is this a good outcome?” The maximizer keeps his options open, but at what cost? Research shows that maximizers show more perfectionistic tendencies and because of their extensive searching have higher standards which leaves them open to feeling disappointed with the imperfections that inevitably come with any relationship. They’re also more likely to compare themselves with others, which often leads to lower life satisfaction. Unsurprisingly, they show more regret for their choices and are at greater risk of depression and lower life satisfaction than satisfiers, who are satisfied with just “good enough”. Maximizers may also be less likely to date for fear of making the wrong choice, and so their meticulous decision-making process may actually get in the way of developing a romantic relationship, learning about themselves and what a good relationship looks like to them. And so they may end up being window shopper, and maybe not a happy one as the time goes by and no one is good enough. Are they overthinking the process?
What does all this mean for happiness long-term? What makes a satisfier happier in the long run? Satisfiers may not objectively make the best possible choice in a relationship, but the decision-making process is much simpler. Are maximizers happier once they do select a partner? Maximizers may actually be less committed and less invested in romantic relationships because of their decision-making process. They may be plagued with thoughts of “am I missing out?”, “is this really all there is?” or “is this the best possible choice that exists?” Maximizers are therefore not always happier in their relationship after finally making a partner choice because of the idea of the elusive perfect or a better partner potentially existing out there. That’s not to say that all maximizers are unhappy in their relationships. Recent research suggests that there are different types of maximizers - those that use maximizing as a process, which is sometimes hard to ‘switch off’ after a choice has been made, and maximizing as a goal, which shows positive outcomes (Vargova et al., 2020). Which one are you?
If you’re a maximizer, what can you do to change your style and reduce these tendencies? It is possible to change your style from being a maximizer to more of a satisfier. Maybe start by reviewing your criteria making sure that you know what your essentials are, identifying core values and qualities. To help revise your list, perhaps think about what your dealbreakers are and what red flags would look like. Do you know what are your negotiables and non-negotiables? Be open to talking to more people, maybe even going on first dates to understand what kind of person you like spending time with and what a good match looks like for you. There really is a lot we can learn from satisficers; we can find a quality match and learn to be content with a partner selected rather than searching endlessly for elusive perfection which always seems somehow just out of reach.