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Carolyn Hax: What’s wrong with actively looking for a partner?

Carolyn Hax
Carolyn Hax

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Dear Carolyn: About actively pursuing relationships versus letting things happen naturally, from last week (wapo.st/1rivakG). You seem like a big advocate for the latter, which I agree is the ideal.

But surely there is a happy medium between desperately seeking someone, anyone, and leaving it all up to fate. You smacked down a comparison to job-hunting, which I agree is not a perfect one, but I think the person who suggested it had a point — what’s wrong with actively looking for a partner?

Anonymous

Thanks for reopening the topic.

It’s such a personal thing that waiting and looking and circulating-but-not-mate-shopping can all be just the right thing, depending on the person AND the person’s stage of life.

But actively looking — for anything, not just a partner — always comes with a risk of rationalizing. Anytime you set out to find one specific thing, you’re more apt to grab something acceptable than to keep waiting for something great. For a less charged example, let’s say you’re shopping for a black jacket for work. Or an apartment.

If you have no sense of urgency, then, sure, you can try on 20 black jackets or walk through 20 apartments and you'll still be able to say, “Nah — nothing’s quite right, I'll try again next week.” And you'll be able to repeat that search next weekend and still walk away empty handed if nothing wows you.

But if you show up already fed up to here with your roommates or everything in your closet and you hate shopping and you’re angry your old stuff doesn’t fit, then you’re vulnerable to saying “yes” to something you don’t love.

I don’t think anyone is immune to this. I do think – back to the exchange you refer to – that if you’re mindful of this risk, and/or your expectations are modest, then by all means look. Someone who is susceptible to impulsive, need-filling decisions s/he later regrets is not a great candidate for active looking, but someone who is patient and self-aware is.

There’s no such thing as life without risk, we just need to assume risks that make sense with our personalities and histories.

Active circulating — versus active looking or passive waiting — might be your elusive happy medium. It’s putting yourself deliberately among new people who share your interests, and treating any new social ties as their own reward. That can solve both the waiting-around and the selling-out problems at once.

Re: Actively looking: The problem with the job-seeking analogy is that most people NEED a job in order to function in society. But you don’t NEED a relationship. And while you may take a crappy job just to pay the bills and be unhappy, it’s a choice between being unhappy in your job and being destitute and starving. When you get into a relationship because you feel you NEED one, you’re unlikely to be happy, even if you meet a good match, because there’s just too much unnecessary pressure.

I guess the difference is expecting a relationship to fill a hole in your life, which may be artificially generated, versus seeing if there’s someone out there who could add to your already good life.

Anonymous 2

Exactly, it always comes down to that, thanks.

Email Carolyn at tellme@washpost.com, follow her on Facebook at facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at noon Eastern time each Friday at washingtonpost.com.

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