It’s May 1st. That means the Annual Rite of Overdue Dumping is behind us, and the Spring Mating Season is well underway.
What explains these macro patterns in mating choices? I’ve argued before that the Overdue Dumping season follows from many people’s desire not to be alone during the holidays. But I think there’s also something more subtle going on.
One of the leading factors that contributes to the dumping decision is the dumper’s beliefs about outside prospects. The better those outside prospects look, the more likely she is to dump.
To take an extreme example, imagine you live in a society of 100 people, with equal numbers of men and women (all heterosexual). And suppose they are paired off into 50 couples. If you're thinking of dropping your current mate, you should recognize that your prospects for finding a new mate are rather dim (at least in the short term) because there are no degrees of freedom. Everyone except your ex is taken, so you’ll have to wait until at least one other couple breaks up. As a result, you might choose to stick it out a while longer in the current relationship. On the other hand, what if you knew that 20 other couples were about to break up? In that case, your prospects would be much better, and you might go through with the dumping.
This hypothetical is obviously extreme, because in reality there’s always a pool of single people out there, and there’s always some flow of people into (and out of) that pool. But the pattern is what’s important: the larger is the pool of potential mates, the greater is your incentive to wade in. Meanwhile, other people are performing the same calculus. The result is a kind of coordination game. To put it simply, you only want to break up if other couples are breaking up, and they only want to break up if you’re breaking up. In this sort of game, there will typically be more than one stable equilibrium. We can imagine low-break-up equilibria (relatively small numbers of couples are breaking up and rejoining the singles pool) as well as high-break-up equilibria (relatively large numbers of couples are breaking up and rejoining the singles pool).
I surmise, then, that the Spring Mating Season results from a seasonal high-break-up equilibrium. It starts with the Rite of Overdue Dumping, in which people exit relationships that they stayed in just for the holidays. And then there’s a cascade effect: the knowledge that more people are entering the singles pool encourages yet more people to exit their relationships, thus adding yet more people to the pool, etc. More dumpings take place than would be predicted by the post-holiday effect alone.
Autumn, on the other hand, represents a low-break-up equilibrium. Some people extend their relationships in order to be guaranteed a partner during the holidays. Others, who might have been willing to break up despite the holidays, realize that their prospects are worse because of the reduced flow into the singles pool – and so they decide to stick it out as well. And so on. More relationship-extensions take place than would be predicted by the pre-holiday effect alone.
In short, the cycle is driven by the pre-holiday and post-holiday effects, but the cycle is exaggerated – with higher peaks and deeper troughs – by the fact that people’s break-up decisions are interdependent. It makes most sense to break up and reenter the singles market when other people are doing the same.