Wednesday, February 13, 2008

How to Settle

Lori Gottlieb’s spirited defense of “settling” in the mating market makes a number of good points, but it suffers, in my opinion, from a lack of marginal thinking. The question is not to settle or not to settle, but how much to settle. There is no such thing as the absolutely perfect, 100% match – and even if there were, it would be foolish to wait too long for it. But it’s equally foolish to settle for the first half-decent option that comes along. Gottlieb’s mother, who said, “Everyone settles to some degree,” got it right. But much of the article is composed in simple settle-or-not terms.

As I’ve argued before, the real challenge is calculating your reservation level of romantic satisfaction – that is, the minimum quality mate for whom you will settle. If you set it too high, you could spend far too long out there on the dating market. If you set it too low, you risk settling for a mate who provides substandard happiness for years on end – possibly with a divorce as the period on the sentence.

The article makes most sense if reinterpreted in marginal terms: that many women have set their reservation levels too high, and would therefore improve their expected lifetime happiness by incrementally reducing the threshold.

There’s a smooth, continuous gradient from the mythical perfect match to the relationship horror movie. The only dividing line is the one you draw yourself, and the tough question is where to draw it. As Gottlieb observes in the article, there are lots of dating manuals out there that advocate settling, although they don’t say so explicitly. One manual, she says, pushes for not settling. But what would probably be most useful would be a book that offers advice on how to fine-tune your reservation level of satisfaction, which for some readers would be mean adjusting it downward and for others upward.


Jenny said...

LOL An incremental approach! That's exactly what we need. Glen, you should write a economist dating manual!

Only bad thing is that that requires figuring out the relative values of specific characteristics. Who has the time for that?

Anonymous said...

There is absolutely no black and white in any relationship if you want to keep the relationship. It's a complete incremental dance. Like I have told my husband before, sometimes love can be pure toleration. (He didn't like to hear it, but let's get real here.) In other words, find the tolerating threshold, up or down (preferably in increments.) Discover in any relationship there is always a gray area--sometimes lots of different shades of gray. That's what communication and compromise is about. None of us would EVER take the plunge of marriage if we went with a black and white approach all the time.

Gil said...

I seem to recall an engineering professor who claimed that there was a solution to this class of problem.

I think his example involved searching for a good gas price. You drive along, encountering gas stations serially and have to decide where to stop and fill up your tank. You don't know what the best price available is, and you can't drive indefinitely. But, you don't just stop at the first station because you don't want to get ripped off and you're willing to spend some time and effort to find a good price.

The solution was a very simple rule.

Unfortunately, I don't remember the rule, or the math behind it (although I think it involved and assumption about the distribution of prices, and logarithms).