Once, on a day where I felt like I knew something, I declared that I would be okay with dating anyone who wasn’t vegan or an actress. It was clear to me that cheeseburgers were crucial to my happiness, and that I’d have a hard time getting close to a professional emotion simulator. Now I have a wife who is both a vegan and an actress, with whom I’m extremely happy.
I can still recall, with shocking clarity, the moment three hours after I met my wife, when I offered her a piece of chicken. “Actually, I’m vegan,” she said. “Well,” I said to myself, “I suppose I am fucked now.” The night air was glimmering, love was all around, and I mentally edited out many chunks of animal protein in the future.
This is highly relevant to my life, but it might be relevant to yours, too. Many single people go around the world looking for someone who fits a set of fixed requirements. As if selecting a shoe on Amazon, they say, “well, I’d like a lawyer or another upscale professional, 35-41, loves cats,” and so on.
My feeling is that this mindset, which was once mine, is ridiculous. I don’t know who I should blame for its existence. I could blame “individualism,” that most versatile of targets, for enshrining the idea that a relationship is a thing that serves your preferences. Or I could blame “work culture,” which tells us that our careers and other resume-focused attributes define us, and so we’d better find someone who fits into our lifestyle, geography, income bracket, etc.
But, wherever I scatter my opprobrium, the reasons it’s stupid remain the same.
First, it presumes that you know what’s going to make you happy, and that your preferences aren’t flexible. This is laughable. Humans are adaptable, and, also, we are bad at forecasting our future states. You say that living in New York is absolutely necessary—you couldn’t live without the culture, the restaurants, the poignant odor. But how do you know? If you were stuck in northern India, presumably you’d find some way to enjoy it. You might enjoy it more.
I still eat meat, I just don’t typically cook it in the house, and this turns out to be better. Since beginning a more vegetarian diet, my acid reflux has resolved itself. And the meat I do eat is more enjoyable. Weird.
The experience that solitude gives you is insufficient to provide this kind of self-knowledge. If you’re a Democrat, and the only people you hang out with are Democrats, I promise you that you have no idea whether you could be happy with a Republican—and that there’s a decent possibility that you could be. Or that you could even learn something from this experience.
Second, it assumes that your partner is going to remain static over long periods of time. That doesn’t really happen. Choose someone on the basis that they’ll be a good mother? Hope you’re okay with fertility issues, or maybe them just deciding that they don’t feel like being pregonat. Choose someone based on their career? They might remember that they only have one life to live and choose to work at a crystal store for the rest of their life.
People change. You’ve got to be willing to stick around for that, which directly implies that you shouldn’t be too particular about their current trappings. Obviously there are limits—I am very sorry that Elizabeth Chambers discovered the hard way that her ex-husband, Armie Hammer, has a cannibal fetish—but some amount of flux needs to be tolerated, or your relationship probably won’t last.
Third, this choosiness often—not always, but often—comes from the mindset that your partner should fulfill all your needs and be into everything you like. Must appreciate political philosophy, mixed martial arts, sushi, and want to hang out for precisely 12.7 hours per week. This is reflective of the insane amount of pressure some of us put on romantic relationships.
Your partner cannot give you everything. In fact, nobody can give you everything. To paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut, they are not enough people. Discussing the latest debacle in the chess world is what your chess friends are for, so give your wife a break and go to the chess club. Just get some flowers from Trader Joe’s on the way back.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t have any criteria when you choose a partner. It’s reasonable to have a few deal-breakers. I just think that many people could occasionally use some looser ones. I’m not an expert on everyone’s relationship, but I’d provisionally suggest that this is a reasonable default selection mechanism: if you find someone who feels like your best friend, with whom you have mutual physical attraction, lock it down immediately. You have located an incredibly rare commodity, and you should treat its extraction with the utmost seriousness.