The perfection trap

When my unattached friends complain this Valentine's Day about being single, I will empathize. But then I will ask whether they have fallen into what I call the Perfection Trap: Single people - particularly those in their 30s and 40s who have not previously been married - who seem to be searching for perfection in a potential mate, often precipitately rejecting one date after another because of some real or imagined flaw, and ending up, not surprisingly, alone and unhappy.

For example, when a friend of mine, an attractive, smart woman in her mid-30s, recently went on a date with a never-married, 40-something man she'd met at a conference, it sounded like a potentially good match; they work in closely related fields, share the same religion, and seemed to have similar values and interests.

Their dinner at an Italian restaurant went well, until he mentioned how much he liked Frank Sinatra, and asked her whether she liked his music. She responded that, while she loved music, she wasn't too familiar with Sinatra's. He then said that nothing cracked him up as much as the Marx Brothers, and asked if she felt the same. While she is a film buff whose friends often seek her opinions on movies, she hadn't, she said, seen many Marx Brothers films.

Then, after they'd been enjoying getting to know each other, she felt him retreat emotionally, and when she suggested an after-dinner stroll, he said he needed to get home.

She hadn't passed his test, she felt. But whatever the test was - absolute synchronization, perhaps, even down to taste in specific movies and musicians - she didn't think anyone could pass it.

I hear many such stories of meetings between single people who would seem to have great potential to connect, but one or both decide after a mere one-hour lunch not to pursue getting to know each other better. They seem to lack patience, as well as the awareness that it can take three or four dates - or much longer - to click, or for attraction to develop. They expect to be hit by a bolt of lightning - or else forget it.

A generation or two ago, and for much of history, choosing a mate was more a matter of practicality than of finding the ultimate romantic love.

My father's parents married each other because they were the only unattached Jews in the same age-range in the then-small town of Madison, Wis. They'd both emigrated from Russia, and they were fixed up by a cousin.

"There was every reason to get married and no reason not to," my father told me recently. "They were the same age, they spoke the same language [Yiddish], they came from the same background, and so they married."

And they got right down to business: My father's oldest brother was born nine months, nearly to the day, after their wedding.

These days, most young adults have easier lives in many ways than did our immigrant forebears, and even than our parents' generation, which lived through the extreme poverty and social dislocation of the Depression. We have more choices, and the luxury of spending years in school, exploring different paths, traveling, and establishing ourselves in careers before turning to our personal lives.

But with more choices come greater expectations. We want to "have it all": Careers that are challenging, fulfilling, well-paying, meaningful, that reflect our values and, in large part, define who we are; relationships that are fully satisfying; brilliant, beautiful children; and time to spend with friends and in pursuit of personal interests.

Perhaps our expectations, for both ourselves and others, have become unrealistically exaggerated. This adds a new layer to what have always been especially high expectations of potential husbands and wives, raised as we are on fairy tales of beautiful women rescued by handsome princes, inevitably followed by living happily ever after.

Essayist Barbara Ehrenreich surmises that Americans now expect a spouse or partner to provide everything that used to be found in the multiple resources of a community.

"Consider that marriage probably originated as a straightforward food-for-sex deal among foraging primates," she wrote in a 1993 essay. "Today, however, a spouse is expected to be not only a co-provider and mate but a co-parent, financial partner, romantic love object, best friend, fitness adviser, home-repair person, and scintillating companion through the wasteland of Sunday afternoons."

This search for faultlessness and for an immediate connection also follows from what has become our instant society. In the past, when people tended to stay in the same community and at the same job for the better part of their lives, many relationships were long-lasting and not so easily breakable. But in cities these days, when people move frequently, change jobs every few years, and don't put down roots in a community, there is less of a sense of connection with or obligation to others.

With the expansion of this kind of short-term mentality, perhaps it is not surprising that it is more difficult for people to commit to something that is supposed to be lasting - a relationship or a marriage. And with instantaneous communications abounding, perhaps people have less patience for nurturing connections that may take some time and effort to develop.

The quest for perfection in a member of our innately fallible species is doomed to fail. While it isn't easy to accept shortcomings, it is ultimately the only way. And the rewards are well worth it.

* Susan B. Kaplan is a lawyer and writer who lives (and dates) in Boston.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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