Common sense and anecdotal evidence suggest finding a life partner is a crapshoot. Like craps, it’s a game that few people win – a third of people never get married, and about 40% of married couples end up running for the exit at some point.
Yes, some of these are second and third marriages, but still. Not great.
That leaves around 50% of people who get and stay married. Ending up as one of those people seems like sheer luck to the outsiders among us.
In truth, there are parts of the dating, relationship, and marriage processes that are crapshoots. It’s hard to date someone you never meet, for example. If you spend your whole life in one town, the immediate area surrounding your birthplace is your dating universe. The dating pool is often quite limited, and the quality of people nearby is subject to chance.
I’m starting to get bummed just writing this. But though there are things you can’t control, the process of finding someone exciting with whom you’re compatible is something you can control.
If you genuinely want a great life partner, are willing and able to be one in return, and conduct your search process well, you can be nearly guaranteed to find someone who’s an excellent fit for you.
Dating isn’t a science, but it’s not magic either. What it is, as far as I can tell, is a system with lots of short-run uncertainty. In the face of unpredictability, we often ascribe outcomes to luck or fate.
As I see it, that’s not a good representation of what’s going on. Our long-term prospects for success are closer to math than mythology.
Before we go further, a quick note: I’m not a therapist, doctor, psychiatrist, or even a particularly good dater. But I’ve done my time in the dating world and have noticed the traits and habits of people who tend to do well (i.e., find and keep excellent life partners) relative to the people who tend to, uh, not.
If you’re in a good headspace and are ready to date well1, three questions can determine your likelihood of long-term dating success.
Question 1: How well do you know what you need?
Note that I didn’t say “want.” What we desire in a partner is context-dependent. If we’re pontificating with our friends, we might have one set of criteria – research suggests that attractiveness is at the top of most male lists and earning power is at the top of most females’ – but those stated preferences disappear in the trenches of dating life.2
What you need in a life partner, though, is more often uncovered than proactively identified. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t reversed their ingoing assumptions on at least one major characteristic: the introvert who’s only looking for other introverts might marry someone gregarious, the gold digger might marry a social worker, etc. It gets weird quickly.
Because it’s almost impossible to find this stuff out without testing your criteria in the real world, I find the best proxy for “how well do you know what you need?” is “how many dates have you been on?”
This is hard to swallow because it suggests:
- We don’t know ourselves very well, something that makes even the most humble bristle with indignation.
- There are no shortcuts to self-knowledge we feel should be automatic. Instead, we must slog through bad dates and rejection to learn what we need.
Unfortunately, I’ve seldom met anyone who knew what they needed without doing this archaeological work. Which brings me to my next question:
Question 2: Are you willing to go on 200 first dates?
“It’s a numbers game, bruh,” says every self-proclaimed Pickup Artist as they finish the dregs of their Vodka Tonic, check their hair in the mirror, and scan the bar for their next target.
Believe it or not, the PUAs are right. It is a numbers game, just not in the way they believe.
Let’s say that, with significant upfront screening (e.g., geographic location, age range, interests, attractiveness, etc.), each person you go out with has a 0.5% chance of being an excellent fit for you. I made this number up, but it seems to be in the ballpark.
With a 0.5% chance of each person you meet being a phenomenal, holy shit level fit, there’s a 99.5% chance that any given person you meet will not be the person you’ve been waiting for.
Half of one percent seems like a discouragingly small chance, right? But let’s go with it for now. With enough attempts, the chances improve substantially.3
Each bar indicates the likelihood that you’ve bumped into someone great for you after a given number of dates.
After ten dates, you have a measly 5% chance of finding someone excellent for you. All those people you remember who got together in high school and stayed together? They’re the outliers, not you.
Even after 50 first dates (which seemed like so many that Hollywood made an entire movie about it), you’re still below a 25% chance.
At the 100 date mark, things start to get interesting. You’re just shy of a 40% chance of having found a perfect fit. 40% may not seem like a lot, but if you knew there was a 40% chance of rain today, you’d bring an umbrella with you when you left the house.
After 200 dates, you’d have nearly a two-in-three chance of having found a great fit. If you saw a 60%+ chance of rain in the forecast, you’d mentally prepare to get soaked.
But between you and me, I believe the odds are even better than the ones I just quoted you.
For the previous calculations, I held the likelihood any given date was marriage-level compatible at 1 in 200 (0.5%). There are two reasons this approach might not be realistic:
- You’ll get better at identifying compatible people over time. Your likelihood of finding a compatible partner should increase as you gain dating experience.
- You’re a dynamic, interesting human who will become a more viable candidate over time: staying healthy, learning new skills, etc.
So let’s say your chances of finding a marriage-level fit might improve by 0.5% increments after each block of 50 dates. Hang with me while we do some math:
|Chance of any one partner being a fit||Number of dates|
With this set of probabilities, the chances of you meeting someone special explode.
If your knowledge and screening improve as you date, a 200 date time horizon offers a 92% chance of meeting a fantastic partner.
It’s not a certainty, but it’s close – finding a perfect partner under these assumptions is more likely than a sunny day in notoriously arid Downtown Los Angeles.
All of a sudden, our chances of doing something that seemed impossible are looking pretty good.
With plenty of persistence, resilience, and a long time horizon, finding someone with whom you can spend your life is difficult, but not unlikely.
But perseverance and resilience are fucking hard. People get psyched out, burned out, disillusioned, sloppy, and distracted on their way through the dating world. Sticking with it is remarkably difficult.
Most of us start dating in high school or college, which means that with the right approach and some luck, we might reasonably expect to find someone excellent between our mid-20s and early 30s.
Even the short end of the range is much longer than TV shows, parental influences, and self-help books led us to believe, making stamina one of the prime assets in dating.
Can you go on 200 dates? How long can you sift through messages and profiles on dating apps or wait for Will Hunting to come to talk to you?
For people who want a partner, the answer is yes, especially if we know that the likelihood of success is good in the long-term.
Since our back of the envelope math suggests it is, I’m feeling optimistic. We’ve figured out what we’re after and are on our way to getting it. Things are going well so far.
But the most challenging part is yet to come. Once you’ve set up the process and started your journey, you’ll need another skill in the toolbelt – and this is where things get messy.
Question 3: How good are you at identifying incompatibility?
Compatibility is the biggest stumbling block for most daters I know. There’s so much tied up in it – ego, social pressure, conflicts of interest, and more – that it’s a wonder we ever figure it out.
There’s no Magic 8-Ball to tell you when you’ve found a compatible partner. I haven’t seen many other reliable heuristics to positively identify a great fit, either.
Because this is a difficult and squishy emotional problem, most dating advice ends up sounding like, “You’ll know it when you see it.” Very unhelpful.
If we can’t spot a great fit, we can at least weed out bad ones. That’s why the critical skill becomes identifying incompatibility.
Cutting bait on someone who’s a borderline fit is difficult, but it’s a skill nearly every successful dater I know has developed.
I’ve found three rules of thumb that work wonders for establishing boundaries, rooting out incompatibility, and avoiding decision fatigue.
Never cross the bar. In New Girl, lovable curmudgeon and bartender Nick Miller had one cardinal rule: never cross the bar to fraternize with the customers. This rule, of course, was made to be broken. Chaos and hilarity always ensued.
We all have cardinal rules for dating decision-making – our non-negotiable things on which we (allegedly) refuse to compromise. But, like Nick Miller, we’re too willing to make exceptions to these rules.
One friend’s top criterion was dating someone who wasn’t an alcoholic. He would do anything to avoid dating someone with an alcohol use problem and usually dated teetotalers.
But recently, he told me a story about a woman he’d been seeing. “I like being with her, but I think she’s an alcoholic. She drinks a lot generally and got drunk on each of our dates. But she’s great otherwise – I enjoy her company.”
I assumed this would be a disqualifying point – he had made it clear for years he would never date someone with alcohol issues – but he planned to continue seeing her.
He dropped his one non-negotiable trait because he enjoyed her company. Not a good strategy.
Most instances aren’t as obvious as this, but I know many people who are willing to lay down their most important criteria for someone who makes their knees buckle.
Don’t let this be you. Establish your boundaries and stick to them. Enlist a trusted friend (one who will tell you when you’re fucking up) as your accountability partner, if necessary. It may cause some short-term strife, but robust boundaries will serve you well when hormones and emotions try to hijack your decision-making.
“When someone shows you who they are, believe them.” Maya Angelou was right, but we struggle to apply her wisdom. We ignore fundamental problems, try to change people, and otherwise engage in fingers-in-ears shouting to avoid learning the truth about the people we’re dating.
Everyone I know can recall a dating moment when they heard The Dealbreaker – the thing they couldn’t abide. At that moment, the glass breaks. No amount of work can piece it back together.
But that’s rarely the final time we see the person. We trick them or ourselves, sweeping the problem under the rug and pretending we’re OK with it.
How many times have you heard, “If he’d just change this, he’d be a great partner!” or “I love her, but spending time together is a struggle.” These things aren’t just platitudes or universal realities to be bemoaned – they’re data. Important data.
To some extent, we all tend to play up the good and downplay the bad with our partners (assuming we want things to work out). Research shows we’re all a little deluded about how great our partners are and that this helps us maintain contentment in relationships.
But too often, we forgive and make excuses for incompatibility until the cows come home. All of a sudden, the cows are home, and we still have an incompatible partner.
There’s another phrasing I love of Maya Angelou’s quote (from Mad Men of all places) that gets more directly at this point:
When someone tells you who they are, listen. Don’t torture reality to fit your model of who they should be. Decide if the real version of that person is a fit for your weird inner world. If they’re not, the best thing for both parties is to let them go.
Start from a clean slate. We make better decisions at the beginning of grocery trips than at the end. The mental burden of decisions adds up throughout a trip, meaning that by the time you’re heading for the checkout, you’re willing to give in to the urge to grab chips or a candy bar.
Dating life follows a disturbingly similar pattern. Relationships are work, and dating is exhausting. It should be.
Dating well is a rigorous part-time job. It requires investment to find a great partner if you didn’t grow up next door to your true love.
We know that the dating process is often long and devoid of positive reinforcement; that doesn’t mean “settling” should be on the table. We must approach each new person with a clean slate, not like someone who’s been in line at Trader Joe’s for an hour, impulsively grabbing items as they slowly snake around the store.
This is easier said than done – we bring our whole selves to bear in any dating situation. If we’re feeling worn out from the search, we’re more tempted to settle or stick with someone who isn’t a fit.
When you’re feeling worn out, you can and should take dating breaks. After a little time away, you’ll emerge refreshed and ready to resume the search.
Armed with a process
Finding the perfect partner isn’t easy, but it can be likely if you focus on creating a good dating process. That means some reassurance and a little hard truth.
Some people will see this as a downer – the idealization of meeting The Perfect Someone begins at a young age and doesn’t include words like “difficult” or “tedious.”
Perhaps others who believed the search was hopeless will find this reassuring – there’s no dating formula, and nobody else knows anything you don’t.
In this way, I’m not sure much of what we’ve discussed is earth-shattering news. But I think we’ve accomplished a lot by reducing something daunting and frighteningly random to a process about which we can be optimistic.
We now know dating is less a cosmic crapshoot than a long, slow walk in the direction of a remote town. It’s nighttime, you’re tired, and the road is dark. You’re sure you’re lost, cursing your lack of cell service and the person who gave you directions.
But if you keep walking long enough, you’ll see some lights appear in the distance. As you get closer, you’ll realize that despite your doubts, you’ve been on the right road this whole time.
All we can do is put ourselves on the road and start walking. We don’t know the rest of the story, but we can bet it’ll be an adventure.
1 Disclaimer: I assume you’re already a compelling date (i.e., you have interests, skills, and are happy on your own) before reading this guide. If you’re not, here’s some pre-reading that might help:
- Six Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person – Cracked
- The One Trait to Look For in a Partner and Love is Not Enough – Mark Manson
- How to Pick Your Life Partner – Wait But Why
3 You can play around with these numbers using a great probability calculator here.