Friday, January 18, 2013

On the stairs to Susan Ross's apartment

The revisionist history of a love life, as told by a woman of a certain age, has perhaps grown into a genre in its own right. Or maybe not - there was Lori Gottlieb, and now, in the Daily Mail, there's Karen Cross, and I think a third example (and I know there are more) needs to pop into my head (or the comments) before a genre can be declared.*

Cross, you see, is 42 and tragically, tragically alone. Sure, she's often in a relationship, and sure, her career and life otherwise is fabulous. But she'll never be a mom, or mum, I should say, given the context. What she regrets is that she didn't marry the man she was engaged to at 19. Let me repeat: at 19. But she was with him for eight more years, and what do I know of what "engaged" meant in Essex over 20 years ago (only that engagement is taken lightly on "The Only Way Is Essex," which seems irrelevant). She started dating a guy at 17, had little in common with him at, what, 27, and moved on. Years later, if I have the chronology right, she was annoyed that her ex's new girlfriend didn't want her so present in his life, but nevertheless "didn't want [him] back."

The ending struck me as familiar:

Now I can only look back and admonish my selfish, younger self. When I visit friends and family back in our home town, I can't help but hope I'll bump into Matthew. I'd like to think I'd say sorry. That I will always be there for him. But I wouldn't be surprised if he turned his back on me and kept walking. 
This is totally the movie "Young Adult"! Which can't be our third example on account of it's fictitious.

Cross at least acknowledges that maybe this high school sweetheart wasn't so great for her, but figures, "If only I'd stayed with [him], we'd almost certainly be married with children." How can she know? Maybe he'd have left her? Which is always the problem with revisionist histories of this nature - just because one party was the dumper doesn't mean that a year down the line, assuming a continued crummy relationship, the roles wouldn't have been reversed.

But the possibility that Mr. Pushover would have split isn't the main reason I find these revisionist histories so troubling. It's more that you have to trust your 19-, and 27-year-old selves to have made decisions that made sense given all the information you had available at the time. While a younger woman isn't as keenly aware of fertility's limitations, or of the scientific fact that no man has ever been attracted to a woman over 22 (sarcasm!), it's when you're actually in whichever failing relationship that you see it for what it is. The further you get from any relationship, romantic or otherwise, the more someone becomes what they are on paper. Questions like, why didn't I stay better friends with X can generally be answered by grabbing a drink with that person and finding you have nothing to say to each other. It's not even about 'the one' - if you left 'a good thing', maybe it wasn't as good as you remember?

And as with all profound life experiences, there is the appropriate "Seinfeld" reference: where George wishes he could get back together with Susan, gets all mopey about this, convinces her he's changed, and then you see him back with her, climbing the steps to her apartment, with precisely the look of misery Jerry told him he'd had on those stairs back when they were first a couple.

Oh, and the other reason these revisionist histories are a problem is that they never quite convince that the woman isn't happy with her life as it is. That this isn't just some script many women feel compelled to recite. If she'd wanted kids so badly (and at 42, she still may have them, biologically or otherwise), if this had been her priority, she'd likely have had them, with or without this or any other dude. I'll buy that most everyone, no matter their life choices, could wonder 'what if,' but wondering is different from regretting, and these narratives have a way of saying 'I let the conventional life of my dreams slip away' while conveying, 'Non, je ne regrette rien.'

*As overshares go, Cross's is not all that objectionable - the only children discussed are theoretical, and because they aren't family, it would be tough to prove that any one boyfriend was the one being discussed here. The only identifiable real-person potentially humiliated is the author.


Andrew Stevens said...

It's more that you have to trust your 19-, and 27-year-old selves to have made decisions that made sense given all the information you had available at the time.

The trouble with this is that my 19-year-old self was a total moron and, moreover, this is also true of more than 98% of the 19-year-olds I have ever met. (And while I was already a grown up at 27, I've known plenty of late developers who took longer than that to mature. Of course, there are plenty of people who still aren't mature at 55, but leave them aside for the moment.)

Phoebe said...

True, few are as mature at 19 as at 27, 57, etc. But that doesn't change that the best expert on your relationship at 19 is you at 19. You at 40 might know more about the world, but you will also remember little about what some sweetheart was really like. Also, if you take this to a logical conclusion, should all life decisions be made according to what a theoretical 70-year-old version of ourselves would want? Some, like saving for retirement, yes, but not all. Life is experienced as lived, not as some final assessment of life choices at whichever point one is most mature but still with-it.

The other angle I didn't get into in this post, though, that does complicate matters is the whole window-of-opportunity thing - the possibility that a woman will break up with a guy because she thinks/is told by everyone she knows that a certain age is too young to commit, only to suddenly be at the age at which she's told she's borderline too-old-to-get-a-man, at which point why exactly did she end things with dude in the first place? I wouldn't be surprised if that is the source of *some* regrets. But selective memory seems to be the main issue here - exes seeming better in retrospect is such a known problem that it seems bizarre to call someone you could take or leave enough to dump the love of your life, unless things really changed and you'd gotten back together.

Andrew Stevens said...

Just to be clear, I'm not disagreeing with you on this specific case, necessarily. But then I don't know how much I trust Ms. Cross's narrative.

It is easy to imagine a case where a decision to dump a former lover can clearly be looked on with regret (and for all I know something like this is the case with Ms. Cross here, but she's too embarrassed to say so). To wit, you meet someone superficially more exciting and dump a steady, reliable, dependable lover for a transient fling with someone who turns out to be a total scumbag. After maturing, you realize what a total scumbag you yourself were and regret how badly you treated someone who never did you any wrong and wistfully look back on what might have been. You are quite correct that "what might have been" might never have happened for a myriad of reasons, but this would seem a clear-cut case of knowing that your judgment now is superior to your judgment then. (You can claim, I suppose, that your younger self must have had some reason to find the current lover "boring," but the need for excitement in a relationship is the sort of thing everyone eventually needs to mature out of, though I grant plenty of people never do. So that would be another case when the benefit of age and experience can rightly judge past actions.)

That's not the narrative she gives here and you're correct to be skeptical of her certitude that "things would have been great, if only..." I'm just resisting what seems to me to be too great a generalization.

Phoebe said...

"(You can claim, I suppose, that your younger self must have had some reason to find the current lover "boring," [...]"

Can and will. Let's say the grown-up version of the boyfriend a woman found boring at 19 would have thrilled her at 35. Let's say "boring" wasn't representative of some more profound lack of attraction. She'd still have found him boring at 19-25 (say), and it's hard to see how things would have improved on that front had she stayed with him.

The maturing you describe would almost seem to require dumping Mr. Boring in favor of Mr. Superficially Exciting, learning a bit about life, and knowing Mr. Stable and Exciting when you meet him. There are many, many men on the planet, so I'm not sure why Mr. Boring is 'the one that got away'.

Andrew Stevens said...

Phoebe, I think this is your own inexperience talking. I honestly do hope that you find your husband exciting every day for the rest of your life. Most relationships don't work like that; they go through ebbs and flows. It is very common for both people in a ten year old relationship to have grown quite bored with each other (the fabled "seven year itch"), only to discover, if they ride through it, that they are much better off having gone through that patch and stayed together.

If you ever do grow bored of your husband (or he grows bored of you), I do hope you will at least consider the possibility I might be right about this before packing up and leaving.

Andrew Stevens said...

By the way, I don't mean to sound patronizing there if that wasn't what you meant. But that's what Ms. Ross was describing - an eight year relationship in which she had grown bored with the guy.

Britta said...

At the end of Madame Bovary, we can look back and assume Emma's life would have been much better (as there's no way it could have been worse) had she not cheated on her boring husband. The message I think we're supposed to take away, though, is that Emma never should have married her boring husband in the first place, as it set both of them up for a life of misery.

I can see Andrew's point--my younger self has definitely done stupid things that at the time didn't seem stupid in relation to my love life, but I really don't think marrying someone you find boring and aren't terribly attracted to at a young age is a recipe for happiness. I did something kind of like that, in my early 20s left a very nice, steady boyfriend whom I got a long with for an exciting relationship with a guy who turned out to be a jerk. A big part of me regrets dating the jerk for so long, but not one part of me regrets leaving the nice boyfriend. I'm now with a nice guy who I do find exciting, and the two of us attended my first boyfriend's wedding, to a really wonderful girl who presumably finds him exciting. If we'd married each other since it would have been so practical, both of us would have missed out on finding someone much more suitable.

Andrew Stevens said...

Britta, I'm with you if you never found the guy interesting ever. (In which case, as you say, the question is why date him in the first place.) In the particular case under discussion, though, Ms. Ross was with the guy for eight years before she decided he was boring. I'm of the opinion he probably wasn't always so boring. What she means is that she got bored, which is a different thing and extremely common in long-term relationships, probably very close to inevitable.

I confess a certain skepticism for the idea that there is such a thing as "Stable and Exciting," having been both alternately, but not really ever both at the same time.

Phoebe said...

Yeah, I guess it does sound patronizing, so I appreciate you recognizing that. It not only makes all kinds of assumptions about my "experience" that a commenter would be in no place to make (unless "experience" means "being 40," in which case, correct assumption, 40 I'm not), but also, perhaps more problematically, assumes that the anecdotal evidence informing my thoughts on this is primarily/entirely from my own life. This post, this blog, these are not about my personal life (you have the bare-bones: age, marital status), so my best response to comments that try to make it about that is to give a reminder along these lines. Interesting comments otherwise!

Anyway, to return to the topic at hand, namely the account given by a woman happy to put her life on display, what I was talking about was that dating before settling down has a way of showing men and women alike who's a reasonable person to settle down with. Sure, there will be ups and downs with anyone, but some choices would be disastrous, and that includes both bad-boys and boring ones.

Andrew Stevens said...

Yes, my apologies. I am aware that you almost certainly have heard comments like mine in the past, though I do think actual experience is different. (Indeed, this is sort of what you're saying about the 19-year-old knowing more than the 42-year-old. How much more so when you're talking about knowledge gleaned from somebody else's experiences.) Simple mathematics tells me your longest relationship can't have been all that long yet. Of course, the "seven-year itch" sometimes occurs at year 5 and sometimes it holds off until year 15. (In discussions with other people, I think it typically happens closer to ten years than seven, but my sample size is very small.) What I'm not aware of is a long-term relationship of 15+ years where it's never occurred at all.

By the way, some time when I have more time, I might tell you about the "optimal stopping point," a mathematical solution for exactly how one should date in order to arrive at the optimal partner for the rest of your life. I think you might appreciate it, actually, even though almost nobody else I've ever met does. (For some reason they always seem skeptical of the idea of taking dating advice from mathematicians.)

Phoebe said...

"Indeed, this is sort of what you're saying about the 19-year-old knowing more than the 42-year-old."

It's the difference between saying how things are generally and applying them to individual cases. The danger (both of offending and of being wrong) in individual cases.

Andrew Stevens said...

Again, my apologies if any offense was given. Assumptions about your experience come purely from your age. Less than 30, ergo no 15 year or longer relationship. A 75 year old can rightly wonder if I have any idea what a 50 year marriage is like and, indeed, I do not. At best, I'd be extrapolating and making a (possibly false) assumption that it's just more of the same of what I do know. I absolutely agree I should have expressed it more generally, however.

caryatis said...

"If I'd stayed with him, we'd almost certainly be married with children"

Certainly seems to imply that married with children equals success and happiness, right? I thought we learned like several decades ago that women can be married mothers whose husbands are perfectly decent guys and still not be happy. Hence why it's not a good idea to urge women to get married to the first unobjectionable guy who comes along, especially when, as in the Cross article, there are legitimate concerns with his lack of financial security and ambition.

Phoebe said...


I *almost* think you get what I'm saying here, but the fact that you're still trying to explain how you came to whichever hypothesis about my life makes me less sure. I know you mean nothing bad, but I want to be clear re: my point. The point is, this isn't about me. But for the sake of concluding with agreement, let's agree that it's mathematically impossible for me to have been married for 30 years.


"Certainly seems to imply that married with children equals success and happiness, right?"

Well, it's a problem when this is assumed of all women, but there are individual women - many, in fact - who feel this way. My concern here is that there seems to be this compulsion on the part of women who don't, and who live their lives accordingly, to go through the motions of regret.

"I thought we learned like several decades ago that women can be married mothers whose husbands are perfectly decent guys and still not be happy."

Yes, but more than decades! This is why I was so baffled when Lori Gottlieb urged women to settle, so as to be more like Madame Bovary.

"Hence why it's not a good idea to urge women to get married to the first unobjectionable guy who comes along [...]"

Precisely. I mean, why limit this to "women"? Why shouldn't a young girl marry her first date, assuming he's a nice dude? This - and Andrew, this gets back to your point - is what I mean regarding "experience." Some dating of different people. It's not going to be the first week of any relationship for more than a week, but if you're bored and have nothing to compare this to, how do you know if you're bored because three months doesn't feel like three days, or because dude bores you? I mean, common sense dictates that few of us will have prior experience with a series of multi-year marriages, but the idea is to accept ups and downs only once with the right person, i.e. a reasonable person for you, one who doesn't leave you stuck on the question of what else is out there.

Phoebe said...


Somehow only seeing your comment (and Andrew's response to it) now. What you describe suggests what I'd guessed, namely that to end up with nice plus exciting, you need to have seen what each of those qualities looks like without the other.


Re: bored vs. boring, I think it's probably common enough for those who are not ready to settle down to express boredom with a relationship that might be right for them ten years down the line. And, while it's good to know that infatuation generally fades, if you're not at the life stage for stability, if you want flings and infatuation only, selecting partners on the basis of how likely they are to want to be with you forever, because that's the sensible approach, seems potentially dangerous, like you'd end up hurting them.


What I still can't figure out logistically is what's meant to happen if a woman feels there's much better out there, isn't attracted to the guy, but at 27 does what she thinks she'll want at 42. I just can't picture how the intervening years would work. If there were kids, and this was about staying together for their sake, perhaps. But staying together for the sake of one's own (unknowable!) older self seems like a mistake.

Petey said...

"By the way, some time when I have more time, I might tell you about the "optimal stopping point," a mathematical solution for exactly how one should date in order to arrive at the optimal partner for the rest of your life. I think you might appreciate it, actually, even though almost nobody else I've ever met does. (For some reason they always seem skeptical of the idea of taking dating advice from mathematicians.)"

On the bright side, this paragraph could appear as is in an Onion piece. A second career path may be open to you.


"As overshares go, Cross's is not all that objectionable - the only children discussed are theoretical"

Won't somebody please think of the theoretical children?!

They're sitting right there, over in another branch of the multiverse, reading the Daily Mail, and they are absolutely mortified.

Britta said...

Thinking about this, I think this woman's story is really more a lesson on Moving On With Your Life. It sounds like, after breaking up with her first love at 27 (ample time to meet someone else), she was never able to really get over him and move on, and behaved in a way that burned her bridges with him. He might be thinking he dodged a bullet on that one.

My ex's sister had a somewhat similar story--dated a guy through her 20s, then basically gave him an ultimatum of commit or she would find someone else, he refused so she dumped him, only to find out he had been cheating on her like crazy. She spent the next 5 years panicking about finding someone, dating patently inappropriate men (married drug addicts), and rejecting all sorts of guys because they weren't enough like her ex, and grieving that 8 months(!) after breaking up, he married someone else. By her earlyish 30s, she was thinking, "if only I had tried harder to make it work with him," even though it was demonstrable he was an asshole who treated her poorly and didn't really want to be with her any way. She was (probably still is) a lovely person in many ways and could easily find someone if she weren't still on some level hung up on her ex.

Phoebe said...


"Won't somebody please think of the theoretical children?!"



Agreed that this is about (not) moving on. But when you consider the publication, this is also about a very gender-specific kind of not moving on, namely that a woman is somehow damaged goods once she's been around the block, or lost her virginity, or passed the age of 25, or... you get the idea. Cross didn't know it when she was young enough to do something about it, but ah, now she's seen the light. Any guy she was with at 17 was by definition The One, because that's when a girl is still plausibly innocent. (Again, according to a DM preferred narrative.)

Because that really is the mystery here - Dumper's Regret is no doubt a thing, but generally the dumper realizes that the dumpee has moved on and it hardly matters who ended things, because over is over. Does the DM want us to believe Cross didn't find someone else because this guy she could give or take was spectacular, or because that's just how it goes once a woman's chosen ambition over being a mum? I mean, assuming any of this is non-fiction, my own interpretation is that this is less about Cross not being over this dude, as that this dude represents the conventional life she didn't live, and thus when convention dictates she at least voice regrets, they center on this dude.

Andrew Stevens said...

Okay, so now I have to explain it, though I don't know if the comments are long enough to hold it.

Let us assume, for the sake of argument, you want to settle down with one person for the rest of your life and you want the best person you can possibly get. How should you go about this? Well, this is analogous to the following situation: you are going to be given a finite number of sacks (say, 100) of money with a random amount in each bag up to some unknown maximum. You get to open each bag and see how much is inside. You then must decide whether to keep that bag or pass and move on to the next bag. Once you decide to pass on a bag and keep playing, you don't have the opportunity to go back and take that bag again. And if you keep a bag, the game stops and you get the contents of the bag. If you get all the way to the end without selecting a bag, you just get stuck with whatever's in the last bag. What strategy should you adopt?

This is the "optimal stopping point" and the problem has been solved by mathematics. The secret is the "magic" number e (which all mathematicians realize is the real "magic" number of the universe, though most non-mathematicians seem to think it's pi). The answer is that you should open 1/ (which solves to approximately .37) times the number of bags, in the case of 100 bags, that would be 36 or 37. At no point in these first 36 or 37 bags should you even consider keeping the bag. What you're doing is looking for the largest amount in that bag. Let us say, e.g., that you open 37 bags and the largest amount of money you found was $200,000. At that point, you start opening bags looking for the first bag which has more than $200,000. Once you find it, you stop. (In some cases, of course, $200,000 will end up being the best you ever got and you're going to get stuck with the last bag. You can console yourself that your strategy was correct, even though it didn't work out.)

So how does this apply to dating? Well, let us assume you're 18. You want to be married before you're 42. We'll assume that the only purpose of dating is to find your life partner and you're going to adopt a strategy of finding the optimal one. You have 24 years of dating to accomplish the objective. You should spend the first 8.83 years (until you're 26.83) dating as many people as you can, never even considering settling down with any of them. What you're looking for is the best you can get so far. When you're 26.83, you take stock and decide George is the best you've gotten so far (who you could have convinced to marry you, had you wished to). For the rest of your time dating, you're looking for the first person you can find who is better than George. As soon as you find someone better than George (say, Jerry), that's the person you should settle down with. If you reach the age of 42 and haven't found anybody better than George, well, tough luck, you played the optimal strategy and just happened to lose, so you'll have to settle for whatever you can find.

Ordinarily I would answer potential objections to the analogy and why I think they don't seriously undermine the general concept, but that's too difficult to do in a comment thread and I don't want to derail any more than I already have.

Andrew Stevens said...

Third paragraph should have read "1/e (which solves to approximately .37)."

caryatis said...

Phoebe, I think we should be questioning what 'boring' means. And maybe, as you say, we need some experience to know what we are really feeling. I can imagine 'boredom' describing:
1) lack of attraction/sex life
2) a stable relationship not characterized by that counting-down-the-hours till you can see him thrill of infatuation
3) knowledge that being with this person will not give you the life you wanted
4) dissatisfaction with some aspect of life outside the relationship

Andrew, is it possible that "never even considering settling down with" people you date before the magic age would affect the quality of partners you find? Seems to me you would attract less commitment-minded partners if you are less commitment-minded.

Other objection: in this case you do have the option to go back and try to retrieve a past bag, although it's harder than sticking with the current bag.

Minor objection: dating doesn't begin at 18.

Andrew Stevens said...

Caryatis: Dealing with the minor objection first, you can set the ages when you start and when you want to finish to whatever you like. The formula doesn't care. Just take the difference between the two ages and multiply by 1/e to get your break point. However, I think 18 is really the earliest age you could seriously start something like this. I'm not saying you can't "date" before 18, but your ability to gauge whether those people are going to make good life partners has to be pretty much non-existent since neither of you have remotely finished maturing.

It is true that you can go back and get a previous bag, possibly, but it is also true that you probably won't be able to, so I don't see this as a fatal objection. (See the article that prompted me to suggest the strategy. This is a woman who passed on a bag which she'd very much like to have kept, but it's too late.)

Now, the other objection is a serious one. Unfortunately, my suggestion in terms of the best solution is just to fake that you are interested in committing. However, the ethicist in me vehemently objects, so on that one you've got me.

Having said that, though, I think how commitment-minded young people are while dating is always a very nebulous thing anyway. I don't believe you'd be committing any grievous ethical harm by simply not discussing your strategy and you'd probably be dating both the commitment-minded and the not very commitment-minded. I am talking about going on only a few dates each with these people (so you can move on to the next), enough to get a decent assessment of their potential. Even the most commitment-minded can't really object. I'm not suggesting wasting years of their time or anything.

Phoebe said...


The problem with this sort of thinking (and what may have inspired Petey's critique) is that math can't be used for this. People who are dating don't necessarily want, but also don't necessarily not want, an eventual serious commitment. The way this works in life-as-actually-lived, individuals who view themselves as in search of Serious end up serially monogamous, other individuals hook up, find out they have a lot in common with a one-night-stand, and are blissfully monogamous for the rest of their lives. On the one hand, there are many reasons for dating other than finding a spouse, and on the other, those who date without ever wanting one are few and far between. It doesn't mesh with lived experience to say that all three-week 'relationships' that don't go anywhere were failures, because both parties often come away from the experience happy. Point being, the short-term pleasures of dating (and I don't just mean anything physical - also just meeting lots of people, etc.) also exist, but to different degrees for different people at different ages (maybe a lot at 16, less at 22, a lot again at 26, hardly at all at 36, who knows). So you can't look at dating as *only* spouse-search, unless you're one of the rare few who really sees no other purpose in it.

Andrew Stevens said...

Phoebe, that may be a serious critique of the problem, but it's not a critique of the proposed solution. My solution presupposes that the person using it has already determined that they want to be married and monogamous by X age (such as Karen Cross, though I grant this solution wouldn't have helped her much because she probably didn't come to that conclusion until she was 40 and then decided that she already wanted to be married). I am not suggesting that there is any mathematical solution to why you should date. I am suggesting a mathematical solution to a common problem, i.e. how to find your optimal spouse by the age you want to have acquired him/her.

I should note that nothing in this solution says that one can't enjoy the dating that one is doing. There is no necessity to treat it as nothing but a scientific search. Indeed, one of the advantages seems to be that it actually locks in a time when dating is not really "serious," i.e. when you aren't even going to contemplate settling down with the people you are dating.

Andrew Stevens said...

By the by, I thought Petey was just reacting to my line (which was meant to be funny) that people always "seem skeptical of the idea of taking dating advice from mathematicians." But the joke there is just that mathematicians are not particularly noted for being successful daters themselves.

Phoebe said...


"My solution presupposes that the person using it has already determined that they want to be married and monogamous by X age (such as Karen Cross, though I grant this solution wouldn't have helped her much because she probably didn't come to that conclusion until she was 40 and then decided that she already wanted to be married)."

OK, but this is what I was getting at. It doesn't matter if the math itself works out. The point is that the assumption doesn't mesh with how humans actually operate. Thus the relevance of the "Onion" reference, and thus my critique as well. People don't know at exactly which age this should happen, nor is there even an exact chronological progression from desire-for-seriousness to desire-for-something-more-casual. Furthermore, because there are many "optimals" when it comes to dating, they're bound to come in conflict with one another.

But I guess my overall response to this gets back to my response to your earlier, non-math-related one: why do we assume what a person really, fundamentally wants is what that person will want at 40, say, and not at an older/younger age?

Andrew Stevens said...

Phoebe, you still seem to have missed the point and possibly because I gave a bad example (using a hypothetical person's entire life). Let us imagine, for the sake of argument, that you just got divorced at the age of 33 and you want to be remarried at the age of 38. This solution is still how you should go about it. You have much less time for it to operate, but the solution is still the optimal one. So ignore whether we'll have decided on this strategy at 18 or 22 or whatever. None of that is relevant to the actual solution.

By the way, I actually think you should live your life so that you will approve of it when you're 95. So I'm all for setting that age older. It is only when your life is over that you can determine whether it was a happy one or not. Indeed, I decided to have children, not because I had a burning desire to have them, but because I knew that, when I was on my deathbed at the age of (whatever), I would regret it if I hadn't had them. For what it's worth, this was one of the best decisions I ever made. Everybody always told me how much work children were, but nobody ever told me how much fun they were.

caryatis said...

I think Phoebe's objection is that you assume preferences to be constant across a given age range, whether 18-40 or 33-38. That's highly doubtful with the larger age range.

In fact, in your original example you suggested that from 18 to 26, a person should give up all possibilities of committed relationships at that age in favor of a future one. I think you (and Cross in the article) are assuming that there is no way a person can pursue the kinds of relationships she wants at 21 and also, later, have the kind of relationship a 35 year old or 55 year old wants. Seems like a false dichotomy. If I give up what I want at 21, there is no guarantee that will lead to a successful relationship later on--and on the other hand, if I pursue what I want at 21, I may still get what I want at 35.

Andrew Stevens said...

Caryatis, well, again the problem is a given and it is no criticism of the solution to criticize the problem. I defined the problem as knowing that you wanted to be married to the best partner possible by X age and that you were going to use dating as the means to that end. I agree that the solution, even if widely known and agreed to, wouldn't be used by very many 18 year-olds or 21 year-olds simply because they wouldn't recognize themselves as being in that situation, even if they will later believe that they had been.

If I give up what I want at 21, there is no guarantee that will lead to a successful relationship later on--and on the other hand, if I pursue what I want at 21, I may still get what I want at 35.

I don't know why on earth I wouldn't agree to this. Nothing I have said has come even remotely close to contradicting it. You'll just be much less likely to have the optimal partner. I think it's safe to say that virtually nobody ends up with the optimal partner they could have had. But a great many people end up with somebody just fine anyway.

Phoebe said...

In the interest of drawing all this to a conclusion, I think there may just be a philosophical disagreement here over how much it makes sense to live life as a future-you would want it. Personally, while I think it makes sense to do the obvious things your 95-year-old self would require (saving for retirement, living a reasonably healthy lifestyle), you can't know a) that you'll make it to that age, or b) what you'd even end up regretting. What if you reach that age and your big personal-life regret is that you didn't sleep with every attractive person who offered/might have said yes? Why do we assume 95-year-old selves are so noble and wanted us to have kids? Why assume they'll be pleased with the kids they got?

What we should do - and what I think we are doing when we project a 95-year-old self's approval - is, we do what's best for us at the age we're at. This doesn't necessarily mean hedonism, carpe diem, whatever. It just means that if you're having kids at 40, this is because you want them at 40 and have concluded you'll want them later as well.

Of course, this is how I see it. Andrew, you see it otherwise, if I understand you correctly. But what I'm getting at is, for the math to work, you have to believe it's possible to act on behalf of a not-yet-existing self, in a way I suppose, now that I overanalyze it, I do not.

Andrew Stevens said...

Phoebe: Actually, no, you're still misunderstanding me. The math works as a solution to the problem. You have been continually assuming that I believe the problem must exist for everyone. I do not; I am agnostic on that. I am saying that if you are at an age when you wish to find the "optimal spouse" by some later age, this is the solution for how you should go about doing it. I have no opinion on whether you should want to find the optimal spouse or why or how or when. Some people, I firmly believe, should not get married at all; when they do so, they just wind up making two people miserable.

Now - the age 95 thing is a different matter. That I did actually say. It is true that, at age 95, I may regret having had children. Maybe they will be terrible. Maybe I'll be a miserable father. What I was fairly certain of was that I would regret not having them, even though I didn't particularly desire to have them at the time I did (but time was running out). I do take your point, of course, that projecting onto my 95 year-old self the regrets I think I would have does indicate a desire in my present self to have them. But it is still a very useful exercise. This is how one gets to deferral of gratification (saving for retirement, eating healthy, etc.) and to stopping the deferral of difficulties (having children).

Phoebe said...

OK, so re: the first part of this, I agree that you're not saying that everyone should do X, just that if you have this one goal, X is the way to approach it. So let me try to better explain my response. My thinking is that probably most people in some general sense want to be married by roughly some age, but *also*, during those same years, have other things they want to get out of dating, which will inform their choices as well. Marriage might well be the main goal only once the person someone wants to marry has been found and gotten to know quite well.

Andrew Stevens said...

Sure, but if marriage isn't the main goal, then they don't have the problem described and therefore shouldn't be using the solution.

It is true, of course, that you might have marriage as the main goal and want to use the optimal solution, but also have other goals as well. Those may or may not be compatible with this strategy, so if you wanted to use the strategy, you could either A) make your other goals fit with it somehow or B) not use this strategy.

Anyway, by this point, I'm rather sorry I brought it up.

Phoebe said...

Hmm, I guess I'm going to have to return to my different-philosophies analysis. I'm still having trouble picturing the real-life situation where your theory would apply, but that doesn't mean these situations don't arise and your theory wouldn't be useful.

Saheli said...

"Questions like, why didn't I stay better friends with X can generally be answered by grabbing a drink with that person and finding you have nothing to say to each other." Really? I almost always find it's b/c we got too busy or moved at the same time or some other similar thing. I'm just surprised that this summarizes your general drink grabbing experience.

Phoebe said...


I hadn't realized I was addressing "[my] general drink grabbing experience," nor would I even know how to sum that up! But I've certainly experienced what you describe - I no longer live near most of my friends, so every time I get together with one/some, it's a reunion of sorts. What I was referring to was either a friendship from a very long time ago and was briefly revived thanks to Facebook (and no, I suppose I don't have a heck of a lot in common with most of my early-childhood friends), or one that, I don't know, ended, without any busyness/geographic impetus. If everyone you've ever been friends with at any point in your life is someone with whom you can pick up where you left off, that's wonderful, but I doubt if it's a very common experience.