06 November 2019 by Foysol Meare

Experience in Dating: The Secretary Problem

Hipsters drinking coffee. Very romantic.

Some people hardly leave the dating scene in the hope of finding the perfect person. As time goes by they learn exactly what they like and build a very specific image of the person they want to meet. They are quick to end things and move on when they realise someone doesn't match this ideal.

On the other end of the spectrum, some people marry the only person they've ever been with. I'm sure you've seen plenty of examples where this seems to have worked out.

So what's going on here? What's the best strategy to follow if you want to find something longer term?

The answer lies somewhere in the middle. But the factors at play are a lot more interesting and complicated than that sounds. To highlight one of the key ideas, let's look at something called the Secretary Problem.

The Secretary Problem

Imagine you're interviewing possible candidates for one job at your company. There are 100 applicants and after each interview you must decide to either reject or hire them. If you've rejected them, the decision is final and you can't go back and change your mind. This is a realistic constraint because people look elsewhere once they've been turned down.

You want the best person for the job. Even if the first person you interview is brilliant, it wouldn't be smart to hire them. There are another 99 applicants and it's almost certain there'll be someone better. But if you go all the way to the last person, you're forced to hire them because you've rejected everyone else. What if they're terrible?

It turns out there is a precise mathematical solution to this, the Secretary Problem. The best strategy is to interview 37% of the applicants, which is also 37 in this example. You note down the best applicant in that group. Next, you carry on interviewing the rest of the applicants. As soon as you find someone better than the person you have noted down, you hire them.

What can we learn from the Secretary Problem when it comes to dating? Don't worry too much about the numbers I've mentioned, think about the meaning.

In both scenarios you don't have unlimited time or pool from which to find the best person. If you settle down with one of the first few people you date, it's almost certain you'll miss out on someone better.

You can't date forever, in fact the quality of people you attract will drop at some point when you get older. The take home point from the Secretary Problem is to date enough people to build up an understanding. An understanding of the kind of people out there that you like and can attract.

In my experience you can only get that understanding from dating at least 15-20 people. In that time you'll also develop a greater understanding of yourself, which is crucial for sustaining a long term relationship.

A common dating trap people fall into is the belief that there's one special person out there for them to find. It makes them look for the perfect person or romanticise a good date into the perfect date.

This leads to a fear of failure.

They're too afraid to be themselves in case they 'fuck up' and the other person loses interest. The solution to the Secretary Problem does the opposite. It says that you have to 'fuck up' if you want to find the right person. By that I mean you have to date people that aren't the best fit for you. Otherwise you have no reference for what's out there.

Conversely, if you don't have much relationship experience it's almost certain you haven't yet met the best people for you. I say 'people' because there's more than one person that you could have a happy long-term relationship with.

This should be a very liberating realisation.

If you haven't dated at least 15-20 people, it's almost certain you can meet someone better than your ex. And not only one person, likely many people better than them. And this also ignores the fact that you can grow and become a lot more attractive than you already are. The odds are stacked heavily in your favour, you only need to believe it and take action to make this a reality.

Of course this doesn't mean you should take the numbers above as gospel. Don't dump someone you're happy with because you haven't dated at least 15-20 people. And if you've dated 15-20 people don't give up and lower your standards. We're talking about probabilities, not an exact science.

Now let's go back to the long-term couple that met very early on, e.g. in university. The first thing we need to do is re-frame this situation as it can be misleading. This definitely doesn't mean that they'll 'live happily ever after'. The divorce rate in the western world is around 60%*. That being the ratio of divorced to married people in the appropriate age range.

These are figures taken from cross-sectional studies, meaning at an instant in time. What would be more interesting and useful would be longitudinal studies on divorce. That's a fancy way of saying that the study tracks the same people over a period of time. I couldn't find anything on this, but would expect the longitudinal divorce rate to be even higher.

Nonetheless, we've all seen examples of successful long-term relationships. We've also seen these between people who don't have a great deal in common. The observation is even more interesting because many qualities are transient. A person's looks, interests and other qualities aren't fixed, so these can't be sources of order. But then what is the source of stability in these relationships? It has to be meaning.

That's a vague and powerful word to use so let's be more specific. Building something with someone, working through difficulties and finding solutions. Growing through this. Developing a strong connection through vulnerability, trust and honesty. Doing it from a conscious position of strength, rather than going through the motions. These are some of the ingredients for achieving meaning, and many depend only on you. This meaning is a longer lasting, deeper anchor in the chaos of life than a person's transient qualities.

And that's the balance to strike. The optimal strategy is to gain enough experience to know what's out there and who you can attract. But it's not enough to search and then expect to find the perfect person. You also need to work on yourself and become the best version of you. Until this, you're encouraged to keep 'failing' and carrying on. It's actually completely necessary.

When this all comes together, and you've gained that understanding you'll know. Trust me. People often do neither of these things and settle down into mediocre relationships. But that's still only part of the equation. The other is to learn to derive meaning from the relationship and find someone who also does this well. Only this can fight the adversity and chaos that all relationships face.

*Reference for divorce rates: https://www.businessinsider.com/map-divorce-rates-around-the-world-2014-5?r=US&IR=T