it's complicated

Testing High Standards After a Lifetime of Settling

Photo: J.V. Aranda

It was late at night when the knock woke me up. Squinting bleary-eyed through the peephole, I saw Travon, the guy I had been dating until he’d disappeared on me a week prior. Travon had a habit of dressing like he was about to go sailing; a bulldog that pulled him around on his skateboard; and for the few weeks I dated him, a tendency to act like the two of us were destined for romantic greatness.

“Rebecca!” he called. I thought about pretending I wasn’t there. Nothing good ever happens when the guy who’s ghosted you suddenly shows up unannounced in the middle of the night.

Against my better judgment, I opened the door. Travon leaned a hand against the door frame and gave me a lopsided grin. I imagined how cool he looked in his head.

“Where have you been?” I said.

“Listen,” he started. And then he launched into his tale: He’d run a red light on his scooter a few months ago. No big deal. He was supposed to go to court, but he didn’t, and now there was a warrant out for his arrest.

A warrant? I thought. For running a red light?

“Run away with me,” he said. “Let’s get married. I have it all planned out. We’ll fly to California, and I’ll join the motorcycle-racing circuit.”

When I said no, he asked me to drive him to the airport instead. I passed on that, too. Aiding and abetting a fugitive was absolutely not on the schedule for my Saturday night.

During the time I lived in Daytona Beach, Florida, Travon was the second guy I dated who was trying to outrun the law. He was also the first of three consecutive guys who asked me to elope under less than ideal circumstances. I was a teacher then, busy and tired, and I blamed myself for my own bad dating luck: I must have been doing something to attract these weirdos, right?

But dating apps weren’t doing me any favors. PlentyofFish hooked me one match who had fled across state lines all the way from Arkansas. OKCupid matched me with multiple men who stood me up. And on Bumble, I chose a future chiropractor who openly judged me when I actually ate on our lunch date.

After I moved almost 300 miles south to Boynton Beach, though, I immediately updated my Bumble profile and started swiping with gusto. There were so many men! Cute ones, with white teeth and real jobs! Within hours, ten match messages appeared on my screen.

But as I chatted with them, more matches appeared — and kept appearing. By the end of my first weekend in my new city, I had more than 80 matches. And the beginnings of a panic attack.

I nixed the first batch of nos based on grammar and spelling. (I was an English teacher. Not sorry.) I also unmatched with the guys who made it clear they just wanted to hook up. Pass.

My first date in Boynton Beach was with a lawyer. We had a great conversation over dinner, but we just didn’t click.

The next guy I took a chance on wouldn’t stop talking about golf.

After every date, I went back to Bumble. Who else was there waiting for me? Hundreds of guys. New profiles popped up every day.

A year before, I’d been dying for these kinds of matches. But with so many options, I found myself feeling less invested in each one, treating them like they were replaceable. And I couldn’t decide how to feel about it: Was I finally raising my standards to where they should have been all along? Or was the app, or the move, making me terrible?

A little research seemed to confirm what I’d suspected: If I hadn’t moved out of Daytona, I might never have realized how shallow the dating pool there really was. And I likely would have resigned myself to ending up with one of the bad choices it contained. A 2013 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, titled “Settling for Less Out of Fear of Being Single,” illustrated a phenomenon I was all too familiar with: Many of us, the study authors found, are willing to lower our standards in order not to be alone.

And particularly in areas where the dating pool is smaller, daters are more likely to let certain things slide, wary that their other choices may not be all that much better. And it’s just logic that the smaller the population, the lower the odds that you’ll find a potential partner with whom you have a ton in common. A guy with a master’s degree who also loves the outdoors and isn’t taken — that man would have seemed like a unicorn in Daytona. But in my new neck of the woods, I swiped right on maybe 100 of them.

On the flip side, as I learned, in more densely populated cities, daters are also more likely to experience the feeling of unlimited supply.

“Based on the paradox of choice, the more choice you have, the more difficult making a final decision can be,” says psychologist Marisa Cohen, author of From First Kiss to Forever: A Scientific Approach to Love. “Online daters may have difficulty narrowing down their choices, especially on swipe-based sites, because of the amount of options.”

I think that’s the problem. I’m not used to so many choices. In this bigger city, there are so many Mr. Almost-Rights. I don’t have to settle anymore — a fact that’s both exciting and a little scary. So far, though, none of my dates have pounded on my door in the middle of the night, so maybe things are looking up.

Testing High Standards After a Lifetime of Settling