It shouldn’t be a big surprise but the best chances of finding a romantic match are after a big life change, such as a move, going to college, or a new job. In fact it takes on a shape that looks a bit like this:
Being in a new environment means exposure to new people. For each person we meet, there’s some chance we’ll be invited to events and parties where we can meet more people and have a social snowball effect. But time is zero sum, you can’t go to every party in the same night. There’s typically a maximum amount of people you can meet based on the group and how outgoing you are.
Of course it doesn’t go on forever. The biggest factor in how fast a social life settles down is your personality. In particular we consider the Big Three traits that are relevant: extroversion, openness to experience, and neuroticism. The first two help you take more chances in social interactions and in getting to know people. These traits help extend the amount of time someone has chances of making lasting relationships, including friendships. The last one puts the brakes on social interactions. The more neurotic you are, the more you worry about how you’re perceived and how much you can trust others.
So why is it that everyone doesn’t meet their future spouse the first month of college or a new job? This is where the Catch-22 kicks in.
When we are in a new place we’re out of our element. We’re adapting and trying to make heads or tails of how the old “me” can become the new “me.” What’s really going on is the (re)formation of cultural identity. For those who are emerging from adolescence or those who have long been in culturally homogenous environments, the shock of entering a new environment can be destabilizing. Destabilization doesn’t mean bad but simply that emotions are in flux and when that’s the case it’s difficult to be emotionally self-secure. When insecurity exists, whether emotionally or financially, it’s all but impossible to maintain a stable, happy intimate relationship. Inner turmoil and insecurity will soon find ways to manifest in behavior. For adolescents, the challenges of emergent adulthood are a part of development. You need to find yourself before you can find someone else and stay happy. Adults dealing with major transitions are hit harder, especially if culture clash contradicts existing identity development. For those who are not as open to experience or neurotic, social and relationship anxiety can develop.
Now it’s also possible to be too open to experience and not feel that anxiety. People who are more extroverted and opportunistic may date and hookup with no end goal. This can be for the thrill of it, theorized to be biologically driven, or out of insecurity. Namely, people may feel that better is out there and through serial dating they can find “the one.” Maybe Hollywood and false impressions of other relationships have created a unreasonably high expectations of what a long-term relationship should be like?
Ironically all of this happens during the best times to make friends and partners! Is there a way out? Yes and no.
Here’s the “No.” There’s a reason people worry and get anxious. It’s to prevent us from falling into harm. If we are acclimating to a new environment, there’s a reason it doesn’t feel right to settle down and that’s evolution kicking in. If you start dating someone and everything is going great but you feel the need to move on, try to understand why. If you feel that it’s too soon, it might be the case but be honest about it. It’s natural to take time to grow and settle down in a new place or job, and maybe romance should even take a backseat for until that happens. Adding romance into your life while being insecure about life is just trouble waiting to happen.
The best way to fight the Catch-22 is to focus on the first two of the Big Three. Without a doubt, the older we get the better we are in dealing with major life transitions through what we’ve learned from our own experiences and those of others. Those who are more open to experience will stand the best chances of overcoming major life hurdles without anxiety and emotional insecurity. Those who are more extroverted will keep putting themselves in circulation – not to find a partner necessarily, but it will always improve their chances of finding one.
If this Catch-22 feels too real, it’s because we’re human. Try to detect which anxieties are there to protect you as you acclimate and which anxieties are there to get in the way of your happiness. Battle those irrational worries and you might find yourself a happier person more ready to settle down.