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Disney vs. OkCupid: The Paralysis and Power of Online Dating

I used to think there was a man out there in the world somewhere that God had picked out before the beginning of time to be my husband. I used to pray for him, even. I believed, in general, that God had a perfect plan for every aspect of who I was to be and what I was to do, and that if I was seeking His will for my life this pre-ordained and perfect plan, including the perfect man/marriage, would come to be…and I would live happily ever after.

As my Christianity became more reasoned and “flexible”, and even after it was gone completely, I still held onto a vague, lingering idea of “soul-mates” or “destiny”…

…which isn’t too surprising, considering that the largest percentage of our society does also…

…which, in turn, isn’t too surprising, considering most of us were raised with some flavor of theism and, perhaps even more significantly, on a steady diet of Disney movies and romantic comedies.

It just recently occurred to me as I was watching The Little Mermaid with the two-year-old I care for (and having all sorts of qualms about the messages it might be sending to her impressionable young mind), that one of its biggest and most blatant questionable messages, one I had never before stopped to consider, is this very idea of soul-mates.

In every Disney movie I have ever seen, there is only one man. There is only one prince. Only one possible outcome.

Ariel’s social world, for example, consisted entirely of her family and three friends who, though all male, were excluded outright from her list of potential lovers per the unforgiving reality of the species barrier (Sebastian = crab, Scuttle = seagull, Flounder = well…flounder).

So from the second she first laid eyes on Prince Eric (who was, seemingly, genetically related enough), Ariel knew. Though she might have been distracted by the other human males she observed on the ship had the playing field been equal, it was not. Prince Eric was clearly the most handsome, clearly the sweetest, clearly the most thoughtful, funniest, best-dressed. Clearly, The Prince.

There were never any questions of political leanings, life-style preferences, religious beliefs, geographical constraints, or medical conditions addressed. And there was no doubt about sustaining long-term chemistry or commitment. There were no other options, so it was a given that, once princess and prince had overcome the obstacles and been united in love, they would live, of course, happily ever after.

And it is the same in almost every romantic comedy and book and love story I can think of that are icons of our American (and perhaps Western hemisphere, first-world) experience. No real decisions ever have to be made. The relative merits of one potential life partner over another never, or rarely, come up.

This glaring inconsistency with reality was magnified by my recent excursion into the world of on-line dating.

In the past four weeks I have looked at probably a hundred profiles and interacted with numerous potential mates – all intelligent, attractive, fun, thoughtful, talented men – and while it has been an adventure getting to know so many new people and a great boost to my ego feeling wanted and admired, it is also rather overwhelming

I have only been out on actual dates with four different people, and already I feel I have too much to evaluate and decide between, and too much more still to learn about these individuals in order to make a good decision.

In real life, there are thousands of “princes” out there (or none, if you are a glass-half-empty kind of a person). None of them are perfect. None of them are going to be perfect for you, nor you for them. They, like you, are human and unique. You will not see eye-to-eye on everything with any one of them. There is no crown atop one man’s head blinking like a homing beacon to signal that he is “The One.”

It is really rather unfortunate. It makes this whole process of finding a long-term partner MUCH more complicated than you grow up expecting it to be.

All that to say, I don’t believe in soul-mates any longer, at least not in a pre-destined sense. I believe we choose a person – probably rather arbitrarily – and then MAKE them our soul-mate over time as we continue to choose them again and again, continue to change them and be changed by them, continue to learn who they are and understand more and more how they see the world.

But choosing is much easier said than done.

Living in the world today, we are faced with SO much more choice when it comes to almost everything – food and material goods of all kinds, education, occupation, geographical location, even physical appearance, and now dating – than our grandparents and great-grandparents ever could have imagined. We are forced daily to make hundreds of decisions, large and small, that they never had to consider once.

And psychologists, sociologists, economists and observant people in general are beginning to realize that all of this choice is not a good thing. It is paralyzing and breeds discontent.

And I’m beginning to understand this as it pertains to romantic relationships. When the whole world is your “sea” the perfect “fish” could still be out there. And that makes us – makes me – hesitant to commit.

But here’s the thing: I could spend the next five years, probably, meeting potential partners from Seattle alone, and really do very little to increase my chances of marital happiness…

…because another quite poignant observation people have been making is that we don’t actually know what we want. We don’t know what is really going to make us happy.

So basically love, like life, is a crapshoot, and you just have to do your best to eliminate possibilities that you are pretty sure will make you UNhappy, point your feet towards ones that you suspect might bring you some sort of intrinsic joy, and then MAKE THE MOST OF IT!

In other words, find someone you respect and admire, whose company and conversation you enjoy, whom you find physically attractive, whose values and life goals are compatible with your own; do your best to understand and acknowledge their weaknesses and be honest with them about yours; prepare yourself for the inevitable loss of “sparkle” with the passage of time and increased familiarity, and take steps to keep adding that sparkle back in; and then, finally, take their hand and say,

“We are both two crazy human beings who just happened to run into each other in this big, broiling mess of 7 billion, who don’t really know what we want or how those wants will change in the future, who don’t really know, completely, how to be happy. But we’ve decided we like each other enough to commit to navigating this giant experiment of life together, and we’re going to do our best to navigate it in a way that will allow us to keep liking each other and keep choosing each other, flaws and all, over all the other imperfect people out there who may or may not temporarily make us happy.”

Perhaps some will see this logical, realistic approach to relationships as cold and unromantic. Some might even make a rather cynical (but very good) joke of it.

But I view love and marriage now with as deep and wide a sense of beauty and magic as I ever did – not in spite of its randomness, but because of it.

You could have met any one of 7 billion people, but you met him. Your life circumstances and experiences could have caused you to take one path, but you took the one that led you here. Those same experiences could have predispositioned you to value and choose another, but you choseĀ her.

That kind of love – one that basks with wonder in the miraculous occurrence of near-zero-probability events – and looks with gratefulness on the joys those events brought to life, in spite of the inevitable accompanying pain and grief…

…that kind of love is so much more alive, so much more real, so much MORE than any happily-ever-after Disney story I have ever heard.

And unlike a Disney love which requires a princess to sit around waiting for the stars to align or The Prince to get his castle and trusty stead in order, this kind of love can be actively sought, grown, and chosen by any two people willing to seek it.

For me, that is freeing. And empowering.

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3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Geez, I finally just convinced myself I’d escaped the bullet on the hypocrisy of a Christian wedding. Now I have to start researching how an atheist plans a wedding (should that EVER become a future part of my life)!

    Wonderful ponderings, Edzell – keep ‘em coming!

    February 5, 2012
  2. I met my fiance on eharmony. Neither of us is perfect, but we are perfect for each other– not in every way possible, but in the ways that matter most. We would absolutely say that we’re soulmates, but neither of us believes in the concept. We’re really lucky to have found each other, but we also worked really hard at it, and we work hard to build our relationship. Good luck in your online dating adventures! It took us several months and hundreds of matches before we found each other.

    February 6, 2012
    • That is really encouraging to know, Alice. Thank you. And thanks for stopping by here. I’ve been reading your blog for a long time now. It was one of the first I discovered after losing my faith and going online to find comradeship/affirmation. I have a ton of respect and admiration for you and the little bit of your journey I have been privy to. So thanks for that, too. Congrats on finding/building true love. May it continue to flourish as you take on the future together! :)

      February 17, 2012

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