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The following is an excerpt from the book Unhooked Generation:
The Truth About Why We're Still Single
by Jillian Straus
Published by Hyperion; February 2006;$21.95US/$29.95CAN; 1-4013-0132-0
Copyright 2006 Jillian Straus

Waiting for Mr./Mrs. Right

On a sunny March day in downtown Chicago, Peter, a spindly, 6'6", thirty-two-year-old man with a clean-shaven head, wearing the red-and-black sweats of his college alma mater, met me at a coffee shop. I arrived early and grabbed a table in a quiet area of this psychedelic place with pumpkin-colored walls and beads hanging in the doorway that reminded me of Greg Brady's room. New age music played in the background as billows of smoke lingered overhead.

When Peter walked over to me, I had to tilt my neck to meet his eyes. We exchanged hellos and he shook my hand nervously. His befuddled countenance and fretful body language gave way to an emotional floodgate. We sat down and he divulged that he had become overwhelmed by his quest for the right partner. He was currently in a relationship with a woman named Molly whom he loved dearly. She happened to be sleeping in his bed at the time of our conversation. He had lied to her in order to meet me, I was startled to learn: he had told her he was going to the gym because he didn't want her to know he was meeting me to talk about his relationships angst. Molly loved Peter and, a year into their relationship, she had started talking about marriage. Peter loved her in return, but he was not sure he was ready to take the plunge. This wasn't the first time Peter had faced this dilemma. His relationship before this one had been with a woman named Katy. He talked about Katy with even more fondness than he did about the trustfully sleeping Molly. The first time he uttered Katy's name, the sides of his mouth curled up with delight. Katy also loved him, he said, and it was obvious by his adulatory description of her that he cared deeply for her. Katy had also made it clear to Peter that she had wanted to get married. But the situation had been identical: he was not completely "sure" with her either. Katy grew tired of waiting and eventually assumed he was never going to propose; she finally left him. "When I realized what I was letting go, I campaigned to get her back. It didn't work and I regret it," he explained with a vexed expression. Katy was now with someone else and it pained Peter. When he told me about Katy's new boyfriend, he looked down at the table and fingered the chrome sugar bowl.

Peter thought that something was wrong with him because he had been unable to commit not only with these two women but also with others: "I've had five serious relationships and I could have been married to four of the women. They were all amazing. Two of them were my best friends. All of them wanted the commitment and I didn't. It wasn't that they weren't right. I never took a chance." So after Katy, Peter did what many Gen-Xers do in a state of confusion -- he went to therapy. The first thing he asked the therapist was, "Does this mean I am not in love?" After a couple of sessions, he came to the realization that a lack of love was not the reason why he couldn't commit. He also learned it wasn't that he wasn't ready for marriage: He wanted marriage and a family. He couldn't wait to be a father: "I don't know many things in life for certain, but what I do know is that I was meant to be a dad," he said as his face softened. And it wasn't that he wanted to play the field before he embraced family life: he didn't long for the bar scene, hookups, or the responsibility-free life of a single man.

Rather, after hours of analysis, he discerned that he was truly afraid that something better was always around the corner -- and it was paralyzing him. At that moment, I could see his anxiety mounting as his thin shoulders crept up to his chin. He lamented, "I've met so many great women. I feel like they were missed opportunities in my life. But, at the same time, I don't want to feel like the door is closing, I want an escape hatch. I love Molly to death, but sometimes I think: who else is out there?" he said with frustration. "What if I am supposed to be with someone else?"

Peter articulated what I heard from so many of my unhooked subjects and friends: "Until you fully commit, you want to keep your options open . . . Is there a perfect mate? I probably have this ideal in my head and I am the first to admit she doesn't exist. But I hold out the thought -- maybe."

This commonly spoken phrase, "keep your options open," stayed with me. "Keeping their options open" is a way many of my generation think they may avoid settling. The limitless choices this generation faces in all areas of life, including in their potential partners, play a powerful role in many young people's high expectations and inability to commit. The more choices men and women have for potential mates, the higher this raises their expectations; but the higher the expectations, the fewer the people that will meet that standard. In the back of Peter's mind was always the question: "Is there an upgrade out there? What if I settle for version 2.0 and 3.0 comes out ten times better?"

Barry Schwartz, PhD, author of The Paradox of Choice, contends that an overload of choice carries a cost. The cost, he says, is that choices can make you question the decisions you make before you even make them and can foster unrealistically high expectations. In a study titled "When Choice Is Demotivating," business professor Sheena Iyengar examined the issue of too much choice. She and social psychologist Mark Lepper, PhD, set up a display of exotic jams in a high-end grocery store. In one control of the study, six varieties of jams were available for tasting. In another, twenty-four varieties were available. The larger array of jams attracted more tasters than the smaller array, but when it came to buying, fewer choices actually meant larger numbers of purchasers. In fact, the difference was remarkable: ten times more people bought jam from the smaller display than from the larger. Iyengar speculates that a large array of options might actually discourage consumers because it forces an increase in the effort that goes into making a decision. Alternatively, they reason that the effort the decision-making requires can detract from the pleasure of making the decision. And finally, they suggest that too many options may diminish the attractiveness of what people see.

Peter just could not choose his jam. What he learned through his therapy sessions and own self-analysis was that his resistance to making a commitment stemmed from his many choices and consequently high expectations. He feared that if he picked the wrong person, he might repeat the mistakes of his parents who, in his eyes, did not have a good relationship: "As a result I have very high expectations for my spouse and what I want in a relationship. I want to go into it with total confidence that it is the right person," he explained with an intense tone.

I understood the obsessive focus on making the right choice. My high expectations had also paralyzed me in many of my past relationships. I remember, still with a tinge of pain, the time my first love sat on the bed of my college dorm room and said to me: "I just don't know if I will ever be able to meet all your expectations." He was the first man to say this to me -- but certainly not the last. I had related to many of my single informants but, oddly, I related the most strongly to Peter -- though the source of our problem seemed exactly opposite. My parents were happy, so I was scared of making the wrong choice; his were unhappy, so he was scared. We both narrated our problems as if they derived from our personal life circumstances, but obviously they came from something much bigger and common to our whole generation.

Peter, like many of the people I interviewed, became exasperated by his own indecisiveness: he didn't trust himself -- or love. Falling in love had become an angst-ridden journey of second-guessing, constant indecision, and perpetual confusion. He felt he might never know if he made the right choice: "I hate it when people say they met the person and 'I just knew,"' he said. "My biggest fear in life is never knowing. That feeling may never come."

Excerpted from Unhooked Generation: The Truth About Why We're Still Single by Jillian Straus. Published by Hyperion. Copyright 2006 Jillian Straus. All rights reserved. Available wherever books are sold.

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