Last year I sat on a panel at a prestigious university with an author who’d published a book telling female students that if they wanted to avoid lifetime spinsterhood, they needed to find a husband while they were in college.
“Double down,” she told some of the brightest young women in the country, “before you run out of time.”
The author seemed genuinely surprised when I noted that women’s average age of first marriage is 27, and that the longer they wait to marry, the lower their risk of divorce. She was also unaware that women with college degrees were more likely to marry than their less educated peers.
At any rate, the facts didn’t appear to sway her. She seemed intent on instilling fear in a group of smart, hard-working young women who had every reason to be confident in their futures. I was invited to offer an opposing view.
Before the talk, the moderator sent us the questions she’d be asking. Among them: Should women at the university be devoting their time to building a career, finding a husband or a bit of both? Was this school the right place for women to search for a significant other? Was the period between ages 18 to 22 the right time?
At first, I was annoyed by these questions. Did Ivy League students really need me to tell them there was no universal “right” time or place to find a spouse? Did they not know that going all in on either academics or social life was probably a bad idea?
But then I remembered how terrifying it is to be young—to have your whole adult life before you, with so many decisions to make, choices that will affect the rest of your life.
The students in the audience had arrived at the prestigious university by keeping their mistakes thus far to a minimum—by getting good grades and high test scores, by engaging in impressive extracurricular activities and avoiding delinquency—or at least the type of delinquency that lands on one’s school record.
Now comes along a woman telling them their achievements aren’t enough, that some of the very things that made them successful so far would work against them in their personal lives. She stoked an anxiety that’s very real for many high-achieving young people: the fear of making a mistake.
So I told the audience members that if were trying to avoid making any mistakes they would fail. Everyone makes mistakes, and a life spent avoiding them is probably no life at all.
I suggested that instead of trying to line up their ducks so they could have a perfect life, they consider developing the emotional and mental agility to deal with the inevitable setbacks that will surely come their way. That way, instead of flipping out when things didn’t go according to plan, they’d be able to confront the situation with gentleness and curiosity.
The author thought I was being completely irresponsible. “To say that you can’t plan for the components of your personal happiness. I think that’s absurd. I think you have to plan your happiness. And it’s so important. Why would you think that you don’t have to plan for your personal happiness?”
To her, there were two ways to live. Take complete control or be a hapless victim.
But life isn’t like that. Of course, one must make efforts. If you’re looking for love, of course you must leave the house and meet people, whether that means online dating, or schlepping to that friend of a friend’s housewarming party.
But you also have to face the fact that you can’t control what the outcome will be.
This is particularly true of the search for love, where the relationship between effort and results is tenuous at best. Some people meet their beloved spouses without trying—they just happen to be in the right Medieval History class or catering job. Others devote tremendous effort to online dating, speed dating, meet-ups, etc., and don’t see results for years or even decades.
We can control our actions, but not the results. This can be hard to accept at times, but it beats living in a fear-based mindset that constantly buzzes with worries about dying alone. It feels terrible, and doesn’t help find love.
Research shows that people who treat themselves kindly are more likely to reach their goals than those who beat themselves up over their mistakes or disappointments. The reason: They don’t burn out as fast.
It’s hard to heave yourself off the couch for the next date when you’re jacked up on panic and fear. But if you can be nice to yourself—take a yoga class, go for a hike, spend a weekend with good friends—then you’ll be refreshed and ready to schedule the next lunch or coffee.
Or not. After all, there’s no rush.
Sara Eckel is the author of It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single. You can get a free bonus chapter of her book at saraeckel.com. You can also find her on Twitter and Facebook. Ask her any questions here.