When Should You Settle Down? Maths Might Have The Answer…
Settling down with a serious partner is one of the biggest life decisions that you can make. It’s a complex mix of emotional, financial, logistical and genetic challenges, where making the wrong call on any single element can torpedo the entire enterprise.
Anecdotal evidence and advice abounds: there’s the adage that you shouldn’t go for the party monster who you have all the fun with, because someone who’s fun in their twenties is a liability in their thirties and downright dangerous in their forties; there’s the suggestion that you can get an idea of what a female partner will turn into by looking at her mother. Hopefully we’ve all moved on from the days when Dr Dre advised young men to remember that “you can’t make a ho a housewife”.
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However, mathematicians think that we’re getting it all wrong – and that rather than depending on vague aphorisms, family resemblance or knuckle-dragging sexism, we should be treating this question like a probability problem.
Known variously as ‘the sultan’s dowry problem’ or the ‘optimal stopping problem’, this boils the question down to its simplest essence: that in a world where you theoretically have limitless potential partners, but your own value is bound to decline steadily with age, at what point do you decide that your current partner is the best you can do, and that by settling down with them you’re not going to miss out on an even better prospect?
First written about by Martin Gardner in a 1960 issue of Scientific American, the theory goes like this: in your life you’ve met a set number of potential partners, so it’s a question of choosing which is best. But, confusingly, they all arrive at different times in your life, and once dispensed with it’s difficult to go back and retrieve things.
Essentially, this is a game of chance – but as with most things you gamble on, there are certain things you can do to bend the odds in your favour. In this case, work out what your likely number of lifetime suitors would be, reject the first 37% of them, and then settle down with the next person who is a step up on everyone who’s gone beforehand.
There’s obviously still an element of estimation involved here – what do one night stands and failed Tinder meets count as? If you stayed single until you were 70 would you keep dating at the same pace, or just eke out the second half of your life in miserable solitude? And obvious risks to following a statistical model too rigidly – what if your perfect partner crops up in the ‘37%’ phase? And what if you end up sounding ‘a bit Rain Man’ as you dump another woman because of some arbitrary mathematical rule?
Despite this, mathematical analysis (full deconstruction of it here, with equations) shows that – especially over larger numbers of options – this formula gives you the best chance of picking the best bet from a series, not just in relationships but in other scenarios: interviewing people for jobs, buying a car, looking for a home etc. In short, the idea is that whatever order your suitors appear in, by following this 37% rule then you stand a far better chance of picking the right one.
For models where people just wanted to select a ‘pretty good’ option, the point in your dating list where you discount previous suitors and then look for the next best is around the 30% mark (i.e. you stop dating a bit sooner, leaving you with a lower chance of bagging someone great, but also a lower chance of ending up alone).
Conversely, if you want to really hold out for someone absolutely perfect to the point where you don’t mind ending up alone rather than compromising, another mathematical model suggests holding out until around 60% of the way into your dating life.
Admittedly, this all sounds chronically unromantic, but there’s an argument that our society – with its emphasis on romance and feelings – isn’t exactly making a good fist of things at the moment: Britain has the highest divorce rate in the EU with the ONS estimating that overall 42% of marriages now end in divorce.
So maybe you should inject a little more maths into your romantic life. After all, what man or woman doesn’t dream of the love of their life looking deep into their eyes and whispering those magic words: ‘x/n > x/n × [1/(x+1) + … + 1/(n-1)]’?