At the conclusion of a co-worker’s recent wedding, the minister looked at the beaming young couple and tweaked the tradition in a way that grabbed everyone’s attention: Not “you may now kiss the bride,” but “you may now kiss the bride for the first time.”
The 20-something, devoutly Christian bride and groom, Sam and Sarah, had had a courtship and engagement of the usual duration. But they had chosen to wait until marriage not only to make love, but to kiss in the way of lovers.
I realize this may strike some of you not as sweet or charming, but hopelessly outdated in a black-and-white, suffocating 1950s way. That’s one way to view it.
My first reaction was of the dumbfounded and admittedly superficial kind: What if one or both of them are lousy kissers? What if they are sexually incompatible? What if they find out, too late, that this hugely important part of their relationship is unsatisfying?
But then, this: How would they know? They have made a choice for each other, a choice each considers irrevocable. The destructive potential of comparison — a thought process so familiar that it happens reflexively — has been preempted, assuming that they have similarly inoculated themselves from cultural idealizations of romantic love. “Better” or “worse” can find no purchase on that ground.
Used selectively and rationally, comparison is a powerful tool that helps us make wise choices between discrete options. But too often, it morphs into a way of life, a vehicle for perpetual second-guessing and dissatisfaction. We want to know always if we could have done better, or if we still might.
The notion that too many choices is a bad thing was popularized by psychologist Barry Schwartz in his 2003 book The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less. But it wasn’t new, even then. A Psychology Today article by Carlin Flora published a year later references an earlier study showing that “people are happier with irrevocable choices. In our minds, a dress with a no-return policy fits beautifully, while one that could easily be exchanged just doesn’t hang as nicely. In a world full of options and exit plans, each choice is tinged with the fear that we could have found something better.”
Nowhere is the compulsion to compare more destructive than in relationship, at least if you’re interested in the lasting kind. I am struck by a comment never-married singer Linda Ronstadt made in 1974 about the difficulty of finding an acceptable mate. “He’s real kind but isn’t inspired musically,” she told a reporter, “and then you meet somebody else that’s just so inspired musically that he just takes your breath away, but he’s such a moron, such a maniac, that you can’t get along with him.”
So many of us are ever seeking perfection, in matters large and small. I see it regularly in the footwear department of my upscale outdoor store, where customers are faced with a plethora of choices: different lasts, different styles, different features, different colors.
“You might as well try on a few more,” I heard a husband tell his wife, who until just then was pleased in every way with the boot she was wearing. “It can’t do any harm.”
I used to believe that, too. Yet when footwear customers who initially were satisfied keep trying on shoes, they typically leave the store defeated and empty-handed, boxes of now unsatisfactory choices left scattered in their wake.
If you are a First-World resident of even ordinary means, every product and service presents a dizzying array of choices. I strive always to do my homework, to think it through; I weigh the options. And then again. More than once, I have found myself paralyzed in the toothpaste aisle: Do I want the whitening formula? The anti-plaque? Gel, or paste? Natural, or not so? Mint, or some other flavor? And what about cost?
Some years ago, a woman I was dating witnessed this tortuous process as I tried to settle on a new vacuum cleaner. After the requisite in-depth research, I made my choice, brought it home and tried it out. It worked well enough, but was somehow disappointing in a way I can’t now clearly remember.
So I repackaged it, took it back and got another, which was perhaps a little better in some ways, perhaps a little worse in others and, on balance, likely no better than the first. Resigned, I kept it, but wondered, still, if I could done better, if a choice I wasn’t smart enough to make — the right comparison, cleanly executed – would have satisfied me.
When my girlfriend and I broke up several years later — the delight we felt in one another, and the love, eroded by what wasn’t quite right between us — she looked at me wryly. “Some day,” she said, “you’re going to learn to keep the vacuum.”
She was funny, and smart, and athletic, and beautiful. But she was — we were — somehow disappointing in a way I can’t now clearly remember.
I think of her, and of the vacuum cleaner, and of other choices I’ve made that have been crippled — and sometimes, outright poisoned — by comparison run rampant. I’m older now, and marginally wiser. I have come to see contentment as a kind of quietly gleaming treasure that can readily be tarnished by always wondering if you can do better. I know that continually testing satisfaction — whether in the choice of a product, or a mate — can do harm. I see now that “good enough” is not so much an expression of resignation as it is a reflection of wisdom.
So I think of Sam and Sarah, and I wish them every happiness. They have made a promising start, I think. In declaring each other fully and deeply good enough, they have cast their lot with contentment. I hope for them many satisfying years: a quietly gleaming life and love, safe from the corrosion of comparison.
This post originally ran on July 20, 2015; I’m re-publishing it to commemorate Sam and Sarah’s first anniversary.