Looking for Love

The search for “the one” can be fraught with surprises, second-guesses, and aggravating self-doubt.


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How are we supposed to find love? For me, as for many people, this felt like a fraught question when I was single. Love is not like a lost object, after all: We can’t locate it by retracing our steps or thoroughly searching our surroundings. But it is also not like the solution to a problem; we may think about it for a very long time, we may imagine it in vivid detail, but we will never find it inside our own mind. It is something like a missing person — in fact, it is quite literally a missing person — but the search area in which we must look for it is essentially unbounded. It could be waiting at the local coffee shop, or three states away, or on staff at a hospital in Senegal, or at a holiday party you’re not very enthusiastic about attending 40 cold, rainy blocks from home. To make matters worse, in the majority of cases, it was last seen, by you, never.

This is a predicament: How are we supposed to find someone we haven’t met and don’t know anything about? Love, before we encounter it, is like an idea we’ve never had before. We may try to fumble our way toward it, but its eventual manifestation is a mystery. This is one of its many delights: Love often takes us by surprise, in when and where it shows up and, above all, in who embodies it. But, from the perspective of those who are still searching for romance, it is also a serious problem. Although love is one of the most wonderful things any of us can ever hope to find in life, there is no obvious way to look for it.

Some people, accordingly, believe we shouldn’t even try. For reasons philosophical, practical, or tactical, they hold that actively searching for a partner is pointless — that it makes us seem desperate, that love is never where we go looking for it anyway, that it is most likely to appear when we are happy and fulfilled and busy living life on our own terms. Others believe that finding love, like achieving any other goal, requires effort and rewards dedication: that you should “put yourself out there,” that you should “say yes to everything,” that, by the law of large numbers, enough bad dates — false targets, as it were — will eventually produce a sublime one.

I have spent most of my life in the camp that regards love as, basically, a meteorite — something that comes to us suddenly and out of nowhere; something that we find, when and if we do, by sheer luck. I don’t mean to say that I believe in this model of finding love to the exclusion of all others, but I know why I prefer it. For one thing, it reflects a fundamental truth about love, which is that it is out of our control. There are few things in life harder to explain than why we fall for this person and not that one, and few things harder to alter by sheer force of will. For another, it means that there is no reason to organize one’s life around the pursuit of love and, therefore, no reason not to organize it around work or friends or travel or volunteering or whatever else you choose to do with your time — an expansive, autonomous, fulfilling vision of life for which I am grateful, not least because it has historically been denied to women.

Finally, and perhaps most saliently, I myself have only ever found love by pure chance. At one point, single and well into my 30s, it occurred to me that the things that made me happy in the short term — holing up at home reading, heading out alone on long trail runs, vanishing into the quiet of my work — were never going to lead me to the things I wanted in the long term: a partner, children, a home full of people I loved. That was a sobering realization. By that stage of my life, the solitude I cherished was already shading more and more often into loneliness, and with increasing frequency I found myself warding off sadness about not having a family of my own. Now, for the first time, I felt real fear that I would never find one.

And so, breaking with my own -lifelong habit, I began actively looking for romance, recruiting friends and family to the cause and testing the waters of online dating. The former were sympathetic and took my request seriously, but they were also useless. One of them eventually told me, wisely, that my closest friends would never help me find a partner; if they knew that person, they would have already introduced us. Love lurked in more distant circles, an asteroid that needed to be nudged out of its orbit; she suggested that I enlist the help of new friends, friends of friends, colleagues, casual acquaintances — excellent advice that I didn’t have the heart to follow.

My extremely short-lived foray into online dating, meanwhile, produced results laughably far afield of love. In its mixture of comedy, futility, and awkwardness, the experience was like getting halfway into a pair of jeans in a dressing room and realizing that they are wildly too large or small. It did not take long to give up and revert to my former habit of stifling my sadness and ignoring the problem.

But I am hardly a statistically significant sample, and I have watched those around me find love in all kinds of ways: by searching for it; despite searching for it elsewhere; despite not searching for it at all. I have one friend who responded to a breakup by going on 50 first dates, and another who responded by moving home to be near her family and focus on them and on work. Both are now happily married. I know people who quash with steely finality any attempt to help them find love, and others who mobilize an entire search party to scour the landscape for a likely partner. And I know people who search for love as I briefly tried to do, and as we search for so many things these days: online, via any of the countless companies that have proliferated for that purpose.

How those companies themselves generate matches is its own mystery, since the algorithms they use are proprietary. One way or another, though, they codify what is obvious about looking for love: to turn up a potential mate, we must somehow narrow the search area, impose upon the giant pool of possibilities some restrictions with respect to geography or physiology or taste in TV shows or preferences about household pets. One difficulty with doing so, as almost anyone who has ever tried online dating can tell you, is that no matter how numerous and specific such constraints may be, they will still screen in plenty of terrible matches. But the more serious problem is the opposite one: Those same constraints, the ones that we ourselves select, may screen out someone perfect — because, in matters of love, we have no real idea of what we are looking for. Or, rather, we have a great many ideas, any of which may be wrong.

This is a problem, because it is surprisingly difficult to recognize something when we have a mistaken idea of it in our head. We know this from everyday experience, as when we scan our shelves for a book and fail to find it because we are picturing an orange cover when in fact it is blue. In much the same fashion, we sometimes initially overlook our future partner. One of the great tropes of falling in love — in books, in movies, in life — is that we failed to notice it even though it was right there in front of us. We may have known the person, even for years, but barely registered her existence; we may have been good friends, even best friends, yet never considered the possibility of anything more. We may even have felt passionately about the right person but in the wrong direction, as Elizabeth Bennet, in Pride and Prejudice, initially despised Mr. Darcy.

The quest for romance, in other words, raises the question of not just how to look for love, but how to know when we have found it. The answer doesn’t seem particularly mysterious when two people are already acquainted; over time, they get to know each other better and come to feel that they belong together. In such cases, love emerges, like a photograph, from exposure. But in other, stranger cases, it materializes more like the flash. Of all the enigmatic things about love (its origins, its purpose, the strange and dictatorial selection process over which we, its subjects, have so little say), perhaps the most baffling one is this: Sometimes, we seem to know right away that we have found it — even if it turns out to be nothing like what we were looking for, even if we weren’t really looking for it at all.


Kathryn Schulz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning staff writer at The New Yorker and author of the memoir Lost & Found.

This article appears in the January/February 2023 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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