It's Saturday night and I’m sitting opposite a date. Said date – we’ll call him Cliff for the sake of anonymity – has spent the evening sharing the intricacies of his job, friends and interests over a slightly too cold bottle of red at a slightly too cold street food market (the joys of dating in a pandemic). He’s kind and interesting and has a pretty funny anecdote involving an ABBA costume, a wrought iron fence and a trip to A&E but all I can think about as the evening draws to a close is that it’s our third date and Cliff is probably going to want to at least kiss me goodbye. Since I am not attracted to him one bit, I can’t imagine anything worse.
So why have I gone on three dates with a guy I don’t fancy? The answer is something that single women have been dealing with for decades: I gave in to the people telling me I was 'too picky'.
Certain people in my life have told me time and time again that I’m too picky when it comes to dating and for some reason, this time I listened. It was only as I stood on the Tube escalator, my ears still hot from my awkward goodbye with Cliff, that I vowed never to do so again.
The concept of being too picky has been used to browbeat women into settling down for longer than I can remember. 'Too picky' implies that you should lower your standards. 'Too picky' suggests that, at best, the partner you hope to meet is a fantasy and, at worst, that you are a beggar and therefore absolutely cannot be a chooser.
As a single woman, I’ve heard this phrase with increasing regularity and insistence since I passed the 30 mark two years ago and, having believed it for a time, it's something I have come to loathe. I hate it not just because it implies that coupledom is the ultimate and only worthy goal but also because it shames women into questioning their own judgement. At the most dangerous end of the spectrum, it encourages them to ignore red flags.
Ultimately, it’s another form of gaslighting.
Sukaina Benzakour, 25, is another case in point. "I was having dinner with my family and my aunt asked me when I am going to meet someone," she recalls. "My mum then interrupted, telling my aunt how picky I was and that if I didn’t stop, I would never get married. Being told I’m 'too picky' makes me feel like I’m doing something wrong; like I should change myself or lower my standards so someone will like me."
With 2020 feeling like a lost year for many, there is a sense of urgency to make up for lost dating time, leaving women at more risk than ever before of succumbing to these sorts of negative beliefs.
"I’ve been told in the past that I’m too picky when it comes to choosing my significant other, to the point where I changed what I was looking for and settled," says model, actor and therapist Asha Adutwim, 35.
It’s an experience she knows never to repeat and advises others against, too. "You know what you like, just like you know who you are and what you have to offer, so why should you settle for anything at the expense of your happiness, peace and love?"
We can’t explore the topic without addressing the elephant in the room. The ‘too picky’ label is used most often – dare I say it – by those whose own relationships have all the appeal of a rollercoaster ride on a hangover.
"I think it stems from people being in unsatisfactory relationships themselves," agrees Catherine*, 33. "They 'pick' a mediocre partner and think everyone should just do the same. It’s previously made me question whether I should aim lower but as I’ve gotten older and been in and out of relationships that haven’t been right, I’ve realized I would rather wait a little longer than settle for something."
The fact that lots of the people giving women this label have yet to experience the delights of modern dating can’t be a coincidence, says Jessica*, 33. "The people who call me picky are those who met their partner in their early 20s and can’t see why it’s so hard dating and finding someone. They’ve never known dating apps – it’s an entirely different ball game."
So the question is, in a world that mostly benefits couples and is addicted to displays of romance, how can you maintain your standards and not let that ‘too picky’ label get to you?
For starters, remind yourself that settling and compromising are not the same thing. The first comes from a place of fear; the second, from a place of generosity. The culture of swiping based on looks alone might put us at risk of missing out on some truly great potential partners but it doesn’t mean you should put yourself through three dates with someone totally wrong for you purely because your colleague happened to be looking over your shoulder while you were swiping, clocked the photo of them giving a speech at a wedding and said they 'seemed nice'.
Speaking of 'nice', don’t fall into this trap – particularly if you date men. Someone may be a 'nice person' but that doesn’t mean you have to spend the rest of your life with them. Society has taught us to believe that when men are nice to us, they’ve earned more than just our politeness but it’s not true. 'Nice' isn’t going to cut it when you’re in a place of grief, loss or despair and it’s certainly not going to be enough to get you through those decades of retirement (who am I kidding? We’ll all be working until we’re 93).
It’s also worth remembering that the people who are quick to tell you that you’re ‘too picky’ are often the same people who buy wholeheartedly into societal ideals that no longer necessarily work for everyone. Don’t believe me? Then let me ask you this: if someone tried to convince you to invest in a car that broke down 42% of the time, would you take their advice?
Whether or not you believe in that version of a 'happy ever after', there is one truth in particular which you should hold onto when you’ve been shamed for being 'too picky' – especially if you’re something of a people pleaser.
As Glennon Doyle says in her feminist memoir, Untamed: "There is no such thing as one way liberation." If you lower your standards and settle for a relationship that isn’t right for you, you’re ultimately condemning the other person to do the same.
*Names have been changed