THE ARITHMETIC OF REJECTION

By MATTHEW WOLF


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A Response to Randolph Cohen's "The Algebra Of True Love"

Lawyers and mathematicians are the least romantically successful people I know -- perhaps due to their unique blend of narcissism, insecurity, and general obstreperousness. Yet Randolph Cohen would have lawyers take advice from mathematicians on the appropriate timing of one of the most significant events of their lives: marriage.

Imagine a spaced-out number theorist with a wardrobe from That Seventies Show, schmoozing about dating with a slavering litigator who believes compromise is for the weak. It's a match made in hell. As this horrific thought experiment would suggest, Mr. Cohen's "solution" to dating problems won't lead, as he claims, to true love. It will lead to true misery.

Love Does Not Compute, Does Not Compute

Proving that he knows his audience, Mr. Cohen pitches his theory by analogizing the dating process to one in which we are asked to choose among a sequence of bags of money with widely varying values. The analogy would be a dating life in which potential, wildly diverse, partners come along at regular and frequent intervals.

This is unlikely to resemble your dating existence unless your last name is Rodman. Some lucky lawyers' work lives may resemble a choice among bags of money -- or if you're David Boies, a game of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire that you win over and over. But most lawyers, sadly, have dating lives for which the bags-o'-money comparison is woefully inapt.

A more accurate analogy might involve parched Saharan summers where each oasis is actually a mirage. Mr. Cohen's selector may be able to sleep at night knowing that the money bag he just turned down will not be his last. But most young attorneys fear the onset of a sort of dating nuclear winter, where the hypothetical question "Would you date him/her if he/she were your only option?" isn't so hypothetical after all.

Undeterred by this lonely reality, and after explaining some mathematical stuff, Mr. Cohen presents his ultimate conclusion that you should sow your wild oats for seven years and use that time to gain a sense of your romantic prowess ("prowess" meaning your ability to mislead those you desire). Then, as soon as you experience the soul-numbing desperation of your twenty-fifth birthday, you should "marry the first person you know who blows the Best Ex out of the water."

Sidestepping the urgent desire to pun on Mr. Cohen's unfortunate choice of words, I have but one question: How? Just as I am completing my transition from ecto to endo -- just as post-college beer binges start to win the war against a post-college metabolism -- you expect me to go out and find a woman more amazing than that exquisite frosh who slept with me solely because I had a single room and a fake I.D.? For someone in Mr. Cohen's target zone, i.e. older than 'N Sync but younger than the Backstreet Boys, managing expectations seems like a much healthier strategy than trying to best the hormonal bliss of collegiate coitus.

however. For example, even those lucky lawyers whose post-college dating lives are active are still unlikely to enjoy a steady stream of prospects. What about the situation where you've been chasing three prospects for months, only to have them all finally decide that yes, they do want to date you -- but only in an exclusive relationship? And only if you decide to commit right now, this minute?

Here's another problem: How are you supposed to know who your Best Ex is without the benefit of a lengthy period of hindsight? Is a twenty-six-year-old's assessment of who was best among his/her youthful flings to be trusted? That assessment is probably skewed to favor transient qualities over more enduring ones. In their twenties, everyone may have an ex they think of as The One Who Got Away. But in their thirties, many also have an ex they think of as The One I Didn't Appreciate At The Time -- often not the hottest or cutest of our exes, but rather the sweetest or most caring.

Another serious flaw in Mr. Cohen's approach: The bag of money you finally select in Mr. Cohen's world is yours to keep. Regret -- and Mr. Cohen rightly suggests that avoidance of gnawing regret is our most basic romantic impulse -- could only be occasioned by the fear that you could have gotten a little more cash. But if Mr. Cohen's construct operated like the real world of love American style, half of us would have the money snatched from us. Probably right before a major holiday. With much recrimination. And a fundamental unwillingness to acknowledge that your inner child has consistently stolen my inner child's lunch money. But I digress.

The basic problem is this: math and marriage simply do not mix. (I encourage you to look at my checkbook if you doubt it.) Romantic life is utterly unpredictable and Mr. Cohen's efforts are thus doomed to failure. Regret is inevitable, so suck it up.

A Math-Free Solution To Your Romantic Problems

What then must we do?

In light of romantic reality, the old Chicago Machine's exhortation to "vote early, vote often" might be a better approach to romance than Mr. Cohen's. Since mathematicians only get fatter and duller (and, if male, balder, less virile and more flatulent) with age, it would seem to make sense for them and the rest of us to try to snag the person we believe will make the best possible bride or groom at whatever age we meet him or her -- even if that age is younger than twenty-five.

There are other possible strategies, of course. (The Romeo and Juliet approach, for example, obviates any possibility of regret.) Math, however, will not provide the answer. Rather, you must trust your faith, your instincts, and your intuitions to set you on the path to romantic happiness. The only numbers that matter are the years passed together.

Matthew Wolf is a happily (re-)married corporate litigator with Howrey Simon Arnold & White, LLP in Washington, D.C.

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