Is Being a Good-Enough Partner Sufficient?
When your partner is not the most romantic of your loves.
Posted Oct 29, 2019
“I married a man who was not the most romantic and athletic of my loves as a young woman, but he was the love of my life.” —A widow
In romantic love, you often settle for less than your dreamed-about romantic partner. The question is, how much “less” can your partner be and still be a sufficiently good partner?
The negative attitude toward being a good-enough partner
“Some people are settling down, some people are settling, and some people refuse to settle for anything less than butterflies.” —Carrie Bradshaw, Sex and the City
Telling your partner that he or she is “good-enough” may be insulting, because “enough” implies moderation and something that can be tolerated but is a far cry from the exciting intensity of media romance. Similarly, you cannot tell your partner: “I love you, darling, even though you are a compromise for me.” The fact is, however, that we often feel this way. Having a good-enough partner implies making some compromises that are contrary to the romantic ideology.
Should we or shouldn’t we, then, aspire for a good-enough partner?
What is enough?
“You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.” —Mae West
“Junk sex is like junk food—not bad enough to avoid, but definitely not good enough to make a steady diet of.” —The Urban Dictionary
“Enough” can be considered “as much as necessary.” Ideal love, however, seems to be about getting much more than that. In ideal love, enough is not enough, and you can’t get enough of your partner—the better she is, the more you want of her. Nevertheless, some people are not fortunate enough to have even a good-enough partner—they might merely have a “just-enough” partner or a “barely enough” partner. Consequently, many people settle for a romantic partner who is no good for them at all.
The issue becomes more complex, as someone who initially seems barely good enough can turn out to be the most suitable partner. It is possible that with age and experience, it is somewhat easier to accommodate ourselves to what we have and to be satisfied with it. Indeed, Confucius said that it was only when he reached age 70 that “I could follow the dictates of my own heart; for what I desired no longer overstepped the boundaries of right.”
Satisfaction, sufficiency, and maximization in romance
“What happens when perfection isn't good enough?” —Scott Westerfeld
“My husband said that he rates the quality of our relation as 7 (out of 10). When I first heard this, I was devastated. Today, 10 years later, I got used to it and am certainly satisfied with our relation.” —A woman married for 30 years
Herbert Simon (1979) combined the words “satisfy” and “suffice” and came up with “satisfice,” a term used to express an adequate solution rather than one that maximizes utility. A “satisficing” solution can be the best choice when we take into account the cost of looking for alternatives. In Simon’s view, since the human capacity for knowledge is so limited, we would do well to take a realistic approach to seeking optimal solutions, which are not necessarily those that maximize their possible gains. Simon’s considerations are relevant to the romantic realm, in which there are further complications concerning our inability to predict the partner’s attitude in the long term, as well as our response to that attitude. This makes finding a good-enough partner even more important.
Relevant to the romantic realm is Harry Frankfurt’s rejection of the “doctrine of economic egalitarianism,” which states that it is desirable for everyone to have the same amount of income and wealth. In his view, termed the “doctrine of sufficiency,” what is morally important is that everyone should have enough. When following (economic) egalitarianism, people focus their attention on what others have, rather than on what is intrinsically valuable for them. For Frankfurt, being content is a matter of one’s attitude toward what she has and not toward what others have. Thus, Frankfurt claims, “suppose that a man deeply and happily loves a woman who is altogether worthy. We do not ordinarily criticize the man in such a case just because we think he might have done even better.” A nicer-looking, wiser, and wealthier woman might not be good for you if her attitudes don’t jibe enough with yours. It is not mainly the external, objective, measurable qualities that count in what is good for you, but the interactions between you and the other person (Frankfurt 1987, 39–41).
Barry Schwartz (2004) distinguishes between people who tend to maximize and those whose tendency is to “satisfice.” Schwartz argues that maximizers are hell-bent on making only the best choices; satisficers, for their part, seek to make satisfying choices. Applying Schwartz’s view to the romantic realm, we can say that romantic maximizers are determined to find the “best” romantic partner; romantic satisficers focus on finding the most suitable, or a good-enough, partner. Accordingly, romantic maximizers spend more time making comparisons than satisficers do. Romantic maximizers are more likely to experience regret after a romantic “purchase” and to spend time deliberating about hypothetical romantic alternatives. They tend to feel less positive about their romantic decisions than romantic satisficers do.
The above comments clearly indicate the great value of being satisfied with your own lot—which may not be the best one but is good enough to have a satisfied and fulfilling life.
Good-enough spouse in a personal fulfillment marriage
“Enough is as good as a feast.” —Proverb
Eli Finkel (2017) argues that a new type of personal fulfillment (“self-expressive”) marriage has developed in recent decades in the United States and elsewhere. Among the various features that he attributes to self-fulfilling marriages, the following are the most relevant: (1) reciprocal self-fulfillment, (2) authenticity, (3) time is crucial for development and survival, and (4) pursuing a good-enough marriage is not wrong. He further argues that there is no shame in pursuing a “good enough marriage.” We may aim high in our ideal marriage, but we should have the ability to be satisfied with less than perfect marriages. Constant comparison is lethal to thriving marriages (Finkel, 2017).
Accepting a positive attitude toward a good-enough partner implies that we are content with our partner inasmuch as the person suits us and not necessarily because this person is the most perfect partner in the world. Accordingly, we do not have an active interest in seeking someone else, and we do not see our situation as needing urgent improvement. We are content with our lot, and in the current circumstances, we do not need anyone else. The more we are satisfying with our own situation and activities, the more we tend to be happy with a good enough partner, as we would not expect Mr. Right to fulfill all our needs—some of them we have fulfilled by ourselves. Thus, one survey found that women with Ph.D.s are twice as likely to settle for Mr. Good enough as women with a high school education.
There are important differences between having what someone else has and having enough. In the former, one makes a superficial comparison to others who might be very different from you, and thus what they have is irrelevant. In the latter, it is one’s own attitude that is important, and the satisfaction gained comes primarily from within. Although we cannot avoid making comparisons with others, what counts most in romantic love is the flourishing of our own, unique connection.
“Only those who know when enough is enough, will ever have enough.” —Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
Good romantic compromises include settling for a good-enough relationship, while continuing to try to improve it. When we think of our partner as good enough, we realize what is most valuable for us. This does not mean that people should not aim to increase the profundity and intensity of their romantic relationship, but that such improvement will mainly relate to developing the connection with our current, good-enough partner. As in the story of the pot of gold buried in the garden, sometimes the treasure can be found right at home.
This post is part of my new book, The Arc of Love: How Our Romantic Lives Change over Time (2019).
Ben-Ze’ev, A. (2019). The Arc of Love: How our romantic lives change over time. University of Chicago Press.
Finkel, E. J. (2017). The all-or-nothing marriage. Penguin.
Frankfurt, H. G. (1987). Equality as a moral ideal. Ethics, 98, 21-43.
Schwartz, B. (2004). The paradox of choice. HarperCollins.
Simon, H. A. (1979). Rational decision making in business organizations. The American economic review, 69, 493-513.