A Better Way to Think About "Settling" in Relationships

Rankings are for college football, not love and romance

Posted Jan 29, 2012

When I hear people talking about their relationships, all too often they say things like, "he's fine, but I think I could do better," or "am I settling for her?" There are many reasons we think like this, such as the belief that we will find "the one" if we keep looking—and the related anxiety about losing the romantic equivalent of "musical chairs" and ending up with the wrong person (or no person at all). But I want to focus on another reason: our impulse to measure the traits of potential partners and use them to make comparisons among them, which can lead us to worry that we've sold ourselves short and "settled" for less than we deserve.

In a way, these two reasons are opposites. One says that there is just one person we're "meant" to be with, and the other says everybody's about the same—but some are just a little better than others. But there isn't a preordained "one" for each of us, and potential partners are not so similar that we can just compare them based on measurable attributes, like characters in a role-playing game. ("He has physical beauty of 9 but intelligence of 4," or "she has charm of 3 but inner strength of 10.") Most of our traits, whether physical, intellectual, or emotional, are so complex and multifaceted that they can't be summed up in a single number. And even if we could do that, we would have to rank the traits themselves by how much they meant to us: does intelligence count the same as physical beauty? What about honesty, and sense of humor, and kindness?

Of course, we don't even have to assign numbers to traits in order to make comparisons; we can always say simply that person A is smarter than person B, or that person C is better looking than person D. The effect is the same: reducing a person to his or her characteristics and focusing on them instead of appreciating the entire person. (You know, missing the forest for the trees and all that.) Rather than focus on the comparisons and rankings of different people, always looking for  more attractive, more intelligent, or more successful, we should focus on the unique connection that we can make—a connection which is with a whole person, not just a set of characteristics. These characteristics are undeniably important, but they should not be regarded as crucial in themselves; they are aspects of a complex person who cannot be understoood simply as the sum of his or her parts.

To simplify matters further, we can recognize that we don't always reduce people to traits at all. We can judge a person in his or her entirety and still say things like "he isn't good enough" or "I can do better than her." My point is that we shouldn't evaluate potential partners on whether they're good enough, but on whether they're right for us. I've discussed this before, both in terms of judging oneself as right enough for someone rather than good enough, as well as what "right" means in terms of fit. In terms of settling or thinking you can do better, thinking in terms of the right person instead of the best person doesn't deny or dismiss concerns about settling, but puts them in a different light. Rather than representing an idealistic search for "the one," looking for the right person actually incorporates the changes in your life circumstances that lead to concerns about settling in the first place.

Consider what "right" in this context really means: right for who you are at this time and place in your life. Your vision of the right person is going to look a lot different when you're in your early twenties and have not yet carved out your place in the world, than it does when you're in your forties with much of your life on more solid ground. It's not that you "settle" when you're older, but that you're looking at people from the vantage point of being in your experienced forties rather than your naïve twenties. You value different things in a person—remember, traits and characteristics do still matter if considered in the proper light—even if they're things you may not have imagined valuing when you were younger. When you're in your twenties that may sound like settling, but why should you judge the decisions you make in your forties from the viewpoint of who you were in your twenties?

Of course, one reason we're compelled to size other people up and make comparisons is that we do the same to ourselves. Not only is this pointless for the reasons listed above, but it's potentially self-destructive and can sabotage future relationships. It can lead you to think that other people are "out of your league" because you don't rank yourself as highly as you rank them—or it could work the other way if you rank yourself highly and then no one seems good enough for you! Perhaps most insidiously, it lends one a sense of entitlement: "I think I'm an 8, so I deserve someone that's at least a 8."

I'm hesitant to use the concept of desert when it comes to love or happiness (but that's a topic for another day). Suffice it to say that insofar as anybody can be said to deserve love and happiness with another person, it has to be with the right person—and you're not going to find the right person by looking around the corner to see if there might be someone else better. If you're wondering if you can do better than your current partner, then one thing is clear: your partner probably can!


For a categorized list of some of my previous Psychology Today posts, see here.

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