One of the top pieces of advice you’ll give or receive when it comes to relationships: “Don’t ever settle.” Let me tell you something, sister: Everybody settles.
Let’s take my friend Deidra. When I met her she had been married for twenty-something years to the same man and she wanted out. While her ex made a good living, and was stable and reliable, they never had a close, loving partnership. She divorced him and set out on a quest to find a replacement, which she did within two years. I’d never had one husband, so when she found a replacement that quickly, I wondered what the hell? The new man makes a modest living. Deidra would prefer that he made more money, but lets that slide. After all, he’s tall. Deidra was dead set on tall this time around. When Deidra and the new man got engaged, the ring wasn’t what she’d hoped for, the proposal (with his family around) was lame, and she complains that he’s stingy. But she loves him.
Fast forward a year. They’ve moved in together, but haven’t yet set a date for the nuptials. They’ve reached the part of the relationship where things aren’t all great sex and cozy Sunday mornings. One Saturday morning I get a text message from her: “He’s been fucking around.” The tall Adonis had been cheating on her. He had slept with an ex-girlfriend at least once and had been having (at least) a torrid texting relationship with a stripper. Deidra threw him out. After a few months, he moved back in. Deidra didn’t want to be alone. She loved him. And she thought they could work through their issues and it wouldn’t happen again. I hope she’s right.
I don’t know whether Deidra made the right decision. I’m pretty sure she doesn’t know whether she made the right decision. But I do think this qualifies as settling.
Then there’s my neighbor, Penny. She’s in her 60s and she’s married to John. It’s a second marriage for them both. John is never home. For the past two years he’s been living in Hong Kong (amongst other places), chasing the next big business deal that’s going to make them rich. They’re already well off, but John is a gambler. He likes the thrill and the risk of cashing in on multi-million (billion?) dollar business deals. In the process, John has depleted most of their retirement savings, and has left Penny on her own 99% of the time. She won’t leave him. Is she settling?
My friend Morgan got married for the first time in her early 50s. She’s been married less than a year, and was ecstatic to finally have tied the knot. Nevertheless, she tells me over and over how hard marriage is. During the first six months of their marriage, her husband complained about her facial expressions, the way she dressed, and how she wore her hair. He’s an engineer and gets up at 5:00 a.m. She’s a free-lance writer and wants to sleep until 7:00. His 23 year-old son moved in with them, even though he has a job and was fully capable of supporting himself. Morgan has no children, so this was quite an adjustment. Morgan was over 50 and wanted to be married. Surely she wasn’t settling.
I have another friend who’s very social and active and didn’t want children. She married a guy who hates parties, likes to sleep until noon, and has a daughter from a previous marriage. She says if something happens to him, she won’t get married again. I wonder if she settled.
The point is, everybody settles. Everybody. If they say they didn’t settle, they’re lying. No one will ever fit every item on your checklist. The question is, are the checklist items on which you’re compromising the right items?
Mack loves me. No doubt about that. Would he have cheated on me? I don’t know. Would he have left me for another woman? I don’t think so. Would he have depleted our savings on some crazy business deal? No. Would he have wandered off to Asia and left me alone for years at a time? No. Would he have complained about my facial expressions, how I dress, if I put on weight, if my hair was too short? No. Would his children create problems for us? No. He has no children. Would I be settling because Mack has no income? Yes. Could we have worked through our issues if I had let him move in and we had behaved like grown-ups when it came time to discuss areas of conflict? Maybe. But I worried if we hadn’t, where would that have left Mack? I always thought the way for Mack and I to make it was to run off and elope. We’d be married. We’d have to work it out. Yes, you can get out of a marriage. But do you think the girl who’s afraid to get married because she believes it is for life would get divorced in an irrational fit of pique?
But Mack wouldn’t re-propose after the first time we broke off the engagement. And I wouldn’t let him move in. So we settled. We settled on breaking up.