Like many of my clients, I have overthought the experience of romantic love.
I have stayed up countless nights tossing and turning, considering what I was and was not getting from the person I was lying beside.
Like my clients, I have ended (many) relationships on the gamble that there was someone better suited for me. Someone more artistic, someone more intellectual, someone more established, someone different…
I also potentially ended those relationships just due to the sleep deprivation that developed due to overthinking.
It’s obvious to say that you wouldn’t become a therapist who specializes in the realms of love if you hadn’t spent a significant amount of time considering and contemplating romantic love.
Therefore, I understand my clients’ questioning and curiosities when the honeymoon period ends, when the reality of the relationship sets in, and when the tempting questioning of…settling…surfaces.
Settling. The scariest word in the realm of love.
This word is so scary because it goes against the culture messaging that we have received that there is a “soul mate” out there for you, that there is a “perfect” person, or that if you kiss enough frogs you will find the “one.” Your other half.
As a therapist who has spoken to hundreds of clients about love, I want to let you know that I have yet to meet a client who describes their partner in any of those terms.
Because the truth is relationships are messy.
They are hard. They take work.
The conception that you will find someone who fits perfectly places a pressure on the relationship that can suffocate its growth and lead you back to swiping right and left—with the hope that this time, you will find someone who is just “right.” Someone who won’t feel like settling.
However, if you want a romantic relationship to last, there will be some aspect of settling.
There will be a settling with, which is different than settling for someone.
If you are unsure of your ability to discern if the person you’re dating is an authentic and amazing fit for you, or if your commitment to them is a sign you’ve given up and have accepted second best—these words are for you.
Acceptance: Settling For
I cannot tell you how many humans I have dated off of the potential of what the relationship could be in the future.
When they graduate from “blah blah” they will have the time and resources to invest in our relationship. When they achieve “this” and “that” they will be able to settle into their sense of self and be present for me. When they go to their therapist and realize that part of their past, they will acknowledge how patient I have been. When they do “X,” “Y,” and “Z,” then I will be able to have the relationship I am desiring from them. And on, and on, and on, and on.
However, dating someone off of where you anticipate them to be emotionally, socially, economically, physically, or psychologically, two years, five years, or even a decade from now is your way of invalidating your present moment experience that is saying that something right now is not working.
If you find yourself in a place of making up excuses or narratives around the growth or development your partner is needing to make for you to feel secure, sure, or stable in the relationship, then you are settling. You are ignoring your present moment experience and instead choosing to live in the realm of fantasy where you have created a fictional version of the person you are fondling at night. No judgement. I have done it. I have done it many times.
And after spending years dating people off of the potential of who they could be when they moved cities, went to therapy, graduated, got that job, or sobered up…I can tell you with full assurance that being in the reality always ends up being better than fantasy.
Coming back to reality may hurt but…fantasies always end.
And I think you would prefer to write that ending, rather than have a dramatic ending.
Dramatic endings are what happen when you deceive yourself about who you are with.
No personal experience there—of course.
Acceptance: Settling With
You know you are settling with someone when there are parts of your partner you don’t like.
Maybe you don’t like that they are studying every night.
Maybe you don’t like that they are stressed about job applications.
Maybe you don’t like holding space for them to process their emotions regularly.
But you accept it. You accept them where they are in their journey. You acknowledge them.
You may ask for behaviour modifications, like:
“Hey, could we place the studying on pause tonight?”
“Hey, I see you are stressed but I also need some of your attention.”
“Hey, maybe a therapist would be better for this job than me.”
You admire and respect their qualities without thinking they need a complete upgrade.
The Biggest Difference: You are not trying to change your partner.
Your Gut: Settling For
I always direct my clients to listen to their gut. If you feel anxious. If you feel insecure. If you feel unsure. Something is off. You don’t need to know more than that. If you feel calm, secure, and assured everywhere else in your life but lack that consistency of feeling when in relationship with this human, then they probably are not the human for you.
And do you really want your “person” to be the person who makes you feel so uneasy?
Honour that something doesn’t feel right. Honour your intuition. Your body is speaking to you.
Acceptance: Settling With
You feel a sense of ease. You feel a sense of peace. Maybe even a sense of boredom too?
Hot and heavy feelings of love don’t last forever.
The closer you get to someone, the more settled you feel around them. This doesn’t mean your partner won’t do things that won’t disrupt the sense of ease, it just means that the majority of time, you feel secure. Shopping for socks together on a Saturday night is a good thing, a sweet one; it means you are attached.
The Biggest Difference: The level of consistency in how you feel.
R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Settling For
It feels stingy to even think about the relationships I stayed in where I was being disrespected, but the honest truth is I have stayed in many relationships where I was being treated poorly.
From having sexual boundaries violated, being verbally violated, being stood up, being cheated on (multiple times), being deceived, or having them show up unannounced in the middle of the night. I, like many of my clients, have struggled to be respected in romantic relationships.
Therefore, I understand how subtle disrespect can start, until it becomes blatantly obvious.
That is why I tell my clients today that if they feel humiliated, ignored, devalued, minimized, placated, or “crazy,” that they need to start considering what role they want the relationship to have in the rest of their lives. Because someone who respects us really cares about their impact on us. This is why the mental rationalization of “they don’t really mean it” doesn’t hold much value. The impact was what it was. You are entitled to how you feel. And a partner who really cares will honour their impact.
That being said, if the relationship moves out of the realm of disrespect and into abuse, the abusive partner will spin all of this around to somehow make you honour their feelings of hurt. You become the disrespected one—yet again.
How they do this is magic.
Therefore, notice what happens and who they become when you name feeling disrespected.
A respectful partner making a mistake will correct. Someone disrespectful and potentially abusive—will use this experience to further disrespect you.
R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Settling With
When someone respects you, you don’t really question if they do. You know they do. You know it in how they attend to your text messages, you know it in the follow-up of plans, you know it in how they respond to you verbally, you know it in their curiosity toward your emotions, you know it in how they treat you.
Even if you disagree with your partner, if someone respects you, they still respect your differing perspectives.
When you are settling with someone, they listen, they share, they care, they validate you, they emote with you, they stay with you—regardless of how opposing your opinions may be.
The Biggest Difference: You always remain equals.
The Future: Settling For
You want kids, they don’t want kids—so you stay because it is all okay today?
You want marriage, they don’t believe in monogamy—so you stay because, hey, it is working out today?
If your future self wouldn’t be happy with the present moment relationship status, then you are overlooking deal breakers and red flags.
The Future: Settling With
They want marriage. You want marriage.
But neither of you want it today.
They want kiddos. You want kiddos.
But you agree right now isn’t the time.
You have the same relationship goals.
You see each other living the same type of life in the future—maybe not together, but you share a vision of the life you each desire. You know each other’s deal breakers. You respect them. You stay honest about anything that changes.
The Biggest Difference: You imagine the same type of life for your individual future selves.
Your Reasons: Settling For
Since I know it is hard to be honest here, I will say the thing first.
I have dated and stayed with someone based on the thought process that I was at the age where I “should” be getting married. I thought that I was past the age of “fun” and that it was time for the next step—and I guessed the next step was happening with them because they were my partner.
Therefore, you know you are settling for someone if you are staying because you have been dating for five years or 15, are afraid of dating again, or are concerned about all that “wasted time.”
You have not wasted time by staying in a relationship.
There is no such thing as wasted time as long as you are learning.
Your Reasons: Settling With
You want them. You can rattle off all of their amazing traits—while also holding their awkward and less admirable tendencies, like cooking to Russian political podcasts. You know the things that you admire and respect about them.
They may drive you crazy at times, but you know you always want to drive with them through life.