Sunday, December 17, 2006

Dismaying Story #94: Is It Wrong to Settle?


Dear Andrew,

I wonder how many women out there have 'settled,' meaning they are not in love and never were with their partner, but because of finances or some other reason have settled. Is that why there are a lot of women out there that lose themselves in Harlequin Romances? Is that why they find themselves in chat rooms on the Internet, or worse, at dating sites?

I have two sons of 30 and 32. Both of them have been dating a special girl for several years. I know they are not happy, and when I had a chance to talk to them alone I told them how I felt. I said, son, don't settle! If you're not absolutely in love with this woman, keep going. If your eyes don't light up when she enters the room, keep going. If she is gone for three days and you don't miss her and yearn for her return, keep going. Don't settle! Not only are you being unfair to yourself, you're also doing her an injustice.

That's the advice I gave them.

Sadly, I haven't taken my own advice. For the past 10 years I've been living with a man who has made my life easier. I met him when I began bringing up my own grandkids. He just made it much easier for me to do this. By bringing home a steady paycheck, it enabled me to stay home and bring up these kids. We meet each other's needs and respect each other. He wants someone to come home to at night, cook his meals, and I need someone to help me bring up these kids of 8 and 11.

Our daily talk is of the weather and the kids and bills. He is no great thinker. He's a very simple man with very simple needs. We are opposites; while I need intellectual stimulation, he doesn't. He's content to sit on the couch and watch sci-fi movies.

I know I'm not the only one, and I believe if we did wait for this 'great love' in our life, many of us would be alone.

It could be that because at 21, I met and married a very abusive man and got divorced six years later. Perhaps that has led me to believe there is no such thing as the perfect love, the perfect soul-mate. After that disaster, I decided to be alone. Then at 46 I took on the responsibility of my grandson and met this guy. I was unemployed at the time. We dated, but I broke off the relationship four times. I felt suffocated. Finally I gave in. He just made it so easy and my life was easier knowing that I could handle this responsibility.

I read stories in the Oprah magazine about great marriages and couples who still love each other passionately after twenty or thirty years. A part of me is jealous and the other part doesn't believe it.

I personally don't know any couple that I can say without a doubt are deeply in love and have been for years.

Signed, Taking the Easier Road


Dear Taking the Easier Road,

It would be easy for me to sit here and preach about how no one should settle, and how a deep and abiding love is this sacred thing that everyone can have if they only have faith and are willing to work at it and...

...and I'm not going to do that. Like most of the issues that get thrashed around on this site, this one can be viewed from different directions. Here are a couple (and I'm sure the readers can offer others).

Most everyone would love to be perfectly fit, in wonderful health, have a worry-free supply of well-managed finances, be in a rewarding career that fits your interests and doesn't over-burden your life, have plenty of time to enjoy fulfilling hobbies and interests, and so on. Life has many dimensions and unfortunately not everyone succeeds equally well in all of them.

Some people have a knack for creating wealth, while others scrape by from paycheck to paycheck. Success may come from skill and daring, while happenstance and good fortune seem to smile more on some people than on others.

The same is true for love. Building a relationship works best when people feel good about themselves, are willing to compromise, are compassionate and empathetic, share some commonalities, find each other physically attractive, and on and on. Some part of this is skill -- the ability to get along with people, to communicate clearly, to interpret the intentions of others correctly, etc. -- and there is also luck involved: for example, the people you happen to meet, and whether you feel that zing of attraction when you do.

Many people have negative experiences that inhibit their ability to succeed in this area; they have extra emotional hurdles to overcome because of rape, abuse, or a variety of other types of prior life trauma. In terms of interpersonal skills, some people are simply stronger than others. It is little wonder, then, that not everyone develops a love worthy of a Harlequin romance.

This is not necessarily an excuse to settle, though. For example, your finances might have always been horrid, but you can still decide to hone your money management skills and improve your situation. The same is true for your relationship skills (though I think relationships are more complex than checkbooks, so the learning path is not always as clearly defined).

Your letter implies he is inherently the wrong guy and your choices are (a) stay and settle, or (b) leave and in all likelihood be alone. There are actually more options than that. You could put some work into developing common activities for the two of you to enjoy. Maybe you could entice him into horseback riding, golf, biking, or ballroom dance lessons. Find ways to cheer and giggle together and you just might be surprised what this will do for your attitude toward each other.

Try pretending that he is the love of your life, and act that way for a week or two. You might be amazed what this does to your mind-set and to his behavior toward you. It's highly likely that he is well aware of your ambivalence about him, which makes him less likely to show affection for you, which feeds your negative feelings, and the negative spiral is on. Put a conscious effort into reversing the emotional vibes for a while and the spiral now has a chance to move in the other direction.

Like the old saying goes, if you can't be with the one you love (that is, someone who matches your vision), then love the one you're with.

Here is another way to think of this issue. What if you were alone with a guy on a desert island? Assume there is no chance of ever escaping. Chances are he wouldn't be the guy you would pick if you had thousands to choose from, but he's the one who happened to survive the shipwreck. Isolation is the overriding factor here, which I believe would drive most couples in this situation together.

Many of us become partially isolated for a variety of reasons. Your personal desert island is defined by your abusive prior relationship and the hardships of raising two grandchildren with little or no income. I wouldn't wonder if your current partner has had life challenges of his own (e.g. loneliness). These factors drive the two you together, and ignoring them for some ideal vision of love would be unrealistic.

Does this mean those with hardships should just accept whatever partner they can get? Of course not; we all have our own threshold for when a relationship is not worth keeping. But neither should we beat ourselves up if our love life is partially driven by pragmatic factors.

And for the record, my wife and I have been married for 22 years and we're still crazy about each other. (Is she crazy to put up with me that long? You decide.) What about the rest of you out there? Can you offer a hopeful story to Taking the Easier Road?

All the best,
Andrew

18 comments:

  1. Really agreeing with alot of what you've said, Andrew. I know that when my hubby & I got married, 9 years ago (2 months after our daughter was born), we were "in love". We went through times (not a constant, steady time) where we couldn't stand each other. There have been times I've been tempted to leave. And maybe some would say that I've settled, by staying with somebody that I don't always like. But, we've got a history, and maybe it's more that WE'VE settled down! We do love each other. We're not "in love" in that we're constantly lusting after each other, and vacations from each other are nice. But so is coming home, and knowing that somebody who's familiar with me, and that I'm familiar with, will be crawling into bed next to me at night.

    Life, and love, aren't perfect, and to wait for that perfection means that one will be waiting a long time. I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing to "settle" a little bit, even if it's just "settling down". Settled houses are generally more stable. Settled relationships also, in my view.

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  2. I have always been impressed with the happiness and love that couples in arranged marriages create. Of course some don't work out, but given two decent human beings, I think you can create love and contentment. Love is a human creation, isn't it?

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  3. Love is very deceptive. If we all really have that one soulmate, that ideal person in mind, how do you know that when you meet him/her that this person will consider you their ideal?

    Marriage probably began for pragmatic reasons as much as it did for love reasons.

    And then look at the many cultures which have arranged marriages. First comes marriage, then comes love they say. Nothing wrong with that, methinks.

    These relationships need to be built on values, purpose, mutual benefit. Sometimes two people can love each other deeply but find that they are destructive to one another.

    A strong feeling of attraction does not necessarily mean two people are right for one another.

    There is much to live for other than romantic love. If it is there, we should cherish it. If it is not there, then it does not have to be our aim to hunt for it. Life is short and we need to do what we feel is right.

    I think in many cases, a relationship requires effort and sacrifice. I think we have to be prepared to make sacrifices for that significant other.

    When my parents are gone, who will be there who can take care of me? That person I can completely trust? And whom will I be able to return that total trust and care to? I hope it will be my wife.

    Trust? Care? Sacrifice?

    Seems like the line between pragmatism and love is not as rigid as we may have thought.

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  4. I've been with men with whom I shared much more passion than my husband, from whom I received more intellectual stimulation, and with whom I had more obvious things in common. I've pined over guys in a way that I never have over my husband. But at the end of the day, I truly consider him my soulmate in a deep, inexplicable way that surpasses passion and intellect and going hiking together. Some people might think I settled if they knew that my sexual fantasies are usually about one of those exes, or that there are other men that I call to go hiking or canoeing together. I can't imagine coming home to anyone else though. In a world full of people, one guy doesn't have to fulfill your every need & I would guess there are few who could.

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  5. Andrew, I think you just gave her the perfect advice. I really do.

    I kind of thought for awhile that I had settled. I married a really good man. But he's not exciting. The boyfriend I had prior to meeting my husband was exciting but not reliable. I married using common sense but I didn't feel the same rush toward my husband that I had toward my old boyfriend and I was kind of unhappy for a little while.

    But then I got real. I started thinking about what life would be like if I married the "exciting" guy and realized I would be miserable. It would have been a disaster.

    I took some time to take a good hard look at my husband and I realized how lucky I am. He's not only a good man, but he loves me and the kids without reservation. I don't have to guess if he's going to be there for us, he just is. He's smart, funny, charming and good looking to boot. I just needed to take the time and notice it.

    Since then our marriage has been a lot more fun. I think he see's the difference in me and can feel that I appreicate him. We talk more, do more activities together and basically have learned to enjoy each other. I'm glad I didn't let my selfishness create more distance between us. My life would be a lot less fullfilling without him in it.

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  6. Anonymous3:48 AM

    to each his own but, much like this woman mentioned, when i am with someone i 'settle' with (and until my last relationship this was the case each and every time) i feel suffocated. i cannot 'settle' for a long time.

    but if you can and if you honestly believe this is the best for you who are we (or anyone else) to tell you not to? in a way we all settle cause it's true, nothing is ever perfect. if the relationship is to go on there's gotta be some compromise and in some people's view that might be a settlement. however, the key is to never compromise more than you are capable.

    for example, i don't want my house clean all the time. while i would rather it was, the sight of my boyfriend's socks on the bed does not make me sick to my stomache and i can take it. it's a kind of a compromise, but it's one that is easy to make for me. i also don't mind the fact that he spends a lot of time on his computer - i like to have my time reading a book. i don't mind the fact that we don't go out much - i would like to go out more, but i always have something to do inside anyway. these are compromises - but for me they are easy.

    you apparently don't mind not being in love - don't say that you do, cause if you would you wouldn't have stayed so long. yes, you would rather you were, but this is a compromise that's easy for you probably because you weren't in love much in your life. it's one compromise i wouldn't make (not after real love came along), but it's not mine to...

    if this is what you want, hang on to it. don't let other people and stupid movies tell you what you should want. if you really were bothered by it you would have left the day you realized it.

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  7. Andrew, I think that was very balanced advice (as always!)

    Taking the easier road,

    I think you are right in some ways and maybe not in others.

    I agree with you that there are probably not too many marriages out there in which both partners are 'soulmates' - at least by my definition of soulmates (ie best friends, lovers, completely in tune with each other and deeply intimate). I think for one person to be 'everything' to another like that must be quite rare. (I myself sometimes wonder if people who say they are each others' soulmates are *truly* so amazingly compatible...or are they just positive thinkers?!)

    However, having previously been in relationship where the man was smart, kind, funny, supportive but simply didn't inspire me, didn't make my heart skip a beat when I saw him across the room, didn't make me feel that 'zing'....well, I am SO glad I didn't settle down with him.

    My husband is not my soulmate. We`are good friends, but I wouldn't say we are totally in tune with each other. However, after 10 years together, I still find him very attractive, I enjoy talking to him and I find him interesting (sometimes beyond understanding, but definitely always interesting!). If I want someone to listen really intently to a small problem I may have, I talk to my girlfriends. But my husband is my biggest supporter when push comes to shove, and I adore him. 'Soulmate' or not!

    So whether we should 'settle' or not? I guess almost everyone 'settles' to some extent, because no partner is ever perfect. It's all a matter of degrees.

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  8. Oh, I cannot agree with what you have said:

    "Try pretending that he is the love of your life, and act that way for a week or two. You might be amazed what this does to your mind-set and to his behavior toward you."

    This exact thing is what got me into so much trouble. After my first husband and I had separated and divorced, I looked long and hard at that relationship and my indifference towards him in the end. It was disheartening, and I vowed to never again do that to another human being.

    I met a new man. We got along alright, enjoyed many of the same activities. But, I broke things off with him. I was so unsure. But, I missed him, missed the companionship. So I asked him to give me another chance. He did, but he made it very clear that I had hurt him.....so, I started to lay it on thick. I told him how much I loved him, I told everyone around me how much I loved him. Every day. He started to become indifferent to me, abusive in the way of pushing me aside. Still, I "pretended" he was the love of my life. I had his son. Things didn't improve. Until now, when I finally admit that there is no love, no relationship, no nothing. I asked him to leave.

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  9. "Pretending" that he is the love of your life doesn't mean trying to delude yourself into thinking it's so. The woman who wrote in made it pretty clear that her husband was not abusive and was not resisting her, which is a big difference.

    I bailed on my last relationship too fast. We were both kind if new at it and panicked. I had at least some idea that that was what I was doing and, in retrospect, I should have been more patient and done a little more pretending. Nothing he did or didn't do was that bad; we were just young. I shouldn't and wouldn't have thrown myself at him, though. He wasn't ready to be what I needed him to be but he was a good guy and, with a little more age, experience, and practice, had a lot of potential.

    I don't know if he would have turned out to be The One or not. I guess I'll chalk it up to a learning experience.

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  10. Iris: I'm glad you shared your story because that is an interesting wrinkle (though I'm sorry you had to live through that - it sounds like no fun at all). Notice I use the word "try," which means it may or may not work. In my experience, the vast majority of people will respond in kind. If you are loving and giving to your partner, you will most often get that back in spades. If you treat him (or her) with indifference, then you will tend to recieve the same. So I stand by my advice -- try treating him well for a while and see what that does to the dynamic between the two of you.
    Now ... if you get back the kind of response you experienced, then you know it's time to show his sorry butt to the curb for good.
    Happily, though, most people respond positively to being treated well.

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  11. This article was written for me. But so was the one directly beneath it! I wasn't going to post to this one... because all I could think to say was BINGO! It hit THAT close to home! BUT... then I read the one below ... and I can tell you that MY person is my husband! And that every single solitary year in December I want a divorce! This would be because I am married to a scrooge, and I am an ever joyously Christmas fanatic! He HATES me in December! And I HATE him in December! And I honestly DO want a divorce... every single year! But I know January is right around the corner... and if I can just make it that far without SAYING the words... we'll make it for at least ONE MORE YEAR!

    Thank you Andrew... as always you have some wonderful advice. And so do some of your readers! And I'm going to try really HARD to keep my thoughts and opinions to myself AGAIN this season!

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  12. You are spot on, Andrew! People need to work as hard at their marriages (relationships) as they do at divorce. I truly am married to the man who feels like an extension of my very body. If he were to die, half of me would die with him. We have worked hard at communication and the love has just gone on and on ----fifty three years and no stopping now. Some people just don't want the other person when they are too available. If this man were to walk out today, --- he would suddenly become much more attractive. I agree that she should try to find some things that she really likes about this man and treat him as if she really loves him. Trade him a night of football in front of the tube in exchange for a night out at a concert. Show some enthusiasm, for goodness sakes.

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  13. Anonymous1:51 PM

    Andrew, you hit the nail on the head. I don’t like Doctor Laura for a lot of reasons, but I agree with her statement that love is a behavior, not an emotion. If I am a world traveler and my spouse is a lay about sluggard and we have diametrically apposed viewpoints on all aspects of life, then I have settled. However, if there is common ground and we both have a love for equal things, love becomes a matter of dedication and focus. My wife and I have been together for 27 years, married for 23. We met when we were kids (18 and 17) and have been together ever since. Through good and bad, richer and poorer, sickness and health we have stayed together and worked on our relationship. We are happier today then ever and our love/sex life is wonderful. We look for the good in each other and understand that if we focus on the differences we will be separate, but embrace he good stuff and we do miss each other when we are apart. We have raised a wonderful 15 year old son who knows his parents love and respect one another. We fight, we make up…we know life is life and not always rosy. Bottom line, we could have spent our lives wondering if we sold ourselves short or settled because we had few other relationships, but when we look at how miserable the rest of the world seems to be, we are grateful for one another. Good and happy marriages don’t just happen, it’s all about attitude and ACTING as if, even if sometimes it feels false. Happily, I have not had to that in many years. What I settled for is the knowledge I am deleriously happy with a woman I am proud to grow old with.

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  14. If a person is unhappy, for whatever reason, no amount of pretending is ever going to make it better.

    Cut your losses, get out of unhappy situations and get on with living.

    Life it too short to spend it with someone you do not have an emotional and physical spark with. Find someone to be happy with........period.

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  15. Anonymous10:30 AM

    Love is participatory. I've been in a similar situation for eight years and the fact that he has enabled and helped me to raise my nieces, in this case, speaks volumes to me about "love as a verb", as my mother calls it. If I have to look a little harder for things we can do together, I'm glad to do it.

    Popular culture sells the idea of "chemistry" and of being swept away by overpowering emotions, and that just doesn't happen for/to everybody, nor does it necessarily mean a couple is compatible or a relationship will last. Maybe I'm just jaded.

    Maybe she should leave and maybe she shouldn't. That's up to her. It's not a one-size-fits-all answer.

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  16. Anonymous11:30 AM

    I have to say something, I really do. Iris, I used to think like you and I am a lonely and resentful woman due to it. I thought the world owed me a life, that it was somebody else’s job to make me happy and keep me that way. After three failed marriages and becoming estranged from my children, I sought help from a therapist who asked me to see my part in why I failed at my relationships. I refused. It was always somebody else’s fault. I always had emotional and physical sparks in the beginning, that was the best part and I felt alive and good. Then life became life and the novelty of the new thing would wear off and I would start getting impatient and moody. I wanted it back, I wanted the new feelings and the sexual attraction and the flowers and the excitement, but after a few years it would becomes too ordinary for me. So I would cheat or scold or do things that made everybody’s life miserable. Even my kids got tired me demanding they make my life interesting and I let people know when I was disappointed and bored. So, after three marriages and my kids not calling, I found myself over fifty, not very attractive any more and unable to get a man that could give me the thrills I needed to feel the way I thought they should make me feel. So I saw the shrink, she tried to help me and I refused to see it. Funny thing, all three of my ex husbands remarried and all three stayed married to their new wives and have great relationships, my kids all are married and the only one who has trouble is my daughter. She said to me, he just doesn’t do it for me anymore, I'm bored. That hit me like a ton of bricks. Today I'm sixty, alone and realize that if I had realized it was as much my job to keep the spark alive as the others in my life, I probably would still be with husband number 1. I know now that an attitude of life is too short, so move on...moved me right into a life alone. Iris, please take the advice of someone who has gone there and pays the price every day. Unhappiness is only in our minds and unless he is abusive, cheats or is a drunk...he's keeper and will love you as much as you love him. Men seem to be that way.

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  17. I have been married for 35 years and it was an arranged marriage--mostly, and I so agree with what Andrew says.
    i want to add though, that for any sort of happiness, one has to take responsibility for one's life and one's happiness. there have been times in the 35 years when I have felt that life was ho hum, times when i couldn't stand my husband, but on the whole it is really so comfortable to be with someone who has known you for so many years, who (very important to me)shares your values and still worries about you.

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  18. Wow! I struggle with this so much myself. I'm a lesbian, and have only had 3 girlfriends, so I don't have experience with marriage (other than owning a home and living with someone for ten years)or with lots of ups and downs.

    Basically I've dated two women who were decent to me, who generally made some effort to make the relationship work, who I think loved me, and one who I really felt "in love" with, who was cheating on her boyfriend at the time, and who claimed to feel "in love" with me, and was either lying (I'm extremely naive, but working on it, slowly) or simply meant something so different by that that there was really no communication at all.

    Now I am left wondering if I can feel that "in love" feeling with someone who treats me decently and offers the potential for a relationship. I think maybe that what I think of as "in love" is actually the adrenaline rush of dealing with someone who is crazy and mean.

    I think with my last girlfriend, we could have developed the sort of long term love some marriages have. I don't get butterflies in my stomach every time I think of her, I'm pretty sure I never did. I've never really pined for her, and I don't feel like we're "soulmates" - but I really like spending time with her, and feel comfortable around her. Sometimes I wonder if I was stupid to let her go.
    But then I wonder if I was just more impressed than I should have been to date someone who wasn't mean to me.

    How do you figure it all out?

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