What We’re All Getting Wrong About ‘Settling’ in a Relationship, According to a Relationship Therapist

Photo: Getty Images / Marko Geber
"Don't settle" is one of the most common pieces of relationship advice. But in my experience as a modern love therapist, a lot of us aren’t quite sure what “settling” actually entails.

In my practice, I hear people struggle to differentiate between accepting imperfections in another versus signing on for someone who might be “less” than they deserve. On the one hand, being in a healthy relationship requires surrendering to who the other person is and knowing that people can change only if they are impelled to, not at your behest. On the other hand, thriving long-term relationships require negotiation and understanding that each person cannot be fulfilled by the relationship at all times. In any dyad, you have your needs, your partner has theirs, and the relationship has its own set of needs. Misalignment between these needs is to be expected and normal.

Let’s clear up misconceptions about words that often get overplayed in our dating conversations: settling, complacency (what keeps you stuck) and acceptance (what frees you up); and explore three of the real reasons why you might be so afraid about “settling.”

Many of us misunderstand what settling in a relationship truly is

There is widespread misperception that settling means taking less than you deserve. In reality, settling just means that you accepted something you didn't like and didn't say anything about it.

As mentioned earlier, it’s natural for there to be some disconnect between your needs and the needs of your partner—let alone, relationship doubts—you’re different people, after all. That disconnect doesn’t automatically signal settling for “less.” In fact, it’s not settling if you’re in a relationship where you can talk about the longings you have that aren't met and have these yearnings recognized and discussed in a constructive way. (This doesn’t mean you should get everything you want–needs must be recognized in a relationship, but not necessarily met within it.)

We often position settling as living with a potential lack in another (they don’t do x, y, and z enough), rather than taking responsibility ourselves to advocate, with intelligence and respect, for what we want and truly care about inside and outside of the relationship.

To that end, there is a distinct difference between complacency and acceptance—and that factors into how we understand "settling." Complacency takes away our will to act or make a change—it is noticing a problem and choosing to ignore it. Whereas acceptance is about making an active choice to pay attention to the way things are and simply be with them for long enough to learn more about them. Once we accept where we are, we have what we need to choose what we want to become.

Writer and creator Dan Savage describes this difference as “the price of admission,” noting that you cannot have a long-term relationship with someone unless you are willing to pay a “price” in the form of acceptance. “There is no settling down without some settling for. There is no long-term relationship not just putting up with your partner’s flaws, but accepting them and then pretending they aren’t there.” This doesn’t mean that you have to like all aspects of your partner, but it does mean that you choose to live with them.

In this scenario, complacency is knowing that you can’t live with something and avoiding this fact to remain in the relationship. Acceptance is noticing things as they are and learning to open your heart and mind in order to live better with them.

So now that we understand what settling really is, why are people so afraid of the pop culture version of settling—that idea that you're taking less than you deserve in a relationship?

What drives our fear of settling in a relationship

1. Fear of commitment

Worrying about settling may really be a fear of commitment in disguise. "Am I with the right person?" is a question most of us have asked ourselves at one point in a relationship. When we are worrying about the other’s suitability, we aren’t spending time with our own fears about making a big choice and living with it. Even if a part of you wants to commit, it can still be daunting to go all in. A 2018 survey by dating site eHarmony found that the top three reasons why millennials in particular fear commitmentare: uncertainty over whether a partner was right for them (39 percent), fear of opening up and potentially being hurt again (38 percent), and a lack of confidence in their own ability to maintain a successful relationship (35 percent).

The fear of settling can keep us feeling stagnant, disconnected, and paralyzed with anxiety. Stuckness is caused by the friction between forward moving energy (the part of us that wants to leap) and stalling energy (the part of us that is afraid to). In order to create movement, we must spend less time and energy on the other person and place more care and attention on getting to know the parts of us that are in conflict.

2. Denial of your needs

If you have a hard time accepting another person for who they are—and spend energy trying to fix, change, or rescue them—you may actually be fighting the reality that you can’t accept them as they are and therefore they are not for you. You may be trying to make them into who you need them to be, so that you don’t have to let go of them or to be alone with the feelings associated with having unmet needs.

When another person becomes your “work” or a project to take on, you are not in a relationship with them; you are in a relationship with the potential of them. This is all an effort to avoid the fact that you feel deprived, and as long as you’re not in touch with these needs, you can remain in agonizing hope that if you can help them change, you can finally get your needs met.

This is an indicator that you may need to grieve what it’s been like, perhaps even before this person came into your life, to live without the things your soul has longed for. It is only once you are in this reality, that you can begin to change it.

3. Fear about your own worth

It is important to differentiate between relationship anxiety and intuition. If you are holding onto the belief that if you were with someone else, the struggles would disappear, you may be trying to alleviate yourself from taking responsibility for your own destiny.

Therapist and relationship anxiety expert Sheryl Paul, MA, reminds us that at the root of the questions, "Is my partner good enough, attractive enough, smart enough, witty enough?” is "Am I enough?" Instead of looking at doubt as a red flag, she recommends asking yourself: "How do I feel about my partner when my heart is open and I am not in an anxious state?"

In moments when we are worried about another person being right, it can be helpful to examine the areas where we may feel not quite right. For example, if you’re worried about their emotional availability, examine the ways you might not be. If you’re concerned that they can’t meet your needs, ask yourself about your own efforts to make sure your needs are met.

Once we are paying attention to our own wounds and needs, we feel more empowered to address them. Focusing on the lack in another is a futile effort and often leaves us feeling disconnected from ourselves and our partner. The work is deciding what you can live with and what you can’t live without, and then searching for the people that show willingness and openness to learning.

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