Settle Up

How To Know When To Cash Out

“Settling down” and “settling for” are not synonymous.

by Meirav Devash
How to work out what you want vs. what you need in a long-term partner.
Nick Dolding/Getty Images

Voltaire was onto something when he said, “Perfect is the enemy of good,” and he never even tried to match with someone on Tinder. When looking for a partner, we’re fully aware that perfection is unattainable, yet research proves we’ve got a sneaking suspicion that something better is always just around the corner. Our relentless pursuit of optimization has crept into our courtships, and many of us carry invisible checklists with us on every date. “Of course, it’s reasonable to have a few criteria that you won’t compromise on, such as wanting children or having some ambition,” says relationship therapist Aimee Hartstein, LCSW. “If you go in with a hard and fast checklist, you may lose out on some great options. When you leave the other criteria open, you cast a much wider net and have a much better chance of happily falling for someone who you never imagined yourself with.”

We’ve been told that accepting anything less than the best is “settling,” which is a great mindset for grading a diamond but a not-so-great way to go about finding a life partner. Here’s a secret: People who compromise aren’t forced to live in unhappy relationships and/or with a cabal of cats. “No one is perfect, but we get to choose what qualities we’re willing to tolerate and what we’re not,” says relationship therapist Anna Aslanian, LMFT. Understand the mission! You’re not looking for the perfect person — you’re finding a partner that’s perfect enough to marry.

What You Want vs. What You Need

Your partner is going to have flaws, and some of them will really annoy you. My husband, for example, is incapable of folding a towel. Together, we’ve lived through health scares, stressful moves, career changes — all the while, I was picking up his damp, crumpled bath towels off the floor. During moments like these, ask yourself what you’ll tolerate to get what you really need. Would I pick up this man’s discarded towel after every shower to get the abundance of respect, support, and affection he showers me with every day? Absolutely.

“It’s important to know what your values are and what your non-negotiable must-haves are,” Aslanian says. “Oftentimes, people get that wrong.”

The tricky part is the traits that attract you aren’t necessarily values-based ones that help a relationship endure. Who hasn’t been seduced by someone’s shapely ass in hot pants or wicked sense of humor? The problem is those fall into the “want” category, not “need.” Even if you find a person that makes you laugh, or twerks like a pro, or rescues animals, or whatever it is you want, you still won’t be happy, she says. Aslanian’s not being a hater — it’s just that you haven’t addressed your core needs, which are values-based. Ask yourself: Are they honest? Do they want to have a family? Do they share your views on deep-rooted issues like religion and finances?

Another good way to figure out what’s most important to you is to examine why you walked away from past relationships. If you broke up with a former partner who said they were ready to commit but never took the next steps — your core value might be a committed, intimate, vulnerable relationship, says Aslanian. If your former partner kept secrets from and betrayed you, one of your core values might be trustworthiness. What if we reframed the term “settling” when it comes to relationships? Instead of accepting less in another person to avoid being alone, we could be settling on our core values, focusing on what’s truly important to us, and letting the small stuff fall into place.

Are You Getting In Your Own Way?

The terms “settling down” and “settling for” are not synonymous. In her practice, Hartstein finds that oftentimes the people who claim they’re waiting for the perfect partner to come along may have fears around intimacy themselves. “By keeping yourself single and alone, you don’t have to take any romantic risks,” she says. Truly settling for a partner who isn’t the right fit means “making much more serious compromises about the future path that your life is taking, like being with someone who doesn’t treat you very well or wants different things in life than you do,” she says.

Your Gut Knows The Truth

Lists are great tools for staying organized, but they generally don’t offer insights about how your person makes you feel. At a certain point, you need to get out of your head and focus on your heart and gut feelings. Aslanian suggests asking yourself: Do I feel safe? Do I feel comfortable? Do I feel loved? Can I see myself with this person in two years, three, or five years? Do I feel like I could one day be old and drink coffee with them and still enjoy their company?

Alternatively, am I tensed up? Am I worried about whether they’re going call tomorrow or decide they’re too good for me? Do I really enjoy their personality, or are they just hot? If you feel like you can be yourself around them, have a great time together, and you feel safe and cared for, that’s more valuable that whatever was on your checklist.

The One Thing You Should Never Compromise On

A successful relationship won’t come from lowering your standards, but from having mature, reasonable expectations. “When you choose a partner, you’re choosing a set of problems, flaws, and traits you may not like,” Aslanian says. Your person wasn’t created to your specifications with the sole purpose of making you happy. They have their own unique likes, dislikes, core needs, and life experiences — and what’s important to them is just as valid as what’s important to you.

There are 90 billion reasons to fight with your partner — maybe you’re organized and they go with the flow; you’re ready to start a family, but they’re only ready for a monstera plant; you’re a spender and they’re a saver. None of these issues is necessarily a deal-breaker if you’re both open to learning how to create a solution. But if your partner isn’t willing to work on themselves or do anything constructive to help manage conflict, they may be a lost cause. “You can’t change somebody else,” Aslanian says. “You just can’t do the work for them.”

How To Find Your “Perfect Enough” Partner In Real Life

  1. Be open-minded. “Go out on a second date with almost everyone who you were willing to go out with the first time,” Hartstein says. “Obviously if the chemistry is lousy or the person seems like a jerk, don’t bother. But in many cases, it takes more than one date for two people to relax enough to show their best selves — if the first date wasn’t a mess, try a second date and see what happens.”
  2. Narrow down your needs. “I ask clients to write down 10 things they’re looking for in a partner, to really put a lot of thought into it,” Aslanian says. “Out of those, I ask them to choose only three.” Her merciless elimination round makes it easier to identify and pinpoint your true needs. “A lot of times, people write down things they think they should want because they were told they should by their parents, their friends, magazines, or TV,” she says. Those tend to fall away by the time you narrow down to three.
  3. Don’t let great chemistry lead you astray. When choosing a partner, your initial smokin’ hot chemistry is, sadly, not indicative of anything. “We can be attracted to someone who’s completely wrong for us,” Aslanian says. “There’s an attraction and dopamine rush, that feeling of being almost high on love. Many good, healthy relationships start with great physical chemistry, but it’s important not to confuse it with love.” She recommends enjoying that time but waiting until the honeymoon period’s over — and you can see each other for who you really are — to make any long-term plans.
  4. Know when to walk away. When you’re not getting your core needs met even after talking about your dissatisfaction with your partner, bail. Sometimes people stay in relationships hoping to change their partner. (This is a complete waste of time.) If they can’t give you what you need and you remain in a situation that doesn’t fulfill you, things won’t get better on their own. These fundamental differences don’t become less important over time. Be prepared to have the same arguments month after month, year after year.