Several years ago, I began to notice thoroughly modern realities about my friends’ dating and relationship lives. The more you talk to people, the more themes tend to emerge until you’re hit with an aha! moment. Some realities seemed related:
Most of us want to commit to find great love.
Relationship dynamics and timelines are increasingly messy today.
We abhor “settling” (whatever that means).
First, we enter the timeline. Oh, how that timeline affects love and relationships. I could talk all day about how men and women typically have different versions of the timeline (hey, biological clock!), how college and career delay major commitments, how changing life circumstances can speed or slow your trajectory.
But today, I’ll keep it short and sweet: Everyone is on a different timeline, and that great love must fall along a place in your timeline when you can juggle a strong relationship and all your other life goals. This is where settling comes into play.
I remember sitting down to dinner with a friend and batting around the concept of “settling.” What does it mean? How do you determine if you’re compatible enough with your partner to build a life together? She was considering marriage; I was considering her questions, over and over.
What does it mean? How do you determine if you’re compatible enough with your partner to build a life together?
The concept of settling comes up more often these days, because the landscape of dating and maturing has changed so much. Adults in their 20s and 30s, sometimes even 40s, are still on the figuring-it-out bandwagon. They’re still putting their careers in place, still playing the field, and still determining what they’re looking for in a long-term partner.
Most people feel they need to test the dating market — because OMG, the options! I think modern, pre-marriage singles try to employ some incarnation of what University College London mathematician Hannah Fry refers to as “optimal stopping theory,” as to not take themselves off the market too soon.
“Figuring it out” is a process that takes time and perspective, so the concept of “settling” does not exist in a vacuum. It’s a concept that takes into account the entire trajectory of a person’s life: If you don’t focus on your work life early on, at least until major decisions are made, how can you expect your career to blossom? If you don’t know what your life will look like in five or 10 years, how can you choose the right person to complement it forever? If you don’t know who’s out there on the market, how can you decide who’s right for you? (Gah. ALL THE QUESTIONS.)
Eventually, I arrived at an answer about what it means to settle, and it’s one I still tell friends to this day: If it feels like settling, it is. It’s just that simple.
If it feels like settling, it is.
Now, I don’t think millennials and Gen-Xers are “too picky” or “too idealistic,” as some might suggest. I do think they want to feel sure of their choices in a world that insists on invoking a young-wild-free FOMO (aka fear of missing out) effect — and, yes, they hate the idea of settling.
You have to be in the right position to recognize that person and feel certain that you’ve found “the one” with whom you can create a happy future. If the dynamics are wrong, you’re too unsure to make a call, or you have too many life decisions to make, you might feel like you’re in danger of settling. Eliminating that uncertainty is our goal here today. And honestly, after existing in a chaotic relationship culture, sometimes you need a little more guidance in your decision-making process.
So, how do you make sure you’re not settling? How do you know if the person you’re dating could be your great love? This two-question litmus test should produce two “yes” answers.
#1: Does this connection feel rare and different?
Never sacrifice chemistry for “safety” — which isn’t safe at all. No significant other is a sure thing, but the surest thing is someone with whom you are deeply compatible and connected.
I know. Dating can be such a wasteland that you might be tempted to stay in a relationship simply because the other person is willing to commit to you. Relationships feel scarce, and you don’t want to throw away a good thing — especially when this person keeps showing up for you. In a landscape of ghosting and benching and “bread-crumbing,” someone who is cool with labels and dedicates significant time to the relationship can feel like a tiny miracle.
These are good things. They just aren’t enough.
I’m too much of a realist to believe in love at first sight. But I do believe in the undeniable click of connection. That person you meet and grow so excited about that you eventually have to silence your mind, because you think “this might be it” and you don’t want to jinx it. A relationship worth investing in should feel hard to sacrifice… not easy to drift away from and wonder what else is out there.
#2: Does this person make me better?
I’ve talked to tons of couples. Some couples have literally built empires together. Other couples are simply a traditional, supportive partnership. I will not define “better” for you; your definition is all that matters. However, the person should help take you closer to the person you ultimately want to be — or perhaps even show you life as it could be, which may be greater than what you ever imagined for yourself.
Among the career set, relationships that survive and thrive are usually ones attuned toward growth. The right person helps you accomplish, discover, do, and understand more than you ever would have on your own.
This second question exists to keep your delusions at bay. Someone with whom you feel you “click” could also destroy you. Maybe it’s the wrong time, or maybe that person doesn’t know how to be in a real relationship with honesty and vulnerability. In either case, you could feel really connected to someone who makes you cry all the time or who stops you from pushing forward in your life — in terms of career, friends, interests, and so on. Those are the most dangerous people. That’s why the person in question needs to prompt a yes to both questions.
So many variables can cloud your ability to recognize the right person: Bad timing, FOMO, a particularly tough season of your life, a particularly tough season of that person’s life, friends’ and family’s opinions, expectations… I could go on and on.
When your scared to let go, ask yourself: Is it because on paper, I’m afraid I won’t find anyone better? Or is it because in terms of connection, I’m afraid I won’t find anyone better?
Life is a series of strategic movements, as is love. Make the best decisions you can, but most importantly, trust your gut.
Jenna Birch is a freelance journalist who has spent the last several years researching dating and relationships. Her first book, The Love Gap, will be published in January 2018.
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