Let me set the scene for you:
I’ve got a couple* sitting on my couch. I like each one of them very much. I’ve spent a few sessions getting to know them and their relationship. They’ve told me about their complaints, their dissatisfaction, their deep disappointment that their partner has changed or isn’t the person they thought they married. One of them is considering divorce. The other doesn’t want divorce but also doesn’t want to keep going on with these fights and this distance between them.
I say “Your complaints are valid. I hear you and see your frustration and sadness. And I want to suggest that the ideal relationship you had hoped for, the happily ever after, the dream of marital bliss might not happen as you wanted. Your partner isn’t a character from a movie and didn’t walk right out of your dream. S/he is a complicated, flawed, messy, and beautiful person. And s/he may not ever become that perfect person you hope they would be. Taking that reality into consideration, your question now is ‘Is there more good than bad here? Can I make a happy and full life with this person even if s/he isn’t my ideal? Can I love them as they are?’”
One of them says to me “So you’re talking about settling?”
I think for a second and say “Yes.”
I can hear your objections already. You might be thinking “Nice! Some marriage therapist you are! People are coming to you looking for help in how to make their marriage better and you’re suggesting they just settle for what they’ve got?”
Yes, but the romance in settling is so much more than that.
(Note: My suggestion to settle presumes that there is no abuse in the relationship, that neither partner would be physically or emotionally attacked, taken advantage of, degraded, financially isolated, or otherwise hurt by staying in the relationship.)
Our culture sets us up with unrealistic expectations of what marriage relationships are like. From the time we are small we hear the fairy tales, the happily ever after, the person who sweeps you off your feet or completes you or is your other half. All you have to do is find that person, that perfect match, and everything will be roses and candlelight and hot sex. And if you’re not experiencing that ideal, it’s just because you haven’t found the right person yet.
We love a good love story. We love the excitement and romance of falling in love. And we love the intrigue and eroticism of attracting and exploring a new partner.
With the constant bombardment of idealized stories, it’s easy for us to forget that those are all fantasy and not real life. It’s easy for us to leave ourselves a sort of emergency exit in our relationships, not fully committing to the person we’re with because there’s always that chance that The One will come along and then we’ll be truly happy. Or we may become unwilling to accept and accommodate our partner’s flaws and quirks because this isn’t how we think it’s supposed to be.
Reality: Unresolvable conflicts between real people
The reality is that there is no “perfect” in human relationships. It just doesn’t exist. And if you could have someone who always did and said exactly what you wanted, you might become bored and uninterested.
Your partner will always do things that bother you. You will have conflicts that can’t be resolved. A large portion of conflicts couples face are things that don’t have solutions. One of you may be organized and the other not, one of you may be extroverted and the other introverted, one of you may be religious and the other atheist, one of you may have a high libido and the other a lower one. As much as you try to change these things about each other, you’re not likely to succeed. You’ll just spend a lot of time fighting.
The reality is that when we partner with another person, we are two complex individuals coming together. There is no perfect person and no perfect relationship. We will face conflicts that don't have a resolution. Continuing to try to change our partners or continuing to seek our perfect match are not the only options available and not the only ways to find happiness.
The Romance in Settling
When we choose to accept and love our partners as they are—warts and all, good and bad—we open the way for deeper connection and increased intimacy in our relationships. And that’s romanic.
There’s a song by Julieta Venegas, Limon y Sal, that captures this idea perfectly. The song starts with Venegas confessing that there are things she doesn’t like about her partner and then listing some of them. And then she says that the good her partner brings to her exceeds all that bad stuff. And in the chorus she sings “I love you as you are. You don’t need to change anything about yourself.” Her partner makes her happy; being with her partner made her believe in happiness again. That’s romanic.
One of the most romantic things you can do for your partner is to know them, to see all of them, and love them as they are. One of the most intimate things your partner can do for you is to know your weakness, know your insecurities and vulnerabilities, and love you completely. The most romantic things I ever witness are when I see couples settle in this way.
I’ll finish up with the story of another couple* who settled. They were a Mormon couple. When they met and married it was important to them both to marry another member of their church, so that they could get married in the temple and have their family together forever. According to Mormon teachings, this is one of the primary purposes of life and the key to happiness in the next life. Several years later, the wife left the Mormon church. This was extremely difficult on their marriage and led them to seek marriage counseling.
The husband was shattered. His hopes and dreams of heaven were gone without her there with him. And if she wasn’t in the church, he believed she wouldn’t be in heaven with him. This was his purpose in life, everything he’d worked for and dreamt of his whole life. He turned over the question in his mind for months. After coming a decision he said to me, “I’m giving up the surety of that dream. I still have hope, but I don’t know what’s going to happen in the next life. What I do know is that I want to spend my time in this life with my wife.” Even now, thinking about the way this man settled brings me to tears.
Have you experienced the romance in settling? Share your story in the comments below.
*To protect my clients’ privacy, I’m not describing a particular couple here. I’ve had variations of this conversation with many couples. This one is a hypothetical, building from experiences of real people I have worked with.