Should You Just "Settle"? The Art of Finding a Mate

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Lori Gottlieb, Author, Marry Him

Author Lori Gottlieb's new book, Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough, has caused a furor among readers. The controversy -- Is the book advising women to settle for too little, or is it simply advising women to reconsider what they value most in a mate?

Here Ms. Gottlieb discusses the nuances of "settling."

Define “settling.”

Let me clarify that I’m not using “settling” literally – you should absolutely be truly in love with and attracted to your partner, and you must have physical and emotional chemistry.  I’m using it instead to get women to think about what really matters for romantic happiness and fulfillment – and what doesn’t. 

In a survey I cite in the book, women and men were asked if they’d be happy if they got 80 percent of everything they want in a partner.  Women said “No, that’s settling.”  Men said, “Yes, that’s a catch!”  So how close to our ideal is close enough that we’ll be happy?  That’s what I explore in MARRY HIM.

Why should a woman settle? 

She shouldn’t, if you define it to mean being with somebody you’re not in love with.  MARRY HIM isn’t about lowering your expectations – it’s about having high expectations, but about the things that truly matter so you can fall in love – real love, deep love that lasts.  I’m not asking women to stop looking for Mr. Right – I’m suggesting that we change our sometimes rigid perception of who Mr. Right is.  People can surprise you.

Does this advice apply to adult women of all ages, or just to women of a certain age? 

In MARRY HIM, I interviewed a rabbi and asked, “Would you be giving me this advice if I were 31?”  And he said, “Absolutely!  In fact, I’d be giving you this advice at 21, because the younger you are, the more you’re going to be dazzled by the wrong things – the things that won’t matter at all when you’re married to this person and going through day-to-day life together.”

You present the sense that time is of the essence for women hoping to find a partner. Does this urgency apply to women who want a partner in life, but who may not feel the need to be married or have children? Can they wait longer? Are there different rules for these women?  

Marriage or no marriage, kids or no kids, the fact is – and this isn’t my opinion, these are other people’s data I cite in the book – it’s harder to find a partner the older you get.  But – and this important – I’m not saying, "Oh, now that you’re older, panic and lower your standards."  Not at all!  I’m saying that, at any age, look for the qualities that are important, and let go of the ones that aren’t.  And if you figure out what those qualities are when you’re 30, you have a much easier time finding the person closer to your ideal than if it doesn’t sink in until you’re, say, 40 (like I was when I started working on this book).

Have you settled?

Absolutely not.  Instead, I opened up to the possibility that maybe I was wrong that there was a certain type of guy who could make me happy.  The guy who became my boyfriend was 5’6” and I used to think, in a knee-jerk way, “I won’t be attracted to somebody who’s 5’6”, so why bother even meeting him?”  Then I’d click over to another profile.  But I did meet him, and it turned out I was very attracted to him and the height made no difference in terms of how sexy I thought he was. 

I also used to tell myself, “I’m a writer, I need to be with someone creative – not a numbers guy.”  And he wasn’t an artist or a writer, but he was incredibly creative in other ways – and we never lacked for conversation or commonalities.  So what I might have assumed would be settling, sight-unseen, was actually not settling at all.  Turns out a guy who’s 5’6” and not in a creative field can be a much better match for me and make me a lot happier than the 5’10” writers I’ve dated in the past.

How can a woman know when she’s over-settling?

Well, that’s what a full 318 pages in the book explore.  So I won’t even attempt to sum it up in one sentence here!

Do you think it’s possible that being alone is better than settling?

Being alone is much better than being with someone you aren’t into.  No question.  But again, my book is about finding someone you’re totally into, by letting go of our preconceived notions of what that guy must be like.

Does your advice apply to men too? (I’m thinking of those men who are single and lonely – but who continue to go for girls who are “out of their league” and would never reciprocate their affections.)

I do talk about men and what they’re unnecessarily picky about.  There’s an entire chapter in the book about people who are “maximizers” (people who need the absolute best in any given thing or person) and people who are “satisficers” (people who have high, but realistic, standards) – these are terms coined by Barry Schwartz, a professor at Swarthmore who studies the way we make choices.  And Schwartz found in his studies that the maximizers are less happy than the satisficers, in all areas of life.  But while men and women can both be maximizers, women tend to be maximizers more than men in the dating world.  Which, of course, leads to unhappiness in the dating world.

Are there areas in a relationship where you just should not settle?

Again, you should never settle for somebody you’re not in love with.  But the point of MARRY HIM is to look at what we consider deal-breakers (he has kids from a previous marriage, he’s not literary enough, etc.) and separate those out from the things that really matter for long-term happiness (shared values, ability to make each other laugh, ability to communicate well with each other, kindness, empathy, “getting” each other, etc.).  Many experts told me that we’ve been too picky about the things that don’t matter, and not picky enough about the things that do!

Does this idea of settling apply to other areas of one’s life – are we all just asking for and expecting too much these days?

We do live in a culture that focuses on “having it all” and “getting the best” – whatever that means.  And this goes back to Barry Schwartz and that chapter in MARRY HIM on maximizers and satisficers.    Most people are happiest getting most of what they want – they don’t need “everything” to be happy.

Lori Gottlieb is a bestselling author and journalist whose work has appeared in publications such as The New York Times, The Atlantic, Time, People, and many more.  She is also a commentator for NPR’s All Things Considered and a contributor to PRI’s This American Life.

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  • Never settle for any partnership that isn't going to make you happy.

    Posted by kkeck67, 15 March 2010.

  • The simple truths always seem to take the longest to learn. If someone said they had the perfect job with the perfect boss and made the perfect salary, we would think they were nuts. But, so often we expect our romantic partner to be the perfect person, who is the perfect match, who is perfect for us. It's just not real, and it's a set up for disappointment. We are all just doing the best we can in an inperfect world, but that's what's nice. We both get to be real people loving and supporting each other as much as we can, and I think that's about as perfect as it gets!

    Posted by Tricia, 15 March 2010.

  • My friends have often told me that I needed to lower my standards, which I didn't really understand until I read this article. It really just takes looking at the men I date with a different perspective;making the shift from looking at the outside things to looking at the things that really matter. I am learning that the qualities that really matter are on the inside and usually can't be spotted from across the room.

    Posted by momba, 15 March 2010.

  • Having been married once before for 13 years (at the very young age of 20) and remarried at 35 for 12 years and counting, I have found that love and attraction are necessary, but core values need to match, along with the ability to laugh, respect and support each other. As for "settling", I do believe that in most cases there are people out there who are probably a better match than the one(s) we end up marrying but these people are rare to find. Remember that marriage is not about just love, but commitment and an end goal. Too often, people become as easily replaced as a car or a job.

    Posted by mimi s, 14 March 2010.

  • Comment from Renee Swan Willis on “Marry Him”:

    I agree wholeheartedly with the author’s perspective and the quotes from contributors to the book, “Marry Him”. The term “settling” is used loosely in today’s society to mean lots of things to many people. To one person it may mean giving up on your own values just to have a mate regardless of how out of sync they may be with your values/standards. I take settling to mean taking a serious review of what values, opinions and habits really matter to you both the most and minimizing the areas that could be aligned at a later date or overlooked all together. Then make a determination if this relationship will work for both parties and identify it as a compromise or a dictatorship? I agree with the author when she states to never align yourself with someone you are not in love with for the sake of being with someone. You do not need bad company to have a bad day – bad days are coming regardless, you need someone to show up with solutions and assistance to both parties life’s issues. Both parties need to know the mate will be there for them. In most cases time proves perceptions. Someone said one day you are the statue and another day you are the pigeon. That’s life, that’s relationships and it is better to have a likeminded partner with you to get through it. Maturity and life’s experiences help you focus on things that truly matter. One key is to “Know Yourself First” before you connect with a mate. In my youth, the fantasies over shadowed reality and made decision making more difficult. At around 30 I knew what seeing clearly meant in relationships. If we can truly look at ourselves we will soon realize just how imperfect we are and just how unrealistic being a maximizer truly is. Focusing on satisfiers makes more logical sense, is more attainable and is closer to what we bring to the table. We may be a maximizer in one area and a satisfier in another area, that’s realistic. As we identify like minded people, we will be less critical and more realistic on the values that truly matter for the long term. We women are valuable assets, we are keepers and we are looking for valuable keepers to lock arms with, to grow old with, to enjoy life and finally a great mate to weather the joys and storms of life. Whether you are a maximizer or a satisfier be true to yourself and spend some time getting to know yourself as you blossom into a more beautiful person everyday.

    Posted by krystal21, 8 March 2010.

  • Each of us is complete, whole and marvelous on our own. Women, in particular, are force fed the notion someone else is necessary to "complete" them. Not true. You, your essence in its entirety, is already perfectly complete. If you choose to have a life partner or a partner for now, fine; if not, that's fine, too.

    Posted by barbz, 8 March 2010.

  • I always believe in being happy in the now. Never expect anyone or anything to make you happy.

    Posted by Catherine, 8 March 2010.

  • as i get older, i often consider "settling" but something stops me every time. i listen to that inner voice. better to be happy and alone then partnered and lonely.

    Posted by donna, 8 March 2010.

  • I agree with the above article. The terminology "settling" used in this article, in my own opinion, merely means the characteristics you are looking for in a mate, which will add to your own happiness .. the truly vital things .. not the little things, many of which can be worked on anyway .. and if the love, commitment, and willingness to work at a relationship in order to achieve the success desired, I believe the relationship has a tremendous amount of potential for a happy and harmonious one.

    Posted by jrpeterson, 8 March 2010.

  • To paraphrase some comedian whose name is escaping me, marriage is when a man and a woman look at each other and decide, I'll never be able to do better than this!

    But seriously. Some of my girlfriends have interpreted that as an offensive or negative comment (which, let's face it, all comedy is borne out of tragedies), but think about it: it's really true, isn't it. If/when I meet the man I decide to be with for the rest of my life, I will but so happy that I'll look at him and say the same thing - although I'll append it with 'nor do I want to!'

    (I just hope I'm not saying that five years from now while he's laying on the couch, scratching his overweight gut hanging out, remote in hand, watching old Man Show reruns. That would then be a much different interpretation. :)

    Posted by karenedwards99, 8 March 2010.