When You’re Desperate, It’s Time to Get Picky

September 2, 2009

A few years ago I posed a hypothetical question to my niece, then about 15:

Q: There are two men who love you and want to marry you.

Successful, but perhaps a little dull?

Successful, but perhaps a little dull?

The first guy is a successful lawyer, drives a BMW, is handsome, kind, and worships the ground you walk on. But well, he is perhaps just a bit dull. You know he would be a devoted husband, and a great father, but he doesn’t make you feel weak in the knees. Still, everyone you know thinks you are incredibly lucky. He is a great catch.

Jared Leto, LTR material?

Jared Leto: Adorable, but is he LTR material?

The second guy is a singer songwriter. He drives an old Ford with one wobbly wheel. He is open, affectionate, and crazy about you. He has gorgeous longish hair and big blue eyes. He is romantic, kind, sensitive, impulsive and unpredictable. You are head over heels in love with him. He may be famous one day, but it’s more likely he’ll never have much money.

Who do you choose?

She thought about it for a long while. Eventually she said, “I just don’t think I could do the wobbly wheel.”

When I asked the same question of a graduate student recently, she made the same choice, but came at it from a different angle: “I would marry the lawyer. It sounds like he would treat me well over the long term. I’m afraid the musician would be flaky and unpredictable.”

The truth is, both of these guys represent a compromise. You could do worse, perhaps, than to marry either one of them. Then again, I’d like to think you could do better. In many of my posts, I urge you not to settle, to hold out for the real thing, to stop halfwaying it with Mr. Right Now, and to demand more from your partner than Intimacy Lite. I firmly believe that is the best way for you to be open and available for a truly rewarding relationship when someone really great shows up in your life. But I also understand the downside of saving yourself for something extraordinary. It can take a long time, it’s boring, and very inconvenient. No one enjoys a dry spell.

At Psychology Today, therapist Rom Brafman addresses this question, which often comes up in therapy.

“As a therapist, I can’t imagine encouraging a client to date a compromise. Over the years, I’ve heard many stories from clients who settled for someone who’s “OK, I guess” only to end up regretting their decision: “What was I thinking? I should’ve known better…” But I’ve never heard anyone say, “Boy, I should’ve settled more. I really should’ve lowered my standards.”

Dr. Brafman points out that compromise is an essential life skill, but perhaps one that shouldn’t be applied to selecting relationship partners:

“When people compromise their standards, they do so because of loneliness (e.g. “I really want to be with someone”), time pressure (e.g. “I’m getting older, and time is not my friend”), and opportunity cost (e.g. “If I say ‘No’ to this one, I may not be able to find someone better.”) It comes down to fear: the fear of being lonely, the fear of running out of time, and the fear of missing out on an opportunity. And then it’s no longer about who I’m dating, but it becomes about what I stand to lose.”

He asks his patients to describe the right person for them, someone who is a terrific fit. Why qualities do they have? What do they look like? Once people describe their ideal partner, they express fear of being rejected by that amazing person. You feel thrilled and excited, but what if they don’t feel the same way?

“If you’re being really picky, chances are you’re going to get many more “No’s” than you will “Yes’s.” After all, you’re taking a chance, and the person might already be in a relationship or they might just not be interested. But that’s the whole point: you’re not going for the sure bet.

It basically means taking a leap. You’re going for your dream partner. It’s like what the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard said, you take a leap of faith and you may not make it, but at least you took that leap. And here “not making it” simply means dealing with rejection, which makes us stronger in the long-run anyway.

But being picky instead of operating out of fear becomes a completely different way of thinking about relationships. Instead of trying to find someone who’s going to “work,” you’re searching for someone who’s going to mesmerize you. And if you can get into that spirit, the process itself of finding that person becomes exciting in its own way. Being picky forces you to have high self-esteem and you build a great connection with yourself: you build your own voice of what you want and what works for you.”

When you are at your wits’ end, when you’re tired of being played, lied to, taken for granted and disrespected, that’s when you need to get picky!