17»

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

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!

  • http://FT.com/ VJ

    Silly this: “But I’ve never heard anyone say, “Boy, I should’ve settled more. I really should’ve lowered my standards.”

    Yeah. In science, this is known as 'self selection bias'. Freud knew this from his mostly wealthy & middle class patients. Somehow, many types of people become socially 'invisible', and never quite walk in the door of your average therapist. Not everyone has good insurance, and most insurance does not often cover 'relationship issues/problems'. And many of those folks? Might not still be with us due to their disastrous 'bad choices' in men/women. They might be in jail, homeless, no longer 'in country', or so burdened with illness, poverty & dependent children that they cannot afford health care for themselves. Or still worse. Let alone having the luxury of seeing a therapist to ask politely 'what went wrong' with my partner choices? By then even the dimmest among them might have an inkling about 'what went wrong'. (But not much before, tragically!)

    Now you often don't get, 'Gee I should have settled more…' But just as often, you DO get, 'Gee, I wish I had given 'ol Charlie another chance, he seems to be doing just fine now. Or Yeah, Billy really DID want to get married like he said, and he married that Cindy right after he begged me to go to Vegas with him… He too seems to be doing well all these years later.'

    I'll tell you that there's probably not a single person over the age of 35 w/o 2 or more of these 'what might have been's that they think about often, some more serious than others. But always, it's the path not taken, for one reason or another. (This was a cause célèbre in the Atlantic awhile back with Lori Gottlieb's much commented upon 'Marry Him!' article. Soon to be a major Motion Picture too? )

    http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200803/single-marry

    Again: This is somewhat valuable to realize. “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?”

    But in reality? Life is far from ideal for most of us. This is about Grownup choices. And yes, even Real viable fears. Not fantasy land. Sure BOTH of the guys described seem fine from what we're able to tell. The basics of respect, loving concern & above all Non Violence should be a given. But for all too many people in their 20's & early 30's? They're still living comfortably in a fantasy land of their own imagining. They want it all, that tall, dark & handsome, healthy, playful, affectionate, very loving, & highly skilled & well endowed (of course) fantastic lover who makes them weep with pleasure every time they meet. The caring dad who's somehow always there and knows just what to do. The good 'provider' with that fantastic Professional, high paying & well respected career with room for advancement. The solid good 'Ivy League' education that will include plenty of 'networking' opportunities with the same lucrative 'old boys' network'. The easy going relaxed, yet smart & exciting personality. And of course The Hollywood Bod too. The complete fantasy, that they'll perhaps cling to all too dearly for quite a while.

    They've often got No problems with being 'picky', they've got serious issues with anyone being able to come close to 'filling the bill'! So they'll likely comfortably resign themselves to a series of 'short time' 'compromises' with the clear 'Lessers' just for 'play' and short term sexual gratification. Perhaps begetting a few kids by the time of their 30's too. Then, and only then they'll start seriously looking for that 'better choice' and getting ever seriously 'picky'. Now that they finally(!) know a bit better about life & what they want.

    And this is somewhat silly too: “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.”

    What we want is indeed constantly changing to suit our lifestyle for the ages we move through. That loving but 'boring' guy you wrote off in your 20's now might look like a better bet in helping you raise a brood full of kids more comfortably. But often? We'll seldom find anyone truly 'mesmerizing'. Not for more than a few moment of time. That's just life. It seldom looks like the fantasy life we'd like to construct for ourselves.

    Just a few thoughts. Cheers, 'VJ'

  • Decoybetty

    I just watched an Ally McBeal episode about this. Ally is a true romantic she believes in the perfect love – and she recommends that a fellow lawyer not get married if he isn't feeling head over heels in love with his fiance. But, eventually she realises that sometimes it isn't settling, it's just making the best choice. And why is the second guy a compromise? You say we're in love – and isn't that point? Is the compromise that he isn't rich??

    “The world is no longer a romantic place. Some of its people still are however, and therein lies the promise. Don't let the world win, Ally McBeal. “

  • susanawalsh

    No, the compromise with the singer songwriter isn't the money, necessarily, although that is admittedly what my niece focused on. And I do think it's fair when considering marriage to think about whether the person you're making lifelong promises to has two nickels to rub together. I think he's terribly romantic, but perhaps not terribly reliable. He is unpredictable, has an artistic temperament, is very emotional. In my experience, that is all wonderful when things are going well, but can be extremely trying during times of stress. Anyway, it's just a hypothetical question I made up to see what women would prefer if they couldn't have everything. And I think there are probably as many answers as there are women.

  • susanawalsh

    VJ, you do come up with some interesting links. I found the Marry Him! article rather depressing. I mean, does anyone really want to hear that they should marry a guy with bad breath who shouts Bravo! in movie theaters? No, thank you. She's a single woman who had a child, and that is a very long row to hoe. I can imagine that she would love to have a partner. But settle? And sleep next to some icky guy every night? No, no, no.

    As far as things that might have been, not too long ago I googled the handsomest young man of my own past. A singer songwriter who was poor when I knew him, ironically. He was gorgeous, but over time I found him overly emotional. I couldn't deal with his intensity. Anyway, fast forward 25 years and I find him on My Space, chubby and foolish, wearing a headband with red devil's horns. I sooooo wish I hadn't looked.

  • http://FT.com/ VJ

    The point being that it only gets a bit harder with age & 'baggage' (defined however you like). From my perspective, I see more far more folks wrapped up some sort of 'fantasy' deal (or waiting on same), than actually 'settling'. But again that may be a 'class' bias too.

    And I can promise you, no matter who you are. No matter how rich you are. No matter what high status you've achieved. Someday in the not so distant future, you're going to happen to 'sleep next to some icky guy/gal'. Perhaps not Every night, but certainly for more nights than anyone might desire. Again we commonly call these poor deluded fools 'Parents'. Or 'hard workers'. Or even 'harder partiers'.

    Me, I looked up one of my only 'what if's' way back when. She's now a Doc in a large NE city, doing very well for herself. Which is about what we would have expected from her too. Not my 'type' really, but her charming personality is something I'll always recall.

    Some things I had No real idea about the wife, before I took up 'co-residence' with her:

    1.) She sometimes snores about as loud as her dad. Champion bear jumping chainsaw eating snores. You can hear her from a different floor of the house too.

    2.) She talks in her sleep. Not friendly stuff either. It's almost always work related. Asking me to get the 'MacManus file' for example. Or 'where are the figures for Detroit & Windsor here'? Complete. Paragraphs. And arguments. In her sleep. And BTW? There's Never any right answer to any of the questions she might ask.

    3.) She's got sort of a strict 'Leon Redbone' sense in music. Unless it was likely penned on or before about 1965, or sounds like it might have been? She's pretty skeptical of it, and probably does not like it much. (LB, it's rumored won't play anything beyond 1955 say).

    [We could go on...]

    There's bundles of 'other stuff' that if I had only had known the extent of, it would have given me at least some pause. Some pretty substantial pause. But again it's always a leap of faith. You never really know what you're getting or getting into. Once you reconcile yourself to that 'fact of life' the rest is pretty easy to contemplate. Cheers, 'VJ'

  • susanawalsh

    Haha, I definitely want more tidbits about the wife! I love it that she orders you around in her sleep. “Get me the MacManus file.” She sounds like my kind of woman.

  • Rebekah

    Isn't there a fine line between settling and compromising though?

  • susanawalsh

    Yes, it's a very fine line, and it's complicated because normally compromise is something we consider a positive. The ability to compromise, for example, is probably an important character trait to seek in a mate.

    I don't believe any of us winds up with an IDEAL partner, even if we think we have in the early stages. We will always be compromising in some way if the person we fall for isn't perfect, right? But each of us has those characteristics or traits in mind that we know are essential for us personally. Whether it's intelligence, a sense of humor, or being treated in a certain way. Those are our non-negotiable requirements, our standards. And that's where I believe we should not compromise – those are the dealbreakers. If they are not met, we walk away.

  • hambydammit

    Ooooh… I love topics like this because they're literally a direct translation of the math behind Game Theory, which is the math behind natural selection.

    Here are some more things to throw into the already convoluted mix of variables:

    * Men tend to become *more* valuable as they age. True, men lose some physical attractiveness, stamina, etc, as they age, but they tend to gain social standing, money, security, temperance, knowledge, and so forth. Young men rent houses. Older men own them.

    * Like it or not, women become less valuable as they age. Across all cultures, men of all ages prefer women younger than themselves. As women age, the number of available men older than them steadily decreases. Women's reproductive fitness is highest when they're young. Men are not particularly interested in finding a highly successful, rich woman with very high social status. It's a nice bonus, but they'll take young and pretty with a nice personality and be perfectly happy most of the time.

    Speaking of compromising, there's a point of diminishing returns for women, and it's very important for a woman to have an accurate idea of her own “marketability.” A woman who over-estimates her own value on the dating market stands to lose a lot. She's going to be rejected often, and by shooting too high, she's going to decrease her chances of finding someone who will stay with her. Think about it. If a man marries below his own value, the likelihood of him finding someone better and leaving goes up. If a woman marries below her own value, the man becomes more likely to stay, since he knows (or ought to know) that he's done pretty much as well as he can do.

    Then there's the stark reality that several people are pointing out — You can generally get *anything* you want (within reason) but you can never hope to get *everything* you want. It's important to think unemotionally and critically about what is *most* important, and go for that quality above everything else. Are children and a happy family life your highest priority? You probably ought to settle on someone a little boring. Exciting men make crappy husbands and fathers, generally speaking. Are you more interested in your own emotional fulfillment and an exciting partnership? You can get that, too, but you might want to rethink the children and white picket fence.

    So, if there's a moral to all this, I guess it's this. If you're twenty and have a choice like that, don't worry too much about throwing a few fish back. The sea is full, and you've got lots of time. If you're thirty and want to have children… don't lie to yourself. Your options are dwindling, and you're going to have to choose soon. (It's crazy, if you ask me, to have a child with someone you haven't known for at least four or five years.) Just be sure you're really clear and honest with yourself about what your goal is, and you'll probably make a good choice.

  • susanawalsh

    Hamby, that is very succinct and on target. It is important that people are realistic about their own potential mating value. I've heard it said that in terms of physical appearance, 10s date 10s and 4s date 4s. That makes me cringe a bit, because I want people to look deeper when evaluating a potential mate, but I understand that it makes sense. A man who is a good provider can probably win a woman much better looking than himself, if his status is high enough. But he'll have to be on hyperjealousy alert, knowing that she can attract much better looking males than himself. Because, as you say, men like young (fertile) and pretty, it's rare to see a high status or very good-looking male with a less attractive woman.

    However, speaking only for myself, if I wanted a child very badly, I'd sooner have one on my own than marry a guy I feel “meh” about. If you settle for a relationship without a spark, it doesn't take long before you can't stand the sound of your partner's breathing, if you know what I mean. I think a lot of women do settle, long before the reach that age of diminishing returns.

  • hambydammit

    I think it's pretty awesome that we live in one of the only times in human history where it is darn feasible for women to be single parents. It's taken a lot of pressure off of women to settle, and in theory, women ought to get better relationships because they don't *have* to find a man to help raise the kids.

    As far as 10s and 4s, I think I can illustrate things a little more clearly: Let's just say (arbitrarily) that there are ten characteristics that people look for in a mate (they're different for men and women, but each sex has ten.) Each of these characteristics is rated from 0 to 10, so everybody has a total aggregate score, and individual scores. Let's pick a couple of traits women look for in men — money and looks. We have two guys, A and B. A is 7 looks, 4 money and B is 4 looks and 7 money. Even though these two guys have set scores, their value is going to be somewhat subjective. Suzy has a rich daddy and doesn't have to worry about ever going hungry. She's more interested in finding a looker, so A is the guy that's more attractive to her. Sally grew up poor and is scraping by, so B is more attractive to her.

    So yes, it's true that 10s marry 10s, for the most part, but where the wiggle room comes in is that there are different 10s… looks, money, stability, reliability, compassion, sexual compatibility, etc, etc. So occasionally you'll see a looks 10 with a looks 7, but let's be honest… you're almost never going to see a 10 with a 2 unless it's a serious sugar daddy situation. We tend to mate within a notch or two of our own looks. Finally, we tend to mate close to our own aggregate score, too. That is, when we add all ten scores for Suzy's mating value, she gets a 65. Suppose she is a 7 looks and chooses a 5 looks guy… that's all well and good, but the guy she picks is probably going to also have close to a 65 aggregate score. We can look at her and say, “Wow, she could have married a more attractive man,” but when we look at it, we'll realize he makes up for his looks with humor, money, and compassion, and overall, he has about as many strong qualities as she does.

    Have you seen my two posts about what men and women want? They're politically incorrect, but scientifically damn accurate.

    http://hambydammit.wordpress.com/2009/07/26/639/
    http://hambydammit.wordpress.com/2009/07/29/dat

  • susanawalsh

    I loved your posts! I advise all my readers to grab a cup of coffee and head over to read them. It takes a while, but not nearly as long as it would to read all the Buss, Symons and Barash studies that I've sifted through.

    As for their being politically incorrect, I don't see it. OK, yes, I see it, I know what you mean. But that's just wrong. Political correctness drives me absolutely batty. I think we should all be able to raise questions across all subjects, and conduct civil discourse. Not always easily done on the snarky web ;)

  • Rebekah

    After reading all that it doesn't give me much to look forward to, being a 32 year old single mother of two!!! LOL!!!!!

  • susanawalsh

    Seriously, I hear you. But I also think society and culture are changing far more quickly than the human brain is evolving biologically. Many marriages occur now where neither party is interested in having children, so a woman's youth/fertility wouldn't be as much of a factor, I wouldn't think. I don't know, I think who I am as a person counts for a lot. Maybe I won't be turning every head on the street, but I'd like to think I still have the goods to charm someone. I know you do!

  • megslife

    I have to say I didn't really read through most of these post. I probably will eventually and have more to say, but I did just watch a fantastic movie called “Broken English”. There is a quote that I think describes the type of thing you are talking about here.

    Jean Paul Clement: Most people are together just so they are not alone. But some people want magic. I think you are one of those people.

    I think that a lot of people compromise and settle for something ok. It is hard to chose something better when something OK means you are safe and not alone. I am dealing with this right now. I know that I can't say that my sisters settled maybe they did find magic. I just can't imagine knowing at 23 that the person I'm with is going to be the right one. It is hard for me right now to not want to settle because it seems like everyone around me is marrying. I have come to the realization that I have high standards, but I have been noticing that sometimes I hide behind them. I've realized that I have to remember that I want the magic, but it doesn't come in a perfect package.

    Also in realizing this I realized I was hiding behind thinking I found that magic with someone. It was a waste of my energy and I had so much energy wrapped up in that I was missing a lot of other chances. Life happens and you need to be ready to maybe change your standards. I'm ranting now.

  • susanawalsh

    That's a great quote! I'll have to watch that movie. You make a very good point – sometimes people find the magic, but it doesn't last, and what replaces it is not enough to sustain a relationship. Throughout history, marriages have often been arranged, and I'm sure many of those marriages were “happy” or “successful.” In our era, we want it all: the love, the magic, and the compatibility. And yes, sometimes we focus on one to the detriment of the others. In the end, I think we just trust our gut instincts and hope that we know when it's right. We blow it, miss other chances, but then we learn something, are a little wiser, and venture forth to do it some more.

  • susanawalsh

    That's a great quote! I'll have to watch that movie. You make a very good point – sometimes people find the magic, but it doesn't last, and what replaces it is not enough to sustain a relationship. Throughout history, marriages have often been arranged, and I'm sure many of those marriages were “happy” or “successful.” In our era, we want it all: the love, the magic, and the compatibility. And yes, sometimes we focus on one to the detriment of the others. In the end, I think we just trust our gut instincts and hope that we know when it's right. We blow it, miss other chances, but then we learn something, are a little wiser, and venture forth to do it some more.