Does it ever make sense to settle?
September 5, 2012 3:11 AM   Subscribe

Does it ever make sense to settle (even just a little bit) to find a long term relationship?

I've tended to have fairly high standards when it comes to the women I've dated. I'm currently 32 years old, and I've found that I probably am getting even pickier as I get older. I've been dating for most of my adult life, but I've only been in 2 serious, long term relationships since graduating from college about 10 years ago. In both cases, I met a really amazing woman who I new I wanted to get to know better almost right from the start. Both of these women were beautiful, sharp, funny, exceedingly kind, and had personalities that meshed well with mine. Unfortunately, I was kind of a mess for most of my 20s, and while I really didn't want either of these relationships to end, in hindsight, both of my past exes probably had good reasons to want out.

The good news is, after getting a little older, a little wiser, and reflecting on some of the things in my life that I probably wasn't doing as well as I could be doing, I've made some changes, and I'm at a much better place career-wise and in terms of personal development than I was a couple of years ago.

The possibly bad news is, I've been single for a couple of years now, and while I've been going on dates and maintaining a fairly active social life, I haven't met anyone who's really come close to piquing my interest like either of my previous two girlfriends did. To use a kind of cliched (but in this case true) example, a couple of months back I went on a date with a really beautiful woman who was... well she was beautiful, but we didn't click at all, didn't really have anything to talk about and I found myself checking my watch about 30 minutes into the date. Not long after, I went on a couple of dates with another woman who, to be honest, on looks alone I probably wouldn't have considered going out on a date with a couple of years ago. She was funny though, and she's lived an interesting life, and I thought once we got to know each better some kind of attraction might start to develop, but it didn't work out that way. I enjoyed talking to her, but never found myself feeling any sort of spark or attraction between us. My dating the last couple of years has generally followed these two patterns, with the occasional complete disaster date thrown in every once in a while.

In my early 20s, when my first really serious "heading towards marriage" girlfriend broke up with me, I took it hard, but at the time I didn't feel any pressure to get into another relationship right away, so I took my time, and eventually, about 4 years later I met someone else who was also incredible. Unfortunately, this time, I was going through a really difficult time at work, which included a 6 month stint abroad that in the end signaled the end of our relationship.

Now, at 32, I don't feel old but I'm starting to feel like the clock is ticking. I'd always planned on having a family, and that’s still something I very much would like to be a part of my life, but relationships take time. I stay active and try to meet new people, but the number of single women that I meet in my daily life is definitely getting smaller, and I’m starting to worry that if I remain as picky as I was before, I may spend most of my 30s waiting and hoping another really amazing girl to come along only to find that I’ve turned 40 and am still waiting. I know that the type of woman that I’m really interested in exists, because I’ve met two women who fit that bill in my lifetime, but I don’t know that I’ll ever meet someone like that again. They were both pretty rare, I live in a big city and I rarely see women that beautiful, and I meet a lot of different people through my job and rarely meet people with whom I have such good chemistry with.

So what do you think? Does there ever come a time to relax one’s standards a bit, and accept that maybe you’re not going to find exactly what it is that you’re looking for? Do you think it’s possible to start a good relationship this way? Or is it better to hold to whatever standards you have and hope that someday, someone comes along who really fits the bill, but live with the fact that they may never show up?
posted by sickpuppet to Human Relations (40 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
There are always things you have to settle on in a long-term partner (no one's perfect!). But being attracted to your mate and finding them interesting and engaging shouldn't be one of those things.

That said, there's a difference between thinking someone is attractive, and thinking they are the most beautiful woman you've ever seen. And conversely, between finding someone interesting and engaging, and finding them to be the most amazing person you've ever exchanged words with. If the latter are the set of standards that you're judging long-term potential by, then yes, maybe you do need to relax them a bit and give things more of a chance to develop.
posted by drlith at 3:29 AM on September 5, 2012 [9 favorites]

This is going to sound harsh. So forgive in advance.

Imagine someone out there who thinks the same way about men as you do about women. About people they want to date. Imagine them assessing you the same way.

What standards do you think anyone else should assess YOU by? Would you pass them?

The short answer is - of course. Relationships that work aren't about someone else leaping high enough to clear a bar you've set in your mind. They're complicated, they shift on a dime, and people change over time in ways no one can see coming or control.

In order for any serious relationship to work, you have to learn to be extremely humble about yourself and your partner. Be patient. No one is perfect and the most glaring imperfection is to ask them to be. And gauging someone else on how beautiful they look is a guaranteed fail.

I'd say not only lower your standards, but downshift mightily and allow yourself to be surprised by someone. Don't think of people out there as "fitting the bill", or "being beautiful enough." Think of all the ways someone out there can be beautiful in a way that only they can, and start from there.
posted by Lipstick Thespian at 3:32 AM on September 5, 2012 [36 favorites]

I think standards are fine if they are about things like humor, intelligence and a compatible outlook on politics and religion (or whatever seriously matters to you). Extremely demanding standards around things like looks (or money, prestige, etc.) can probably use some rethinking-- which you seem to be doing already. So just keep going out with interesting people and see what happens. It's entirely possible you just haven't run into the right person yet.
posted by idest at 3:54 AM on September 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

This is a great question and I like your approach to thinking about this phase in your life. It sounds to me like you have great potential for having a good relationship because you have learned a lot from some difficult experiences in your 20s. It's no wonder that you are hesitant to settle for someone that doesn't electrify you like your previous relationships did. I think you need to accept that you will never feel exactly that way about someone again. I think it is futile to try to find the next person who will make you feel that way, but that doesn't mean you are settling. I think we tend to feel that we are at our most wise at every point in our life, but in hindsight we can always see where our deficiencies lie. For example, you write that although you were deeply in love in your 20s, two times, you were a mess and therefore your partners left you. You couldn't see that so clearly at the time it was happening, that you were a mess. With that new wisdom comes new standards for yourself and others you let into your life. As we age, our standards can only become more concrete, we cannot help but not want to repeat mistakes. This is why you can never have the same feelings for a partner now, because you are not the same person but rather a much wiser person. Those exciting feelings were in large part exhilaration, which in large part feeds off of newness. Being in relationships and in love is not new for you now. So, instead of feeling like you will be settling, perhaps look at it in a different way: you will be open to loving someone who is like no one you have loved before. She will give you that exhilaration. To do this you have to be open to a new kind of woman, which will be scary because you may immediately think she doesn't fit the bill, like the women of the past. You need to let go of the previous relationships and look at new women with curiosity. Otherwise, you will just try to repeat your past and that will only lead to dissatisfaction. It didn't work before so why would it work now, really. It's likely going to take a long time, so just settle in and enjoy your life in the meantime.
posted by waving at 3:54 AM on September 5, 2012 [5 favorites]

If someone bores you to death or you don't want to sleep with them, then no, a relationship is not going to work. There's a middle ground between that and exceptionally beautiful...right? If there's not, you should get to work on that by cutting down your exposure to beautiful women in media so that you can recalibrate your expectations in regards to female beauty.

Never ever settle on personality, though. You'll find that in a long relationship some of their stories get boring and little habits drive you nuts, and that's normal, but I can't imagine starting out desperately bored...eesh. Yikes. No thanks. Better to be single forever.
posted by the young rope-rider at 4:06 AM on September 5, 2012 [10 favorites]

Well, you could describe the characteristics you're looking for in a woman and we can weigh in on the odds of you finding such a woman - perhaps suggesting particular points that you might consider dropping or compromising on. If all goes well, you might have a workable checklist for the right woman for your 32 year old self. Unfortunately, that list of desired characteristics might be a whole lot different in a few years.

Look, you aren't going to find anyone who hits on all cylinders all the time - just as you aren't going to be anyone's be-all-and-end-all. That's just life. But, that's not an excuse to enter into a committed relationship with the feeling that you are "settling" for Ms. Less-than-perfect. No one want to be someone's consolation prize.

BTW - you mention that you've met "two women who fit that bill in my lifetime". Not to put too fine a point on it, but given that they did not want to be with you, you haven't actually met your perfect/nearly perfect woman.
posted by she's not there at 4:08 AM on September 5, 2012 [4 favorites]


uh uh. Until you change this view you are not headed for a satisfying relationship. Sure, there are things we look at in a potential mate, personal compatibility, intelligence, looks etc., but they are all thrown into a jumble when we really get serious. You have to start with a personal connection (the date where you were checking your watch is kind of the opposite.) Once you make that connection, not before ideally, then you might start looking at some of those things you generally are looking for in a mate to see if they are missing and if in this sort of special person who has lit some fire in you their absence might be an issue long term. Can you become not just lovers but long term best friends? It is best to not over-think that plate of beans though. The answer to these questions are found in your heart. Use your head to make sure that some short term infatuation is not overwhelming your heart and tricking you into thinking it is love. Don't start with a preconceived ideal; you will never find her. Start rather with the woman who touches your heart and then take some time together to see if you have long term compatibility. No one is perfect, and by the way, perfect is boring. It is often our defects which provide our strongest personality cues. Don't ever think you can change someone; just ask yourself if you can live with someone else's quirks. You know they are having to ask themselves if they can live with yours.
posted by caddis at 4:24 AM on September 5, 2012 [8 favorites]

Hola. Also may be harsh, so apologies in advance.

In terms of being 'picky', it's up to you. The more restrictions you set on something from the outset, the more difficult that entity will be to find.

It's also multiplicative. Let's say each factor you add reduces (a shrinking pool) by 50%.
Factor 1: Politics
Factor 2: Sense of humour
Factor 3: Physical attractiveness
Factor 4: Intelligence

1 factor reduces the pool to 50%. 2 factors reduces it to 25%. 3 factors to 12.5%. 4 factors to 6.25%. And so on.

If you apply those 4 factors to a potential pool of 100 women, you're already removing 94 of them. And if the pool is shrinking anyway, you're doing exactly the opposite of what success requires, which would be to reduce your filters.

A lot of people seem to have this logic. They have rough 20s when there's lots of partners available. Then in their 30s, out of a desire to have better experiences, they become more selective. D'oh. Uphill battle.

Being picky is not bad, but you have to 'price' the cost of each 'pickiness'. Think about buying a car. You want a 4 door car. You want leather seats. You want it to be sky blue. You want walnut-trimmed dashboard. You want an 8 year warranty. With each thing you add, you are reducing the pool of available cars, potential to the situation where you don't buy a car at all.

But you need a car, so you can do one of three things. 1) Spend heaps of time finding your dream car, 2) increase your budget to expand the pool of options, 3) find a car close to what you want.

And no, I am not comparing women to cars. I am talking about including cost of selection into decision-making processes.

There are two things I can leave you with.

The first is to change your process. If you want to be picky, you can do that. But you need to increase the pool size to support your strict criteria. This is a fast-iteration process. Rather than sitting in your house wondering where the right woman is, go out with as many women as you can, as often as you can. Part of the glory of what you've been through is that you know your red flags when your see them. So go out on a heap of first dates. When you see a red flag, move on. That's what dating is for.

Sure, we have a romantic view of dating and we want magic and fireflies and what not. But at the same time, dating really is shopping for a mate. If you can trust yourself to walk away when you see red flags, you don't need to be picky in finding someone to date. You need to be true to yourself to walk away from potential relationships that don't meet your criteria.

As mentioned, that's throwing heaps of time at the problem.

The second thing is to rank-order your pickiness. Sit down with a sheet of paper and write down your values. This is giving a cost to your picky. It's a hedonistic calculus in some regards. If intelligence has a weight of 10 and sense of humour has a weight of 5, you can start discerning what you can tolerate and what would really fuck with you.

For information on that, you can look to two sources: your family and your friends. What qualities do you really enjoy from them. What are your real moments of connection? Then start building your list.

The point of this is to learn to compromise appropriately. Much like the third option in buying the car. You're not going to find the perfect person. The key is to compromise on the areas which don't really matter to you that much. And there's no right answer, of course.

For example, I have a mate who is super intelligent. Genius level. He is in a wonderful marriage to a social butterfly who abhors reading the newspaper – one of his favourite past-times. He gets all the intellectual stimulation he needs from friends/work/conferences/etc. They are each very very kind. They are warm, loving people. That's something they were not willing to compromise on.

And in terms of picky, it's probably more about deep-seated values than simple labels. Would you rather be with a tolerant person of the opposite political view, or a intolerant person of the same political views? Would you rather be with someone that deeply loves one specific style of music (they love music) or someone that's open to a lot of different styles of music (they may love music less). Someone who is well-educated and acts entitled or someone who is not well-educated but sees the value of education and will ensure their kids have the opportunity?

See what I mean? It's not simple labels. These are complex chains of decision-making, and frankly, you seem to be operating with them in two ways that are not helpful: 1) in advance of meeting someone, and 2) in generalities.

If you reverse the process so that you apply your template after an experience – and ruthlessly – you'll give yourself the opportunity to meet more people. Then, if you are very specific about what compromise you are willing and not willing to make, you'll enable yourself to be selective about proceeds with those opportunities.

It all sounds very cognitive and sterile, sure. It's a much more intuitive process than that in reality. Thankfully, you have all the answers you need and you're doing well at bringing them to the surface. Now you just need to work on the ordering of the process and a being specific in your own mind.

Good luck! It makes for a great relationship when both people know who they are and what they're looking for. Things tend to just flow very simply after that....
posted by nickrussell at 4:25 AM on September 5, 2012 [32 favorites]

I know that the type of woman that I’m really interested in exists, because I’ve met two women who fit that bill in my lifetime, but I don’t know that I’ll ever meet someone like that again. They were both pretty rare, I live in a big city and I rarely see women that beautiful, and I meet a lot of different people through my job and rarely meet people with whom I have such good chemistry with.

I'm curious as to what you mean by "beautiful." It seems odd to me that, walking around a big city, you don't see at least a few people who are beautiful enough for you at least in theory. Is it like young rope-rider suggests, that you are looking for someone who looks like an A-list movie star in a magazine? But even if you are looking for someone who belongs in the movies or in a fashion magazine, I see at least a couple of women who look like that, really stunning, almost every day. Some of them would be in your age range too, although a lot of them would be younger. Are your standards just insanely high or are you referring to a particular kind of beauty that you respond to?
posted by BibiRose at 4:27 AM on September 5, 2012 [12 favorites]

My reaction to your question may not be entirely consistent, but here goes.

First of all, blow up the idea that you have a "standard." To the extent you think you have a template based on on your two old relationships, realize that you have romanticized those people in retrospect, that they wouldn't interact with the present you in the same way that they did the old you, and that there are other exceptional qualities in people that they didn't maximize. This will liberate your assessment of new people you meet: each time you find yourself invoking a standard or those two precedents, stop yourself.

Second, acknowledge that your position in life is different in both good and bad ways. (Probably) fewer are unattached, but more may be willing to settle down; you may meet fewer people, but their personalities may have gelled. Most important, you are less of a mess, and are probably more appealing, except perhaps to those people who like dealing with messes (and as people age they tend to be less attracted to rescue animals).

Third, if you must maintain the standards of the past, or apply some test to each person, it probably makes sense to change it from a set of ideals, or a set of strict minima, to a set of targets for which you allow some slippage.

Fourth, remember how fallible your perceptions are. Watch-checking boredom is outside the range, save if you were agitated or distracted for other reasons. Me, I can be teeth-grindingly boring if you catch me at the wrong time, and I can also completely miss a sparkling personality if I'm obsessing about something else.

Good luck!
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 4:29 AM on September 5, 2012 [6 favorites]

In Edinburgh I know a few women in their 50s (stereotypical Scottish spinsters in many ways). They have checklists of the kind of men they would 'settle' for, wealth is a big part, low libido another. Their basic requirements can be summarised as: will keep me in the manner in which I'd like to become accustomed, and leave me alone.

They're still single, they will die single, their delusionality amuses me. Your account reminds me of them. You are probably targetting women who themselves have have standards they are applying.

Of course you have to have standards, make sure they are the right ones. I would suggest intelligence, compatibility, loyalty and honesty as starters, it helps if they like you too. Decide whether you want a soulmate or ornament, if the former, get to know them before deciding.
posted by epo at 5:02 AM on September 5, 2012 [4 favorites]

You sound like you're conceptualizing dating in a really unusual way and I wonder what about your upbringing caused that. That's where I'd start. You sound like you're hung up on an abstract idea about a "check list" and "settling" - like those concepts are standing between you and the actual people you could date. If you're really hooked into this very abstract way of thinking about dating, that habit of thought will cause there to be no chemistry - people are often hand-wavy about 'chemistry' being this thing that arises regardless of circumstance and about which people have no control, but if you've got a strong semi-conscious set of beliefs which dispose you not to have chemistry then you won't.

You say you were "kind of a mess" for your twenties. What kind of a mess were you? Is it possible that you're unconsciously still hung up on regrets and emotions from that period and that this is sabotaging your present dating?

I think you're definitely right that the dating pool contracts in your thirties - many good people are married or seriously partnered, many have kids and are focused on them and not dating. But not to an impossible level!
posted by Frowner at 5:07 AM on September 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

I am in a really happy, fulfilling relationship.

Sometimes, when I like to make myself giggle, I go check my old OKCupid filters, by which we never would have gone on even one date if we had met on OKCupid.

I'm hardline on the economic right - he's hardline on the economic left. Politics just like mine used to be something I sorted for.

He's also an introvert. I thought I wanted an extrovert social butterfly just like me.

He has FACIAL HAIR, which was a no-go for me previously.

And he occasionally makes spelling and grammar mistakes, which I was rabidly against ever dating ever like whoa.

Taken from a certain angle, it could be viewed that I "settled" by compromising these things. But in fact, I did not. I met someone I clicked with and those things just didn't seem to matter.

Wait for someone you click with. But don't worry so much about your Lists.
posted by corb at 5:17 AM on September 5, 2012 [12 favorites]

You're not in such a bad spot as you think.

First, you can never control attraction. Why do you think so many women go so far in makeup, hairstyles, clothing before heading out on a date? They understand how a guy reacts. Some women will actually cancel dates on the last minute because they don't feel they look good as the need to be before stepping out the door!

Since you're selective, you are going to have to wait. Many men are what you're after: a woman they don't have to settle on. A woman with brains and beauty - the quest for ages!

At 32, time is on your side (men mature in quality more so in their 30s). But, if you're feeling the pressure to settle down, you may make a mistake in your rush. Never settle on the girl your individual says is not attractive to you - you will be miserable, and so will she.
posted by Kruger5 at 5:18 AM on September 5, 2012

Maybe this is why they call it settling down?

Settle now. Settle later. You will settle.

There is no Mr/Ms. Right. There is only Mr./Ms. Sufficient.

And as people are lines, not points, the future holds concealed movement, both for you and your mutual pick.
posted by FauxScot at 5:20 AM on September 5, 2012

Dan Savage's Price of Admission talks about settling (what one should and shouldn't settle for), invoking the phrase that "there is no settling down without some settling for".
posted by Brian Puccio at 5:59 AM on September 5, 2012 [4 favorites]

Yes and no. Yes, it can be wise to relax your standards, if you're holding out for Zooey Deschanel, or a neurosurgeon who looks exactly like Jessica Alba. No, you should never relax your standards to the point that you start a relationship with someone you're not attracted to or someone you can't have an enjoyable conversation with. Being with someone you're not really into is a good way to waste both of your time and to wind up lonely even while in the relationship.
posted by J. Wilson at 6:03 AM on September 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think your standards need recalibrating.

First of all, it sounds like you are still comparing your current prospective romantic partners against your two love affairs from years ago. You have to stop doing that, for several reasons.

First of all, some people you will meet and instantly connect with; other people take time to grow on you. You have to leave yourself open to both possibilities. One way you can do this is to widen your social circle -- not for the purpose of dating, but for coming into contact with more people. Another way is to keep your dating standards to this: if you have a good time, you go out with them again. If not, don't. Rise, lather, repeat.

Secondly, I believe that your previous romantic relationships were tumultuous. They were exciting, and you probably clung on to them because you were a mess, you enjoyed the relationship highs, and believed that things were going to get better. Non-tumultuous relationships simply don't work like that. They don't have the incredible highs, but they also don't have the super-duper lows. Comparing your current dates to these relationships means you'll be weeding out healthy relationships in favor of unhealthy ones.

You have a couple of other places where you have to lower your standards. You say you want to start a family soon, which is understandable. However, keep in mind that there are many ways to create a family and that you will not know if you and your partner can have kids until you roll the dice. Focus your attention on finding a partner you are compatible with.

Finally, your beauty standards sound ridiculously high. This is going to sound kind of harsh, but here are some questions for you to consider: Are you a Greek god? Do you have a perfect body? Perfect head of hair? No wrinkles? Do you dress well every day? Do you keep all of your body hair/facial hair/eyebrows neat and trimmed always? Are you a perfect 10? My guess is, probably not.

Secondly, whats going to happen when your supermodel turns old and grey? Are you going to still love her when she struggles to lose her baby weight? Are you going to love her when her boobs are sagging? When her hair turns white?

You have to love the person, wholeheartedly, not just how they look. That to me, is the true definition of being attracted to someone.
posted by emilynoa at 6:35 AM on September 5, 2012 [8 favorites]

Of course you settle on some things, but that's balanced by getting things you didn't even know you were possible. I mean, sure, my partner might daydream about dating Jason Statham, but she is very happy with the reality of what she has.

There are things that I think you absolutely, 100 percent shouldn't compromise on -- for me, that includes being with someone who is nice to me and others, and with sexual compatibility, say. And then there are a million factors that either turn out to not be all that important in the big picture (for me, I really don't care if we like the same music), or that you thought were important but really the different approach grows on you and becomes part of what makes the two of you tight and intimate.

It's like, you need to have enough things in column A to have enough initial attraction to start hanging out, and enough things in column B to create the long-term intimacy that lets things grow and develop over time rather than fizzle out.

Creating unrealistic criteria prevents the initial attraction, and you'll never find out about the long-term differences and changes that are what make a relationship interesting.
posted by Forktine at 6:45 AM on September 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've found that I probably am getting even pickier as I get older.

People term this as a negative, but it's actually a positive-- you know what you want and you know what makes you happy. Lots of times, when we're young, we end up in relationships that aren't what we want, but we don't really know what we want, and we keep trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

Think of the past few years less as being single and more as having avoided relationships that wouldn't have worked out in the end, anyway.
posted by deanc at 6:57 AM on September 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

To be honest, any potential partner who had a checklist (outside of characteristics like being kind, being caring, having self-esteem, having some ambition, being financially practical, easy to get along with, etc) would be a red flag to me as a woman.

You have to be able to treat people compassionately, and not just because they're hitting your checklist or exhilarating you. Marriage is about being able to be there for each other when good and bad happens, and helping each other be at your best.
posted by discopolo at 6:58 AM on September 5, 2012 [4 favorites]

It's not called "settling." It's called "compromise."
posted by TinWhistle at 7:14 AM on September 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

You'll know it when you see it.

At one point I made a list of all of the characteristics of people I wanted to date. I didn't do this because I had these firm desires, I did it because I found that I'd become infatuated with people who were missing characteristics that were important to me.

I didn't say that my mate had to be 6'2", with rippling muscles and a full head of hair, I put that I wanted to be attracted to him, and he to me.

I didn't say that my mate had to be wealthy, I put that he needed to be gainfully employed and self-sufficient.

I put my list in a drawer and when I thought I might be liking someone, I'd pull it out and be sure that the person touched on the important things.

When I met Husbunny, I knew right away that he was special. And a year from our first date, we were married. FWIW, I was 39.

The intellectual part is important, if you want children, she should want children. But only wanting to date blonds, or only wanting certain body types can be limiting, and you may be screening out a fabulous woman.

A very wise friend of mine said, "You get what you settle for." As we get older, we understand ourselves better, we know what our deal breakers are, and we compromise less on the important stuff. THIS IS NOT A BAD THING!

But with age should come the wisdom do compromise on the unimportant stuff.

Personally, if you're blown away by someone, a lot of the superficial stuff doesn't matter. So she has cellulite, or a weird mole on her thigh, or a goofy laugh, this won't bother you, you may even find it endearing.

Trust that you'll know her when she comes along.

When we're young, we're easier to please. As we get older, we become more selective.

It's all good.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:16 AM on September 5, 2012 [16 favorites]

Does it make sense "to settle (just a little bit)" in the sense that the person you fall for may not meet the pre-existing standards you have in mind? Of course. That's how love works.

Does it make sense to pursue relationships with women who bore you, or with women to whom you feel zero physical attraction? No. That would be settling a great big lot bit.
posted by escabeche at 8:04 AM on September 5, 2012 [3 favorites]

I spent a lot of years dating self-absorbed jerks who made me feel bad about myself because they hit various criteria on my mental "boyfriend material" criteria list--they went to art school, or had bands, or dressed a certain way, could casually name-drop certain music or movies or books, etc. Exasperated, I eventually threw out the list and decided to try dating people with an open mind, paying more attention to how they made me feel than their "check marks". I almost immediately met someone new, different, and interesting who made me laugh and feel beautiful and was nice to everyone around him. Did I have to look more carefully at him because he was packaged differently than the "boyfriends" I was used to? Yes. Am I so glad at did look more carefully? Yes. Because he is wonderful and a truly unique and attractive person unlike anyone else I know, and now he is my husband, and we are happier now than ever. He is literally my favorite person.

I'm not saying you should settle for a person or relationship that doesn't meet your needs. It's good to know what you need in a partner. But I suggest paying less attention to the checklist and trying to get to know people instead. People are works in progress and things like looks change over the years. Who makes you laugh? Who do you want to talk to all night? Who wants the same kind of life you do? Who is kind to you and others, and who do you feel like you can call at four in the morning if you need to? Finding your partner physically attractive obviously matters, but to me, those things I mentioned are all key components of a good life partner AND things that make a person more attractive to me. It takes time to suss them out. So toss the list, start going on dates, keep an open mind, and see who makes you happy.
posted by anonnymoose at 8:20 AM on September 5, 2012 [7 favorites]

I like Ruthless Bunny's take: you'll know it when you see it.

I'm in a similar position as you -- 29, single, had a few long-term serious relationships, but my dating life has bottomed out for the time being. I've fallen hard for people who lit up all these lights inside I never knew existed, but never had the guts to work it due to lack of confidence and all other life-learning issues that haunt one's 20s. One nice thing about getting wiser with age is I'm finally wise enough to accept that I'm rarely attracted to other people (perhaps this is what you mean by "beautiful"?), and even though that appears to hinder the mate-seeking process, I'm okay with it.

My current goal is to stay single and seize the day when I find someone with that genuine spark again. Having been single for a couple years now, I have been steadily sobering up to the fact that I may very well never meet someone I feel motivated to share my life with. I do want to share my life with someone, and will probably forfeit having kids, but having tried to settle in my last relationship, I know for sure now that if the person I'm with isn't just crazy about me in the healthy, balanced mind sense, it won't work. I'm an enthusiastic person, I tend to be enthusiastic about my partners, and I need someone who I can share that quality with. I do keep a working list of "standards" -- not to make my dream partner impossible to realize, but as a reminder for lack of what made me so miserable and feeling trapped in past relationships. I like how Ruthless Bunny's wording is thoughtfully careful to stay realistic.

So I guess I may not have much data from a later phase to present, but I will advise you, think carefully about what you want out of your future. Consider the reality that living a good life does not guarantee finding romantic love for anyone (though I like to think it improves the karmic odds). What will make it worthwhile if you end up spending it solo? Would it be so bad if you lived your life without ever realizing the love you feel geared for? Would it be so bad if you met someone only later in life? And perhaps most importantly, what path could you take (solo) that remains most true to yourself rather than true to the idea of hypothetical future partner/relationship?
posted by human ecologist at 8:20 AM on September 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

It depends on what conditions you're "settling" for. Things like temperment, compatability, and the level of respect you have for each other and attraction you feel for each other should never be settled on. But things like age ("I wouldn't ever date anyone 4.5 years older than me"), physical specifics ("I can't ever see myself with a redhead") or profession ("I couldn't POSSIBLY ever see myself with an actor") may deserve a re-think.

Granted, it's up to you what should be your real priorities (it's possible you have a really, REALLY good reason for not dating actors -- say, you're a director and you are sincerely afraid of getting into too many situations where you're talking shop or something), but there are some "standards" that really, really shouldn't matter to the point that you're ruling people out automatically if they don't match them.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:22 AM on September 5, 2012

I agree with BibiRose: there's something off about being unable to find women in general who meet any realistic physical-attractiveness standard you've set; there should be plenty around (at least if you're in a big city). It's the other stuff (personality, habits, life path, sexual behavior) that tends to mark incompatibility, in my experience. Having a hard time finding people who even look good enough points to something deeper.
posted by ead at 8:41 AM on September 5, 2012 [8 favorites]

FWIW, all the guys I know who were "picky" ended up with exactly what they wanted: a woman who is exceptionally beautiful and has other good features (smartness, community involvement, credentials, upbringing, a positive outlook, etc.). Most of them married that woman when they found her. How those marriages will fare in the long run remains to be seen. It took most of them 2-4 years of dating to get there. Many of them started around your age or a bit younger and finished in their mid thirties. Go get 'em.
posted by kellybird at 9:16 AM on September 5, 2012 [3 favorites]

No, it doesnt ever make sense to "settle," because it isn't fair to the other person for you to think that, somehow, you deserved better. It does make sense to achieve the perspective and maturity that you can have a relationship with an actual person, rather than an objectified idea.
posted by Good Brain at 9:49 AM on September 5, 2012 [3 favorites]

Eh, I admit I was a bit put off by your phrasing of the question (nine times out of ten, the answer to "Should I settle?" is "No, but you should consider re-evaluating your expectations."), but after reading in full, it doesn't sound like you're doing a "checklist dating" approach. It sounds like you're approaching dating with an open mind, and you just had a few dates that you just never quite "clicked" with. Honestly? That's pretty normal during the dating treadmill, and it doesn't mean you're going to wind up FOREVER ALONE. It sounds like both of your "serious" relationships kind of happened without you looking for them, and while that's always nice, it's generally the exception to the rule (especially as you get older and work and aging parents and other life stuff starts to take up more of your time.)

Dating is hard. Keep at it, don't get discouraged, try as much as you can to not compare your dating prospects to your exes. You'll get there.
posted by kagredon at 10:23 AM on September 5, 2012

Try to remember that once you live day-to-day with someone, you'll discover that you are not such a "great catch" without putting in constant self-work. It will be very humbling.

Yes, you absolutely should click with someone worth partnering up with for life!

However, you're not as fabulous as you think you are. This is clear from the way you worded this question.

Work on yourself. Maybe start with cultivating eqanimity and a genuine appreciation towards all of your fellow human beings? Even people you normally would not give a second thought towards?

The rest will fall into place. Guaranteed.

I think the problem is that you don't seem particularly attractive on the inside, and you pretty much acknowledge this has been a problem in past relationships.

Work on yourself, don't worry about the rest.
posted by jbenben at 11:15 AM on September 5, 2012 [7 favorites]

It depends on what you mean by "settling".

Things I would never suggest compromising on for the sake of a relationship:

being attracted to each other
having respect for each other
treating each other well
enjoying time spent in each other's company
trusting each other
bringing out each other's better nature

Things that are totally negotiable:

meeting a certain arbitrary standard of beauty ("9 out of 10" or "just as hot as that woman I dated when I was 21")
having a specific income or educational level
being of a specific physical or mental "type"
having certain specific interests

It doesn't sound like you're necessarily on the wrong track. It can take some time to find someone who clicks with you mentally and physically. There are a couple of things you might want to ask yourself, though:

Are you looking for someone to make you feel just the same way as those first couple of great girlfriends from you 20s did? If so, bear in mind that you aren't the same person now that you are then, and your emotional reactions are also different. It's possible that even if you got back together with that first girlfriend, you still wouldn't get that same exact feeling any more.

Are your standards for physical beauty unrealistically high? It is important that you have physical attraction, but if you think you can only be attracted to someone who looks like a supermodel then you are greatly limiting your chances. (Not to mention that even supermodels don't look that way forever. On the off chance that you do manage to marry someone who is a pefect "10", do you plan on leaving them when they get older and fatter and are only a "7"?)
posted by tdismukes at 11:33 AM on September 5, 2012 [6 favorites]

Do I understand correctly that you have only ever met two women who you would be willing to share your future with?

If so, you are being way too picky. It might serve you well to recalibrate your internal settings.
posted by 99percentfake at 12:20 PM on September 5, 2012

I second what Ruthless Bunny is saying.
Before I met my fiance, I had made a list of 100 qualities that my soul mate must have. It wasn't specific on certain things like eye/hair color, height, weight, but I did specify that "He will be attractive to me" instead.
I didn't insist on someone that wanted a family with me, but instead "He is either already a good father, or a good father figure." I included that, not knowing if we would want/have children together, but also considering that I already have a child from a previous marriage; I would insist that my soul mate be compatible with the family that I already have.
I specified that my soul mate would be fascinating to me.
My soul mate would be fun and spontaneous, like me. My soul mate would love music just as much as I do, even if he listens to stuff I don't really care for.

If you would consider making such a list of Soul Mate Prerequisites, include the opposites of your deal-breakers. Instead of "no cheaters," for example, "devoted/ faithful/ monogamous."

When you think you've met your match, compare against the list. If you find yourself crossing items off because they don't fit the person, they're not the one. These are the kinds of things you shouldn't compromise on. If it helps, make a spreadsheet and sort it by Most Important to Least Important. If your partner meets 100% of your top requirements, but doesn't meet the Least Important, and you are still fully committed and very satisfied, how important are the Least Importants, really? Ultimately, the list will include 100 qualities that you absolutely can't/won't compromise on (if it's less than 100, that's okay, too).

How this might find itself working out for your situation is that it will provide focus to your intentions. The more that you sharpen your focus on your intentions, the less time you will be willing to waste with partners that do not meet your needs. If you put a wish out into the universe and you are specific about it, the universe will find a way to give you what you are asking for.
The trick is to know exactly what you are asking for.
Don't ask for "perfect," (because the perfect person doesn't need you or anyone else, do they?) but ask for "perfect for you." After all, if you're with someone for the rest of your life, don't you want them to be the right person for you?

FWIW, I got with my soul mate/ fiance at 31 (I had known him since I was 15, but we had never dated). He really does fit all 100 items on my list, even down to "Must be silly and weird at all the right times."
posted by erasorhed at 12:43 PM on September 5, 2012 [3 favorites]

There is a difference between a 'standard' and a 'deal-breaker' and that's what it sounds like might be getting you confused. For instance, I have dated a number of people in the past who were not good with money, and that was an issue for me. I value security, and I am excellent at setting a budget, living within in and having the things I want in life because I plan for them and save for them and achieve them. I couldn't be with someone who didn't share this value---no matter how fabulous they were in other ways, I would just be too unhappy. It is a 'deal-breaker' for me. But within the range of people who share this value, there are all sorts of circumstances and to restrict on too many of those variables would have really narrowed my choices. I had to decide on the things which were deal-breakers for me and which I could compromise on.

So I wound up with a guy who has a chronic health condition, a child from a previous relationship and a baseball card hobby he spends a lot of time on. None of those things were necessarily on my 'dream guy' list---but none of them were on my deal-breaker list either, so in the case of a person who otherwise hit the mark for me (there was a spark, mutual interest, and none of the deal-breakers) it was not a problem. I do know people for whom any of these things (the health condition and the child specifically) would have been deal-breakers. But they aren't for me, so it isn't a problem for our relationship. And he had his deal-breakers too.

Focus on what is really important to you and be willing to negotiate on the other stuff. Otherwise, you may miss out on a reallty special person.
posted by JoannaC at 12:44 PM on September 5, 2012

No, don't settle. When I met my husband everything just clicked. We could talk for hours, we made each other laugh, we were attracted to each other, he became my best friend. If you're are going to spend fifty + years with someone and have children with them, that's what you need to survive:), so I just wouldn't take anything less. On your wedding date, you don't want to be thrilled to spend the rest of your life with this person.

On the other hand, think long and hard about how much emphasis you put on looks. I say this because if you really want a long term relationship with someone, well, eventually that person is going to end up old and wrinkly and if she gives birth her body may not stay the same. So looks aren't something you can count on in the long term.
posted by bananafish at 1:54 PM on September 5, 2012

Does it make sense to settle? NO.
Does it make sense to have unrealistic standards or expectations? OH HELL NO.

"I live in a big city and I rarely see women that beautiful" FACEPALM.

You need to find a way to get past the silliness of arm candy and seek something that really matters. Surely you see more in a woman than just looks, right? I'm not saying to settle for someone you find unattractive. I'm saying to seek that which really matters when you meet someone you do find attractive.

Beauty is skin deep. Character and a connection... now THAT'S the real deal.

...Or, you can just wait till you find someone beautiful enough. Then again, she might be looking for someone more beautiful than you. Or looking for someone who doesn't prioritize beauty.
posted by 2oh1 at 4:32 PM on September 5, 2012 [6 favorites]

As SMBC says, "100% of people just wants someone with higher social status". So, if you want to date a model with a PhD and a kindhearted personality, you should also become a model with a PhD and a kindhearted personality, or be successful enough in some other way to have slightly higher social status than the people you want to date.
posted by sninctown at 6:58 PM on September 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

I realized, after living for a long time with a mindset that you seem to have something similar to, that I was waiting for someone to come along who only existed in my mind.

Physical beauty is an incredibly shallow thing to hold out for, but everything all around you everywhere, and everyone else, are actively programming you to place inordinate value in just that. So its understandable that it is hard for the brain to overcome, it would be something akin to swimming up the face of a tidal wave.

There will be people here who tell you not to settle. You can take their advice, but you run the risk of not taking the advice of those who would tell you otherwise. This is the saddest comment I have ever seen on Ask.
posted by allkindsoftime at 5:48 AM on September 6, 2012

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