Settling for Happiness
March 11, 2017
“Love is the affinity which links and draws together the elements of the world…
Love, in fact, is the agent of universal synthesis.”
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881 – 1955)
French philosopher and priest
Love does make bridges and link people. Love allows us to embrace “otherness.” But continuing to love another person the way we loved them at the beginning of our relationship does not happen as Hollywood fantasies would suggest.
When we fall in love, we often fall dramatically; we experience a euphoric sense of connection and attraction to another human being and dance together to create a bond of mutual interest and eventually attachment. Over time, a relationship–like everything else that lives–develops and matures. The heightened and intimate revelations of the courtship phase may give way to other kinds of closeness that feel comfortable and nest-like. And with ongoing togetherness a beautiful gift of companionship and trust may coexist with some sadness or grief over the loss of that gorgeous intensity at the beginning comprised of novelty, lust and relational ambition.
At some point, staying with one’s partner constitutes a decision. We feel lucky if chemistry still unites us, but it won’t unite us strongly enough, all by itself, over a long period of time. After ten, fifteen, twenty or more years, we will inevitably decide whether to settle in for the duration, because we feel differently about this other person than we did so long ago. We experience our love differently—in some ways more than, and in some ways perhaps less than before.
When people refer to settling (“I don’t want to settle this time,” or, “Am I just settling?”) the question floats in the air: “Is there someone better for me? Is there someone who will make me happier? Is there someone who is a better match?”
Certainly no therapist would encourage someone to settle for something as negative as maltreatment—abuse, neglect, derision, malicious manipulation, forced isolation, brain washing, pattern of disrespect and invalidation, and so forth. But there is, indeed, some realistic settling that has to do with our ability for tolerating “otherness.”
“Otherness” refers to how we experience people, since everyone else is not me. We see our partner as having quirks, habits of thought, levels of emotional expressivity, different degrees of awareness, as rather more self-minded or other-minded, as messy or chronically late or lazy about doing chores, as too strict on the kids or too lenient, as having different levels of interest in sex, as relatively grumpier and moodier or not good at putting up with our grumpiness and moodiness. Our partners ski or not, like car shows or not, want to spend all their time with us or not enough time with us, are nurturing or tell us our problems are not theirs to worry about.
Some of us have a wide window of tolerance for typical kinds of differences we observe between ourselves and our partners, and for some of us that window has more narrow measurements. We have fantasies about our perfect partner and often, in real life, our partners fail to subscribe to, or look like our fantasies in hundreds of little ways or in hundreds of moments throughout our relationship. We are all perfectly imperfect and so is our match. And what would we even mean by finding someone we could call our perfect match? Is that person much like us? Very different from us, but only different in the ways that we admire?
The couples I meet in my therapy room, even couples who have lived with one another for a long time, and who feel devoted to their partnership and want to work on growing their connection as well as understanding their disconnects, agree sub rosa to an ongoing life in which they must agree to disagree sometimes and agree to dis-argue about those things which distinguish them in less than felicitous ways. They settle.
We settle for this perfectly imperfect person who is not me-like enough at times, or who could have left a lighter footprint—meaning, washed the dishes or did the laundry we are now having to do. We settle for a relationship in which our lives together don’t always feel harmonious, seamless, in tune, or give us the delicious love or consideration or thoughtfulness or conversation or mutual interests or personality flavors that we prefer. We settle for an imperfect match.
The good news is that we tend to grow, ourselves, and to really develop our interpersonal skills right at the edges where our desires and preferences do not get met! We develop greater adaptability and strength, and all of the personal traits we hold in high regard—patience, sacrifice, tolerance, understanding, empathy, flexibility, kindness, integrity, etc.—when we experience friction between ourselves and our partner.
All beings shrink, erode, degrade, and sink over time. Our bodies shrink in height and muscle mass just as sand erodes from a cliff, as shore gets swallowed by the sea. We are all subject to gravity and to wear. Our “fur” thins like that of the Velveteen Rabbit, from love and exertion, from disappointment and fatigue, and from work.
Settling is mostly about tolerating differences, even appreciating them, and discovering flexible and adaptive ways to interact with our partners that incorporate our differences and make the most of them.
We feel somewhat attracted to “otherness,” which is novel and exciting, but the counter tension we experience runs also: “Why can’t you be more like me?” When we live with someone who has marked differences, there are multiple, even subtle ways in which we try to cajole, beg or request that they be more like us. Take a talkative partner and a quieter partner. Often the talkative partner will “try” to get their quieter partner to open up and talk, thus developing greater skill and adeptness in getting others to open up.
We tend to advance our own skill sets with someone who functions in a way seemingly “opposite” or different from ours. Quiet individuals learn how to guard their secrets better, on one hand, or on the other, benefit from learning to become more transparent and revelatory with their feelings and thoughts. Partners “stretch” each other through the friction and interaction between their differences.
When it comes right down to it, settling serves the function of maintaining a couple over time. The gift of settling has to do with the cultivation of tolerance for differences, the development of empathy, and the flexibility to see things from our own, and the other person’s perspectives.
In some instances, a person may not find enough room, emotionally, to settle for differences that seem too marked or too much of a polar opposite. Sometimes the energy match is too strained—a highly reserved person and an intensely effusive one, as an example. Or each person’s fundamental beliefs feel too different to reconcile—be they religious, political, related to parenting, or to life’s priorities.
That we co-create all of our relationships means we have both accountability for, and are the beneficiaries of, what gets created. Settling involves, not only the more passive giving in to the gravity and significance of a relationship but also involves active processes of developing one’s emotional intelligence about the other person and learning to tolerate and appreciate their otherness.
Camel Saddle: For what in a significant relationship have you settled? What qualities or quirks about you must your past, present, or future partner likely have to tolerate (and hopefully appreciate)? What are the differences you find easier or harder to live with in another person?