There is no such thing as settling while we’re in a relationship.
It’s only in retrospect, that we admit to ourselves that we were settling. But as long as we stayed in the love relationship, we were getting exactly what we bargained for.
As hard as it is to admit this to ourselves, the people we choose as partners are a direct reflection of how we feel about ourselves while we are with them. If we aren’t happy in a particular relationship and we truly believe we can find someone better, we would leave. We would get out of the relationship and go for what we really want. No matter how many times we tell ourselves we can do better, we stay because the person we are with is the “right” partner for us in that moment.
The other day my client, Jenna, launched into an impassioned speech about how she’s been settling all her life for “inferior men” who are financially unstable and emotionally incapable of ever giving her what she wants. Her big green eyes welled up with tears of disappointment as she lamented, “It’s a shame I wasted all that time in the wrong relationships with the wrong people. What was I thinking? I still can’t believe I settled for so little when I am such a good person and I deserve so much more.”
Even though I’ve heard hundreds of clients express similar regrets in my 12 years as a relationship coach—I wasn’t buying Jenna’s story.
As the tears spilled down her cheeks, I suddenly realized what bothered me about what she was saying. I could see how much easier it is to tell herself that she settled than to admit the truth: The reason she chose to stay in the wrong relationships with the wrong people is because that’s what she felt she deserved at the time. And we all do this at times.
The entire time I was with my first husband, I told myself I could do better and that I could leave whenever I wanted. Still, I stayed with him for a total of 13 years before I finally mustered the guts to go. The day I left, the phone company cut off our service and the rent on our apartment hadn’t been paid for 6 months. (My mother would have turned over in her grave if she had known how I was living.)
At 34-years-old, I found myself camping out in the guest bedroom at my older brother’s house while I grieved the loss of my marriage. One particularly dark and lonely night, as I lay on the floor in fetal position sobbing, I was finally able to take responsibility for the choices that I had made in my relationship.
I realized that no one had put a gun to my head and made me stay in my marriage. I’d picked out my ex-husband all by myself and chosen to stay with him for 13 years. Why did I stay? Because at the time, I was every bit as messed up as he was. The kind of guy I was now fantasizing about finding would never want to be with the person I was when I was in that old relationship.
This reality was a bitter pill to swallow, but I was finally able to see that I had been in the right relationship with the right person at the time. Even though I now dreamed about being in a better relationship with a better man, I could see then that I still had lot of work to do on myself before I could attract a man like that.
It took 8 years of traditional therapy and other inner, personal work before I was able to meet that guy.
And so, I felt a lot of compassion for Jenna. “It’s easy to look back and talk about how you wasted time in the wrong relationships,” I explained, “but those relationships were the very thing that helped you see your own value and know what you deserve in a partner. It’s hard to know what you want in a partner if you’re not willing to put yourself out there and explore some relationships with the “wrong” people in order to find the person who is right.”
As I was speaking to Jenna, remembered a brief relationship I had after my first marriage ended. We dated for a few weeks, when, one night, he drank too much and suddenly turned mean and violent. The next day he pleaded with me to give him another chance. In the past, I would have told myself that “he needed me” and I would have stayed for months (or even years) thinking I could help him. Then, like Jenna, I’d have felt badly for having settled.
Fortunately, I learned from my first marriage that the partners we choose are a mirror of who we are at the time. When I looked at this new man, I didn’t like what I saw mirrored back to me. No, thank you! I’d been down that road before and I knew exactly where it led. So, I decided to end the relationship right then and there, and I never looked back.