How many friends do you have who are holding out for the “the girl of their dreams” or “the perfect guy,” like Alicia Silverstone in Clueless? The folks who are always single because no one is ever good enough, “at their level” or “get” them, who seem to find something irreparably wrong with everyone they date? We’ve all heard dismissals like, “They didn’t get the check,” “They make less money than I do,” “They’re just not my type” or “They’re too tall”/“They’re too short”/“They have weird teeth”/“They wear bowties, and I hate bowties.” Once I made a list of all the things I wanted in a future wife, a set of standards I thought the perfect mate had to conform to. She would only drink clear liquids, wear lots of pink, ate only the brown M&Ms, had silky chestnut hair and if she wasn’t actually Jennifer Love Hewitt, would have to look just like her.
You might think this was weirdly specific and creepy, but I was also in middle school and watching a lot of Jennifer Lopez romcoms at the time—so cut me some slack. Even though I was a kid and didn’t know what I was talking about, I think that even as adults we do this all the time, even if we don’t realize it. I recently read Marry Him by Lori Gottlieb, which discusses the pressures that women (and men) put on themselves to find a mate that adheres to very specific variables of what they are and aren’t looking for in a partner. Many of the singles that Gottlieb profiles (including Gottlieb herself) list hundreds of irreconcilable deal-breakers. If you were to go on a date and tell the person you are sitting across from that you require your mate be “spontaneous, charming, loving, funny, a great dancer, a sharp dresser, a dynamo in bed, tall, whip-smart, aggressive but not too aggressive, sexy but doesn’t know it, driven, an avid reader, loyal, great with kids, well-endowed but not too well-endowed and fluent in at least one other language,” do you think they’ll line up for a second date? If you were to put that out as an OKCupid ad, would anyone respond?
Tellingly, Gottlieb talks to a lot of women and men who require that their partners make a certain amount of money a year, even if they themselves don’t make anywhere near that, and I think this sums up the problem. Gottlieb seems to think that the issue is that singles’ standards are too high, but standards aren’t the problem. Standards are great, and as Britney and K-Fed proved, people should have more of them. When you have standards, it allows you to set goals in your life and hold yourself accountable to the relationships you have and the person you want to become. (Fact: I love those Oprah goal boards. I go apeshit over that stuff.) But the problem isn’t that people have too high of standards; it’s that they have the wrong standards, ones they don’t require of themselves. This is because they’ve been taught to want the wrong things, on attaining perfection and this impossible notion of “having it all,” as if that were even possible. Life is not Stepford or Sex and the City, and you can’t have it all: Not at work, the buffet at Golden Corral or the take out menu at Mr. Taco. I can’t even get it all from my vibrator (who I would marry if it were a human being), so why should I expect that from my love life? And so many people get stuck on that—thinking you “deserve” Prince Charming with a 401K and a Benz—that many can’t accept the relationships that are in front of us.
If you want to set benchmarks from other people, focus less on external criteria like looks, money or status; none of those things last anyway. For example, here’s a thought experiment: Prince(ss) Charming gets in a car wreck, Vanilla Sky-style. Their face and car are both smashed, irreparably, and they look like Mickey Rourke after a fight with a garbage disposal. While mourning the loss of their perfect cheekbones in the hospital, they get a call informing both of you that they lost all of their money on the stock market. Are you still going to want to be with this person? When people get married (or so I’m told, because it’s still not legal for me in my state), they exchange vows that promise that each party will stay with the other person no matter what their bank account says or their face looks like in thirty years — when gravity stops working in your favor. What’s going to matter to you isn’t what they used to look like or who they were when you met. What will matter is the person they have become — the one you’ll want to be around for as long your version of “forever” entails. If forever’s in the cards, you’re going to want to have spent your time with the one you wanted to grow old with. Don’t end up Kim Basinger and Alec Baldwin.
I discussed this recently with a friend I think has the best relationship I know. I’ll call her Karla Marx. Karla’s amazing—and I can actually picture men killing each other for her like in The Hunger Games — and her relationship reflects that. They’ve been together for two years. They talk about marriage and kids openly, bicker all the time in that Hepburn-Tracy way and complement each other in ways Cheng and Eng would be jealous of. (As the most single person I know, being around them sometimes makes me want to set my face on fire and scream.) When we got on the topic of modern relationships and I brought up Gottlieb’s theory that we are empowering ourselves into singledom, we both disagreed with Gottlieb. The problem isn’t empowerment; it’s the rhetoric around it, which is largely just Spice Girls knock-off stuff. Empowerment needs to go beyond simply either “girl power” or the aforementioned annals of money and sex. For her, sexual liberation is amazing (otherwise, Rush Limbaugh), but intercourse by itself isn’t what gives her power. That sex needs to be coupled with achieving a greater sense of self-worth — empowerment with a capital “E.” The thing that makes her feel strong is being strong — making good choices, knowing that she deserves to be treated well by the person she’s with and being loved and respected in the right ways.
Someone once told me that if you want to attract a certain type of person, you should become the person you want to date. This is silly advice, because then we’d all date ourselves and Seinfeld already explained what a bad idea that is. Instead, the example Karla shows us is that if you want great, you should be great. Challenge yourself to be someone that you would be super jealous if you saw your ex with. Be that person who plays racquetball over lunch, volunteers at an old folks’ home and a soup kitchen, runs 5Ks, reads a book a week (that isn’t by Dan Brown), calls their parents every day, writes poetry as well as John Keats, bakes in their free time and dreams of joining the Peace Corps someday. See? Wouldn’t you date that person? If you wouldn’t, you must kill kittens in your free time.
So, instead of worrying about The One, forget about that and be The One You Would Want To Be With. Go running every night, smile at every person you meet, pick up that James Joyce novel you’ve been putting off, start writing again, join a support group to work out your issues, go back to get another degree, help old ladies cross the street, work on forgiving your parents, take Tai Chi to learn to let go, get involved at the local community center and/or take a cooking class. Push yourself to get out and be better; you can’t control who you meet, but you can control the person you are when you meet them. You probably won’t find perfect (and no one wants that, because as Celeste and Jesse Forever shows, perfect is boring). However, you might find something a lot better than what you could have even imagined when you were twelve and making silly lists. You’ll find the thing you didn’t know you were looking for all along.