A conversation on Facebook has me thinking about the concept of “settling”, and I think part of the problem is that when people say “never settle” or “settle, or you’ll end up alone”, they don’t address what you’re settling about.

(For the sake of argument here, I’m assuming we’re talking about settling in choosing a primary partner.)

Some people are just ridiculous. For instance, Lori Gottlieb, the world’s most fervent pro-settling advocate, suggests that you should overlook your potential spouse’s abysmal sense of aesthetics. I am married to someone with an abysmal sense of aesthetics (sorry, honey, but you liked Batman vs. Superman better than Civil War, and you like neither the Iliad nor the Odyssey), and until this moment it literally did not occur to me that this was something I might have rejected him for. So if you are a person who is going around rejecting people for abysmal aesthetic sense or never having been married before or liking to write about terrorists, I would suggest that maybe you should stop doing that.

On the other hand, it can be conducive to relationship success to have dealbreakers about things that are, objectively speaking, pretty stupid. It’s okay to say “look, this guy chews gum constantly, and it drives me mad.” In general, people don’t change the way you want them to; if he chews gum constantly now, he’s going to chew gum constantly for the rest of time. This is your price of admission for marrying that guy, and if you don’t want to pay it, marry someone else. If the thought of waking up in ten years to the sound of his gum popping makes you want to smash your head into the wall, maybe don’t marry him. (But probably first try explaining the depths of your hatred for gum. Maybe he can kick the habit.)

As well, I think at least for poly people it’s good advice to consider marrying people you don’t have intense romantic passion for. I mean, you’re poly! It’s not like you’re signing up for never experiencing romantic love again in your whole entire life, which I admit would be pretty depressing. There is no particular reason why “makes my heart flutter” needs to be #1 on your list of criteria for the person you’re building a life with. It doesn’t even need to be #20. You can get as many heartflutters as you want from people you aren’t living with, and with whom you don’t have to address such pressing issues as “why are you not doing the damn dishes when I ask?”

(Of course, I took my own advice, and then one day about a year ago I woke up and realized I was in love with my primary. Apparently if you marry someone who’s kind and patient and intelligent and blah blah blah you don’t want to hear about how great my husband is, sometimes you will wind up falling in love with him even if you weren’t at first.)

On the other hand, there are a lot of things you really shouldn’t settle about. Returning to Lori Gottlieb, on her list of people she might potentially consider marrying are both a man who is so boring she prefers reading through dinner to another tedious conversation and a man who gives her a cold shiver down the spine at the thought of embracing him. Now, I can see some situations where the latter might be okay– for instance, if you’re considering a platonic life partnership with someone you don’t intend to have sex with or cuddle. However, in a sexual relationship, not finding sex with your partner actively repulsive is a basic requirement. And I really can’t think of any situation in which finding your partner colossally boring is a good setup. Like, you do realize that when you go through a nasty divorce ten years from now, you’re going to be poorer, older, more miserable, and just as single as you are right now?

Hell, there are things most people should be more picky about. Like messiness, for instance. If you’re going to be living with someone, remember that they’re a roommate, not just a romantic partner; pick someone who has good roommate qualities, not just good romantic partner qualities. While there are other factors (sleep schedules, fondness for loud music, tolerance for guests), a big one is chores. I’m not saying that any division of labor is right or wrong, as long as everyone involved is happy; if you love cleaning and cooking, maybe a messy woman who isn’t entirely sure what coriander is is just the right wife for you. But what I am saying is that a whole lot of relationship conflicts could be avoided if everyone decided to pay attention to “will this person actually do the dishes when they promised?” in addition to “does this person make me feel things in my stomach?”

(People make this a gender thing. It’s not just a gender thing. Plenty of women make shitty-ass roommates.)

But people should be pickier about other issues too. I went through most of my life dating people who were, like, sixtieth or seventieth percentile at dating a borderline person, and now I am dating someone who is ninety-nineth percentile at dating a borderline person. The difference to my functioning and happiness is substantial; I am in much better mental health simply because I’m with him, and there is far less strain on our relationship. In the event my husband gets hit by a car biking home from work, I’m not settling for anything less than the best in the future.

The scary thing about the settling discourse in general and Lori Gottlieb in particular is that they doesn’t seem to understand the difference between the two categories? It’s one thing to say “look, no one is perfect. If the fundamentals are there, the best thing for a happy relationship is to tolerate that she leaves her socks on the floor, has tits bigger than you like, and drinks Red Bull constantly and sometimes smells like it when you kiss her.” It is quite another to say “fuck the fundamentals! Marry someone who bores you to tears! Marry someone whose conflict resolution style is completely incompatible with yours! Marry someone who thinks it’s totally fair that you’re scrubbing the house while they play video games in their underwear! Once you have kids you’re not going to be talking to each other that much anyway!”

Another thing that’s important about the settling discourse, I think, is that small flaws tend to wax and wane in importance depending on how much you genuinely like someone. Constantly leaving your socks on the floor can be anything from an endearing quirk to yet another reason that you ought to divorce this asshole; the difference is not their behavior, but your attitude to it. I’m not suggesting “get a better attitude to your spouse!”; it’s not that simple. Quite often, when you dislike someone, it’s for a really good reason: you fight all the time, the division of labor is unfair, or you just plain don’t like spending time with them.

So in conclusion: settle about stupid shit, but be picky as fuck about important shit. A brief list of important shit:

  • liking the person
  • wanting to spend time with the person
  • being able to resolve conflicts with the person
  • shared values
  • shared lifestyle and goals
  • (if living together) good roommate qualities
  • (if having sex) sexual compatibility and attractiveness
  • kindness, patience, sense of humor, and all that good stuff
  • not possessing any traits that will make you fantasize about murder in ten years