Settling. It’s an ugly word, sure to invite feelings of lacking and not measuring up. And, unfortunately, the fear of settling and the competing fear of being alone is more often associated with women than men. This is because our society is still hung up on destructive myths suggesting that women are somehow incomplete without involvement in a romantic relationship.
Beyond those myths, though, is a grain of truth. It is a scientific reality that relationships and social connection are associated with positive emotional  and physical health outcomes. Just being married is linked to better health. That’s right, just some more pressure for all you single people out there to find a partner – your health apparently depends on it.
BUT WAIT. Settling for a partner that doesn’t measure up can’t possibly contribute to your health, right? That is correct. Being with a partner who you feel you are “settling” for is actually linked to partner jealousy, lack of forgiveness, emotional manipulation, and less satisfaction in the relationship. There’s no way those things are related to good health. Nope, they’re not[4,5]. Further to that point, being unhappily married is actually worse for your health than being single. And I’m sorry again, but being married actually offers fewer health benefits to women than to men. This is probably because women are pretty good at urging their male partners to take care of their health (e.g., go to the doctor, rest, eat healthy), and because women tend to have a higher stress response when faced with conflicts and arguments in the relationship. So don’t kid yourself: being in a relationship is not necessarily all fun and games and health.
So why bother? Over and over again, science has told us that people want to get something out of a relationship--an exchange of “goods”. Men want a beautiful partner and women want a man with resources[8,9]. That stereotype may induce nausea. But of course, these are just averages, and are based on studies of heterosexual men and women. Many men do value ambition and stable finances in women, and many women value physical attractiveness in men. But, if we’re talking about averages, men want pretty and women want stuff.
The interesting thing about these gender-based values is that something in our society has shifted recently that may be making these lists of “must-haves” more difficult to check off. I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but women are killing it in school. Trends indicate that women are better students from elementary school all the way up to college and are pursuing university educations at rates that surpass men. On top of this, women are less likely to want to date men with less education and/or income than themselves[8,9]. What does this mean? It means we have educated, high earning women and increasingly fewer educated, high earning men. And the last time I checked, women weren’t getting any uglier, so straight men still have the same number of attractive mates to choose from. That means the dating pool may be shrinking specifically for straight women who value ambition and resources. If this trend continues, women may need to become more open-minded about dating men with less education and resources than them (i.e., settling??).
But does knowing what you want and what you have to offer actually help you avoid settling? How do we judge ourselves and others objectively? Science tells us there is a thing called “mating intelligence” which is essentially people’s ability to judge their own and other’s value in the dating market and to find the best partner they can get for the value that they offer. People who are skilled in this area tend to be able to assess themselves and their partners objectively. And it turns out, this is a useful skill, and people who are good at it are less likely to “settle” with someone less suitable than they deserve. So basically, consider taking a good hard look at yourself objectively including where you stand on valuable traits and where your partner or potential partner stands, and partner up accordingly.
Of course, being able to evaluate yourself and others on a scale of mate desirability may prove futile. If you and your potential partner differ from the average and find qualities aside from physical attractiveness and resources appealing, I really can’t help you. And trust me, we all know that this subject has led to many conversations between concerned friends. You’ve heard the despair in your friends’ voices as they ask, “Why is she with him? She’s sooooo much better than him…” But the truth is, she may be judging him on a scale that you don’t understand. Or she may not be on a scale at all, she could even be “following her heart” rather than a checklist (awwww!).
If, however, you or a friend is in a situation where you may have settled, never fear. Rationalization to the rescue! It turns out that once people have chosen something, such as a partner, they tend to think positively about the choice they made. In other words, you will still feel pretty good about your partner even if you did settle. You will exaggerate the positive qualities of your mate and minimize their faults. This is an important phenomenon is called choice-supportive bias. All of this rationalization is to reduce “cognitive dissonance” you experience when you hold contradictory beliefs, such as “I chose the right partner” and “I chose the wrong partner”. It is pretty stressful for your brain to deal with inner conflict like this, so rationalization must be done! So, whether you settle, don’t settle, or don’t know if you settled, it’s going to be okay ;).
1 Blackhart, G. C., Nelson, B. C., Knowles, M. L., & Baumeister, R. F. (2009). Rejection elicits emotional reactions but neither causes immediate distress nor lowers self-esteem: A meta-analytic review of 192 studies on social exclusion. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 13, 269-309.
2 Cohen, S., Doyle, W. J., Skoner, D. P., Rabin, B. S., & Gwaltney, J. M., Jr. (1997). Social ties and susceptibility to the common cold. JAMA, 277, 1940-1944.
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5 World Health Organization (2010). Measuring sexual health: Conceptual and practical considerations and related indicators. Geneva.
6 Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K., Newton, T. L. (2001). Marriage and health: His and hers. Psychological Bulletin, 127, 472-503.
7 Wanic, R., Lulik, J. (2011). “Toward an understanding of gender differences in the impact of marital conflict on health”. Sex Roles, 65, 297-312.
8 Fales, M. R., Frederick, D. A., Garcia, J. R., Gildersleeve, K. A., Haselton, M. G., & Fisher, H. E. (2016). Mating markets and bargaining hands: Mate preferences for attractiveness and resources in two national U.S. studies. Personality and Individual Differences, 88, 78-87.
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10 Statistics Canada. (2009). Women and education. Retrieved from Statistics Canada website http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/89-503-x/2010001/article/11542-eng.htm
11 Dillon, H. M., Adair, L. E., Geher, G., Wang, Z., Strouts, P. H. (2016). Playing smart: The mating game and mating intelligence. Current Psychology, 35, 414-420.
12 Mather, M., & Johnson, M. K. (2000). Choice-supportive source monitoring: Do our decisions seem better to us as we age? Psychology and Aging, 15, 596-606.
13 Festinger, L. (1962). Cognitive dissonance. Scientific American, 207, 93-107.