There is no such thing as settling while we're in a relationship. In retrospect, we can tell ourselves that we were settling, but as long as we stayed in the relationship, we were getting exactly what we bargained for. As hard as it can be to admit this to ourselves, the people we chose as partners were a direct reflection of how we felt about ourselves while we were with them. If we weren’t happy in a particular relationship and we truly believed we could have found someone better, we would have left. We would have gotten out of those relationships and gone for what we really wanted. No matter how many times we told ourselves we could do better, we stayed because the person we were with was the right partner for us in that moment.
The other day my client, Jenna, launched into an impassioned diatribe about how she had been settling all her life for inferior men who were financially unstable and emotionally incapable of ever giving her what she wanted. 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 would settle for so little when I am such a good person and I deserve so much more.”
Even though I have 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 began pouring down her cheeks, I realized what bothered me about what she was saying. I could see how much easier it is to tell ourselves we settled than to admit the truth: The reason we choose to stay in the wrong relationships with the wrong people is because that's what we felt we deserved at the time.
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 got 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-year 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 I'd made in the relationship. I realized that no one had put a gun to my head and made me stay in my marriage. I had 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 fantasized about wouldn't have wanted to be with the person I was then. It 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 had 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.
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, but those relationships were the very thing that helped you see your own value and know what you deserve in a partner," I explained. "It’s hard to know what you want in a partner if you’re not willing to put yourself out there and have some relationships with the wrong people in order to find the person who is right.”
As I was speaking to Jenna, I was reminded of a brief relationship I had after my first marriage ended. We'd been dating for a few weeks when he drank too much one night 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 would have felt badly for having settled. Fortunately, I had 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 man, I didn't like what I saw mirrored back to me. I had been down that road before and I knew where it led. So, I decided to end the relationship right then and there, and I never looked back.
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