When to Settle

Mar 11, 2008 |Candice Watters

Knowing when to go with what's in front of you makes all the difference. Here's what to look for in a future spouse.

When Steve and I started dating, one of my close friends said she was worried that we'd end up getting married. What in the world? I thought. We've only been dating a few days. Marriage? And so what if we do? What would be so bad about that?

"I just don't want to see you settle," she said. At the time, Steve was still planning to use his degree to go back to his small hometown to be the principal of his dad's church-sponsored school. I guess in her eyes that was beneath me. Me, a soon to be holder of a master's degree. "You've got so much ambition," she said. "I'd hate to find you, years from now, disappointed in him. A frustrated wife who 'under married.'"

My friend was a believer in the notion that to marry a man without certain traits or ambitions would be settling. And in her mind, settling was bad. No longer just a guideline, not settling was itself a goal. Something worth striving for. As in: Finish that report for work, lose 20 pounds, get a boyfriend, don't settle.

And so we find ourselves in the midst of a massive shift in marriage trends: women waiting longer than ever to marry, all the while holding out for their soul mate — "the one." When a nice guy asks a woman out, if the sparks of attraction aren't hot from the start, she turns him down, reasoning, Sure, I want to get married someday, but I'm not about to ... settle.

Where has all this not settling gotten us? In "Where Have All the Men Gone?" Laura Nolan writes about men who are still single at 35.

I realised that over the past decade [my friend] Jamie has effectively been degenerating from the man he was at 25 years old to the boy he is today. The person who fell in love and believed that when you found a great girl you counted your blessings and married her has morphed into someone in search of nothing more than a bit of fun, who views any relationship that he can't get out of at the ping of a text message with genuine unease.

I am often told that our problem boils down to bad timing. In our early twenties (the age at which our parents tended to meet and marry), we, arguably the first generation of properly educated and professionally ambitious women, were not ready to settle down and start having babies.

By our late twenties many of us did end up reconnecting with our first loves, or met men of a similar age who were still young enough to want to match and hatch. But for those who didn't, life is increasingly complicated — and infuriating.

Nolan says men are like eggs. If they don't hatch in time, they go bad. (The cost of delay is indeed high.)

In the wake of stories like this about frustrated women who are marrying later, or not at all, comes Lori Gottleib. She's shaking things up with her article "Marry Him!", saying women should settle and get married because "it's better to feel alone in marriage than actually be alone." Not only that, but the longer you wait to settle, the more settling you'll have to do (bad eggs anyone?).

Why does this matter? And why should you care? Because stories about family trends on the cover of The Atlantic have been known to send ripples through our society (anyone remember "Dan Quayle Was Right"?); because she's speaking from a camp that has long offered a chorus of hostility toward marriage and men, but now, thanks to her personal experience, appears to be changing her tune; and because even though you have to dig for it, I think some truths surface in the midst of her story.

Hers is a story that began with lots of dating and sex, but never marriage (no man was good enough), and a feminist ideology culminating in Gottleib choosing to have a baby via sperm donor. Now she's an exhausted, lonely single mom still waiting and wondering if she should have held out less hope for Mr. Right and gone ahead with one of the many Mr. Good Enoughs. Her present state is a far cry from what she envisioned when she started out. She used to see things optimistically: "I can have it all — a baby now, my soul mate later!" Now she knows better. "Well ... ha! Hahahaha. And ha."

Her sound and fury signifies something: Her dissatisfaction with what her choices have gotten her. It's not a bitter tale of heartbreak or self-pity as much as a warning to all the women still young enough to have a lot of good-enough men to choose from that, if they're wise, they will.

We'd be loath to admit it in this day and age, but ask any soul-baring 40-year-old single heterosexual woman what she most longs for in life, and she probably won't tell you it's a better career or a smaller waistline or a bigger apartment. Most likely, she'll say that what she really wants is a husband (and by extension, a child).

Not so fast you say. To which she replies,

Oh, I know — I'm guessing there are single 30-year-old women reading this right now who will be writing letters to the editor to say that the women I know aren't widely representative, that I've been co-opted by the cult of the feminist backlash, and basically, that I have no idea what I'm talking about. And all I can say is, if you say you're not worried, either you're in denial or you're lying.

We do desire marriage. And though we might not recognize that longing as such at age 20, the longer you go without it, the more you realize you need it. That's the truth part. She understands the problem. But that's not enough. Her "solution" — just go with the next warm male body who's not too weird — hardly seems helpful.

Even if her idea of marriage as less than "a passion-fest" and "more like a partnership formed to run a very small, mundane, and often boring nonprofit business" is partly accurate, what woman wants to be in business for the rest of her life with a guy she's just tolerating?

Marriage columnist and author Maggie Gallagher (The Case for Marriage) agrees:

... in the end Lori, who has got her fingers on a big chunk of truth, has missed the most important point. Women shouldn't settle for less, we should appreciate more. A good family man is not a step down, it's a step up.
The Real Non-Negotiables

Have you ever known a man that you've thought about dating, but in the end, ruled him out because to do otherwise would be settling? If you're holding out for perfection, or have a long list of must-haves, it's possible you're overlooking some good men who are already in your life. Knowing what about a potential mate is worth appreciating and what's just eye candy has everything to do with when you should "settle."

Choosing to marry a man — whomever he is — inevitably involves compromise (on his part, and yours). That's why it's not truly settling. It's just making a decision. Something we do every time we pick one thing over another. In most areas, it's called being decisive. For some reason we've made indecision noble when it comes to dating.

What's needed is a new, objective standard for what makes a good match, because, for a Christian woman, there are some non-negotiables for choosing a mate. That's where Gottlieb's advice falls short. Thankfully we have a standard that's completely reliable.

If you're measuring a man against that list, considering his aptitude for growing into full maturity in those areas, then marrying him is praiseworthy. Even if he is shorter than you. Or younger. Or bald. Failing to meet our worldly expectations — our romantic shopping list — is no liability if he meets biblical ones. That's the only list that matters.

And marriage to such a man could hardly be called settling. In another day, it went by the much more pleasant, and desired, description: settling down. When faced with a big decision, my dad used to say, "Honey, you have to settle the issue. Make the best decision you can, in view of the wisdom of Scripture and prayer. Then move forward confidently." Putting the unending list of options to rest is freeing. Once you make a decision, you can stop noodling, debating and weighing the alternatives, and get on with the rest of your life.

"Find a good man and love him," Gallagher says. "Do it not only because it's the best way to raise a family. Do it because spending your life actually loving a man, however imperfectly, is better than spending your time perpetually shopping for the right set of inner sensations in your brain (a.k.a. waiting for 'the One.')."

And my friend who said I'd be settling if I married Steve? She was looking at externals, so her ability to rightly judge was skewed. I saw beyond where Steve was at that moment, to the man I knew he could become. And because my faith was based on that biblical list, I knew it was well founded. Thankfully I followed the wisdom of Scripture.

I wasn't disappointed.

Copyright 2008 Candice Watters. All rights reserved.

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