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Stop saying "never settle," it's lazy romantic advice
As we juggle insecurities, uncertainties and the daunting romantic goals we set out to achieve before descending life’s next hill, it’s important we take a rational, humble approach to the process. The contempt with which we have straddled the word “settle” makes me worry that we’re fighting the right battle with the wrong weapons.

If you’ve read through my blog, you’ve likely figured out that I’m quite sensitive to toxic, confidence-corrupting relationships—sometimes too much so. But lately I’ve been starting to think that in some cases we’ve rebounded a bit too hard.

And this one phrase—this confidence-booster-turned-war-cry—really troubles me: “You should never settle.”

It gets thrown around all the time. And while it originally came from a good place with the best of supportive and inspirational intentions, it has quickly become a misleading and bratty catch-phrase that people pass around like cocaine when challenged with deflation, reality and a bit of complexity.

It’s like when people’s brains come to a screeching halt and their mouth farts out “It is what it is” and everyone around pretends like they just made a contribution. Except this is worse. While it’s hollow, it speaks to the stuck. In its empowering, ambiguous simplicity it has the strength to skew perceptions, breed arrogance and instil a statistically broken sense of entitlement.

As Millennials continue to mistake conceit for ambition, I’m hoping we can quickly take “settle” out of the ‘naughty word’ trough and plop it back into the ‘fundamental reality of life’ valley where it belongs.

Do you like music? I like music. You know The Rolling Stones? They wrote a song called, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”. If you haven’t heard it, I’ve summarized it for you in the illustration at the start of this article.

It’s a great, simple message and it’s a healthy one to absorb. It says nothing of “giving up” or “settling”. It’s just a good ol’ reality check sung by a choir of children and a 71 year old man that wears black Saran wrap instead of pants.

But even this simple life lesson has its complications. Very often we don’t know what we want, we don’t want what we need and, on top of that, we don’t even understand what we get. One of the reasons is that our emotional and sexual constitution is always changing, along with our circumstances. With all that in mind, taking a hardline stance on a broad concept like “settling” seems a little too black and white.

Did you know that a study released by Gallup last year showed that only about 13% of people in the world like going to work? Does that mean that 77% of people have terrible jobs and should quit to pursue other options? I’m not sure that’s a fair conclusion.

The other major issue is that when we’re talking about value and entitlement in a social context, we are always working with imperfect information and heavily biased conjecture. You’re not a baseball card. How could you possibly know what you “deserve”?

Hey, I’d love it if there was a Mantiques Roadshow that travelled across the country. I could show up with a few changes of clothes, have a couple of funny stories prepared, bring a photo of me next to my motorcycle or holding a baby, and maybe have a few cool human tricks ready, like throwing a split-finger fastball or doing a Christopher Walken impression. Dating authorities would spend a few hours examining me, checking some references and doing some math. Then when they’re ready to make their assessment, they sit me down and tell me how it is…

Ben, we’ve seen very few men in their early 30s quite like you, though your type is found more often in places like Scandinavia and parts of Israel. Statistically, you’re tall, healthy and smart. You usually smell great and even though you don’t always photograph well, you have a full head of hair, which is a significant asset at this age. Given a look into your genetics, you should continue to hold up pretty well over time. You’re insecure sometimes, you have a pretty big nose and you can be loud and stubborn, but you tend to balance out those negative qualities with refreshing honesty, loyalty and compassion. Also, according to several perfectly honest references, you’re pretty good in the sack. 

So, something like you would normally go for a 7.1 to an 8.2, which provides approximately 300,000 women in the Greater Toronto Area who’d consider having sex with you.”

Never gonna happen.

The best you’re going to get is a very general sense of your alternatives by paying close attention to direct and indirect feedback and just going out and meeting a lot of people. That’s the exciting, elusive world of romance.       

So why the emphasis on “never settling”? Settling for what? Being miserable? Well, no shit. But it’s not always that simple because our painfully complicated brains are forever behind the wheel.

Helen Fisher, a well-known anthropologist, has studied people and their brains in the context of love for a very long time. In one of her more interesting Ted Talks, she delivered the following conclusion: “So I don’t think, honestly, we’re an animal that was built to be happy; we are an animal that was built to reproduce. I think the happiness we find, we make.”

So it’s not just about the situation; it’s about what we make of it. And sometimes, what we make of it is less than what we hoped. Maybe we’re hoping for the wrong thing. Or maybe our hopes are being exaggerated by irrational influences. Or maybe something really does suck and no good person should have to endure it.

It’s a complex situation. But what’s not complex is the reality that sometimes, you’re going to have to accept some things that feel like a compromise. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Adaptability, experimentation and growth are all positive parts of life; just as much or more than “knowing what you deserve”.      

So next time you’re talking to a glum friend in a rocky relationship and you’re about to say something about “settling”, just stop. Assume for a second that all of us will have to settle for something at some point, and then go back to the drawing board and whip up some thoughtful, productive advice. It seems like a small tweak, but it can make a big difference.

I want people to be ambitious and have the confidence to recognize when they’re underappreciated or getting the raw end of a deal. I want everyone to strive to achieve their very best. I like happy, honest, self-reflective people; we can always use more of those. But when it comes to shallow brats who navigate life one re-tweet at a time, I think we’re all stocked up.
Benjamin Mann is Toronto’s Standard dating columnist. Follow him on Twitter.

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