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Published by  
Wes Myers
March 29, 2024

Why Do People Settle?

In a world of abundance, primal fears keep people in bad relationships.
Wes Myers is the co-Founder and CBO of Keeper, an experienced matchmaker, and relationship expert. He is an Iraq veteran and Wharton MBA.

There are 8 billion people in the world.

Theoretically, that’s 4 billion people you could spend your life with. Cut out everyone who isn’t already taken and who doesn’t make sense due to age, geography, etc. - that's still more people than you could meet in one lifetime.

The average American knows 611 people by name, and right now there are thousands of potential suitors on dating apps, at parties, and standing in line at your nearest Starbucks. You could be introducing yourself to any one of them at this very moment.

Despite this abundance, a lot of people settle.

What does it mean to settle?

When you settle, it means you resign yourself to a relationship that falls short of your desires, standards, and needs. Settling is when you don’t find the relationship fulfilling and don’t expect it to get better, but for whatever reason decide to stay.

Settling is not to be confused with compromise. Compromise is a normal component of any mature relationship involving give-and-take from both parties to create harmony. Recognizing that no relationship is completely perfect right away, compromise is the process by which two people work together to build a satisfying relationship where both partners’ needs are met. It’s a collaborative process of growing together involving work, effort, and effective communication.

Compromise is about two people working to improve themselves because the relationship is worth sacrifice. Settling happens in absence of compromise, or after compromise has failed. It’s a unilateral decision by one person to persist in a relationship that fails their expectations while knowing improvement is unlikely.

Why do people feel pressure to settle?

People settle for many reasons, psychological and social. Here are several factors to account for why people settle.

Fear of Loneliness

Fear of loneliness is a primary reason people settle. Humans have a primal fear of being alone inherited from our ancestors, whose survival and well-being depended on their bonds with others. Historically, we thrived in tightly-knit communities where cooperation and teamwork were essential for staying alive. Being alone meant greater vulnerability to predators, starvation, and the elements. Over millennia, evolution selected for genes with a strong aversion to solitude, which were less likely to face peril through isolation from the tribal group.

In the primal world, romantic partnership served as an important signal to help an individual maintain their standing among the community. Being in a relationship indicated to others that one was trustworthy, cooperative, and a valuable ally. Leaving a relationship could jeopardize this perception, leading to a decrease in social standing and, by extension, access to communal resources, assistance, and goodwill.

Someone who fears loneliness does not simply fear the absence of a specific person. More existentially, they fear losing the connection, validation, and security that come with being in a relationship. This fear can lead them to forget their standards and accept relationships that are unsatisfying and even harmful, perceiving that being in any relationship is preferable to being alone.

Fear of the Unknown

We humans also have a basic instinct to seek safety and avoid risk. Our brains are wired to perceive the unknown as a source of threats, because we evolved in an environment where every unfamiliar sight or sound could be a hungry predator with large teeth. This ingrained a deep-seated bias toward overestimating the dangers of the unknown.

The devil you know, as the saying goes, is less daunting than the devil you don’t.

Even unhappy relationships come with a measure of familiarity and comfort that can make the thought of leaving seem dangerous. They provide a known structure with well-understood roles and dynamics, the predictability of which provide psychological safety. Leaving injects major uncertainty into life: rejection, heartbreak, possible regret. What if I can’t find someone better? What if I am the problem after all?

The safety of the familiar can make up for a lot of dissatisfaction and disagreement, providing a powerful impetus to settle in an unsatisfying situation.

Fear of Failure

The fear of failure is tied to our instinctual dread about not meeting societal, familial, and personal expectations. It’s not about the relationship itself, but the status and competency the relationship represents. Admitting a relationship has failed might mean admitting you have failed, creating a paralyzing sense of inadequacy and disappointment. One way to avoid this uncomfortable admission is by settling.

In advanced cultures, a long-term relationship (typically marriage) is seen as a normal milestone of adulthood. The failure of a relationship, then, becomes not just a personal loss but a public one - a mark against your social standing and self-worth - especially as you age. Think about the scandal and gossip surrounding a small-town divorce. What will the neighbors say? What will our parents say?

When fear of failure meets fear of the unknown, someone will remain in a bad situation because to leave is not only an admission of failure, but also introduces the promise of future failures in the fraught world of modern dating. Better to stay where you are than embark on a painful journey of trials and uncertainty on the search for a new life, especially when a better outcome feels like no guarantee.

Sunk Cost Fallacy

The sunk cost fallacy is when you continue investing in a project or activity (in this case a relationship) because of resources you’ve already committed, like time, money, and emotions. It’s a failure of logic where you believe throwing more resources at the problem somehow justifies previous expenditures.

Imagine purchasing tickets to a concert. On the day of the event, a severe storm washes out the venue and turns it into a hellacious mud pit. The rational choice might be to stay home so you don’t have to wade through a mucky field and stand in the freezing rain for three hours. The sunk cost fallacy would compel you to attend anyway, driven by your desire to not ‘waste’ the money spent on the ticket - even though it's irrecoverable.

The takeaway is that decisions should be based on current and future benefit, not resources that have already been expended. In the case of settling, resources can include time and emotions, or a wedding, a house, and kids.

When someone settles, their thought process might go something like this: “I’ve already spent so much time on this, so it must be worth saving,” or “leaving now would mean all those years were wasted,” even if rational assessment says improvement is unlikely. It’s a refusal to acknowledge that the best course of action may be to cut your losses and move on because you don’t want to write off what’s already been wasted.

Low Self-Esteem and Insecurity

Someone with low self-esteem has a distorted view of their own value and what they deserve from a relationship, skewing their decision-making and magnifying the above-mentioned fears. Moreover, they’re less likely to enforce boundaries and demand more from their relationship in the first place, causing them skip compromise and move straight to settling.

Low self-esteem can make you believe you’re not worthy of someone who treats you with kindness, respect, and genuine affection. People with low self-esteem will often rationalize poor treatment and dissatisfaction as basic things they must endure to not be alone, fearing that to express their dissatisfaction will drive their partner away.

If I believe I am fundamentally unlovable as I am, that means I’ll need to accommodate my partner’s needs and desires at the expense of my own in any relationship. Why would I leave my current situation if I expect to feel the same way with anyone I could be with?

Additionally, people with low self-esteem are more susceptible to manipulation and control, which make exiting a relationship even more difficult. They’re likely to interpret possessiveness and extreme jealousy as signs of love and commitment instead of red flags. They’re also more susceptible to the phenomenon of ‘relationship confirmation bias’ where they seek out relationships that affirm their negative self-beliefs. If someone believes they are unworthy of compassionate love, they may unconsciously choose partners who reinforce this belief, further entrenching their issues.

Low self-esteem is tied very closely with insecurity, characterized by a pervasive self-doubt and a perception that one does not measure up to some perceived standard of worthiness or desirability. Insecurity breeds a scarcity mindset where every opportunity for love or connection feels like it might be your last. This fear of missing out and not being able to find better can push someone to hold onto a relationship that isn’t happy or healthy, wondering “What if this is the last chance I get?”

Am I settling?

Determining whether you’re settling requires introspection and self-honesty. You must recognize the difference between compromise and settling, and be able to determine what actions characterize which.

If you find yourself constantly making excuses for your partner’s behavior or the state of your relationship, either to yourself or others, that’s a red flag. A healthy relationship shouldn’t require you to justify your unhappiness or how you’re treated.

Another indicator is your emotional state. If you’re constantly questioning your happiness or imagining a life with someone else, these are signs you may be settling. You should feel your relationship is enhancing your life, not detracting from it by forcing you to abandon core values and standards.

Reflect on your fears and your feelings about the future. If the primary reason you’re staying in a relationship is fear that you won’t find someone else to love you, that’s a clear sign of settling. If you can’t envision your future with your partner, or if the thought of your future fills you with dread or indifference instead of excitement, that’s another clear indicator.

Recognizing that you’re settling isn’t an indictment of your character or worth. It’s an opportunity to realign with what you truly deserve and desire. A little pain now will unlock greater fulfilment once you’ve put yourself in a happier situation.

How do I find the strength to leave someone I’m settling for?

If you’re asking this question, then you’ve already overcome the hard part by recognizing that you’ve settled in the first place.

Settling in an unfulfilling relationship is a disservice to you and your partner. You’re denying yourself a relationship that brings you the joy you deserve, and you’re denying your partner the chance to be with someone who values and desires them instead of someone who’s settling for them.

You must confront your fears head-on. Your fears are based on worst-case scenarios, and there are so many people in the world you could be with. Being alone is better than being in a relationship where you feel alone.

Reframe the prospect of being single as an opportunity for self-discovery and new surprises, not a sentence to loneliness. Surround yourself with friends and family who understand your situation and can offer encouragement.

Finally, envision and plan for your future. Imagine a life without your current partner. What are you doing? What are your goals and aspirations? The power of positive thinking is real. Focus on the rich possibilities the future holds. Work on your career. Consider learning a new skill or improving your diet and fitness. Try a new hobby where you can make new friends.

Leaving a relationship where you feel you’re settling is an act of courage and self-respect. While the process is painful, the outcome - a life lived authentically and joyfully - is worth the effort.

Should I end my relationship if I think I'm settling?

Before you decide to leave someone you feel you’re settling for, gauge your feelings and your chances at improving the relationship. If your heart’s telling you to stay or go, that needs to be taken into strong consideration.

Take time for self-reflection. Seek feedback from trusted friends or relatives to determine if you’re being unreasonable. Assess whether the issue can be solved through conscious work between you and your partner, and how willing you each are to do that work. Consider what you could do differently and try to determine whether there’s room for improvement, or if your issues are beyond fixing.

If you’re torn on what to do, ask yourself these questions:

  • Have I told my partner my needs are not being met?
  • Has my partner made effort to accommodate me, knowing that my needs are not being met?
  • Are both my partner and I prepared to do the work required to fix the relationship?
  • Have there been successful resolutions to past problems between us?

It’s important to declare your standards and act on them. You have to be honest with yourself about what you’re willing to accept and where you draw the line.

If you feel like you’re settling, you have two choices.

  1. Leave.
  2. Stay, but work on improving your relationship with buy-in from your partner.

If you decide to stay, you have to commit to having the courage to leave if things do not change. If things do not change and you stay, then you have decided to settle.

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