Trust us, we get it: Relationships are hard to come by, so it can be temping to stay in one even when you know (deep down) it's not actually meant to be. The trouble is, hanging on keeps you from finding the right relationship, and the kind of love that fulfills and sustains you.
In this excerpt from her new book The Love Gap ($26, amazon.com), journalist Jenna Birch highlights the common excuses we make to avoid the painful but necessary process of moving on. Ask yourself if these are the reasons you're still with your boo—and whether you may be settling.
The relationship is yours
In behavioral economics and psychology, “the endowment effect” explains the tendency of humans to assign more value to the things that they own just because they own them. Not only do people tend to be reluctant to trade their items for items of equal value (which they may even need), they also tend to pay more to retain their items than they are worth. Once you associate yourself with the item or person in question—maybe it’s an old concert T-shirt, or maybe it’s your assistant who is about to leave you for a higher-paying job—you’re going to have a harder time letting it go.
Maybe your T-shirt is really too small these days anyway. Maybe Janet was always just an okay assistant. If your BFF was struggling with either of these decisions, you’d say, “Donate it! Get the tax write-off,” or, “Let her go! You could hire another Janet tomorrow.” But it’s not your BFF. It’s you, and these are your things. You’re reluctant to let go because you chose that T-shirt and you chose Janet. There’s psychological value in that. It’s a loss, and humans are loss-averse.
We also see an endowment effect in relationships—whether it’s early days and he’s pulling back, or you’ve been together for years and can’t reconcile differences about a wedding, marriage, and future. You probably overvalue what you have, simply because it’s yours, and forget there are tons of people in the world who are potentially a better fit.
You have history together
History is a powerful thing. For as much depth and character as it can provide a couple’s story, history also keeps us hanging on to relationships way past their expiration date.
This is why you should consult your gut early and often—and especially before you take another step in the relationship, like making it official or getting engaged. When you are young and relationships are bright, shiny, and new, you need to amass experiences. You may have had a long-termer with someone who was totally wrong for you, and that’s okay. You were learning.
As you get older, though, you should get more discerning. You know what’s out there, what works for you, what feels wrong. You are aware of the unsettled feeling in the pit of your gut that says, Don’t go further! History can blind you to that feeling or rationalize it away. That is why you are going to ask yourself these two questions before every “big step,” or whenever you feel like something is wrong for too long:
• Does this relationship feel rare and different from any others I have found in the past?
• Is this relationship helping me become closer to the person I ultimately want to be?
You have to know when to walk away, cut your losses, and find the person who is actually right for you. This takes getting real with yourself. This takes knowing what makes a strong partner, acknowledging what you like and can’t stand in a guy, and recognizing that rare person who contains the “it” factor—the one whose long-term goals and desires line up with your own, who inspires you to be better, who values what you bring to the table.
Some mistake history for connection. It’s an offshoot of connection that can add to its beauty, but is not connection itself. History creates attachment, not connection. And if you’re clinging to history, you might never find the great and elusive “it.”
Positive experiences that greatly outweigh negative ones can sometimes bring couples back together when the timing is right. Negative or ho-hum experiences, which vastly outweigh the positives, are just history that you should learn from.
He fits an ideal
Some women say the darnedest things—like they will date only African American finance guys who are six foot four or taller and have an athlete’s pedigree. Or that they will date only Southern men with scruff who own farmland or are in possession of oil money. I kid you not. I have had real conversations with women who have told me the above.
Not only are these types of ideals a hindrance to finding a great guy in the first place, but they can keep you holding on to a guy who is totally not working for you. They can also keep you from asking the hard, real questions. Delia, a 29-year-old magazine editor in NYC, recalls dating a guy when she was in her early to mid-20s. “He was objectively great—attractive, ambitious, a wonderful person,” she says. “From the outside, people think you’re the perfect couple.”
Delia thinks she probably hung on to her ex simply because he seemed ideal—even though inside her relationship, he could not open up emotionally and they were never in sync with their humor or goals. “I tried to bring fun into our daily lives,” she says, to no avail. When Delia “added up their relationship on paper” after years, it finally did not work. “He wanted to get married, have kids, and stay in DC,” she says. “He had always assumed that path. For me, it was the bonus, but not the goal.”
Delia broke up with him, moved to NYC, and got her current job. Oh yeah, and a relationship built on connection. They've been together about a year: “He already gets me on such a deeper level,” she says. “He’s thirty-five. He’s been through relationships. We think about the world in the same way. He’s a great storyteller, and very creative. We love to hear about each other’s lives.”
This guy had so shifted Delia’s paradigms about a good relationship I couldn’t help but smile while talking to her—as if it were happening to me. “I feel like this is everything you hear about!” she explains. “The person makes you want to be your best self, you never get jealous . . . and you’re not crying all the time.” (That’s a good box to have checked.) “I think I bought into the older generation, who said, ‘Relationships are hard,’” she says. “So I was always thinking, ‘Well, how hard?’”
In reality, relationships aren’t hard. Life can be hard. A relationship with a person you deeply love and are compatible with should be easy.
You feel external pressure
You get pressure from every side to find The One—Mom can’t stop asking, Great Aunt Sue always brings it up at Thanksgiving, societal norms say women in relationships > single women, and there’s that silent-yet-deafening tick of the biological clock. But pressure is no reason to settle.
Lydia is one cool "full-package" woman. Not only is this DC-based 23-year-old working in communications, she just has an impressive life résumé. “I’m really interested in politics and international affairs, traveling,” she tells me when I ask her about her life. “I’ve lived in hostels in Australia and Europe. When I was in London, I met a lot of people who were like-minded.”
She is a smart, upbeat person who speaks with kindness and who can discuss just about anything—the kind of girl you’d definitely want in your squad. But Lydia is also perpetually single, and confident as she is, she’s not immune to the pressures of singledom. “Society doesn’t exactly help,” she says. “There is this woman at work who keeps asking me if I have a boyfriend—and it’s really hard when you want that companion.”
Recently married to Isabelle, 37-year-old Shawn, can also attest to this. When I ask him to name “traps” singles should avoid, he mentions only one: “If you are feeling external pressure to move forward in the relationship, be skeptical,” he says. This includes pressure from your friends, your family, societal expectations, on-paper ideals, your dog . . . whatever. “You should feel an internal push to move things forward,” he says. Internal pressure is your desire, which feels organic, exciting, and full of potential. External pressure is other people’s desires for you, which can feel uncomfortable, confusing, or even terrifying if you form relationships based upon it.
You’re lonely, and dating sucks
It’s okay to admit that you’re lonely. We are created for connection; a 2013 Gallup poll found that only 5% of Americans have never been married and say they don’t want to marry, meaning that most others have been married, are currently married, or want to marry in the future. But just because we’re basically all looking for connection, that doesn’t mean we find it whenever we desire it.
Hunkering down with the wrong person is only a barrier to meeting the right one—so you have to learn when to stay and when to leave. Take Landon, the 30-year-old journalist, for instance, who admitted to remaining in multiple relationships beyond their expiration dates when confronted with the alternatives of staying single or dating around—one vaguely sad, the other exhausting.
Lydia is similar, but she’s taken the opposite approach. She’s holding out until she meets a worthy candidate. “I’ve met and talked to lots of guys, but it always seems like just first dates or hookups,” she says. Deep down, Lydia knows she’s a relationship kind of girl, and she’s always had the courage to admit she wants something real. “I’ve never been in a relationship!” she says. “I want someone who cares about me—a partner, a form of support. When you go on dates and get ghosted repeatedly, you have to act like it doesn’t faze you. But I’ve spent whole mornings crying.”
Lydia meets plenty of guys. She’s been on apps. Even while she was abroad, she hit it off with multiple guys back to back—like one night at a speed-dating event, and another at a poetry reading. However, she has had no luck in finding a long-term connection.
While Lydia’s hunt for a real connection hasn’t been easy, it puts her in a better position to meet the right person, because she’s not expending tons of emotional energy on guys who don’t call her back, guys who only want a regular hookup buddy, or guys who just like the thrill of keeping multiple girls in rotation. She knows what she wants, and she’s keeping her eyes on the prize.
And remember: Settling is a way of life. It’s insidious, and it will catch up to you once you start down the path of making small concessions. So keep asking yourself those two questions—and don’t hang on to a relationship out of comfort, history, fear, pressure, or loneliness.
You’re not being picky; you’re remaining selective to find long-term compatibility. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
Excerpted from The Love Gap: A Radical Plan to Win in Life and Love by Jenna Birch. Copyright © 2018 by Jenna Birch Reprinted by permission of Grand Central Life & Style, an imprint of Grand Central Publishing.