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Why Do People Settle In Their 20s?

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Photo: Mary Galloway
“Single women lead lonely, depressing and incomplete lives. Their unhappiness increases exponentially with each passing birthday, because past a certain age a woman is ‘used up.’ All women are desperate to marry or remarry because marriage is their only real chance for security and happiness.”

This is a quote from a 1994 academic paper on the subject of settling, by Anderson & Stewart, which looked into decoding myths about singledom. While it's easy to write off as sexist crap, I find myself stalling over the words: "Marriage is their only real chance for security."

Whether we talk about our need for "security" this overtly or not, the issue is underscored by the language we use to talk about relationships; "I wasted those years"; "I'm single"; "meet my other half"; "I've been ghosted"; "We've broken up." Another of those sinister words is "settling" – a phenomenon that's been relatively well documented in terms of women's romantic behavioural patterns. The question is, what can this "security" possibly mean when you're only in your mid-20s? Is it financial, is it emotional, is it to do with social pressures?

Lori Gottlieb is an American author. Her 2010 book Mr Good Enough pissed off every feminist going when it was published to include a trite observation that: "Every woman I know – no matter how successful and ambitious, how financially and emotionally secure – feels panic, occasionally coupled with desperation, if she hits 30 and finds herself unmarried." Sounds like something from a Jane Austen novel, right? Sounds like something from a 1994 academic paper, right?

Journalist Melissa Lafsky published a reactive think-piece on Gottlieb's incendiary book on The Huffington Post: "Screw you, Lori Gottlieb. Screw you for exploiting my deepest fears for a piece you knew would clang the inflammatory gong. Screw you for cashing in after injecting me with your own regret and disappointment." If you think that's a bitter retort, fellow journalist Moe Tkacik's impassioned response piece on Jezebel was entitled 'What's Lori Gottlieb Smoking?'

It's easy to be lulled into a false sense of progression, but I strongly detect these arguments seeping through into our Newspeak today – in our romcoms, our magazines, our memes. We're all familiar with the folklore of the woman who "settled" for a bloke because their minute-hand just ticked over the 30 stroke. 'She married him, just in time, and they moved into a shoe in South London and had lots of children – crisis averted!'

Yet, somehow, this rhetoric has stumbled, IV drip intact, hospital nightie flapping in the wind, into 2016, and refuses to die. The sad reality is that, despite the popularisation of Feminism, the proliferation of conversation around women's autonomy at every trendy east London panel, the Tumblrs, the Instagram accounts, and the brilliant zines being laid at the alter of 'the fourth wave', I still know lots of upwardly mobile, 20-something women, on half-decent pay cheques, who have wonderful relationships- then there are the odd ones, friends of friends, who I wonder if deep down, have "settled".

Why don't I just ask these people I know outright whether they think they've made a compromise? Because, of course, it's really awkward. I am 25 turning 26 very soon (so what do I know?) but I have harboured anxious questions about some of my friends' partners (only a few- and only at intervals). Like, "Really, him?" and "Are you happy? Are you having fun? Does he make you laugh?" I have wondered, occasionally out loud, about their true feelings towards these individuals that they're choosing to stay in with on a Saturday night, because I have been there, head on someone's chest, wondering if this is what I want.

Of course, I could just be jealous – and maybe these men/boys, with their expensive jeans and "cool" media jobs are actually hilarious behind closed doors. Maybe they're so cerebral that a trip to the cinema with her mates would just be too dull. Maybe they're just really, really good in bed. Maybe it's that they brush her hair in the shower and make a good curry from scratch. But I doubt it. But then I hear them lamenting the bad love-making and the lack of 'get up and go'. But then I see them the next day, from behind, stood side by side at the bus stop, hands entwined, idly looking into the distance.
I don't blame my friends if they are "settling" pro tem, because in amongst the mixed messaging of this techno-industrial existence we find ourselves rushing through, I can comprehend the desire for something fixed. I have settled before and I just don't want to do it now. I have paused, at varying intervals, looked at the boy I find myself sat across from at a bar – really looked him up and down – like a homeowner might at an empty loft space, and thought, 'What might I do with you? Maybe I'll put my things in you and live in you for a bit. It might be cosy. I might feel comfortable.'

I've thought about it, hard, and concluded that I'm too much of a narcissist to spend my time with someone I don't perceive to be wonderfully smart and extremely sexy. I of course, have also been weighed and measured and been found to be lacking. But, I still think a relationship should be "special" – is that childish? As the academic Barbara DeAngelis wrote: "Living with integrity [means] not settling for less than you know you deserve."
I just never imagined "settling" would be a 20-something past time, but then, I guess, times are tough. Rent is expensive, jobs are scarce, social media is a rash of anxiety that most are afflicted by, dating apps make us all romantically dispensable, and, well, London's relentless. Socialising can be relentless, having fun can be relentless, and I can see why my friends meet these people – on apps, through friends, at work – and quickly settle into what I perceive to be a compromising existence, because I guess, in all the confusion, it's a consistent (if somewhat temporary) ally.

When I think of settling, I'm reminded of the unapologetic satire deployed in the film, The Lobster – a film that unceremoniously unmasks romance and dating one false lash at a time. Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, the plot revolves around recently single people who come to a rural "hotel" to meet a match. They have 45 days to do this, else they are transformed into an animal (David, our protagonist, chooses a lobster, because they can live for up to 100 years.) Brave losers, who fail to meet a partner at the "spa, sometimes flee into the nearby wooded forest and are referred to as "loners".

How does it all work out? Well, one woman throws herself off the hotel roof rather than face another failed date. The guests – read as us – desperately seek things they might have in common with one another. One man breaks his nose in order for a girl who suffers from nose bleeds to take a shine to him. Another pretends to be heartless by letting a potential girlfriend drown in the jacuzzi knowing that she's a psychopath who is attempting to fake her own death. Needless to say, when she remerges from the bubble, she is won over and they get engaged.
What the players in Lanthimos' Greek tragedy are doing is "compromising"; adjusting aspects of their personality to attract a potential partner. The compromise, the desire to "settle" – a desire that comes to burn stronger than any erotic desire in the film – is born out of fear. A fear of being alone. Of being "single", "unattached" and "available". The Lobster is a two-hour long open-heart-surgery that cuts deep into our own nonsensical dating rituals; the pomposity of our mating postures, the idolatry that western society imbues into the "married couple" (the words 'tax break' whisper in the wind) and the extraordinarily dreary lengths we go to to achieve it. But does the film reflect real life?
To find out, I very neatly laid my British politeness to one side (just for a moment) and hid behind a cheerily-worded email asking my friends, really, really casually, if they'd ever "settle" and if, in the event that they had, would they please tell me why. Here's what they said...

Nicole*, 27, who had lived with a boyfriend for three years, confirmed to me that she had settled because she was afraid. "I’d like to think I'm a pretty strong, independent woman, but I think I stayed with him because the thought of not having someone to spoon at night was too frightening. I knew I was settling, my friends knew I was settling, and worst of all, he knew I was settling. I went along with it and convinced myself that I loved him, but you can never really fool yourself for too long." The relationship ended when both cheated on one another. And yes, we all knew she'd settled, and no, no one spoke about it.

My other friend Christine* still lives with her boyfriend. She's 25 and he's 32. In fact they very recently signed a year-long contract on a flat, despite breaking up and getting back together several times already this year. "The idea of not being with him is one I can completely get my head around. But being alone is not something I'm sure I could do. I get really, really wound up sometimes thinking that he's settling too; I'll lock myself in the bathroom and cry because I feel so angry. Then I see my single friends paying lots of rent, still going out and getting really pissed every weekend and I think I've made the right decision. It changes every day. I'll worry about it when I have to, and I know that's not healthy."

Finally, I hear from my friend Frankie*, who is 28 and to my knowledge has been single for as long as I've known her. "Not entirely true," she explains. "I met *Mark on an app last summer and I play girlfriend with him on the weekend and week nights. He thinks it's a proper relationship despite the fact he's only ever 'accidentally' met my housemate and none of my other friends. We don't have any shared interests, but it's convenient in that he treats me well and the sex is amazing. I've also convinced myself that the guy that ticks all the boxes isn't going to like me."

I spoke to Oliver Burkeman, author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking, about the phenomenon of settling, and why we do it, and his answer hit the proverbial notch on the bedpost.

"My problem with the idea of 'settling' is that, actually, I think everyone 'settles', in romance and every other area of life, all the time, whether they realise it or not. Any choice you make always involves turning down an infinite number of alternatives, and making a tradeoff – choosing certain benefits in return for missing out on others.

"In fact, when you think about it, even deciding not to settle is a kind of settling: if you spend your twenties and thirties dating lots of people instead of choosing one, then you are getting one set of benefits (excitement, freedom) and sacrificing another set of benefits (security, a deep connection). That might well be the right answer for you, of course – it's a perfectly good choice. But you're still making a tradeoff. That definitely doesn't mean you should just marry the first person who comes along, or settle for someone obnoxious or abusive, or have low standards. It just means realising that it will always be true in theory that you could be happier with some other life, some other person, some other job. "

I think the trade off that Oliver talks about requires an understanding of your emotional priorities – whether excitement makes you feel good in this moment, or whether stability is what you truly desire. And it's about being true to your gut. Don't ever compromise on your gut, is what I think we can all agree on. That and life is a series of little compromises and settlings and that is not all bad- great things come from putting someone else first; changing your own behavioural patterns and doing things you wouldn't normally.

While I accept Olivier's notion of constant compromise, for me it's like this: I think we need to kick the doll's house. I think we need to stop for a moment, and take a look at the language were all guilty of engaging within. I think we should at least try to let go of the "fear" of an empty bed and embrace the space to roll about in it instead. We could all do with acknowledging the pressures of finding a partner and having a good old laugh at them from time to time. I should not be critical of other people's lifestyles in the hope that they aren't of mine. I look forward to future relationships and their endings too. I think if we all loosened up a bit and laughed at the madness of it all, we might be able to see more clearly about what makes us, personally, as close to content as we, as humans, can manage.

I am, of course, talking as straight a woman in her mid-twenties. I'm not yet asked about the absence of a swollen stomach, or how my down payments are coming along – all in good time. But I am forever asked about who I am 'dating', 'seeing', 'texting'. The answer for now is "my friends and my family".

I will leave the last word to comedian and author of Modern Love, Aziz Ansari, who invites us to imagine a universe where matrimony isn't such a big deal:

“Imagine if marriage didn’t exist, and you’re a guy and you ask someone to get married. Imagine what that conversation would be like. You’d be the guy and you’d be like:

[guy’s voice]: Hey, so we’ve been hanging out all the time, spending a lot of time together and everything.

[girl’s voice]: Yeah, yeah. I know.

[guy’s voice]: I wanna keep doing that… until you’re dead. I want to keep hanging out with you until one of us dies. Put this ring on your finger so people know we have an arrangement.

[girl’s voice]: Who’s that guy?

[guy’s voice]: It’s a priest. I want you to swear to God you won’t back out of this deal.

[girl’s voice]: This is really strange. Why are we doing this?

[guy’s voice]: Tax purposes."
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