There are plenty of labels assigned to chronically single women, but there’s one in particular that’s dipped in blame with just a touch of accusation. I’ve heard the word for most of my adult life, even dating back to my teen years.

“Picky.”

I was often labeled “picky” by a myriad of men who saw my single status as a sign that I was doing something wrong, occasionally by friends who were paired off and wanted me to be, sometimes by family members who knew nothing of my dating history. “Well, you must be picky.”

I never liked being called “picky.” It seemed petty. The word made me feel like I was some dreamy young girl with her head in the stars. It made me contemplate questions like, “Am I being too hard on men?” or “Is what I want unrealistic?”

See, entertaining the word “picky” is the gateway drug to settling.

Most of us have had at least one spark-filled relationship with an emotionally unavailable partner who didn’t really want to commit. The kind that left us thinking, Okay. Not fun. Let’s try something different…

And so we do. And for every one-date wonder, there’s a person we go on multiple dates with despite a conspicuous absence of something, chemistry, connection — that thing that makes us excited to put down our book or face inclement weather just to see someone. We think, Maybe. We hope.

I used to wonder the longest a person ever waited for an emotional blip to magically materialize with their soulmate. My personal cut-off was five dates with the great-on-paper guy, all of which felt just a little bit empty and made me happy to return home alone.

The truth of the matter is no one tells you what it looks like to settle.

I’ve seen a lot of women internalize the idea that they are “picky” and decide to try being a little bit lonely within a relationship. One friend, over coffee, 10 months in with her girlfriend, said she felt “destined” for that distinct form of emptiness. Another such friend called me many months into her relationship, crying on the way home from a canoe trip because she felt so “disconnected” from her boyfriend (they are still together).

Yet another friend said her current relationship felt sort of like being caged, but at least it was better than her last one. “That was like being in chains. It’s better by comparison.” Eventually, she copped to the problem: “I can’t help but feel I’m missing out on something else out there.” This couple is also still together.

The truth of the matter is no one tells you what it looks like to settle. Maybe that’s because most people feel unsure about what it looks like. A recent study published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science revealed that those considering a breakup typically had firm reasons for leaving and for staying. This leads to an I-don’t-know-maybe-I-should-but-then-again-maybe-I-shouldn’t sort of ambivalence where something tells you that you should probably end it, but then again, it’s pretty…okay. You think you might be settling, but also, what if this is all there is? What if this is “good enough”?

I sat across the table from a friend years ago as she contemplated the question of settling with a sparkly diamond lodged between middle and pinky finger. As soon as the waiter left us alone, she asked me, “What do you think it means to settle? I mean, what is it, actually?” It was the first time anyone had asked me point blank. Her fiancé was one of the great-on-paper types, but I could see her angst grow the closer the big day got. This query felt like a massive philosophical conundrum akin to the meaning to life.

My answer to her was gut-level. It is still my answer to anyone who asks me today. “It’s settling if you feel like it is.”

The definition of settling can’t possibly be universal; settling is individually felt, a gut-check against every measure of connection we’ve experienced and imagine to exist. I know I’ve grown up on enough Disney fairy tales and rom-coms to feel unsure if my expectations are skewed. To end it with that guy who makes me feel just a little bit empty, I have to believe that what I’m looking for is out there, even though I’ve yet to encounter it — or, at the very least, seen it stabilize into a lasting relationship.

But our generation just wasn’t designed to settle on connection. We’re idealistic, emotionally intelligent. More women are more financially independent and self-supporting than ever before, surging past our male counterparts. We’ve embraced assortative mating with our equals, both professionally and in education, meaning relationships are purely by choice and for love — a very new phenomenon in the entire scheme of history.

With increasing “options” in the dating landscape, we’re also delaying marriage and kids in favor of playing life’s great field, frequently to gather data and solidify what we’re looking for. We explore different types in search of someone who feels like The One, at the right time, who wants the sort of partnership we want, supports our dreams and wants to merge lives.

Pheeew, that’s a lot. But we alternate between phases where we’re committed to the vision, and phases where we question our single status or if our ideals are unreasonable. Maybe someone calls us that oh-so triggering word “picky,” or implies it. You can often repeat the same dating cycles over and over again for years until you exhaust yourself out of the dating market.

I got over the pressure to find a relationship somewhere in the middle of writing my book last year. I think it was something I felt, long before I was actually able to articulate it, as I didn’t have time to date anyway. Despite being single for most of my life, it was the first time I truly and deeply sunk into that singleness and embraced it for what it was: Awesome. I related when Rashida Jones, in an interview for The Guardian, said: “I had the full princess fantasy: the white horse, the whole being saved from my life, which is ridiculous. What do I want to be saved from? My life’s great!” Ah. Yes. I could inspire myself.

You don’t owe anyone an explanation for ending a relationship or staying single.

So then, with dating, I was looking for something else. Not saving, but something greater than what I had alone. I realized that dating all the wrong men was a barrier to feeling inspired, and I can honestly say those inspired connections are very rare.

And what is connection, anyway? Another tricky word to define. It can be described a lot of ways: attachment, support, understanding, history. But the connection modern-day daters are looking for? I firmly believe it’s feeling the endless potential for growth with a single person. Per psychologist Arthur Aron’s self-expansion model, it’s someone who seems to help you become more, which might be harder to find than ever before.

Simply put, most modern women don’t “need” a relationship for opportunities, as they might have benefitted from one in the past. We are pursuing more, and slowly obtaining it. We are independent, financially and in spirit. We are the bosses of our own lives. Rather than shirk away from our single status, why not think of it as an achievement? We’ve earned it.

The next time someone insists you’re too picky, do what I do: Tell them you prefer “selective.” You have every right to be. You don’t owe anyone an explanation for ending a relationship or staying single.

But on a personal level, the next time you wonder if you’ve been too picky, ask yourself if you’ve (realistically) broken it off with any commitment-oriented prospects who inspired you. The next time you wonder if you’re settling, ask yourself if it feels like you are. The next time you wonder what connection really is, and if you’ve ever found it, ask yourself if you’ve felt that “click” with anyone who seemed to provide genuine opportunity for growth (together and apart).

I’m a big believer in feeling your romantic decisions deep in your core, no matter what they are, no matter who on the outside does/doesn’t understand. The law of not settling is “f*ck yes or no” to the bare-bones connection you feel with a potential partner. Anything less, and you either have more data to collect through dating so you don’t always wonder, or you haven’t found the great and magical “it” yet.

So, how do you know you’re not settling? You don’t feel like you are. The relationship in question might not always be easy, but the decision to pursue it should be.

Jenna Birch is author of The Love Gap (January 2018, Grand Central Life & Style). Click here to read her last post for Man Repeller, “What If This is the Reason Straight Dudes Won’t Commit?”

Illustrations by Katherine Moffett; follow her on Instagram @whensdessert.

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  • Lynn

    I was 45 when I met the man I eventually married. There was nothing wrong with the other men I had dated — I am still friends with some of them — but I never felt like I had found the person I could be with without reservation. Sometimes it was lack of shared goals or ideas of what the future should look like. Sometimes it just came down to not feeling like the relationship was effortless. So much work and still you aren’t really connected.

    As soon as I met my husband, it was easy to see what was missing before. We had a true emotional connection, shared interests and goals.

    Be “picky”. Find the person you really want to be with.

    • Imaiya Ravichandran

      i love this so much, i could cry!!!! <3

  • Andie

    Long time reader, first time poster here, hi! Thanks for this, it is so on point. Your gut tells you your own truth, in its purest form. But at least for me, it can often be the softest voice and take the most courage to actually listen to. It has taken me time (basically the entirety of my 20s) to figure out what it is that I want and need from life and my relationships. Along the way, I would let my partners partially shape what I thought I wanted. Inevitably, those relationships ended once my gut boomeranged back and made it clear things were not right. I have always admired those who have always been confidently themselves, but for me, my gut has become louder as I’ve gotten older and more secure in who I am.

    • Jenna

      Soooo agree. Gut feeling is always there, just buried under a whole lotta other stuff. Takes a while to learn the sound of that voice.

  • Rachel

    Up until I was about 20 I had never been on a date, never been kissed, nothing! So when I jumped into the dating world (with many insecurities about myself and body) I kind of latched onto the first guy who showed genuine romantic (not just physical) interest in me. The relationship turned out horrible and I realized after how I had been settling. After that I became very selective in who I decided to go on dates with. I was using Tinder mostly and I would often agree to meeting someone but then cancel because I just wasn’t excited about it and for me excitement about a date was the gut feeling I needed to pursue a relationship. Finally I met someone I had hat gut feeling about and was so excited and nervous to meet. We’re still together now after 2 years. Being selective is not a bad thing and it enables you to find someone who is more right for you.

    • Jenna

      This is awesome, Rachel. So happy for you. <3

  • kay

    so i have zero actual evidence to base this question on, but in conversations about settling i always wonder is there something going on around status. like is part of the internal settling conflict around like “is this choice of guy going to reflect well on me” or something like that that’s separate from what the actual connection is like between people. maybe all that happens before you get to know someone well enough to have a connection, idk.

    • Micah Lpez

      I think about the same question sometimes, alot of people tend to present this idealistic way of finding love. If we find someone who stimulates us then they must be the one right ? but this idea dosent take into account the societal pressures that we put on partners and what means to be a partner in life . It would be pretty bizarre if a women who was a partner at a law firm marrying a Starbucks barista because they had a “connection.”

    • Lauren Nicole

      I think about that a lot too actually, or just the pressure of being happy in a relationship because you got yourself into it. Especially when there may be nothing obviously “wrong” from an outsider’s perspective.

    • Danielle Cardona Graff

      I think that is a very fair question to ask. Who we chose to be with is of course a reflection of our own selves. I know idealistically we aren’t supposed to care what someone does for a living for example, BUT, one’s career path does indicate on some level, one’s interests, education, level of ambition, and of course socioeconomic status. It is completely understandable that a man or woman might seek out a partner on the same-or similar level as they are.

  • Adrianna

    You either want to spend time with somebody, or you don’t. You either like somebody, or you don’t.

    We make a lot of assumptions about people based on the checklists we create. I was picky in college, didn’t date much, but I also had a specific idea of who I was looking for. I wasn’t connecting with anyone, but I was also going through a low point personally. I probably wouldn’t have had a positive experience with dating apps if I was making decisions based on looks and keywords. I had no intention of dating someone who played football in high school, was in a fraternity in college, and wasn’t a slim hipster. I wouldn’t have swiped right on my boyfriend (of 5.5 years) on an app, but we had immediate chemistry when we met.

    In other words, we should be picky. But about how people make us feel, not about who they are on paper.

  • katherine

    Yas!!! 🙌 Love this and think this is an amazing perspective for both long term single gals (myself) and people in relationships.

  • Elizabeth

    I ALWAYS think about this. But sometimes its hard for me to separate “settling” from the feeling of having endless options because our generation is so connected (or disconnected?). Is there something better out there? Even if I was with my “soulmate” would i always wonder because no relationship is truly perfect? Sometimes I feel like I am such a perfectionist I am never going to be TOTALLY happy in any relationship/career.

    • Micah Lpez

      That’s the big problem I think with our generation, there will ALWAYS be a what if !!! Truly you can never be content with what is in front of you .

    • Mollie Ward

      I am actually crying in confusion about the same thing. And queue my period tomorrow ahah
      But in all seriousness, I find it really hard to even understand my feelings. Am I settling or am I never content with anything?

      • Grace Wheaton

        Can I suggest watching the movie “Take This Waltz” since it’s great for those feelings of “am I missing out on something/someone better” and wanting something/someone “new” .. but as they say in that movie, new relationships and “new things get old too”. Hope that helps!

    • mscary

      I always think about the saying “better is the enemy of good.”

      It’s not that we can’t put our lives under the microscope and ask ourselves these tough questions (am I happy? etc.), but sometimes we spiral into that abyss of options and it becomes all about what we could have instead of what we do have. I think those feelings are just part of being alive, it’s never going to feel completely right all the time because nothing makes any sense if you think on it long enough.

      Whenever I catch myself in that spiral, I just stop for a second and remind myself that better is the enemy of good. 60% of the time, it works every time.

  • Emily

    I think, absolutely don’t settle in terms of finding someone who feels right to you, and whom you click with – but give someone a chance for a date or two even if they aren’t your usual ‘type,’ because settling should be about not giving in to emotionally having less, but should not relate to some idealized person in your head or checklist you have going. I also wanted to note that, while your friend who feels caged is alarming, it can be normal to still feel lonely or at times disconnected while in a relationship and it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re settling or even unfulfilled.

  • Jay

    This is one of the articles I just need to digest first. Ill be back.

    For the time being: SPOILER… I was all about settling. Till.. well it just didn’t work out the way it was planned to work out. And we both felt it.

    And you know what is even worse than a heartbreak? A lifebreak. When you thought you’d settle on this one. And have it all mapped out. But then you figure you cant. And have to come up with another plan.

    So love love love your advice Jenna.

    Give it some more time. I‘ll try myself this time around.

  • Renee

    Very picky, or rather ‘selective’ person here. I guess I’m lucky because I don’t think I have ever felt external or internal pressure to find a relationship like the author has. But I will say sometimes I crave having a real connection with someone, just being excited about someone. You know, being a little nervous to text them or meet them for dinner, etc. I like my single life, a lot (it’s so nice to be on my own time and do things when I want to do them) but I do miss getting that feeling of, ‘like-like’. That’s really the only the part of single life that bums me out somedays.

  • I just saw an ex this weekend and it made me completely rethink breaking up with him. The attraction and ease of slipping past small talk into great conversation hit me like a truck, and now I can’t figure out if I thought I would be settling when I said I couldn’t do it anymore, or if I gave up too early on someone who really loved me.

    So i guess… how do you know what problems are likely fixable and what ones aren’t worth the time and effort?

    • Taperjeangirl

      What was it that broke you guys up?

      • Basically, we broke up because we were long distance and I didn’t think I would be able to continue to afford the travel and then deal with the emotional stress/longing distance brings; he wanted to be able to find a compromise that worked for us and to start planning a future. But, I spent most of my previous long term relationship long distance and was in a precarious situation career-wise at the time that was giving me so much anxiety that I was having frequent panic attacks.

        • Jenna

          That sounds rough, Lisa. It sounds like you broke up for a timing reason, though, not because there was anything wrong with the relationship or connection. Is he still single? Do you think there’s a compromise you two could agree upon now to make it work? I think circumstances often change, as well as our ability to juggle all aspects of life. Sometimes, what seems impossible one year can look totally different in a year or two.

          • We’re both having ‘trying to have a fling’ with new people right now (lol, his words). Yeah, my career situation has since improved, and as you say, what felt impossible this past spring now seems doable.

    • Jenna

      Seconding that question… Why did you guys split?

      Occasionally (rarely), I think that feeling of settling can be a timing problem. You don’t always have enough experience/data to know what the real deal looks like or what you need, and if you don’t break up and explore, you may always wonder or feel unsure.

    • Leah

      If its just the slipping back that gets you maybe there’s something else going on, it could be you miss having that connection with someone and find it again in him. So I guess the question is do you miss being with him because of who he made you or how he made you feel?

  • Umm, THANK YOU!!! Thank you for making me feel empowered and not like I should be ashamed of being single. Favoriting this article to refer to again and again.

  • Jen

    This. Currently in a long term relationship where I ask myself if I can commit to a future or if I should move on and look for that spark. I guess my problem is I’ve made such bad decisions in the past, I’m unsure if my gut is telling me the right thing. Sometimes I wonder if I’m self sabotaging and being self destructive. And chasing an unrealistic love that isn’t possible.

    • Jenna

      Does the relationship grow you, or does it feel truly stagnant? I think that’s crucial.

      • Jen

        Hmm it feels comfortable and safe and supportive and loving. I guess I don’t feel challenged often, I’m the more dominant/opinionated partner and that translates into a lack of desire on my part. We have fun, and we’re affectionate but sometimes I wonder if it’s become more of a friendship. It’s hard, I wonder if it’s just a case of not having put in the effort and having honest conversations and letting it get stale or whether that essential ‘something’ is simply missing for me. So much of it is good. But there’s that little voice..

        • Jenna

          It’s hard. That’s the whole ambivalent thing; most of us are torn when contemplating a breakup. I think only you can know for sure. Maybe there are some things to try if you once had that spark and felt challenged—but yes, the little voice is also something to listen to. (It only whispers, but ohh, the wisdom there.)

  • Victoria Krawiec

    Wow, great article… I have a personal relationship with the word ‘picky’ as in it rhymes with my nick name,, I was ‘picky – vickie’ which I hated with every fiber of my being. Its been tough watching 99% of my same age cousins and friends marry off and start families during my current 4 years single streak . Man, your early 30s, bam, shit is ghost town…feeling abandoned….I recently “settled” on going on a date with a guy that I really wasn’t initially attracted to and the date ended with me in ER….a long other story….I have also been questioned by older women at my work, “Why are you still single?” ughhh…another shitty word/phrase to NEVER say to single people. But one day I said, Hey, you can’t force a spark with someone, you either got it or you don’t and I don’t have time or multiple dates to see if it all of a sudden pops up.

  • Summer Mosher.

    this was so wonderful to read. thank you

  • Ct

    I think this article is kind of fun to read, because I can really feel my own values being quite different then the authors, when I read it.
    Not that Jenna does not have good points and I have alot of respect for her.
    The article just made me even more aware, that everybody is different and that is really, what I like in this article and the world.

    To me settling is kind of a made up, modern, american issue that has moved as an epedemic around the world.
    In Denmark, where I am from, we do not have a word for settling. We traselate it with the word compromise. Compromise is a much more positive word, I think.

    I also believe that the term settling down is quite positive compared to settle – as in settle for less.

    This does not mean, that you should not be with a good partner and leave a bad relationship behind.
    And I fully agree with being picky. I am a very picky person 😉 And spend several years alone before falling in love with my boyfriend.

    But I acctually think it is much harder to make a relationship work, at this time in history, because doubt, anxiety and unhappiness are feelings that are not allowed in relationships.
    Relationships has to be perfect and make us feel connected all the time to be acceptable.
    Jennas excamples with her friends are great. She seems to think, they should leave their less then perfect relationships. I think they sound like they are having some healthy reflextions about their otherwise good relationships.
    It is perfectly normal to come home from a trip with your partner and be sad that you are not really connedted, To me the fact that the friend is sad, shows how much she wants to connect. And therefore the relationship seems healthy.

    I think it is lovely to be single, but if you want to have a relationship, that lasts a lifetime, you have to compromise, and even settle down 😉

    I think we need more accetance of both beeing single and of having rocky parts of our relationships.

    Just my opinion. And sorry that my english is not the best 😉
    and thanks to Jenna, for making me think 😉

    • Sq

      As a fellow non American, I agree with you 100%. To be honest sometimes I struggle to ‘connect’ with some of the articles on the site because I feel it’s quite culturally different to me.

      On relationships, I think there’s so much pressure for things to be perfectly connected all the time.. well that’s what I got from this article anyway.

      • Kay

        You guys this is so interesting! How would you describe the difference between knowing when a relationship is not what you want vs. when it’s appropriate to “compromise” (which, ct, I love that you brought that into the discussion and contrasted it with settling)

        • sq

          I mean we are probably all trying to say the same thing, but I would probably describe settling as more related to love and feelings for a person, and compromising as related to things we want in our lives together and separately. Whereas in this article I feel the term settling is used in relation to feelings only.

          I guess for example with my boyfriend I love him as a person, and I’m not settling when it comes to feelings for him, but in our lives together we have both made compromises to make things work, because we are our own people with our own wants, needs goals etc. I think it’s appropriate to compromise but not up until the point where you are bending over backwards to give up essential needs within your own self to accommodate someone else’s wants/goals. I’d define settling as compromising on your actual feelings for another person, and then things such as marriage, children/no children, where you live and money/attitudes to finances.

  • Christine C

    YES *clap* TO *clap* THIS *clap* ARTICLE

    I am constantly being called picky or as having high standards by family and friends. This article is one of my favorites I’ve ever read on this site!

  • stinevincent

    Settling down always means settling for. Feeling trapped or alone in a relationship is not the kind of settling you should put up with, but you need to be willing to be okay with minor incompatibilities and imperfections. Similarly, uncertainty is natural. There is no “one,” there’s only ever the .64 (if we’re lucky) that we round up to one and make work. Waiting around for a perfect person, or ending a relationship over a little doubt is as foolish as being in a relationship just to be in a relationship. Relationships take work, and some of that is work on yourself.

  • Bambi loves Rose

    Thanks! Came just in time!

  • Brianne

    “Despite being single for most of my life, it was the first time I truly and deeply sunk into that singleness and embraced it for what it was: Awesome.” I related to this so hard! I’m at the point where i’m actually completely content with being single but continue to get these disbelieving looks from my friends and mom. Why does being single have to mean that i’m miserable? For once i’m completely embracing it and don’t look at other couples longingly with a sigh of jealously. I don’t understand what is so hard to believe that a single person can be happy with being single.