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As a young woman, I received a myriad of dating advice that I found to be exhausting. Much of it was both contradictory and subjective to the experience of whoever was giving the advice. It was difficult to identify even a few universal truths that could assist young women in dating successfully, whether that would end in a healthy marriage or simply in protecting them from a series of broken hearts and painful times.

I dated a lot in my twenties and, unfortunately, did have a slew of wounding experiences. I’m grateful for the rollercoaster I took: I learned a great deal that equipped me to firstly date with more ease and safety, and secondly, equipped me to meet (and successfully date) my husband. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that figuring out how to date well led to a healthy marriage so quickly, but in some ways, it did feel like a waste. If I’d known then what I know now, I would have enjoyed my dating life much more.

Ultimately, there was one foundational principle that made the most difference. That truth had to do with the concept of settling. There are numerous contradictory messages out there about this idea: “Never settle,” argue the influencers with model-good looks (easy for them to say, right?), but your mom and friends keep urging you to give the guy you’re not interested in a second chance. Both ideas seemed valid at times, but I could always sense there were caveats in there somewhere, and I still hear my single friends discussing the concept at length.

This, I’ve discovered, is the distinction: Settle for less than your fantasy man, but never settle for being treated with less love, respect, care, and consideration than you deserve. Compromise on your daydreams, your fancies, your ideas of a perfect life and a perfect spouse. Don’t compromise your values, your mental health, or your well-being in order to not be alone.

As a young woman, I had this backward. I thought I could settle for less attention or less respect if it meant I could get the guy I wanted. Who he was felt much more important to me than how he treated me. I wanted to spend my time with someone I found fascinating, and the mechanics of how we related to each other seemed like mere details. This led me to so much pain, because long-term, the how is much more important than the who. Music taste and fascinating conversation make for some great dates, but when you’re married with children, it’s mutual care and consideration that keeps the spark alive.

Separate fact from fiction

Most women have a fantasy partner, built from years of dreaming, watching Disney movies and romcoms, and reading novels (whether Austen or chick lit, the outcome can be the same.) And then there are those real men we meet along the way that turn into fantasies: they’re mysterious or interesting enough to put on a pedestal, and we imagine they’ll excite us for the rest of our lives.

I lived with my fantasy for so long that it felt crucial to my identity. I remember once telling a friend how the man I was seeing didn’t like a particular series of books, and how I couldn’t imagine marrying someone who didn’t. She laughed and asked if that was really important, and I felt almost helpless in trying to explain that yes, it was important to me. But this was only because I had fantasized for so long about meeting someone who liked everything I liked, and marrying someone who didn’t—the thought of that seemed like settling.

It turns out that series of books are not crucial to a successful marriage, since my now husband never even finished reading them. It’s not something on my mind when we’re discussing who gets up with the baby tomorrow or what we should have for dinner.

It may take a little time to untangle what values are essential for you, but once you do, it will pay off. Journal about it. Make a list of non-negotiables for your partner. Then make a list of things you’d like, but aren’t necessarily required for you to be happy in a relationship. This keeps criteria clear when dating gets murky.

Maybe you decide looks aren’t as important to you as your faith, so you finally say yes to the guy at church who’s been asking you out, but who isn’t your "type." Then on the first date, you’re running late and arrive ten minutes after you’d agreed to meet. Instead of being politely understanding, he verbally assaults you, calling you names and swearing. That’s the time to walk out and never see him again: not because he wasn’t your type, but because he treated you in a way that is absolutely unacceptable and below your standards.

Community as a cure

As a young, bookish person with an affinity for art, creativity, and travel, it was important to me to find someone who shared all my interests. I didn’t consider that when two people are too much alike, a partnership can actually be more difficult. A good relationship—like a good team—is the result of different strengths coming together.

I married an engineer, who thankfully has an appreciation for my interests, even though they’re not his forte. Nonetheless, I’m grateful every day that I didn’t marry another writer, like I wanted to when I was young. My husband is practical, whereas I’m a dreamer. He lives in the present, while I plan a lot for the future. We bring out the best in each other: I’m quick but not very thorough; he’s slow but pays attention to details.

Someone told me that the flaws in your partner that you struggle with while dating are the flaws that you will struggle with in thirty years. I decided I could deal with my partner taking a long time to get out of the house or get a chore done because he’s detail-oriented. A flaw I couldn’t deal with was cruelty or defensiveness, both of which were traits I’d come across in other men.

A key component of settling (in the good way) is realizing that your partner doesn’t have to be everything to you; he doesn’t have to feed all the parts of your soul. This is an unreasonable expectation that no one can live up to. Our culture idealizes romantic relationships: Those same romcoms, Disney movies, chick lit, and women’s magazines that sold us fantasy men also conspired to raise many to believe that a romantic relationship is the pinnacle of happiness, the most important relationship of your life. But I would argue that the existence of community is just as, if not more, vital.

A community of people—friends, family, and even acquaintances in the form of clubs or local groups united by similar interests—can feed your soul as well. I have a plethora of writer friends from college, graduate school, and conferences. I don’t need my partner to like to talk at length about the latest novel or poetry collection. A beautiful part of being different from each other is leading each other into different interests. Through our relationship, my husband started reading more again, and his gift to me on my thirtieth birthday was thirty haiku poems he wrote about us. Because of him, I became much more into food and came to enjoy finding new, exciting recipes to make, as that’s one of his favorite things.

If I could go back and tell my younger self all this, I’m still not sure she’d listen. But if she did, it would have spared me a lot of heartbreak and anguish. Dating in the modern age is rough, but a set of personal rules for success can be a suit of great armor. I wish I’d learned to wear it earlier than I did. But I'm glad I have learned it in time to pass it on to someone else.