Picture, for a moment, the perfect romance.
If you’re like us, your mind just built a quick movie, complete with an awkward introduction, a passionate first kiss (probably taking place at the quirky cupcake shop you own, because hey, a fantasy’s a fantasy), and a tear-jerking proposal. “They lived happily ever after, baking cupcakes and making love.” Roll credits, right?
In real life, things don’t always work out so cleanly. Your husband might have a few disgusting habits, he might be losing some hair, and he almost certainly won’t live up to the “man of your dreams” you’ve got in your head (after all, it’s pretty hard to live up to Idris Elba).
You’ll likely end up settling for someone who doesn’t check all the boxes of a “perfect” partner—and, contrary to what Hollywood wants you to believe, that’s totally fine.
For starters, you’re certainly not alone. According to one survey, about 73 percent of people say their “true love” got away. Those respondents said they settled for their current relationships. That means the vast majority of people are trying to make the best they can with who they’ve got.
If that sounds like bad news, keep this in mind: By settling for Mr. Right Now, you’re probably setting yourself up for a happier life.
“The media makes romance look easy,” Alisha Powell, PhD, a licensed clinical social worker, tells HealthyWay. “But honestly, it’s just two people who are willing to put in the work and create something where they both feel valued and understood. Fireworks don’t always happen, and friendships can last a lot longer than initial sparks, which go out quickly.”
That’s not to say that “love at first sight” always fails, but it’s not a great basis for a healthy adult relationship.
By the way, that initial spark certainly doesn’t last.
Let’s tackle the first problem with waiting for Mr. Right: If you’re relying on your body to tell you when you’ve found the perfect person, you’re making a mistake.
The feeling of love—those butterflies in your stomach, the sweaty palms, and the passion you feel when looking at your partner—lasts for about a year, according to research performed at the University of Pavia in Italy. A team led by clinical pathologist Enzo Emanuele found that romantic love was linked to levels of nerve growth factor (NGF), a chemical believed to be involved in the formation of new bonds.
In new relationships, participants experienced a spike of NGF; after about a year, however, their NGF levels were comparable to those of single people. In other words, even in the best relationships, that first wave of passion starts to fade over time. If you never felt that spark with your partner, that’s good news, in a sense, since you’re not really missing out on anything after about a year or so.
So to recap: Love (or the romantic feelings we associate with new love) is just a chemical, and the vast majority of people don’t marry their true love. Every Disney movie is a lie, and you’ll never marry into royalty.
That’s the bad news, but stay with us on this. It gets less depressing from here.
We also know that the security of a marriage can make people happier.
The good news is that—at least in most Western societies—a strong marriage can be enormously beneficial for your overall happiness, and factors like communication and flexibility are far more important than a storybook romance.
A 2017 paper found that married people reported higher life satisfaction than their single contemporaries, and a 2018 study found that couples became happier with their marriages over time, with happiness peaking around the 20-year mark. In other words, if you’re able to stay with the same person and put in the work, the relationship will likely improve over time.
And we’ve got plenty of research to show that marriages and other close relationships have a positive influence on overall health. The moral: If you want to live a healthy, happy, goal-driven life, find a suitable partner and start building your relationship.
“When we gathered together everything we knew about them about at age 50, it wasn’t their middle-age cholesterol levels that predicted how they were going to grow old—it was how satisfied they were in their relationships,” said psychiatrist Robert Waldinger in a popular TED Talk. Waldinger directed the Harvard Study of Adult Development, one of the longest studies of adult life ever performed. “The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.”
So what really makes for a happy marriage?
Building a happy marriage isn’t complicated, but it isn’t easy, either. You don’t need a perfect partner; you need a good friend with a decent work ethic and a sense of empathy.
“There’s a common misconception that relationships are always 50-50, and that’s not the case. Sometimes it’s 80-20 or 60-40. What matters at the end of the day is that trust and commitment are present.”
—Alisha Powell, PhD, licensed clinical social worker
For starters, you should have a partner who’s willing to work as hard as you. Generally speaking, marriages are stronger when both partners share roles and responsibilities. The National Survey of Marital Strengths found that role sharing is of “growing importance” in marriage satisfaction, so if you’d characterize your current relationship as unequal, it’s time to make a change.
However, Powell says that building an equal relationship doesn’t always mean splitting up chore lists; it’s more about understanding one another and applying consistent effort towards the relationship itself.
“There’s a common misconception that relationships are always 50-50, and that’s not the case,” she notes. “Sometimes, it’s 80-20 or 60-40. What matters at the end of the day is that trust and commitment are present. It takes a lot of work, and each partner has to decide every day that they want to be with the other person. It’s fun and can be fulfilling, but it also requires dedication. Tough times will either draw you closer to your partner or push you further away from them.”
Powell recommends looking for a few key characteristics in your potential lifemate. If your relationship is healthy from the start, you won’t have to do as much work to keep the marriage healthy.
“Mutual respect, shared goals and values, trust, and commitment [are] factors that are present in every successful and healthy relationship,” she says. “Each couple has to decide what works for them and act accordingly. Communication about areas of disagreement is also important and should be free of defensiveness and criticism in order to maintain a healthy relationship.”
Yeah, yeah, we know; at this point, everyone knows communication is important. Still, research backs that up, and the National Survey of Marriage Strengths found that communication, flexibility, closeness, and conflict resolution—in that order—are the most effective categories for predicting marriage strength. Note that “complete and total perfection” isn’t one of the categories.
Relationships take work. That’s why “settling” isn’t always settling.
Sure, you could wait around for the perfect person to sweep you off of your feet, but you’re going to be waiting for quite a while—and even if you find someone who checks all of the boxes, you’re still going to have to put in the work.
Sometimes, it’s (gasp) better to settle for someone who checks most of those boxes. They might have a few annoying habits, and they might not find themselves modeling underwear anytime soon, but that’s not what makes a relationship worthwhile anyway.
“It’s not outdated to expect to be attracted to your partner. It’s just possible that it may not be at first sight. We all might want those initial butterflies—but they may come over time.”
—Alisha Powell, PhD, licensed clinical social worker
“It’s important to remember that everyone has baggage,” says Powell, “and whether it’s from past relationships or from childhood, it still exists. It’s important to look for ways to grow with your partner and learn how to support each other. Consider where you want to be as a person long-term, and decide if the person you’re with is complementary to your goals and aspirations. Don’t be afraid to have conversations about sensitive topics, and be honest about how you feel without being accusatory.”
Maybe “settling” is the wrong term. Powell says building a healthy relationship simply means taking the time to look past your partner’s faults and to work with them on building your relationship. We’d call that “foundation building.” That sounds nicer, right?
And before we receive thousands of angry emails, we’d like to make this point clear: Settling certainly doesn’t mean starting a long-term relationship with someone who doesn’t interest you in the slightest. You should have a mutual attraction, even if you never felt a spark during the early days of your courtship.
“It’s not outdated to expect to be attracted to your partner,” Powell says, “It’s just possible that it may not be at first sight. We all might want those initial butterflies—but they may come over time. And you want your partner to also be attracted to you. It’s important to recognize when you are not attracted to someone in any way and [to] not force something that will never happen.”
With that said, instead of waiting for perfection, learn to look past the occasional flaw. Look for someone who communicates effectively—someone who’s stable, kind, and ready to work with you. That approach helps you build a love that’s far stronger and more rewarding than that first spark of attraction. Real love takes much more work than you’d see in any 90-minute rom-com, and that’s love, actually.