How to Avoid Settling

05/28/2015 10:36 am ET | Updated May 27, 2016

In writing my book, Sweeten the Deal: How to Spot and Avoid the Big Red Flags in Online Dating, I talk a lot about the funny parts of dating - the crazy stories and bad dates we have all experienced, including "The Criminal," "The Wanna Feel My Muscle Guy," "The Married Guy," etc. But there is a serious side as well. Knowing what you want and feeling empowered to hold to those standards is an absolute must when you are looking for a permanent relationship. If your deal breakers do not break your deal, you are destined to settle and to end up with something much less than what you want.

In my years of online dating post-divorce, I had more first dates than I could count. And very few second dates. My friends dubbed me the one-date-wonder and told me I was too hard on people. I disagree. I knew what I wanted and was willing to wait for it. In my communication with readers about their dating experiences, a man recently asked me what I thought the difference was between having standards and having realistic expectations. This is a very important question. If you do not identify this difference, you may just end up settling and making the same mistakes over and over.

I believe that when you are dating, you must have some absolutes - things that you can't live with or live without. These are your must-haves and your deal breakers. The must-haves are the things you require as fundamental parts of the person you want to have a relationships with. These are the biggies: trust, fidelity, respect...the intangibles that define a person's character. The deal breakers are the things you cannot tolerate in a mate: lies, abuse, disrespect for your parenting or your kids. These are the things that must drive you away immediately upon discovery. If they don't, you are settling. And you are making that choice.

Realistic Expectations are different than the must-haves and the deal breakers. We are all attracted to different qualities. We tend to set a list of qualities that we prefer relative to appearance, personality, interests, etc. I really like someone who is funny. I tend to like taller guys who are athletic. Some people are very specific in these kinds of qualities and go so far as to include money, fitness level, geographic area or family background. In the big scheme, some of these qualities are more important than others, but none of these would qualify as a deal breaker or must-have (or at least they shouldn't).

The problem with setting expectations for these type qualities is that you lock yourself into a box. And chances are good that you will not find someone with all of your must-haves and none of your deal breakers who is wrapped up in the package that you have designed for yourself. If you don't even look at someone who may look different from your "ideal" or speak differently or have less money, you may miss the most honorable, trustworthy, loving person.

This is not to say that you can't prioritize the qualities that are most important to you to define compatibility. You have to enjoy the person you date. You have to have attraction. But identify which are the absolute most important qualities and don't limit yourself based on the less important ones. After all, how many times have you met someone that becomes more attractive the more you know them because who they are is more attractive than how they look? And how many times has someone physically stunning become uglier and uglier because of who they are on the inside?

Being open to people you would not normally consider your "type" can be a liberating experience. Commit to getting to know someone based more on your must-haves and deal breakers than on a list of expectations that may not be based on what really matters. And when you encounter a deal must break your deal. Because, remember my mantra? I would rather be alone for the rest of my life than be with the wrong person. When you truly mean that, you know that you will not settle.