10/24/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

When Is It Settling?

Among the worst words you can apply to someone in a relationship is any inflection of the verb "to settle," as in "he settled by marrying her." To have the word "settled" used anywhere near your name connotes that you gave up your soul, your heart or your ideals to be with your partner. That you don't have the will or cojones to stay true to yourself. It seems akin to "sell out," "henpecked" and "p---- whipped."

Many times in my 16-year marriage, I've wondered where the line is between settling and accepting--accepting the other's differences and desires. I married a very strong man, with opinions and goals as firm and formidable as Madonna's biceps. I see myself as a good feminist, but that doesn't mean I don't want a happy, tranquil marriage. Trying to have it both ways is where I sometimes get confused.

This settling vs. accepting question was most troublesome to me a few years back when my husband wanted to sell our gorgeous house in the Texas Hill Country and I didn't. I had overseen much of the renovation of the two-story stone barn while my husband, a photographer, was traveling on assignment. The house was perfect, in my mind. I never thought I'd leave it.

But then my husband, in the throes of some mid-life crisis, thought he needed a change of scenery, a new adventure. "Some men want to change wives," he said by way of explanation. "I just want to change houses."

"Put your foot down," my mother ordered impatiently, making me feel that I had the fortitude of a moon shadow. Friends were saying the same thing. So I tried it. My husband and I ended up talking solely through our therapist for about a week. I'm a feminist, I told myself, trying to tap into my inner Steinem. But at the same time part of me wondered whether a house really was justification for a divorce. Is this something people split over, especially when they have kids?

"I feel like if I were a true feminist I would fight him on this," I told my very smart friend Alex, a college professor.

"To what end? Do you want to fight just to win?" she said. "So you win, then where are you? In an unhappy marriage? Alone?" She told me that her husband made a lot of the decisions in their family, which surprised me. "There are lots of things that mean more to him than they do to me. I love us as a family too much to fight over those kind of things."

Then a thought came to me. As much as I loved the house, I realized I wanted a happy home, versus this particular home. I could continue to battle him on the house sale and end up with neither the house nor my marriage. Not sure if I was copping out or being realistic and mature, I solemnly told him to go ahead and list it.

"You're a saint," my mother said when she learned I'd agreed to sell, but that was hardly comforting. Saint, when applied to a woman, seems like a substitute for fool. Was I a fool? Was I--oh the dreaded concept--settling? Or was I just accepting his needs?

We all want to feel accepted by our mates. I want my husband to overlook my neurotic tendencies, my disorganization, my hopelessness with finances. Well, not just overlook, but to see them as maybe annoying but essential parts of the whole, complicated package that he loves.

But it's one thing to expect acceptance and it's another thing to do the hard work of offering that to some other imperfect soul in our lives. It's not easy for me to understand my husband's perfectionism and restlessness. But now I've come to believe that if the good he brings outshines these faults, then I believe it is acceptance, not settling. It's what makes accepting acceptable. And he does bring a lot of good. Selling our house in Texas freed us up to move to Mexico and gave me time to write a book.

I did in the end have it both ways. My husband is happy, our marriage is fine and I used the opportunity, with his encouragement, to achieve and advance, like a respectable feminist.

Now, when he is making me crazy with his new schemes, I recite his attributes to myself like a mantra: He is an amazingly clever, inspiring, funny person and a good father. I tell myself that in the end he is worth the trouble, and since we're all trouble in one form or another, I truly believe that's the highest compliment we can hope for in a relationship. Instead of "I love you," maybe what we should whisper in our partner's ear to make him or her feel really cherished and understood and accepted is "you are so worth it."