In all areas of life women often settle for less. I think of this as a low-fat version of love, including self-love, by substituting what we really want for what we think we can get and then trying to pretend we're more satisfied than we are. We take butter substitute over butter and pretend we can't tell the difference, smile when someone says something catty and act like we don't mind when our significant other forgets to call. Sound familiar? By no means do all women do this, and certainly some men do too, but let's face it, for many women this is a "normal" way of life. In short, women often settle for the low-fat version of what they really want, and this goes way beyond food. I know there have been many times I have settled.
To be clear, this is not an indictment of women at all. On the contrary, there is a strong argument to be made that persistent gender inequalities and the media culture we live in cultivates a culture of settling. We know that 90 percent or so of pop culture is produced by men -- from movie directors to writers to top level executives, men are largely the architects of pop culture (see here). So what kinds of stories, portrayals of women and ideas about relationships come out of that male-dominated context?
Well, we can't go to the grocery store without seeing tabloids critiquing women's bodies, commenting on pregnancy and post-pregnancy weight gain and loss or creating faux wars between female celebrities. Seriously, can these tabloids please find a way to stop bringing Jennifer Aniston and Angelina Jolie into the same stories? Enough already. Even when we're sitting on our own couch, television shows us stereotyped portrayals of women and relationships over and over again from the "Real Housewives" of wherever to dating competition shows to soap operas and so-called "women's interest" movies that have been made for television. Women live in a culture which proclaims heterosexual romantic relationships are paramount, beauty isn't in the eye of the beholder but rather the best anti-wrinkle cream, and we can have it "all" if we just try hard enough. No wonder so many women grab onto what they can and try to make the most of it. Makes sense.
Have you ever had a friend dating someone who didn't deserve them and you just wanted to grab her by the shoulders, shake her, and say "you're making a mistake"? Or worse yet, have you ever tried to convince yourself that a relationship you were in was better than it was? Like many women, I have heard friend after friend share a sad tale of waiting around for someone who couldn't commit or who thought playing hard to get was a sport. As a sociologist I have collected interviews with hundreds of women about their lives including their romantic relationships and identities. I have heard story after story about settling and how it inevitably leads to discontent. What I have learned from my interviewees and my own experiences is this: in life and love there is no substitute for the real-deal.
Once we recognize the signs of settling we have a much better chance of breaking our patterns. Here are the top 10 ways that some women may settle for the low-fat version of a romantic relationship:
1. Faking: It's not just orgasms, there are many ways we may fake it hoping to make it last. A sure fire sign of low-fat love is if we know we're in a constant state of pretending to be or feel other than we authentically do, or we're trying to act in a way that we think our partner will perceive as cool. Don't feel badly if this is something you relate too -- so many of us have been there. Just recently Katy Perry, the queen of quasi-feminist pop anthems, admitted she used to sleep with makeup on so guys would think she really looked like that. Tip: if you're sleeping with makeup on, take pause and do a gut-check to determine how this relationship makes you feel about yourself.
2. Changing ourselves for our partner: An extension of faking it is actively trying to change who we are to fit a mold created by someone else. Growth is wonderful but trying to make a square peg fit into a round hole is fruitless.
3. Trying to change our partner: This is just another version of trying to change ourselves. Acceptance is critical to contentment and when we don't accept someone else as they are, it may mean that particular relationship is not the path to self-acceptance and fulfillment.
4. Confusing drama for passion: The world of pop culture perpetuates the idea that melodrama is synonymous with great romance. So it's no wonder so many women white knuckle their way through rollercoaster romances, bracing for the falls and hanging on for the highs. If the passion comes from drama, you've set yourself up for premeditated disappointment and a series of highs and lows. Just like when you ride a rollercoaster too many times, you might want to be prepared to have some Pepto-Bismol on hand.
5. Spying on our partner: Insecurities or overdependence may drive behaviors from cyber stalking to checking his/her phone or email or checking up to see if they really were where they said they'd be. At the end of the day, if you have to resort to these tactics, there's something essential missing in the relationship and it's clearly impacting how you feel about yourself.
6. Staying stuck: Becoming the best version of ourselves and living our best lives is a process not an event. If you're feeling stuck, smothered, or like you're not evolving, it's time to take stock. Relationships are optimally enlarging and not limiting, because at the end of the day we will always need to be in a relationship with ourselves, and we don't want to get bored.
7. Mirror, mirror on the wall: If a relationship is prompting us to compare ourselves, if even imaginatively, to our partner's former flames, we need to reflect on our self-image.
8. The passive aggressive wars: Sometimes the best marker of a relationship is our own behavior. If we're settling for less than we want and trying to pretend it's better than it is, our inevitable dissatisfaction can lead to a host of ugly behaviors. Being attentive to how we treat our partner will clue us in to how satisfied we actually are.
9. Power plays: Games have winners and losers, but relationships shouldn't. When we engage in power plays or are concerned with "who is holding the cards," it's a neon sign that we don't feel authentically secure and empowered.
10. Lying to ourselves: When all is said and done, this is the big one. If you're lying to yourself about anything, from how you are being treated to how you are behaving or how you feel about yourself, you may be substituting low-fat love for the real-deal. Honestly, if there's one person we should never have to pretend with, it ought to be ourselves.
Patricia Leavy's research-informed novels Low-Fat Love and American Circumstance are widely available. Please visit sensepublishers.com for automatic free shipping on these titles.