08/11/2014 12:53 pm ET Updated Oct 11, 2014

When Did 'Unacceptable' Become 'Good Enough'?

A date I once had, a fix-up through a mutual friend, picked me up at my house with a Hershey bar tucked into his back pocket, squishy from his butt and the Florida heat, which he offered to me as if it were a bouquet. When he asked for a tour of my house, I obligingly led him room to room.

"Is this where we're gonna do it?" he asked, eyebrows up, as I showed him the living room and its oversize sofas.

I laughed the comment off, along with a flare of uneasiness. Till we hit the guest room: "Is this where we're gonna do it?" And the master. And the den. And the screened porch, the same question repeated with a leer at each doorway. I didn't know if he was kidding, had no social graces or suffered from Tourette's.

I went through with the date solely because of our mutual friend, avoiding his grasping hand in the car trying to clutch mine ("Oh, you're weird about touching?" he asked) and never so grateful to end an evening. When I later recounted the awful date to my friend, she waved it off. "Oh, yeah... he has a weird sense of humor. You just have to look past that."

Um... what? Happily married and a long way from her dating days, my friend was quick to slough aside the offense I'd taken to the man's obnoxious behavior. Sure, I wanted to date -- and yes, maybe I was getting up there in years (and by that, I mean my early thirties), but when did women become encouraged to put aside their standards and accept so much less than we want?

• A woman I know -- blonde and beautiful, smart, funny and successful -- was approached online with this arrogant note: "I figured I'd see who in the world has the highest connection rating, and you're it! Drop me a line, and if you can get a smile out of me like your profile did, I might write back." She wrote him.

• A hardworking, intelligent friend dated a man who bragged about her talent at cleaning the oven and doing laundry rather than the fact that she was putting them both through school, then spoke in his native Farsi with friends even when she was with them, knowing she couldn't understand the conversation. She married him.

• A boyfriend never showed up to meet my visiting brother and his wife when he promised to, and apologized -- by text message -- late that night, long after standing us up. We dated another year.

These aren't the sexy, dangerous romance novel heroes so many women ache to reform, but merely unmannered boors.

And yet too often, we date them anyway. After we spent so many years walking away from men who probably would have been excellent life partners -- because we decided they weren't "the one" -- what changes in us that we become willing to accept the bottom of the barrel?

Here's what I think happens: Most of us are raised on fairytales and Hollywood (mostly the same thing). For years we believe that our perfect someone is out there, our singular soul mate -- and we wait for him (or her).

As we date in the real world and we mature, we begin to realize that that perfect partner not only doesn't exist, but that maintaining the idea of him/her is a toxic sundae of over-expectation with a bitter-breakup cherry on top. When most of us go through at least moments when we don't even like ourselves, how can we expect to find in someone else that perfect puzzle piece who "completes us" (damn you, Jerry Maguire) and meets our every need and desire?

And so eventually we learn to be realistic and healthy, and our desires change: We know that finding someone you like, respect, and love, and then walking the ups and downs with them is the holy grail of relationships. That's all -- just someone decent and kind who "gets" us and commits to sticking around even in the less-utopian parts of life. Seems like not so tall an order.

But that's when we can dangerously overcorrect. Understanding the fallacy of the fairy tale, we become too accepting of major outrages, categorizing as human imperfections great, gaping character flaws -- to the point that we excuse what can only be called bad behavior.

Seven years ago I went out on a date with a man who talked about himself all night, never once asking about me or even leaving enough air in his monologue for me to insert a comment. I sat, determined to give him a chance -- until a very generously endowed woman walked by, and my date's eyes riveted to her chest.

It wasn't the ogling that bothered me -- those were among the biggest breasts I'd ever seen in captivity, and frankly I was hard-put not to check them out myself. It was what he did next: looked back at me, rolled his eyes and made a nasty scoffing noise.

I immediately stood up, thanked him for drinks and walked out before we were even seated for dinner. My Southern soul was shaking at my unprecedented rudeness in walking out halfway through a date -- and yet I felt a lightness, a strange pride in myself for not excusing this man's mean-spiritedness.

The next day -- literally -- I met the man who is now my husband.

Maybe it was coincidence.

Or maybe the universe offered me what I wanted only when I finally learned not to accept so much less.