Would you settle for second best in love?

20:00, Aug 29 2014
MAKING DO: Is settling in love bad?

How would you feel if you found out you were someone's second choice?

If the Emmys proved anything beyond our obsession with the way women dress it is this: Modern Family is a fine show.

Watching the other night and, amid the puns and eye-rollingly wonderful 'umour, there was a moment of melancholy. These are the moments that make this American sitcom worth more than a begrudging glance - moments which help foster a greater acceptance of diversity, and the acknowledgement that life is often less than perfect, and we should all be ''OK' with that.

The moment arose when the show's father figure, Phil Dunphy, overhears his wife, Claire, talking to their two daughters about her time in college - the time she met him. There's a miscommunication and Phil  thinks he hears her telling the girls that she married him only because she couldn't be with her first, cool, cowboy-type boyfriend, because Phil got her pregnant.

Later, after a brief piece to camera during which Phil ponders his self-worth and Claire's estimation of him, he confronts her. Did she marry him as a second choice? Did she only marry him because she had to?

Happily, this is TV land, and Claire is able to put his doubts to rest with a beautiful comment about how she's been thinking about what it would be like not being married to him, and realising - yes - she would be missing out on life, and laughter, with the man of her dreams. He's relieved, she's turned on, and everything makes sense again.


But I couldn't help but wonder: What if this was the real world? What if someone, worried they were second best, asked their partner, and their partner said, 'yes. I'm sorry, but yes, you are.' Would that be OK? Would that be manageable? Should it be a sign the relationship ought to be over?

This brings me to another bit of wonderful media recently consumed. Only this time, dear readers - perhaps readers like my mother (hi mum!) who may turn their noses up at my consumption of 'crass American drivel' - said media was the ABC - ABC Local Radio no-less. Brisbane's Spencer Howson had a marvellous guest. His name was Stephen Whyte, he is a behavioural economist with the Queensland University of Technology, and he is looking for single people involved in tertiary study to participate some very interesting research into a very interesting idea.

Broadly, it's about exploring the cognitive heuristic known as 'satisficing', a decision-making strategy. It's to do with the idea of settling, or 'How much effort do you put into decision making?'  Satisficing is all about getting to an appropriate outcome, while 'optimal decision making' is  about selecting the best outcome. It's about searching for as long as it takes to feel the place you've arrived at is 'appropriate'.  The trick is figuring out the threshold - presumably, everyone's is different. I'm the type to open multiple tabs when browsing for a new blazer at Bloomingdales online, or move through shop after shop after shop if I'm doing the offline shopping schlep.

But some people might be  OK just browsing through a few racks. Some people might be happy to go on just a few dates. Some people might be OK with the idea of settling down with someone who isn't everything, but is enough for them. And, one might assume, that if Settler Type A meets Settler Type B, and they both agree to settle down, they'd be very happy together.

Yet, what if a Settler settles with a Reacher? What if someone chooses someone who 'makes sense' but doesn't completely satisfy? And what if, one day, the Settler realises they're not really what the Reacher wanted? What then?

We're looking at two convergent ideas here. One, when someone meets someone and falls in love, but can't have them, and so picks someone else. Two, when someone hasn't met anyone they could really fall in love with, so they settle down with someone they could learn to love, maybe, over time.

Two ideas, one outcome: Misery. Right?

Or wrong?

Fact is, we don't always get what we want. Sometimes, that's for the best. Sometimes what we want isn't really that good for us anyway. Just as looking for something we want  that is out of reach might leave us blind to the opportunities that exist all around us.  Opportunities that might be a 'second choice', but ones which work out to be the better one.

What I want to know is; where do you stand? Could you stand to be someone's second choice? Could you stand to be the one someone settled for? Could you handle it? Or, would you do it to someone else?

Sydney Morning Herald