“Settling” for a Romantic Partner

Watercolour-and-pencil portrait of Jane Austen

A problem for many, especially the young, is that when they seek long-term partners they are moved by sexual passion and physical desire. They often fail to seek substantive people with whom they can experience a lasting, mature love based on compromise, tolerance, stability, and commitment. I realize this is trite advice, and I also acknowledge this thought didn’t occur to me when I was in my twenties. Still, it is surprising how many disregard this advice. Here is an example. 

Before a college class about twenty years ago two young female students were discussing the movie “Sense and Sensibility,” which is based on Jane Austen’s novel of the same name. In the movie, the beautiful Marianne Dashwood immediately falls madly in love (lust) with the dashing John Willoughby. Here is the scene as they first meet. Marianne has hurt her ankle and the strong, dashing Willoughby has carried her home. “He lifted me as if I weighed no more than a trite leaf,” she says. She is smitten.

As for the wealthy, stable, but older and less dashing Colonel Brandon, who dearly loves Marianne, she has no use. Marianne has mistaken her passionate enthusiasm for love, and, shortly thereafter, Willoughby discards her for a more wealthy patron.

Finally, she begins to realize that Willoughby loves money more than he loves her—she realizes that Willoughby is more form than substance. She eventually marries the Colonel and by all accounts, they have a happy, stable marriage built on mutual love and respect. (The character of David Copperfield in Dickens’ novel has a similar experience. He marries his longtime, sensible friend Agnes and finally finds true happiness.)

My two young female students found this outcome disappointing if not downright depressing. Marianne shouldn’t have “settled” for the Colonel they told me. She should have waited for a better man. My rejoinder? The Colonel was only rich, kind, wise, just, stable, honest, smart, and good-looking. What a terrible husband he would make! But why couldn’t the beautiful Marianne find all that in a man as handsome, passionate, and strong as Willoughby, my young students wondered? By contrast, I doubted if a man as good as the Colonel even existed. I concluded that these young women had an immature and naive view of romantic love. Somehow the Colonel fell short of their ideal mate—a mate that doesn’t exist. My young students wanted to marry a chimera.

Many people, especially young ones, foolishly reject potentially good mates for those who only seem good, as Willoughby appeared to Marianne.  And this is partly why the Greeks thought erotic passion was dangerous and irrational. It clouds our judgment and misleads us. We are naturally drawn to external beauty and passion, often missing a deeper beauty right in front of us. Our senses detect external beauty and physical passion, but our good sense, our sensibility, determines if a person is truly beautiful. Hence the title of the novel.

Jane Austen’s message is that we should seek true beauty. Fortunately, in the end, Marianne becomes wise. She recognizes the serenity, if not the unending passion, of true love.

“For whatsoever from one place doth fall,
Is with the tide unto another brought:
For there is nothing lost, that may be found, if sought.”

― Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene

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5 thoughts on ““Settling” for a Romantic Partner

  1. Well, at any rate the book was written long ago—and very much has changed recently. Nowadays, a woman can marry a woman and spend the honeymoon on Ellen Degeneres’ yacht. Today they do what they want; there’re no rules, only laws.

  2. Many, many fiction stories depict the hero or heroine who is tempted to marry the more exciting or outwardly attractive person but who in the end marries the person with the better inner character, and so attains maximum satisfaction in love and marriage. And, as depicted, the “moral of the story” of such stories can hardly be disputed.

    But all this avoids what I think is a bigger issue: That most people do have to “settle” for a marriage and reproductive partner who is below their hopes and dreams, BOTH in terms of surface-level features and inner-character features.

    Many fiction stories imagine a dichotomy in which all or most of the outwardly attractive people are ugly inside in terms of their moral character and reliability, and all or most outwardly bland people are beautiful inside. Such a dichotomy makes for good fiction and makes for a positive, self-affirming philosophy, but it is lie (we might, after Plato, call it a “noble lie.”)

    We know from Darwin’s writings that people are compelled by the Laws of Biology to compete for the best possible reproductive partner (or partners) that they can secure. Like all animals, we are compelled by biological drives, not by philosophical or moral principles or ideals, no matter what we may think, and no matter what Aristotle or Ayn Rand said. The ancients like Socrates and Aristotle had no way of knowing this; but we know, because we live after Darwin and after Freud. Ayn Rand could have studied biology, psychology, and sociology, but she preferred to remain uninformed about crucial matters.

    So, to return it the main point: most people have to settle for a partner who is less than his/her ideals, both in terms of exterior physical features and interior mental/moral features.

    There is always a hierarchy of attractive/desirable people, and, in general, those in the lower levels end up having no choice but to partner up with others in the lower levels.

    But, with the help of the “noble lies” of fiction stories and philosophy, those who “settle” try to convince themselves that they really came out ahead. Nietzsche wrote about this, using the term “Slave Morality.”

    All this leads to the question: For most people, which is better: Actual knowledge about reality? OR, noble lies, myths, stories, religions, and philosophies that falsely depict reality in a way that is comforting to the psyche?

    I think the wise person can readily observe that most people want and need the noble lies/myths, and that it has always been this way for Homo Sapiens, and always will be.

    For most people most of the time, knowledge of reality is unbearable.

    Thus, most of the time, fiction writers are liars (or, if you prefer, fiction-makers or myth-makers).

    Thus, most of the time, philosophers are liars (or, if you prefer, fiction-makers or myth-makers).

    Even “reason,” as imagined by philosophers like Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas, is a largely a myth, a story, a confabulation, that has been discredited ever since Darwin, Einstein, and Freud. Just ask Russell and Wittgenstein.

    Some are still shocked that so many Americans believe the constant stream of deliberate, knowing big lies of the 45th president. But wise ones are not shocked at all. Humans are programmed to believe in feel-good fairy tales. Always have been. Savvy leaders act accordingly. Machiavelli was right.

    We humans are animals programmed, exactly like all other known life forms, by DNA. We are not god, demi-gods, angels, or holy saints. Even our thoughts are biological phenomenon.

    Or, so it seems to someone on a hot Thursday afternoon.

  3. Jane Austin published this book in 1811, if I say things have changed from a societal point of view since then, I don’t expect to get much of a reasoned argument!

    To-day Marianne, having been brought up under the influence of Social-Media, would first have to decide if she was suffering with sexual dysphoria, should She be taking psychiatric medication to help her cope with life and what sex is best to identify with, at least for a while, and Willoughby would also face the same decisions, (modern times bring modern problems), if you are of an adventurous nature you can participate as a ‘Fluid’ and express yourself in as many ways as you might want to, with that out of the way and if their Tattoos were complimentary and they still had a mutual ‘Yen’ for each other they could ‘Hookup’ for a while without any commitment. Hooking-up, while not necessarily a Modern invention was frowned upon in 1811, People had rigid ideas about commitment and something they called ‘Morality’ people were expected to honor commitments even when the commitments got in the way of their Fun! Isn’t that amazing? How could they forego doing what they wanted to do because of some consideration for some one else?

    Those people back in 1811 didn’t know any better they had no Social Media to educate them and let them realize that the only thing that matters is them! So, pity them if you will but don’t blame them for their Humdrum lives that is all there was then!

    Modern Life, in it’s latest iteration, is really very new and so we still don’t know the real practicality of all the latest Social innovations, But, I’ll bet that when youth fades the allure of the hookup will fade also, fade to be replaced by what? it is easy to capture the minds of children, there are many Pied Pipers now, where are they leading the children and us all?
    The Pied Piper of Hamlin led the children of Hamlin away never to be seen again! I fear the same Fate for us and ours!

  4. thanks for the comments. On first read I agree with most of this but I’d have to mull it all over to be sure. Most definitely agree with your conclusion.

  5. It’s necessary fiction, not noble lie: there’s nothing noble about any lie.
    One book I’d like reviewed is ‘Jane Eyre’; it is also a good representation of c. 1811.

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