Here’s something few of us are brave enough to admit about long-term relationships: We don’t always end up with our first choice.
Sometimes, we settle for “second best” ― and usually, that’s OK.
Technically, we’re all someone’s “second choice,” at least if your partner ever had an ex whom they intended to be with long term. Yes, that means you may be your current S.O.’s second choice without realizing it. (Sorry for waking up and choosing chaos with this article!)
That slightly uncomfortable relationship subtext was made explicit in the most recent season of “Love Is Blind,” Netflix’s notoriously messy dating show where singles meet through a wall, fall in love and propose without ever seeing each other.
One of the couples, Jarrette and Iyanna, became engaged after Jarrette failed to secure a “yes” from his first choice, a contestant named Mallory. (Bear in mind, he had an easy chemistry with both women, arguably to an equal degree.)
After sitting with the fact that her would-be fiancé had basically proposed to another woman before proposing to her, Iyanna said “yes.” (She’d also gotten reassurance from Jarrette that what he felt for her was genuine.)
Iyanna and Jarrette were one of the few couples whose storyline ended in marriage, and a year later, they certainly seem to be happy and in love, at least going by their recent interviews, the reunion show and their many loved-up Instagram posts.
Still, many fans of the show felt discomfited by how it all played out.
“Never allow yourself to be someone’s second choice,” most of the tweets essentially said.
“IYANNA, DON’T BE A SECOND CHOICE,” tweeted “Never Have I Ever” actor Maitreyi Ramakrishnan. “STAND YOUR GROUND.”
Others pointed out that there was actually something hyperrealistic about the reality show romance. (A reality show giving us realism? Since when!?)
“As much as I dislike Jarret [sic] not picking my Iyanna first, people forget that in reality some of us are actually someone else’s second choice, we just don’t know,” writer Dami “Oloni” Olonisakin tweeted, to a refrain of “sad but trues.”
The problem with ‘The One’
Why are so many of us icked out by the idea that people will end up with their “alternate picks”? (Outside of the fact that the language of “second choices,” “backup plans” and “alternate picks” is, admittedly, pretty icky.)
Maybe it’s because we’re eternally, hopelessly, wedded to our belief in soul mates. Personally, I think the sooner you disabuse yourself of the idea that you have exactly one soul mate wandering the Earth looking for you, the sooner you can date with clear eyes and intention and actually find a decent person.
There’s not just The One. There’s The Ones ― people who, with enough physical chemistry and mutual effort, could be perfect, loving, long-term partners for each of us. (Singles especially should embrace the plurality of The Ones ― the odds are in your favor!)
Kate Stoddard, a marriage and family therapist at Wellspace SF, agrees that people’s ideas about soul mates set them back.
“I think this ancient narrative of ‘the one’ ― or ‘first choice,’ if we wanted to put it in those terms ― can be really problematic to modern couples,” she told me. “It’s also why people feel uncomfortable about second choices.”
“‘The One’ presumes that there is one person that can fulfill the heart’s desire, and we will ‘just know’ when we meet them, when really, there’s a lot that goes into how we select our partners,” she said.
We have to look for physical attraction, of course, but also an intellectual and emotional connection. Then there’s the considerably less sexy stuff: logistical things like family values, political/religious compatibility and for some folks, socioeconomic status.
“The One” isn’t always the one who can provide you with emotional stability in the long run. Those first-round picks aren’t always the most stable, especially if you grew up in a household with emotionally unavailable or fragile parents. It’s all too common to mirror that in young adulthood by seeking out emotionally unavailable partners.
“If you haven’t assessed and addressed early wounds, you may look for a partner that repeats a generational pattern,” said Akua K. Boateng, a psychotherapist and owner of Boateng Consulting. “If this is true, your first choice could be more harm than good even if you’re passionate about them. Your second choice may be more stable.”
As one man said in a viral Twitter thread about second choices in 2018, “My greatest loves didn’t necessarily go hand in hand with being the best relationships.”
If anything, shows like “Love Is Blind” and even “The Bachelor,” for all its myriad problems, have demonstrated how complicated it is to figure out the most compatible partner for you, said Samantha Burns, a millennial dating coach and author of “Done With Dating: 7 Steps to Finding Your Person.”
“It’s hard to decide who you love or want ‘the most’ because people make us feel different ways and elicit different versions of us, and those feelings are constantly changing, intensifying or decreasing,” she said.
If your first choice is unavailable ― emotionally unavailable, geographically, or in any other way ― or doesn’t bring out the best in you, there’s nothing inherently wrong with choosing someone of quality who is available to you. You just need to be willing to leave person No. 1 in the past.
“Choosing someone else who is available doesn’t mean you’re ‘settling,’” Stoddard said.
People who married their ‘second choice’ sound off
Peter, a 33-year-old construction worker, certainly doesn’t feel like he “settled” with his wife of five years, Ann.
The proverbial “one that got away” for him was his high school sweetheart, Sharon. The two met at a bowling tournament in eighth grade. Over strikes and spares, they hit it off almost instantly.
“Back then, we were talking daily, at night into the wee hours of the a.m.,” Peter, who like others in this story, asked to use his first name only to protect his privacy. “We just got each other.”
Unfortunately, college got in the way of their early-aughts romance: Sharon was headed off to a school in North Carolina while Peter went to Rutgers in New Jersey.
Even 500 miles away, Sharon kept her spell-like hold on Peter.
“Like, even when we knew we weren’t going to be together and that life changes, I could never fully unclasp from her grasp even if I wanted to,” he said. “She knew the vulnerabilities of me that I never let anyone know for a long time.”
At some point in his freshman year of college, Peter knew he’d have to distance himself from Sharon or he’d never be able to find someone else or even fully enjoy college life. He wrote her one final email and cut off all contact.
After allowing himself a period of “healing” ― “at the time my idea of healing was the whole, ‘the best way to get over someone is to get under someone else,’” Peter joked ― he ended up meeting Ann, his future wife.
The relationships he formed with both women couldn’t be more different.
Sharon “will forever be part of who I am,” Peter said, but the relationship was untenable. It didn’t have legs, and not just because of the physical distance. Young and in love (and more than a little naive), Peter relied on Sharon and their relationship as his sole source of happiness.
“Maybe I was just a sucker in love but she could tell me to jump and I’d ask ‘how high?’” he said. “I was a people pleaser when I was young. After that and seeing how I put so much of my happiness in the hands of someone else, I refused to do that ever again.”
With Ann, he’s self-contained and happy on his own, but even happier in her company ― the gold stamp of a solid, healthy relationship.
“We are the yin to each other’s yangs,” he said. “We complement each other so well, and we feed off each other’s energies. But we also recognize our individualities and understand that at the end of the day, the only person responsible for your happiness is yourself. Ann taught me that and I’m so grateful.”
“When people threw the words marriage or a family with Ann, I never flinched or got anxious. I had a sense of calm flowing through me. That’s how I knew.”
There’s a common belief, famously referenced in an episode of “Sex and the City,” that men will marry whoever is around once they decide to settle down ― but that wasn’t the case for Peter.
The marriage had nothing to do with happenstance, timing or distance: Nothing like “Ann was there and Sharon wasn’t.”
“It wasn’t even that I wanted to get married, actually,” Peter said. “It was more that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with Ann.”
“When people threw the words marriage or a family with Ann, I never flinched or got anxious,” he added. “I had a sense of calm flowing through me. That’s how I knew.” (And if you’re curious, Ann knows about Sharon.)
Others are less sentimental about ending up with their second choice, like Aether, 30, a married woman who gave up on her first choice after they shared a chaotic whirlwind romance.
“My ex is honestly someone I find to be ineligible for marriage with anyone — especially with myself,” she told HuffPost. “The attraction was one of a series of trauma bonds. I’ll just say it’s easier to control your enemy when you’re sleeping with them.”
After some relationship missteps ― Mr. Ineligible For Marriage being a big misstep ― Aether realized that what she wanted most in a partner is someone who’s “reasonable and rational.”
“And in this world, we seldom find such people,” she said.
“While we wouldn’t have a marriage based on true love, we would have friendship, mutual respect, and had similar values for raising a family. So, in the end I suppose I threw in the towel so to speak and settled.”
Of course, not everyone feels at peace about not ending up with their first choice. Jason, a 48-year-old hydrologic engineer, still wonders what might have been if he’d pursued the co-worker he fell deeply in love with at his summer job in college.
Jason, who asked to use a pseudonym, sensed that the woman, Jennifer, also had a crush on him, but nothing ever happened between them. The timing was always off ― one of them was always coupled up when the other was single.
After college, Jason relocated to another state and threw himself into his career and pursuing a graduate degree. He put his love life on the back burner, though in that decade of singledom, he dated a friend on and off. The friend tried to push a relationship on him, but Jason never felt that same heady rush of feelings for her like he did for Jennifer.
Still, his mid-30s were approaching, and he wanted to be a dad. His friend was also eager to start a family.
“I thought she would be a great mother,” Jason said. “While we wouldn’t have a marriage based on true love, we would have friendship, mutual respect, and had similar values for raising a family. So, in the end I suppose I threw in the towel, so to speak, and settled.”
Fourteen years into marriage ― tough years filled with a miscarriage and his wife’s cancer scare, but also happy ones thanks in large part to their adopted son ― Jason still regrets having settled.
“My wife and I rarely fight or argue and don’t appear miserable but I’m not really happy and I don’t think she is either,” he said. “It’s like a type of purgatory for a relationship; more of a business partnership.”
He still thinks about Jennifer, whom his wife doesn’t know about ― at least not as a concrete person with a name. Jason suspects that his wife knows he “settled for her.”
He and Jennifer sporadically kept in touch, even after she married someone else. One year, when Jennifer was in the same town for a work conference, they decided to meet up.
“In the end, she confessed that she had settled as well,” Jason said. “Turns out she had always felt the same. Tragic we both now have marriages and families. Not that I would have ultimately made the cut, but I still wondered what if.”
How to make sure your ‘second choice’ is the best choice, according to a marriage therapist
Obviously, there’s a spectrum of outcomes when you marry your runner-up: You could be entirely fulfilled and in love like Peter, indifferent to your circumstances like Aether, or disheartened and openly questioning like Jason.
If you’re questioning your decision, it may mean that you didn’t give yourself adequate time to heal from your first choice’s rejection, said Sarah Spencer Northey, a marriage and family therapist based in Washington, D.C.
“I caution against quickly jumping into a relationship after a breakup or if you’re still pining for someone,” she told HuffPost.
“I try to normalize for clients that there are two big stages to getting over an ex,” she said. “One: getting over an ex to a point where you feel stable on your own, and two: getting over an ex to the point where you feel stable in a relationship with another person.”
That said, the therapist thinks it’s unrealistic to tell someone to remain single until they’re 100% over their ex: “Can you ever be 100% over someone who was a big part of your life?”
For most folks, feeling as though you “settled” with a successive partner is a fleeting feeling, Spencer Northey said.
“It’s important not to feed into the idea that the person you end up with is your ‘second choice,’” she said. “When things get tough in your current relationship, it’s easy to idealize the ex as the one you should really be with, but that is seldom the case. ‘The one that got away,’ got away for a reason.”
Ultimately, making it work with the person you love now boils down to two things: actively choosing them and reassuring yourself that relationships can last if both people prioritize each other and put in the work.
In time, your second choice naturally becomes your first choice, your best choice, hopefully for the rest of your life if that kind of monogamy is what you’re after.
That’s what happened for happily married Peter, though he admits he’s not a “what-if” type of person.
“I keep my focus on my relationship and marriage more than thinking about the past,” he explained.
In the end, he said, “I think I did get my first choice because the woman I married is the only woman I ever associated the word ‘marriage’ with. With Ann, I’m happy, fulfilled and content, even if she wasn’t my initial ‘first choice.’”