WHEN I was a little girl, I was wide-eyed and genuinely excited about what being a grown-up might hold.
I'll stay up every night past 9pm for a start, I told myself. I might go to university, I remember thinking, or I might get a job. I might try writing a book, or I might have a house with a swimming pool. I might get a cat, or a rabbit. These were all negotiable; the only thing that seemed certain, a foregone conclusion, if you will, was the fairytale ending.
It wasn't even a dream; it just was going to be the way of it. After gorging on stories, pop songs, Jackie magazine photo essays and movies, I was led to believe that the white knight would eventually show up and the rest of my life, my real life, would finally begin.
Though the white knight is still at large, I've thankfully grown out of this way of thinking and have figured out that the rest of my life is pretty much happening now.
Single women like me often get criticised for being too picky, or for holding out for an unattainable relationship ideal (in reality, we're simply making the best of the hand we've been dealt).
Certainly, there are some people who won't let go of the fairytale as promised without a fight. "It's like I'm on a quiz show, and I'm holding out for the grand prize of a speedboat," asserts one friend.
Yet we're beginning to realise that talk of soul mates and 'The One' is utterly pointless, and something that ultimately sets a single woman up on a quest for failure. Holding out for romantic, 'true' love is noble, but it's not much more than a fantasy perpetuated by the multi-million dollar rom-com and chick-lit businesses.
It's perfectly reasonable to want a Mr Right, as long as you're aware that there are many Mr Rights. Wanting to be in a relationship that might be healthy, sustainable and at the very least enhances one's life . . . well, is a given.
However, and as we get up there in years, even these criteria seem to fall by the wayside. Panicked and on the wrong side of 35, several women I know have hedged their bets and settle into a relationship with Mr Good Enough.
One acquaintance is patently miserable in her on-off relationship with a cold and controlling man, but there's a sense she has made her bed and she may lie in it now, but at least she's not alone. "I'd rather this than be 36 and single," she confided. "I want babies, and I'm not getting any younger, even if it does mean I might eventually end up a single mum."
Another pal managed to extract herself from a long-term relationship with a man she certainly loved, but wasn't in love with. Initially she was energised and optimistic, yet after 15 years of domestic quietude, the cut and thrust of the singles' carousel gave her the heebie-jeebies. Within months, they had reunited, quietly and without fuss.
We're conditioned to think of these women as somehow sad and tragic, or as women who are missing out on the great lifeblood that is true love. Only they can say if the contentment of not being single trumps the bittersweet relinquishing of the fairytale dream.
Part of me wishes they would release these men back into the dating pool, where they have a chance of meeting someone who will appreciate them more. But if these women – and indeed, men – would rather the unease and low-level anxiety of a below-par relationship to the often frustrating, disappointing search for a partner, that's entirely their call.
A couple of years ago, writer Lori Gottlieb started something of an online riot when she penned an article entitled Marry Him: The Case For Settling For Mr Good Enough. The thrust of her argument was this: if you dig your heels in to wait for Mr Right, you'll miss out on a host of other, possibly less exciting man-related opportunities.
The piece divided opinion; some noted that women must confront their own biological realities, while others accused Gottlieb of being rather cold and calculated. That she remained unmarried upon publication of the book, and conceived a child via a sperm donor in her 40s, was at once a cautionary tale and grist for her critics' mills.
In her ensuing book of the same title, Gottlieb wrote: "There are so many really wonderful men out there, men who want commitment, who want to be married, who are attractive and smart and interesting. They may not be movie-star attractive, they may be awkward at first, they may not fit our cultural image of who Mr Right or who Prince Charming is. But we shouldn't pass them up.
"We are taught as young women in this culture that compromise is a bad word. We tell each other: 'You go, girl. You get the best. You deserve the best'. It's not so much narcissism as a false cultural perception of our worth. We want the 10 [out of 10], because we think we're a 10. But we're missing the fact that we're not. Nobody is."
A harsh dose of reality perhaps, but another unpalatable truth remains unsaid. It's entirely plausible to end up with Mr Prince Charming, and find that the relationship is still lacking. He may be what Gottlieb would call a '10' but perfect on paper doesn't necessarily mean great chemistry, passion, reliability or even compatibility.
And what the heck is 'true' love anyway? We've been conditioned to think that passion and intensity will make us happier, but this muddies the waters further still. Bickering and arguing and sniping is not synonymous with drama or excitement or passion; it slowly erodes the good stuff like trust and reliability.
Brendan Madden, of Relationships Ireland (www. relationshipsireland.com), is in agreement: "A strong physical attraction and great sex may not necessarily be the ingredients that make for a solid long-term relationship," he says.
"This means that taking a longer term view and looking at Mr Right Now's qualities such as shared values, loyalty, responsibility, commitment may be a better way of evaluating him than just looking for a deep attraction as the only criteria."
And, even if that most holy of grails – the initial spark – is indeed present and correct, one shouldn't assume that it will carry you through other difficulties.
"It's probably not a good idea to assume that once the attraction is there that will always sustain the relationship, equally it's probably not a great idea to try to sustain a relationship that doesn't have at least some level of initial spark," asserts Brendan.
"In our experience many people, women and men, are a little naive about what makes relationships work in the long term and tend to either slide into long-term relationships with a hope and assumption that the attraction will always be there or avoid/ reject relationships that might not have a strong initial attraction but have the potential in terms of shared values and interests to grow into a stronger bond that sustains over time."
Predictably, Brendan admits that, when it comes to the imprecise science of finding love and happiness, either strategy has its pros and pitfalls. Some women would indeed be happier if they settled for Mr Not At All Bad, while for others, the choice to hold out for the speedboat works for them.
"If you are waiting for Mr Right to appear he may not appear," warns Brendan. "For Mr Right Now, the key question is, does he have the qualities that sustain longer term relationships? Things like shared values, loyalty, responsibility, commitment? If not, then it's wrong from the start and you shouldn't settle. If he has, then is there enough attraction/spark there to take a chance and see if the relationships will grow and develop as a result of the other strengths and potential."
As for me: I've long figured out that, in most aspects of life, waiting for perfection means you'll be waiting forever. Much like Gottlieb, life didn't turn out for me the way I envisaged, either. I'm still without a husband . . . and a swimming pool and a rabbit, for that matter. Yet I remain hopeful; not for the speedboat, but for something I can actually enjoy; something that enhances my life and makes it a little bit easier. Where would I even use a speedboat anyway?