Singletude: A Positive Blog for Singles

Singletude is a positive, supportive singles blog about life choices for the new single majority. It's about dating and relationships, yes, but it's also about the other 90% of your life--family, friends, career, hobbies--and flying solo and sane in this crazy, coupled world. Singletude isn't about denying loneliness. It's about realizing that whether you're single by choice or by circumstance, this single life is your life to live.

Friday, February 15, 2008

"Marry Him" by Lori Gottlieb: A Singletude Response

Hello, 1950! Click on the title of this post, and rewind about half a century to Lori Gottlieb's take on why women are better off in loveless, kidcentric marriages than raising their mini-me's alone or--horror of horrors--enjoying a peaceful, child-free existence.

Even The, in which the article appears, seems to know this is a crock and accompanies the story with a comic strip spoof of a June Cleaver-esque beauty rehearsing her "settling" speech: "So, you're not Mr. Perfect...But marriage means more to me than love ever could!" Wink wink. Nudge nudge.

Unfortunately, Gottlieb is all too serious about regretting the Mr. Wrongs she passed up in her thirties to become an overworked single mom (by sperm donor) whose only choice now is to marry a "recovering alcoholic" or a "trying-to-make-it-in-his-40s actor" or face the prospect of that downhill road to retirement alone. According to her, it would've been better to settle for that cake icing kinda guy--sweet but bland--who would occasionally relieve her of parenting duties in the middle of the night or at least send a child support check. After all, she reasons, "settling will probably make you happier in the long run, since many of those who marry with great expectations become more disillusioned with each passing year." And if you're pragmatic enough to marry a good provider, you'll never have to see him anyway. In other words, set your sights low and you won't be disappointed.

There's a nugget of truth at the bottom of Gottlieb's bitter draft, but like that elusive diamond ring she's not getting, you have to wait for it. In the meantime, you'll plow through age-old arguments with age-old flaws.

Gottlieb's first failure is that she equates the 24/7 drudge job of an unmarried mom with the untethered life of a childless single woman. The core of her dissatisfaction seems to be that she's saddled herself with full responsibility for childrearing. Parenting a child is costly, hard work, and if the biology of reproduction, which demands two partners, is any indication, Mother Nature didn't intend for it to be done alone. If Gottlieb is desperate for a hunter/warrior to be her right-hand man, it's not hard to understand why. But recommending the same choice to a childless woman, who isn't under the same pressure, is unnecessary and irresponsible.

Of course, Gottlieb assumes that all women do indeed want to become mothers, and if they don't, they're either "in denial" or "lying," an assertion that would come as a shock, I think, to all the women who've chosen not to have children. Households with kids are now in the minority and falling, and whether or not that's a good turn of events for the future of our country, it indicates that not everyone is as eager as Gottlieb to knit booties and change diapers.

But let's say you are a single who dreams of your very own Beave and Wally and an impeccably dressed Ward or June to complement them. If you choose a Ward or June you don't dig, do you really think Wally and the Beave won't pick up on the vibes of disregard, disrespect, and ultimately hostility that will zing back and forth between you in place of loving winks and caresses? What expectations will that kind of environment establish for them in their own relationships? Maybe Gottlieb couldn't be happier if all children were disabused of any foolish notions of love and warned right upfront, as her mother apparently warned her, that they should settle as soon as possible. That would certainly improve quality of life for the coming generations.

Gottlieb also neglects to invent a Plan B in case of an emergency like, say, divorce. While she contends that her married friends "wouldn’t trade places with me for a second, no matter how dull their marriages might be or how desperately they might long for a different husband," will that hold true for the next 10, 15, 20 years? "They, like me," Gottlieb says, "would rather feel alone in a marriage than actually be alone." It would be interesting to follow up with Gottlieb's unhappily married friends and find out if their marriages are still intact after the last child is off to college and mama has gone back to work. The fear of loneliness is a powerful force locking many people in otherwise unbearable partnerships, but it's amazing how, when they throw off the chains, so many divorcees maintain that they're happier single than they ever were married to the wrong person. Maybe when Gottlieb has been trapped in the corpse of a relationship that's been drained of all warmth and affection, we can take her claim of preference for that state more seriously.

The hard truth is that Americans now spend half their adult lives single, whether by delayed marriage, the divorce or death of a spouse, or the decision not to marry at all. Mated pairings are as transient as singlehood, and you are still the only constant in your own life. Gottlieb refers repeatedly to the black-and-white choice between living with your second-best and dying alone, never acknowledging that the latter is a distinct possibility regardless. More importantly, she fails to understand that the greater tragedy may be all those years spent living your life for someone else. And not for nothing, it's laughable and rather insulting to imply that women of a certain age will be unanimously passed over for "someone younger with whom [men] can have their own biological children" when plenty of older men either don't want children or had them in marital round one.

However, you may remember that I promised you a hidden treasure in Gottlieb's argument, and here it is: She's right on the money about the gender divide that forces women to settle more often than men. The article spends three pages making the case that women are too picky but then concludes that men are no better; the problem is that men have the leeway to be choosy, while women don't:

"I’ve been told that the reason so many women end up alone is that we have too many choices. I think it’s the opposite: we have no choice. If we could choose, we’d choose to be in a healthy marriage based on reciprocal passion and friendship. But the only choices on the table, it sometimes seems, are settle or risk being alone forever.That’s not a whole lot of choice."

Gottlieb portrays women as blindly pursuing some imaginary ideal, forever seeking Superman and forever unsatisfied when she can't find him. I'd like to suggest that she usually does find him--some man who, with all his faults and foibles, is still Superman to her--but that he doesn't want her.

I don't like to dredge up details of my personal life, but I will share this: Three times in my life I've met men who were exactly what I wanted. Yes, they had their flaws. I wasn't denying or minimizing them. But they had all the traits that I would ever need to be happy with a man and, as far as I knew, none of those that would have prevented me from happiness. Yet, in all three cases, those men did not choose me.

Most of the women I know who are single--heck, most of the men, too--have indeed met several people they loved or could have, but those people, for one reason or another, did not choose them back. Now, having tasted that love, most singles are loathe to sentence themselves to a life without it. So they go on searching for a duplicate of that high they got before. The problem is that women have a deadline for their search. Men (at least in their minds) do not, so many of them go on searching for the one who can wear the glass slipper long after the biological clock strikes twelve for women.

So the dilemma remains, and people like Gottlieb claim it can be solved by settling. Personally, going through the motions of a marriage when my heart wasn't in it would require acting chops I don't have, and despite the quotes Gottlieb trots out, no man I've ever dated seriously would've been happy in a cold, stale relationship.

Apparently, even Gottlieb can't buy what she's saying. "Much as I’d like to settle, I can’t seem to do it," she confesses.

Neither can we.

What do you think about "settling"? Would you marry someone you weren't in love with if they had other good qualities or if you wanted to start a family?

Fun Link of the Day


A Journey Well Taken: Life After Loss said...

As a widow of four years I stopped dating the wrong guys because I wasn't willing to settle for less than someone who would enhance my life. No one should settle just to alleviate loneliness or just to be with someone, anyone.

Clever Elsie said...

I love your comment because it comes from experience, whereas Gottlieb's article did not. Thanks for sharing!

K. said...

What man would want someone like Lori Gottlieb? Only the kind of guy who'd be willing to settle. She misses the most fundamental strategy of a good life: Find happiness in yourself. Depending on someone else -- especially an unknown man or woman -- is a sure recipe for frustration and envy.

Here's the middle-aged male perspective: The less a woman needs a man in her life to be happy, the more attractive she'll be.

Anonymous said...

Three cheers for Lori Gottlieb!

The obsession of American women with finding The One True "Soul Mate" is the primary reason that marriage rates are so low, and divorce rates are so high.

I know, I know--it's genetically encoded, and there are very sensible explanations of why evolution would have resulted in that encoding. But:

1) If there's anything that makes us "civilized" and truly human, it's our ability to overcome the predilections of our genes--predilections whose only true "purpose" is the further the propagation of said genes. (viz: overcoming the predilection to eradicate neighboring tribes and take their women as "wives.")

2) That predilection has been amplified x-fold by 1) the rise of dewy-eyed romanticism starting in the 1700s, in response to the failure of religion to provide sufficiently satisfying self-delusion; 2) the brief postwar period of male-breadwinner nuclear-family-ism's hegemony (which still leads many to believe that that model is the "traditional" one); 3) Hollywood romantic comedies; and 4) "you-deserve-it"-style self-help writing, especially the sticky-gooey womens-magazine variety.

Men and women want pretty much the same things in a partner, with two exceptions.

Good parenting type.
Rich/good provider (almost uniformly a girl thing)

Feel free to add to the list. We all want all of these things--some more, some less. Guys care inordinately (but not uniquely!) about looks, and girls care inordinately about rich and funny. (If I read one more personal ad that says--or is frequently titled--"Make me laugh!", I might commit intellectual suicide by reading The Kite Runner, whose title is second only to "make me laugh" in frequency of appearance in women's personal ads.)

But there's one other thing that girls are looking for that guys don't delude themselves about: they want "Soul Mates." "The One." "My best friend, lover, and eternal life companion." Phew--they don't expect much, do they? Add "will support me," and the explanation for today's relationship dynamic is pretty clear.

Isn't it about time for sensible women to put aside these misty, relationship-destroying (and -preventing) expectations, and instead consider all the other (truly meaningful) items on the list, figure out which ones are really important to them, and do what guys do--settle for a decent mix of those?

If Gottlieb doesn't convince you, read Stephanie Koontz's A History of Marriage. She's brilliant, killer knowledgeable, and a card-carrying feminist out of Evergreen State College. (When NPR wants to interview someone about marriage, she's it.) She makes quite clear that the kind of practical, feet-on-the-ground-rather-than-head-in-the-clouds marriages that Gottlieb talks about are exactly the kind of marriages that have prevailed throughout history--except for that brief period in the U.S., from WW II into the sixties--the place and time when today's marriage-destroying expectations really got their legs, and their teeth.

Oh, and just to answer the question about whether this whole post is or is not sour grapes.

Is: I'm a man who is single at the moment, and doesn't want to be. I attribute this to the difficulty of finding (okay, younger) women who are as clear-eyed as Lori Gottlieb about what really makes a good relationship.

Isn't: I was married for fifteen years and have two spectacular teenage daughters who are as crazy about me as I am about them. I do spend, and have always spent, a large portion of my time with them. I continue to date women even after I've gotten the feeling that they don't really *excite* me, because I think things might develop into something that works for both of us, given good-natured companionship and a little time.

Clever Elsie said...

K.: What man would want someone like Lori Gottlieb? Only the kind of guy who'd be willing to settle.

I wondered this myself. Gottlieb actually provides an example of a deluded guy patiently waiting for the ex-girlfriend who dumped him to get good and ready to settle. The guy claims he doesn't mind being second best, but I have to think five or ten years of living as someone's consolation prize would get old.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

Anonymous: Thanks a lot for the thoughtful commentary. While I love getting feedback like yours, I'd just ask that next time you ID your post, as per the Singletude guidelines. The moratorium on anonymous comments was meant to discourage spam, flames, and trolls, not interested participants like you, but of course the rules have to apply to everyone. You don't need to put your full name on display; just a nickname or handle will do.

You have some excellent points, but I think it's necessary to distinguish between realism, which is what I think you're referring to, and Gottlieb's cynicism or near fatalism.

As I indicated in some of my previous posts, I'm also skeptical of the idealized, unattainable image of the "soul mate", which can't withstand the reality of marriage. Like you, I think there's a substantial percentage of the single population bypassing solid 80-85% matches so they can hold out for that perfect 100% match. You know, the one they're about as likely to find as an unrelated individual who shares their DNA.

And, in my experience, this phenomenon isn't confined to women, either. I've encountered plenty of men who have a very romanticized notion of the model female, and no woman ever seems to live up to their standard.

But here's where I disagree:

the kind of practical, feet-on-the-ground-rather-than-head-in-the-clouds marriages that Gottlieb talks about are exactly the kind of marriages that have prevailed throughout history--except for that brief period in the U.S., from WW II into the sixties

First of all, although I know that marriage, especially among the upper class, had a more pragmatic history than current practice would suggest, I think we assume too much if we pretend to know that love never entered into it. "Love," when you dissect it, is merely physical attraction plus the emotional bond that arises when one feels a strong affinity for another. This affinity, dissected further, is probably the result of commonality (i.e. common values, beliefs, interests, personality traits, etc.) reinforced by repeat exposure. Even though parents had much more control over marriage in the past, it's not unlikely that many young couples began courting, with permission, due to mutual attraction and developed a deep affinity for each other during the courtship period. Indeed, ancient myths from around the world--Greece, Ireland, India, the Americas--include many tales of young couples passionately in love.

So I think it's safe to say that humans have always wanted to follow their hearts in the choice of a mate, but it's only in recent years that doing so has become a norm rather than a privilege. But that's progress. To turn the clocks back would also be to return to an era in which many marriages were undoubtedly as miserable as they were inescapable.

The problem isn't that we want marriages based on love but that we have such a high threshold for commitment these days. I suspect that physical attraction, the flirtation of courtship, and long hours spent in each other's presence went a long way toward nurturing love in the hearts of our ancestors, and they were eager to commit. If there were personal differences, they likely married first and resolved them later.

But today, we're reluctant to commit, dismissing people offhand for any failure to meet our criteria, even when we've started to develop feelings for them. Personally, I've known people who dropped lovers they otherwise liked quite a bit because of minor differences they would probably have resolved in the long run. These days, though, it seems that we have to resolve all our differences first and commit later, or if we can't resolve them all, as usually happens, then we don't commit ever.

That's where realism comes in. The realistic approach, I think, is to realize that we can never resolve all our differences. There will always be certain things about another person that bother us or don't quite fit us like a glove. But as long as we have deep feelings for them, that's okay. We make the commitment anyway because we love them.

However, I don't think this kind of realism is what Gottlieb is talking about. She's talking about a hard cynicism that dismisses the importance of love entirely and tries to replace it with tolerance. She's talking about a personal relationship conducted with all the warmth of "a small business." She's talking about committing her life and the lives of her children to an alcoholic or a chronic depressive or a social phobic. She's talking about giving her body over and over again to someone she finds repellent. I'm sorry, but I just don't think that's what marriage should be.

I continue to date women even after I've gotten the feeling that they don't really *excite* me, because I think things might develop into something that works for both of us, given good-natured companionship and a little time.

Notice the phrase I bolded. I think your choice to give it time, as you say, is realistic. But what happens if "things" don't "develop into something"? Would you marry the woman in question anyway just so you wouldn't be alone? I'm guessing the answer is no, yet this is the very choice Gottlieb would have you make. And I have to wonder: if you knew a woman "settled" for you because she wanted to do better but couldn't, would you not end up bitter and resentful towards her?

Again, I think a healthy dose of dating realism is for the best. But, if you ask me, realism is about accepting the flaws in someone you love, not dispensing with love for someone you accept.

Thanks again for your thought-provoking comment!

K. said...

I think it's really important that a couple like each other. Love can be tested and can weaken. Friendship can carry a couple through such times until the love bond strengthens.

K. said...

P.S. Marry someone who has settled for you, and every day he/she will find a thousand different ways of letting you know it.

Anonymous said...

Sorry for the late reply, but wow, I clicked on this and was appalled. I'm in denial because I want to adopt a child instead of have one naturally? The way I look at it is, I'd rather give a child already in the world a loving home, because there are already so many children without homes.

And I guess my grandmother, who did the same as this author suggests and spent fifty years in an abusive marriage because she didn't want to raise her children/grandchildren (including me) alone. As a result of the emotional trauma and stress of the relationship, my grandmother is now in very, very poor health. I would rather her have divorced my grandfather and lived a sane life as a single woman (and I am sure there are other men who would have courted her, she is very beautiful) rather than end up the shell of a person she is today.

This is just the most ridiculous logic I have ever heard of and quite frankly is some bullsh!t. People are so afraid of being alone that they settle, when honestly, being alone isn't the end of the world . . . it's sad that so many people, especially those in my age group (early twenties) seem to think being single is the end of the world. I would rather be alone than be married to someone like my grandfather, and that is why I am *determined* not to settle for less. I've learned from my grandparents' and my mother's mistakes, and I hope and pray I don't make the same ones.

Clever Elsie said...

Yoruame: Thank you for sharing this very personal story about your grandmother! I'm so sorry to hear that the years of turmoil in an abusive relationship have taken a toll on her health. :( This is an extreme example of what can happen when we "settle" as Gottlieb suggests, but it's an example that unfortunately rings true for so many people.

I think it's wonderful that you want to adopt a child and wish you much success in that endeavor! :) And I fully agree that it's far better to be alone and happy than miserable in a bad relationship. It sounds like you have a very healthy attitude and will make wise choices for your relationships.

Thank you again for your very insightful words!