Thursday, February 04, 2010

On settling

Or, Marry Him Now, Woman, While You Still Have Your Looks, Because Who Will Want You When You're a Spinster Hag With Shriveled Ovaries and an Aura of Hopelessness?

Okay, so it was back in March of 2008 that Lori Gottlieb published an essay in The Atlantic magazine titled, "Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough." One might imagine that, with such a title, the essay would advocate looking for more of a business partner than a romantic partner to share marriage and family. In fact, one would be correct, because that's precisely what she advocates in so many words and more.

I only mention it now because Gottlieb has recently released a book by the same name, expanding on her former advice to let go of all of your standards for fear of never finding a man who will love--scratch that, tolerate you enough to live with you, make a baby with you, and then disappear into the office for 80 hours a week to leave you to play with your baby. She now has new, fresh advice to let go of all of your standards for fear of never finding a man who will love--scratch that, tolerate you enough to live with you, make a baby with you, and then disappear into the office for 80 hours a week to leave you to play with your baby.

Gottlieb is a single mother. She conceived (in a "fit of self-empowerment") a baby from a sperm donor and now, in her mid-forties, regrets her decisions because all of the families in the park seem so happy and, hell, even her friends who are married to men they hate are better off than she is, because at least they're married. To men they hate. And she very much regrets not marrying the men she found intolerable when she was younger, because then, she'd have a husband. Not necessarily one she was in love with, not necessarily one she wanted to interact with, but certainly one to... be married to. I guess.

She's so secure in her fear of alone-ness and desperation to marry at any cost that she can't believe any woman of a certain age could feel any differently. In her essay, Gottlieb asserts, "[E]very women I know--no matter how successful and ambitious, how financially and emotionally secure--feels panic, occasionally coupled with desperation, if she hits 30 and finds herself unmarried." Of course, it must be argued that she doesn't know me--and that I'm still ten months shy of the magic number--but I honestly don't fear eternal spinsterhood, despite my advanced age. Maybe I should enjoy my remaining 313 days before the panic sets in.

Or maybe I'm just "in denial or lying." Good call, Lori.

I will agree with her argument that the little annoyances--bad movie-theatre manners, lousy sense of style--aren't great standards on which to judge and ultimately chuck a guy. So many of my married friends are never able to say, "His video game habit/naugahyde beanbag chair/filthy car/inability to hit the hamper from a foot away bugs the crap out of me" without finishing, quite sincerely, "But I love him to death." Which is a pretty good sign that they've made good choices and done a good job of looking past the minor details to appreciate the whole man. Gottlieb seems to be taking a different approach; while she also would opt to overlook the ugly ties and inability to cook, her proposed alternative doesn't really address anything related to, say, love, or passion, or happiness.

"[I]f you want to have the infrastructure in place to have a family, settling is the way to go."

'Kay. So when you say "settle," you mean settle... for any guy who's willing to marry and impregnate me.

Gotcha.

But yeah, that's pretty much her thing. She tells us, "Don't worry about passion or intense connection." "Settling will probably make you happier in the long run." "[O]nce you take the plunge and do it, you'll probably be relatively content." (Emphasis mine.) She says, "Marriage isn't a passion-fest; it's more like a partnership formed to run a very small, mundane, and often boring nonprofit business" and refers to "uninspiring relationships that might have made us happy in the context of a family" (emphasis also mine). Because, by her reckoning, all of this beats the hell out of being by oneself.

"[I]f you rarely see your husband--but he's a decent guy who takes out the trash and sets up the baby gear, and he provides a second income that allows you to spend time with your child instead of working 60 hours a week to support a family on your own--how much does it matter whether the guy you marry is The One?" Yes, America, why should we give gays the right to marry when it could threaten the sanctity of unions such as these?

Gottlieb even goes so far as to bring up Mary Tyler Moore and Rachel Green (of Friends fame) and Carrie Bradshaw (Sex in the City). O how they could be married now if only they had settled! What if Rachel had just gone ahead and married the boring orthodontist? Why oh why didn't Carrie jump on Aidan while she had the chance (since Big will certainly never be seen with a kid slung in a Baby Bjorn)? After the newsroom goes dark, won't Mary find herself single, friendless, miserable, and alone? Why did these stupid women not settle?

I actually do know precisely why Ross and Rachel (and Carrie and Big) weren't settled and content. I also know why Mulder and Scully didn't hook up, why Burn Notice's Michael and Fiona keep coming together and drawing apart, and why Buffy and Angel struggled so much with their love: Because that's what it says in the script. If they put their inner children in time-out and settled down to make the relationships work, it would be boring, not in the sense that happy marriages are boring but in the sense that content people don't make good TV. Maybe, if they'd both gotten over themselves, Ross and Rachel could have found a relationship abounding in both passion and contentment. Yawn. Click. But that's what some refer to as television. If you're divining deep sociological truths and the secrets to eternal love in the 22 minutes of a sitcom, you're already twelve kinds of wrong.

I have a suggestion for Gottlieb and the many single friends to whom she constantly refers as anecdata to bolster her own otherwise-unbolsterable claims of single fortysomething misery: Maybe you're single because you're obnoxious. Maybe your superficiality glows off of you like a Byzantine halo. Maybe when you're on a date with a guy, he can tell that you're mentally listing his every fault and weighing them all against his potential to pay for your kid's soccer uniform. Maybe he sees you tearing up over the photos of happy families that come in picture frames and notices the way your fingers dig convulsively into his arm at the sight of a father carrying his son on his shoulders at the park. Maybe he saw your copy of No Time to Be Picky: Land That Pathetic Schlub Before You're Barren on your bookshelf. Maybe he saw the words "Last Resort" flash up next to his number on your cell phone. It's called desperation, Lori, and it smells like White Shoulders and prenatal vitamins.

I also have some words of advice for Gottlieb and co. And while it might be too late for them, they might be too far gone, others may be able to learn from it and avoid their fate.

(A disclaimer: My knowledge of relationships stems from a mere thirteen-ish years in the dating world, only two of which have involved blissful happiness, so it's entirely possible that, in thirty years (or ten years, or five) I will find myself proven horribly wrong. When I talk about satisfaction in marriage and happiness in the future, I do so as someone who has never been married and who (God willing) has a whole lot of future ahead of her. But I like to think that my past trial and error have given me at least a little bit of valuable perspective. I do invite the contribution of anyone with more experience to correct my assertions and assumptions where appropriate.)

When I started dating, I was looking for someone who was tall, handsome, smart, funny, looking to have a family, ambitious, and respectful of my desire to have a life and career of my own. This is because I was sixteen. I also was looking for someone who was George Clooney. Over time I dated a number of guys: Guys who were handsome but obnoxious, guys who were family-oriented but not terribly feminist, guys who were funny but not terribly bright, guys who were ambitious but not George Clooney. I put myself out there, tried a few things, and edited my list as I went--that's not settling, it's experiencing the world and learning more about myself and what I wanted, what I was going to hold out for.

After that experience and more than a few mistakes, my list had changed a lot:

- Someone who challenges me intellectually - because that will keep me sharp, and I'll never get bored
- Someone who loves exactly who I am without feeling the need to "fix" things about me, even little, tiny things - because that will make me feel comfortable and secure without fearing that he's eventually going to find me so hopelessly flawed that he has to bail. Besides, if I love and accept him and he loves and accepts me, I'll be far more inclined to try and adjust those little, tiny things myself
- Someone who doesn't just tolerate but actively appreciates my little quirks and foibles - because those are the things that make me me, and my idea of love doesn't involve anyone who merely tolerates me
- Someone who makes me shiver when he kisses me (and this one's my aunt's fault. Blame her)

And even if those standards were unrealistically high, there was no way I was going to back down from them, because I couldn't see myself possibly living my life any other way.

(Incidentally: Nailed it.)

So some hard-won advice to all who can hear (er, read) my voice (er, blog, or whatever):

- Don't lower your standards; just think about what's really important. Think about the things you value now and the things that are going to make you happy in the future. And you know what? If, in the end, you realize that you will never be truly happy without a man who will look good on your arm and make beautiful babies and enable a lifestyle that provides luxuries and puts you in contact with all of the right people, go ahead and hold out for that. I'm not going for that myself, and I sure as hell don't understand it, but I'm not going to tell you how to live your life.

- Decide for yourself what happiness in life really means. A husband and a picket fence and 2.5 children might truly be a priority for you, or it might just be societal pressure to live the cookie-cutter life that is everyone else's definition of success. If, on careful consideration, you find that's your definition too, hold out for it. But if you think about it honestly and decide that your definition of success doesn't involve kids, or it involves both kids and a career, or it involves a partner who loves you deeply but doesn't hinge on a ring, go for that. If you settle for the wrong guy out of desperation to satisfy some societal standard that doesn't actually appeal to you, you'll eventually find yourself unsatisfied with the life you're living and the person you're living it with. Are a blood diamond and a picket fence really worth that? Your call.

- Learn to love yourself. At the very least, learn to like yourself. Learn to enjoy your own company, and learn to recognize your traits that make you a good friend so you can find friends who enjoy doing things other than moaning about how single they are. If the only thing driving you is the fear of being alone, you're going to be searching for someone who will fill a hole in your life rather than someone who will complement it. Learn how to be a complete person on your own, and the addition of another person to your life will make it better, not good enough.

- Don't be afraid to make mistakes--because like just about everything else in life, love is a skill to be learned over time. Learning to ride a bike involves a few skinned knees; learning to play the piano involves some truly dismal performances (trust me); hell, learning to pick out your own clothes involves going out in some outfits that will make you cringe in retrospect. And those things pale in importance next to the concept of lifetime happiness. You're going to have crappy dates, you're going to have relationships that later make you wonder what you were thinking, you're going to fall for a guy/girl who ends up not loving you back. Chalk it all up to a learning experience and maybe figure out how to laugh at it later, because if you hold yourself back for fear of failing, you're never going to learn how to succeed.

- Don't fall for the old trope, generally delivered by older generations, that you can't really know what you want now and that in ten years, you'll regret your disdainful nonpursuit of the picket fence. Maybe you will, maybe you won't. Maybe you'll chuck it all and follow their lead and be blissfully happy, and maybe you'll regret it and feel trapped. Hell, maybe they'll look back ten years from now and realize that they aren't really happy with the choices they've made. Scientists have yet to invent a way to see into the future, and making choices that seem wrong now in case they'll feel right in the future is a risky gamble.

Don't despair. Despair isn't attractive. Besides, I can't speak personally to the challenges of dating after forty, but I do know of a certain forty-plus who managed to find true love with a woman of stunning intelligence, sparkling personality, and timeless beauty, and I daresay he wouldn't describe the process using gory-drunk-driving-accident-resulting-in-full-paralysis metaphors.

And the greatest of these is love--of yourself. Don't be such a whiny, pathetic, desperate, needy little clinger that you can't even stand your own company. See yourself as someone worthy of actual love and friendship, not just a childcare-and-garbage-removal contractual arrangement. Or don't, and learn divide your time equally between bitching with your friends that at this point you'd be willing to marry the next solvent, fertile asshole who came along and wondering why you're still single.

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