Saturday, February 09, 2008

Partners

In Marry Him! (at the Atlantic) Lori Gottlieb advocates settling for a good-enough man instead of holding out for the perfect, romantic, in-love relationship.

Don’t worry about passion or intense connection. Don’t nix a guy based on his annoying habit of yelling “Bravo!” in movie theaters. Overlook his halitosis or abysmal sense of aesthetics. Because if you want to have the infrastructure in place to have a family, settling is the way to go. Based on my observations, in fact, 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. (It’s hard to maintain that level of zing when the conversation morphs into discussions about who’s changing the diapers or balancing the checkbook.)

While I've never believed in "one true love" I'm not sure settling is the best approach. I've never yet settled, and I'd surely be insulted to think someone was settling for me. I think the better approach is to examine and adjust your expectations. And I think Ms. Gottlieb understands this when she writes:

What I didn’t realize when I decided, in my 30s, to break up with boyfriends I might otherwise have ended up marrying, is that while settling seems like an enormous act of resignation when you’re looking at it from the vantage point of a single person, once you take the plunge and do it, you’ll probably be relatively content. It sounds obvious now, but I didn’t fully appreciate back then that what makes for a good marriage isn’t necessarily what makes for a good romantic relationship. Once you’re married, it’s not about whom you want to go on vacation with; it’s about whom you want to run a household with. 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 I mean this in a good way.

She's advocating changing your standards, not settling. You don't look for the same thing in a long-term housemate and life partner that you do in a prom date. And really, who'd want the excitement level of a prom date day-in and day-out? When would you relax? How would you solve the plugged sink or leaky roof with a prom date? Would you want your prom date to take care of you when you were sick?

Ms. Gottlieb seems to be ashamed of deciding to settle, though, when she discusses a book about marrying the men who maybe aren't A-list to other women:

The moral is supposed to be “Don’t be too picky” but many of the anecdotes quote women who seem to be trying to convince not just the reader, but themselves, that they haven’t settled.

“I should be with some guy with a vast vocabulary who is very smart,” said Heather, a 30-year-old lawyer turned journalist. Instead, she’s dating an actor who didn’t finish college. “My boyfriend is fun, he’s smart, but he hasn’t gone through years of school. He wanted to pursue acting. And you can tell—he doesn’t have that background, and it never ever once bothered me. But for everyone else, [his lack of education] is what they see.” Another woman says she dates “the ‘secrets’ … guys other women don’t recognize as great.” How’s that for damning praise?

Meanwhile, in sugarcoating this message, the authors often resort to flattery, telling the reader to remember how fabulous, attractive, charming, and intelligent she is, in the hopes that she’ll project a more confident vibe on dates. In my case, though, the flattery backfired. I read these books thinking, Wait, if I’m such a great catch, why should I settle for anyone less than my equal? If I’m so fabulous, don’t I deserve true romantic connection?


But what I see in these quotes is a weird focus on whether your husband gives you success points in other people's perception of you, not whether he's a good person you care about and can make a good life with, as if picking a husband were a competitive sport and you scored based on his education level, income, interests, etc. instead of on how happy you were together.

Then there's her angst about how unfair it all is.

And no matter what women decide—settle or don’t settle—there’s a price to be paid, because there’s always going to be regret. Unless you meet the man of your dreams (who, by the way, doesn’t exist, precisely because you dreamed him up), there’s going to be a downside to getting married, but a possibly more profound downside to holding out for someone better.

Oh, life is awful, if you settle you didn't get what you deserve, and if you don't settle you might end up alone! In the end she wishes she'd been smart enough to settle younger, in her early 20s; I wonder whether even that would have made her happy since by her definition she would still have *settled* instead of doing what I think best, changing your expectations to match your needs in the completely different relationship that is marriage.

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