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Lori Gottleib’s Marry Him: Is Settling Really Good Enough?

Written by: Beth Woodward, CC2K Books Editor

ImageLori Gottleib’s book, Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough, has ignited a firestorm of controversy.  In it, Gottleib—a 41-year-old single mother who conceived her son via artificial insemination—argues that women should stop waiting around for Mr. Right and take a chance on guys who may not tick every box on their checklist.  Many commentators have taken issue with Gottleib’s anti-feminist message and her presumption that women should marry whoever comes along before their “market value” (her words, not mine) declines too much.

And I was prepared to hate it right along with them.  After all, I am a fiercely independent woman who has been proudly waving her feminist flag since college.  I grew up with a mother who, after a disastrous first marriage in her early 20s, didn’t meet and marry my father until she was in her mid-30s—a much less common practice in the early 1980s than it is now.  She spent most of my childhood telling me to go out and have as many life (and dating) experiences as possible before I settle down, that I should learn to live life on my own before I share it with anyone else.  Gottleib’s book argues the opposite: that a woman should snag themselves a good guy before they’re all off the market.

But I didn’t hate it.  Although I take issue with some of the assertions in the book, Gottleib also got a lot of things right.

Many of my mid-to-late twentysomething friends are starting to get engaged and married, and a few of the ones who haven’t are starting to get marriage anxiety.  This is the demographic that Gottleib is aiming for: women who want to get married but haven’t found “the one”—and are presumably wondering why.  Over and over again, she tells anecdotes about women, herself included, who met guys who may have had potential, but also came with flaws: poor dressers not tall enough, not enough hair, not nice enough cars, not romantic enough.  Either these women turned down the guys altogether, or had relationships and later broke up with them, hoping for someone “better” to come along.  And I would love to say that this type of behavior is confined to a very limited subset of shallow women who value money and status over things like kindness and integrity.  Except I’ve seen it happen more often than I care to admit: otherwise normal, intelligent women tear apart and turn away guys because of things like their clothes and their cars.  Many will talk about their initial “spark” or “chemistry” with someone without considering that chemistry is something that evolves and changes over time.

Gottleib’s advice here (which she failed to heed for many years) is simple and pragmatic: when you assess guys for long-term potential, stop sweating the small stuff.  Whether he shares your love of French films and remembers your best friend’s birthday isn’t really important in the long run.  What is important is whether a guy is kind and considerate.  Does he share the same values you do?  Does he have life goals that are compatible with yours?  He may look great on paper now, but will he make a good life partner in 10, 20, or 50 years?  Nobody comes in a perfect package—including you.  Even if you love your partner, there will be things about him that bother you and annoy you, and in any marriage there are going to be ups and downs.  Anyone who believes that “Mr. Right” is also “Mr. Perfect” is going to be sorely disappointed.

And to this part of Gottleib’s message, I say: Bravo.  I don’t have any empirical evidence to back this up, but I do think there are a lot of women out there who are waiting for Mr. Perfect to come along and will bail out of any relationship when it fails to meet any of their expectations.  And for them, Gottleib’s story of romantic disillusionment is a cautionary tale: if you want to get married, do as I say, not as I do.

(Of course, the not-so-nice part of me says that if there are really women out there turning down or—worse—dumping perfectly nice guys because they do lame Austin Powers impressions at parties or because they like the wrong sports, thinks, “Don’t they deserve what they get?”)

But beyond that is where I start to take issue with Gottleib’s message.

Gottleib takes issue with the idea of “chemistry,” saying that things like friendship, compatibility, and shared goals are more important than things like sparks and physical attraction.  Even someone who could grace the cover of a Harlequin romance at 30 could be overweight and balding at 50, and fireworks will settle into something a little more stable—albeit a little less exciting—over time.

All true.  But chemistry has to have something to do with it.  Gottleib seems to equate marriage to friendship and partnership, having a person with whom you share your life and, perhaps, raise a family.  But the physical and sexual aspects of marriage can’t be ignored, either.  I’m not saying that you should overlook the nice brown-haired guy at the bar just because you’ve always preferred blonds.  On the other hand, if the thought of having sex with someone gives you the heebie-jeebies, then perhaps a lifelong marital commitment isn’t the best idea—even if he shares your values and goals and is great company.

A more troubling aspect of Gottleib’s argument is how it constantly berates women for having overly high standards for men—and then seems to give men a free pass for theirs.   Gottleib pushes women to broaden their horizons, to look at men they might otherwise have passed by, yet she acknowledges without so much as a tisk-tisk that men in their 40s often want someone 10 or 15 years younger, with whom they can more easily start a family.  This discrepancy has this disconcerting effect of turning women into brood mares, our worth determined merely by the number of viable eggs in our ovaries.  And no, not every man is looking for the trophy wife, the perfect picture of vitality and reproductive health—any more than every woman is looking for an Adonis with a great job, fancy car, and perfect hair.  Gottleib’s assessment of the way many middle-aged men view dating may be accurate, but that doesn’t mean it’s right.  Her argument comes off as anti-feminist because she admonishes women to open their minds to greater possibilities, but not men.  It’s a lesson that people of both genders could benefit from.

But I think what got me most about the book was Gottleib’s (rather arrogant) presumption that all women want to get married.  I know a lot of women who don’t.  Some of them have already been married and divorced, or married and widowed.  Some of them have never been married at all.  But all of them are comfortable enough with themselves to say, “I like the person I am by myself.”

And that brings me back to my own parents.  They had the most stable, loving marriage of anyone I’ve ever known.  They met in July of 1982, were engaged in August, and got married in early December.  And when I tell people that, I think they imagine some kind of crazy romantic fairy-tale courtship.  Yet when I ask my mother how she knew, after just a month, that my father was “the one,” she doesn’t talk about fireworks and flames.  She talks about how they spoke extensively about their desires and goals, about what they both wanted and needed out of life.  By the end of that month, they knew each other so well that they knew they could build a life together.  And they did.

And that supports Gottleib’s argument about how compatibility and values are the most important aspects of a successful marriage.  But my mother also says—quite adamantly, since she never wanted me to rush into an early marriage—that if she hadn’t been a little bit older and wiser by the time she met my father, if she hadn’t had a few life experiences before then, she wouldn’t have known herself well enough to know what she really wanted out of life, nor would she have had all the things she wanted to do before she settled down out of her system.

Of course, according to Gottleib’s reasoning, we should all snatch up guys while we’re in our 20s.  (“Before it’s too late” seems to be the unstated sentiment here.)

At 26, I’ve got a few years before my “market value” decreases, even according to Gottleib’s standards.  I’ve dated quite a bit in the last 10 years, had more boyfriends than many of my friends.  I’ve been involved in a few serious relationships, one that I thought would eventually lead to marriage.  Yet if I had gotten married right out of college, I’d be very unhappy—and possibly divorced—by now.  I’ve grown and changed a lot in the nearly five years since then, and at the time I hadn’t figured out what I wanted out of life, or what I needed out of a relationship.  I have needed this time to understand who I am, to get to know myself as an adult.  And if some guy came along, swept me off my feet, and asked me to get married in the next few months, I’m still not sure whether I would be ready.

I’m not a 41-year-old single mother, and I have not had the life experiences that Lori Gottleib has.  But my mother always told me that, before I commit myself to a marriage, I should be happy living with myself.  And now, I can honestly say I am.

And that, I think, is a lesson Lori Gottleib never learned.