Settling, and Settling Down

Lori Gottlieb’s Marry Him!, an essay in the March 2008 Atlantic, advises single women aged 35 and over to “settle” for, more or less, any man they can land. A few passages give the flavor of the whole:

The couples my friend and I saw at the park that summer were enviable but not because they seemed so in love—they were enviable because the husbands played with the kids for 20 minutes so their wives could eat lunch. In practice, my married friends with kids don’t spend that much time with their husbands anyway (between work and child care), and in many cases, their biggest complaint seems to be that they never see each other. So if 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?

Is marriage really the institution these women are looking for? Perhaps a kibbutz is closer to their ideal: work, companionship, and child care.

What they understood is this: as your priorities change from romance to family, the so-called “deal breakers” change. Some guys aren’t worldly, but they’d make great dads. Or you walk into a room and start talking to this person who is 5’4” and has an unfortunate nose, but he “gets” you.

Hey! I don’t think my nose is “unfortunate.”

Take the date I went on last night. The guy was substantially older. He had a long history of major depression and said, in reference to the movies he was writing, “I’m fascinated by comas” and “I have a strong interest in terrorists.” He’d never been married. He was rude to the waiter. But he very much wanted a family, and he was successful, handsome, and smart. As I looked at him from across the table, I thought, Yeah, I’ll see him again. Maybe I can settle for that. But my very next thought was, Maybe I can settle for better. It’s like musical chairs—when do you take a seat, any seat, just so you’re not left standing alone?

“Settling” apparently includes being willing to marry a mean person.

Back when I was still convinced I’d find my soul mate, I did, although I never articulated this, have certain requirements. I thought that the person I married would have to have a sense of wonderment about the world, would be both spontaneous and grounded, and would acknowledge that life is hard but also be able to navigate its ups and downs with humor. Many of the guys I dated possessed these qualities, but if one of them lacked a certain degree of kindness, another didn’t seem emotionally stable enough, and another’s values clashed with mine. Others were sweet but so boring that I preferred reading during dinner to sitting through another tedious conversation.

Vague standards invite invite abuses of discretion. On Monday, we can reject Tom for being too grounded; on Tuesday we can reject his identical twin Tim for not being grounded enough. The groundedness index isn’t a reason for the rejections; it’s a post hoc rationalization of them.

My friend Alan, for instance, justified his choice of a “bland” wife who’s a good mom but with whom he shares little connection this way: “I think one-stop shopping is overrated. I get passion at my office with my work, or with my friends that I sometimes call or chat with—it’s not the same, and, boy, it would be exciting to have it with my spouse. But I spend more time with people at my office than I do with my spouse.”

Cause or effect?

I asked my mental Trudie about the essay. Her reply typically acerbic reply:

Of course women have to “settle” as they get older. So do the men they marry. The basic problem these women face is too much self-absorbtion and not enough self-knowledge. People who make dating decisions based on unfortunate noses or who think that being rude to the waiter can be overlooked don’t suddenly morph into kind, thoughtful people merely because they’ve turned 40.

You can tell yourself that the dating pool is thinning out, that age is taking its toll on your figure, that it’s hard to date when you have kids. These things may be true, but they’re not why it’s hard to find someone. Telling women to “settle” provides them with a face-saving way to lower their standards without revising their self-image downward.

Need I add that a marriage based on “settling” creates its own special kinds of dysfunction? (Particularly if, as Trudie suspects, your husband thinks of it as “settling,” too.)

What a strange article. This woman feels at the mercy of her biological clock — in fact thinks that ALL women are — while at the same time managed to make a different choice and be a single parent. My feeling is that daughters of women who settle think that settling is a better option than the dreaded Alternative.

On the one hand I feel bad that this woman is so terribly defensive about her brash stance and anticipates letters to the editor denouncing her. On the other hand, what the fuck lady? She’s traded in some sort of settling for some guy she didn’t even manage to settle for, for allowing herself not to settle because of the OTHER man in her life, the “magical son”.

On the other other hand, it’s The Atlantic, and articles about fulfilled women who aren’t at the mercy of anything don’t appeal much to their demographic. I googled unsucessfully to find my favorite recent New York Times article, the one about the woman who got set up with her Chinese friend’s brother/cousin/something? She wound up marrying him despite their cultural and language differences because she liked having the guy around. It paints a very different picture of the so-called “dating scene” and the options available to those ticking time bombs we call women over 35.

I really wanted to blog that article and connect it to Jeremy Blumenthal’s work on affective forecasting (“we don’t know what we really want in the future!”). Anyway, loved your response, and here is another great response to her:

“[T]he entire polemic is misconceived. The question isn’t really about settling, it’s that we’ve just created an ideal of perfection that no man or woman could ever fully realise… . To base a marriage on nothing other than taking out the trash occasionally in the coming years or haggling over chequebooks misses the essential point of partnership.”

“Marriage, just like being single, has downsides, but those downsides are immensely ameliorated by real attraction …- joy at spending time together and appreciation for each other. Otherwise you might as well just join a socialist living experiment. Then someone would be there to care for the kids, take out the garbage, and pick up the groceries. You just wouldn’t have to screw them. That is, unless you really wanted to.”