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“Marry Him” and the Idea of Settling For A Spouse

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Few things have been as intriguing to me of late as the writing of and responses to Marry Him: The Case For Settling For Mr. Good Enough. Not because I empathize with the subject: Marry Him is a book for women of middling age who are in the market for marriage. Me? I’m a single guy in my midtwenties that has little interest in matrimony. So why am I so fascinated? My guess is that it’s just really refreshing to read honest discussion.

Before I write my own thoughts and opinions on the subjects of women, romance, marriage, dating, cultural norms, and any other topic: allow me to remind you that they are just that: my thoughts and opinions. I’m no expert in these matters, by any standard. There are plenty of women who found Marry Him wrong-minded and shrill, others who found it thought-provoking. Please keep in mind that they are out there, and that their opinions are to be remembered in all of this. In keeping with the internet ethic of “cover what you do best and link to the rest,” I’m going to write what I write best (views from a man whose faith and politics left him) and link to the rest (namely the writings of 1) women, 2) single women, and 3) married women).

Also: background on the book: Lori Gottlieb is a Stanford Medical School alum that made her name in writing confessional books of differing sorts. She’s been on all kinds of shows, from CNN to NPR to writing for the The Atlantic Monthly, and she’s a single mother through a sperm donor. In March 2008 Gottlieb wrote an essay for The Atlantic titled “Marry Him!” which prompted all kinds of letters, a book deal, and an option for a movie off the book. The essay talked about the problems she’s facing as a single mother and that:

A number of my single women friends admit (in hushed voices and after I swear I won’t use their real names here) that they’d readily settle now but wouldn’t have 10 years ago. They believe that part of the problem is that we grew up idealizing marriage—and that if we’d had a more realistic understanding of its cold, hard benefits, we might have done things differently.

The first element that I’d like to point out is the contradiction of Marry Him. The percentage of business that is the job of Provoking Unhappiness is debatable, it’s existence is not- one way to encourage sales is to present the greener grass, to make What You Already Own seem worse than What You Could Buy. Few industries are more defined by this than books and movies on romance, and particularly in the women’s market. Now an entire other post can be dedicated to discussing why this is: be it the rampant sexism that still pervades corporate leadership and marketing, be it the male-centric Western civilization norms that plague our society, be it the stubbornheaded pinko feminist college professors vainly trying to rewrite women’s genetic codes, I don’t care. What I find interesting is that Ms. Gottlieb, after surveying the field of self-help and advice books and finds most of them wanting, decides to…write a self-help and advice book. Considering that part of her critique is the idea that many women are misled into thinking that there’s “someone better out there” by a cottage industry, it is remarkable that Ms. Gottlieb seems to think her own contribution to said industry will help rather than hurt.

Secondly, while I find it amazing that the idea that There Isn’t Anyone Close To Your Ideal Person is so novel and revolutionary to the modern woman as to warrant a full book, I find it even more amazing that the writing of said book has created such squabbling. It’s a hoary tactic to “turn the tables”, but whatever small amount light might be shed from it should be worth it. If a man were to come out with a book suggesting the exact same “settle for Ms. Good-Enough” idea, there would be a limited few reactions:

  • The majority of men would probably say something along the lines of “No s***, Sherlock.” There would be few men who’d suggest otherwise. There’s a reason why traditional manners dictates you say “congratulations” to the groom and “best wishes” to the bride: dudes gotta lock down what they can and be happy about it. I’m sure there’s all kinds of evolutionary/sociological reasons for this, I have neither the expertise or energy to discuss them.
  • For all those who disagree with the above bullet, what would most likely be said is: “Not for me, man- maybe for you.” To each their own.

I think this second bullet is the more serious point. When it comes to the gender writ-large, there is no reason or urge for me and my friends to defend all men. One of my friends never gets married? As long as he’s happy with it, okay. Another gets married at 22? I wouldn’t do it, but hey, it’s his choice. I think this is partly why there are so few books and even fewer successful books targeted towards advice for men in relationships: there’s no consensus about what makes men happy. Perhaps it is because we don’t have a badly-placed arrogance to presume to speak for all men like we do for women. I don’t know. All I know is that the mere presence of this book speaks quite loudly to the chasm we see between women and men in relation to books, problems, and love.

Thirdly, his video was put out in promotion with the book:

The first time I watched this, I actually started laughing out loud as the litany of qualities grew. I thought it was a joke. Now, surely there’s some editing taking place here on the part of the publisher, but the point remains that if you were to ask men the same thing there wouldn’t be nearly this long a list. Really. I can ask my friends what they want in a spouse, and my guess is that there’d be about 3-5 qualities that were listed, and that men would be negotiable on about near all of them*.

I would never dream of saying that she “has to cook”, and I love to eat. It’s a big deal to me to eat good food, but you know what? It’s much more important to me that she doesn’t undercut me at every turn, that she’s in my corner when I need someone, than that she makes a kick-ass chili.

Okay, I’m rambling at this point, so I’ll just link to lines I’ve liked from around the web, throw a comment in if I’ve got one.

From one of several Jezebel pieces:

It’s sort of refreshing how honest she is, even though hers are thoughts any 28-year-old has already probably had in advance. But then you hit a sentiment like this:

“After all, wouldn’t it have been wiser to settle for a higher caliber of “not Mr. Right” while my marital value was at its peak?”And think, wait a minute, something’s not right with his lady.

Agree to the disapproval of the idea that “marital value” can be specifically quantified as to determine peaks, but I’m more wanting to hit on the “any 28-year-old” line. I saw it a couple places, this idea that guys would be offended or wounded to know that a girl settled for them so women need to keep it to themselves. Allow me to speak for the vast majority of us, ladies: the idea of settling itself is a neutral thing. I don’t care if I knew that she thought me sub-par in significant ways, if Christina Hendricks stood in my corner and chose to hang with me, I take her everyday and 10 times on the weekend. This instinct doesn’t come from a pathetic place, either: pathetic would be staying as she’s cheating on me, not providing me with the necessary emotional support, or generally being bitchy. So please don’t think that you can never tell a guy that you’ve settled for him. He’ll probably surprise you in his response. Hell, I settle for myself most nearly every day, so I think I’d be weirded out if someone wasn’t settling for me.

Another Jezebel piece:

“Checklist” is the new “picky” — a word that gets thrown around to explain why it’s women’s fault that they’re single. Anna Kendrick’s character in Up in the Air had a checklist, and though it did seem to fit in with her arc as a naive young woman who learns that not everything in life can be done efficiently, it didn’t feel terribly realistic. Does anyone actually have a checklist? Or perhaps the more relevant question is: are there really a large number of women out there who want partners but can’t find them because of a rigid list of relatively shallow traits? I don’t know any of them.

I included this because I want to remind every one: this post is by no means conclusive. I’m a man, these are just my angles on the situation. I think the author, Anna N., is fair in raising this point. While the strength of Ms. Gottlieb’s language and the strength of her book’s conceit might have been pushed a little far by editors and a need-to-shock instinct on Gottlieb’s part, I think the above video and my own personal experience say that many women do have far more rigid lists than many men. Men’s standards are like the way Mr. Magoo sees the world: vague blobs and blurry shapes.

Another elephant in the room is this: for many men, the urge for sexual activity is so strong and prevalent that men are oftentimes more willing to fudge it on other levels to satisfy the first desire. So, in other words, when 15 of your top 20 qualities are going to be “willing to have sex” or related terms, your prospects only have to clear 5 hurdles as opposed to 20.

The point remains, however, that there is a good place for dissenting with Gottlieb on the fact that she presents too black-and-white a world.

More Jezebel:

If “settling” means finding a little maturity, dating guys because they are interesting people and treat you with respect and with whom you have things in common instead of dating guys because your mom hates them or they are taller than you, that’s a good start. If you define it as “settling” because he is 5’6″ rather than 5’9″, then you’re the one with the problem.

While I think that this is also right, I think it’s interesting that Jezebel, which is definitely for a more educated and cosmopolitan woman, still suggests that height plays a role for some women of that class. While allowing that my group of guys might be a unique and far-too-progressive group of wimpsters, I think that none or just one of them might be shallow enough to put a height standard out there. I have one friend who dates a woman taller than him (college volleyball player who is stunningly beautiful) and one that dates a girl 14 inches shorter (also a wonderfully funny and charming goofball of a gem of a girlfriend). For my group, having such a specific physical quality be so decisive seems…tawdry, gauche. Interesting to think that either my own group is rare for men of their mid-20s, or that similar groups of women don’t have the same unspoken rules.

All in all, I obviously know too little to say whether or not Gottlieb speaks for enough women. My gut is that Gottlieb was immaturely picky and had the platform to write of her discontent, rather than that she is a common tale. In any case, it led to interesting reading on my part this weekend, and I’m now perhaps a little more aware of the concerns and insecurities of some among the Fairer Sex.

*My best guess? Some basic, and I mean basic, physical attribute. I know guys who claim to be “breast men” and would willingly take Kate Winslet, Angelina Jolie, Jennifer Hudson, or Amy Adams. If you can see the commonalities between those women in that department, you are much more discerning than myself. Also: some personality meshing: does she laugh at my jokes, even if she knows they’re stupid? Is she too bossy or demanding of me? Finally, does her lifestyle match up with mine in basic ways. If I can’t fall asleep before 1:30 a.m. and am a neat freak, it’s going to be hard to have a girl who falls asleep at 8:45 pm in her unmade bed with a pile of dirty laundry next to it. I can’t think of any other thing. Seriously, a guys “dealbreaker” list is comically short, generally speaking.

Written by C.S. Stieber

February 15, 2010 at 11:22 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with ,

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