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January 18, 2010

Are Women Too Picky? Marry Him Already!

Author Lori Gottlieb has a bone to pick — with herself. In her new book, Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough, she reflects on why she's a single mom at 42 (a sperm donor did the honors), when she had a parade of suitors in her 20s and early 30s. The result is a hyperbolic, retro, and occasionally lucid look at dating in middle age, the takeaway of which is: Avoid it by being less picky when you're younger. We spoke to the author about why feminism has no place in love, dating after 40 is the 10th ring of hell, and marriage is always the endgame.

wedding cake toppers

Photo Credit: Ben Goldstein/Studio D

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Lauren Iannotti: The first thing I would ask you is I know the Atlantic piece this was based on was the fourth most commented-on piece in the history of the magazine. What kind of feedback were you getting after the story came out initially in 2008?

Lori Gottlieb: I got a lot of feedback. The most interesting was from men who said, “Thank you for writing this because women are so picky, they will not date us, they will not stay with us, they find everything wrong with us.” Married people was the other unexpected demographic responding. They were saying that either they totally agreed with the piece because they’d been married and they know what’s important in marriage now, or that they’re really glad that they picked the right person, not someone with these qualities that don’t matter in a marriage, and that they want their single friends to learn that. Or it just made them appreciate their husbands more. And I think the single women, there were two camps: There were a lot who said, “This is something I really didn’t want to hear and at first I was kinda offended by this but when I really look at my dating life and my friends’ dating lives, I can see myself in this and I’m scared because I don’t want to think of myself as being in that position. So it’s given me something to think about.” And then there were others who wrote to me as if I was a dating expert — which, believe me, I’m not, and I’m trying to make that very clear — but they said, “Look, I’m with this guy; do you think I should be with him?” But I think the scariest letters from single people were the ones that said, “I just got engaged because of your article!” And I thought, Oh no, no, no, no! Five years from now you’re going to write to me and say, “I just got divorced because of your article!” Because I was basically using a lot of hyperbole to make a point, which is that we need to have more realistic expectations. But in the article I didn’t specify — well, what does that mean? What does that mean? Okay, so how much compromise is too much compromise? So, in the book I really go to the experts and I try to find out what that means and I try to apply it in my own life.

LI: Right. And of course bloggers have their own way with hyperbole. I remember someone suggesting that you meant we’re supposed to tolerate abuse in order to have a husband.

Lori: When I was actually saying, if he is 5’7” don’t not go on a first date because of that.

LI: You start with a stat, about the decline in marriage rates since the ’70s. Then you argue that we’re the problem. But the assumption is that everyone wants to be married. There are moments when you sound desperate like: It’s all about marriage; it’s all about marriage! I know it’s hyperbole, like when you compare being single after 40 to being in the PSA with the teenager who’s strapped to a bed after being in a drunk-driving accident. But is the premise of this book that every woman wants to get married?

Lori: Oh, absolutely not. I say throughout the book that it’s not for someone who isn’t interested in having someone to spend your life with. But the thing is, statistically, most women do want to go through life with a partner. And I think that what’s tricky about this, and why a lot of women in their 20s will be more offended than the women in their 30s, who looked at this with more, perhaps, life experience, is that in your 20s, because of this whole idea of empowerment and we-don’t-have-to-compromise-on-anything and we’re so independent and self-sufficient, a lot of us think, “Well of course I wanna meet my soul mate and of course I wanna get married, but if it doesn’t happen — that’s okay, I will be okay.” Better to be alone for the right reasons.... But they don’t realize how the landscape’s going to change among their peer group, once they’re in their 30s and 40s and 50s. They’re not going to be surrounded by that surrogate family of single friends anymore. Many people are going to be married and have families of their own and you’re going to be the third wheel at everything, and I think its lonely in a lot of ways. There are women who get into their 30s and 40s and still say, “You know what, I'm happy not being married.” But they’re few and far between. And so if you’re one of those women, this isn’t the book for you, but this is a book for the vast majority of women in our culture who do want to go through life with a partner.

LI: It’s a cautionary tale? You’re telling young women to settle?

Lori: I have to define that! I want to represent “settling” in the light that it’s intended. There’s sort of a wink-wink with that word in the title. As I say in the beginning of the book, settling in our culture has this very negative connotation like you’re picking the schlubby guy who repulses you. That’s not what I’m talking about. What I’m saying is we consider picking someone who doesn’t meet everything on our checklist. Like that’s sort of what our culture is like: “Well, he’s not this or that or the other thing, and am I settling?” We’re so worried that we’re settling if we don’t get 100 percent of what we want. So I’m encouraging women to, yes, not get 100 percent of what they want. Some people call that settling, some people don’t. I call it finding a great husband.

LI: You talk about our culture, and I feel that the media has a lot to do with this, because there’s a lot of negative stuff about marriage and trying to be in a marriage on TV. But is there a sense that the media is pushing the idea that either you’re with your Brad Pitt superstar guy who runs in at the last second and blah blah or whatever it is from He’s Just Not That into You or you’re settling with Barry the orthodontist from Friends. Movies tend to set up a black-and-white choice — do we internalize that and see our choices that way?

Lori: Well, I think because our culture tends to emphasize going for the best in every aspect of our lives that we apply that to dating too. We’re maximizers in every area of our life, but the problem with doing that is we’re treating dating like we’re consumers, like we’re “shopping” for a husband. People use that metaphor all the time. I don’t use that metaphor at all. It’s the idea that you want to get the best product with a husband, and I think it’s just fantasy. And there’s nothing wrong with fantasy, but the problem is people do internalize that and, as I said in the book, if you had asked me if I thought that anything in the media actually influenced my real-life dating decisions, I would be so dismissive of that and say, “Of course not. I’m a thinking, smart person. That I’d be influenced by Sex and the City — are you crazy?” But the fact is we do have this cultural ideal of what Mr. Right looks like and everyone’s got their own take on that, but there are the overarching themes, and they usually have something to do with: He’s going to look a certain way, or he’s going to have this job or this kind of income, and he’s going to have this sense of humor and he’s going to be romantic in these ways and he’s going to be so in love with me in these ways and this is how he’s going to show it. Everybody has their strong points and their less strong points, and we tend to focus on the less strong points in search of something better. And that’s very dangerous. And we see that in the movies; that’s always the thing in the movies, like “Is this guy good enough for me?”

NEXT PAGE: Do romantic comedies set unrealistic expectations?

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