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.

Are Women Too Picky? Marry Him Already!
(Image credit: Ben Goldstein/Studio D)

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?"

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LI: You have a great moment where you say we look at romantic comedies like they're documentaries.

Lori: Yeah, and that woman who said, "I broke up with my boyfriend because I was expecting a romantic-comedy response." And that's when she was 27 and was in love with him and she thought, Well if he can't give me that romantic-comedy response he must not really love me. Now she's single, approaching 40, and thinking of having a baby on her own. Well, you know she regrets that decision.

LI: So you talk in the book about how women don't admit that they want marriage because they think it sounds weak. Which may explain why I tore the cover off your book before I took it on the subway. And sharpied over "Marry Him" on the title page.

Lori: (Laughing) I'll tell you a funny story about that. I had to pick up a manuscript with corrections from my editor, and I had to go to a movie screening on the same night. So I just brought it along to the theater. But I literally put something over the cover. Of my own book! I didn't want people to know I was reading a book that said "Marry Him." I felt like, "Could I be more desperate?" So I totally relate to that. And I think we should have thought about that when we did the title because nobody is going to want to be seen with this book!

LI: People are going to read it. But they'll have to hide...

Lori: It's like porn!

LI: Here's a million-dollar idea — you should sell a little book cover right next to it, that says something else.

Lori: "I'm Fine by Myself!"

LI: Or maybe "Remembrances of Times Past"?

Lori: The German title of my book is "Take Him!"

LI: Oh my god, that's so funny! And they usually have such good words for things.

Lori: No, it says: "Take Him!" The subtitle is: "You Are Not Going to Find Someone Better." So concrete.

LI: I remember when the movie Airheads came out, which is like where three idiots take over a radio station and they called it in Germany: "Three Idiots Take Over a Radio Station!" Anyway, why do we have to hide this desire? Why do we think it sounds weak?

Lori: I think feminism is great and I'm all for it, but we take the ideas of being self-sufficient and not depending on anybody and we apply them to our romantic lives. But it's antithetical to the whole idea of being in a relationship, which is about interdependence, it's about being with someone, it's about vulnerability, it's about all of these things that feminism is not. Still, a lot of us applied these feminist ideas to dating, but feminism never said apply this to your dating life — it wasn't about that. Feminism said: You should have equal opportunity in the workplace; you should have these opportunities that were previously closed off to you. But it never said: "If you want to be with a guy, that's really needy and dependent." Feminism never said there's anything wrong with wanting a man! But people...

LI: Um, "A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle"?

Lori: Well, I think our generation, the third wave, never said there's anything wrong with wanting a man. In fact many, many stay-at-home moms I know consider themselves feminists. There's all different ways to live your life, and then there are feminists who have very high-powered careers and are married and have kids all at the same time. So I just think the problem is, when this Atlantic article came out, people said, "If I have a daughter who grows up like you and wants a man half as bad as you..."

LI: "...I would have failed."

Lori: Yes. And it's like, what is wrong with wanting to be with somebody?! I think we put men off in a lot of ways. We have these attitudes that are very off-putting when you're trying to get to know somebody in a romantic context. And the whole: "Are you good enough for me?" Think too that's added to the "I don't need you" and "I don't think you're good enough for me." And it's really hard to meet a man like that.

LI: You actually ask this question and I wonder if you have any thoughts on it: Where's the line between too picky and not picky enough? I mean fifty percent of marriages end in divorce, so there are many people who weren't picky enough the first time round. We don't want to be that either. That's no more fun: Being a 40-year-old divorcée is no more fun than being 40-year-old never-married.

Lori: Yeah, I don't think it wasn't that the people who got divorced were not picky enough the first time; it was that they picked the wrong qualities. The majority of people go into marriage thinking that it's going to work out. They don't go in there saying, "Yeah I'll take him, okay; we'll see if it doesn't work out so well." Most people go in and say, "I think this is going to work!" They go into their marriage and they see what marriage is really about. That's a big point in the book: When we're dating we don't look for the qualities that are going to be important later so we're picking people in our dating lives based on criteria that aren't going to be that relevant in marriage. And so, those people who got divorced, I spoke to a lot of people whose experience was the guy did look like "the one." So it wasn't that they weren't being picky enough; it was that they got into their marriage and it turned out that there were these lifestyle issues and personality issues in terms of how they related to each other in a household, how they related to each other in daily life, that were much more important than whether he looked like the guy they imagined themselves to be with. Others married the guy they didn't imagine themselves with, but they get along much better with in daily life, and they are much happier with day-to-day. He doesn't look like Mr. Right but he is Mr. Right.

LI: And you think most women don't recognize him?

Lori: I think there are so many women who are falling through the marital cracks that never expected to, myself included. And they can't figure out why. And they say, "Oh, there are just no good men out there," or whatever it is. And I think that a lot of people think that it's totally out of their control, that it's fate or destiny that will bring this guy when it's right. But then it's just not happening, and then they wonder what's going on. And they try all these crazy things like — I don't know, whatever people do when they get desperate. And it never works. So I'm kinda saying to people who are younger: "You know there are things that you can do in terms of your perspective and your approach to dating that might help you find someone that you're really happy with, and it might save you a lot of years of picking the wrong people who you might end up getting married to but they might not end up being the right person. So look for these kind of things that are going to be important because you can't imagine yet what's gonna be important because you don't think about that." Our culture tells us to look for certain things in dating that have little or no relevance to what's going to be important in marriage.

LI: But you make dating after 40 sound so miserable. You compare it to being in a drunk-driving accident!

Lori: Do you know anyone who likes it?

LI: I don't really know a lot of people that are doing it. But you talk about sitting with your girlfriends, and everyone's looking over each others' shoulders to see if Mr. Right's walking in the door, rather than listening to each other talk. And you talk about e-mail after e-mail and obsessing over some guy for a few weeks and then he's gone and then going on to the next one. I know it's hyperbole and I know that you said that...

Lori: But it's not! That's not hyperbole. When's the last time you dated?

LI: I'm 35 and maybe I haven't hit the threshold yet but I think dating's fun.

Lori: Yeah, but you're still 35. Imagine yourself five years from now. Imagine your social circle — 90 percent of your friends will be married and you will be by yourself, and it may seem okay now but would you want that for the rest of your life? And think about the kind of men...who's gonna be available. There are so few men who would date a 40-plus woman who is even in their age range. And those guys are taken. They're taken or they're dating younger women. That's reality that a lot of people think is disempowering or offensive to say, or anti-feminist.

LI: Or just depressing!

Lori: It is depressing, but it happens to be reality. What I'm saying is that I just always thought: I'm cute, I'm really cute and talented and fun and interesting and I'm smart — of course I'm going to find someone. And it's like, Yeah but there are five million other women just like me. You must know lots of 35-year-olds who aren't married in New York.

LI: Uh-huh.

Lori: How happy are they about being single? And see in five years how happy they are about being single. They may put on a brave face, they may go out on lots of dates, and blah blah blah blah, but on some level I would conjecture that they are not going to be happy five years later in that same situation.

LI: I think though that they see a lot of their friends who are married — not unhappily — but have a not so different happiness to contentedness to not-so-happy to miserable ratio, as they do. I feel like I look at my friends who have kids and are married...

Lori: Because it's hard having little kids! This is the time of most marital dissatisfaction. Its sort of ironic: Once you get married there's the honeymoon period or whatever and then you have the little kids and this is when people, statistically, are most unhappy: They're sleep-deprived, they're cranky, they're overwhelmed, they're having fights with their spouses about child care. And you're comparing, you single people, are comparing yourselves to these people who are at the most challenging part of their marriage. And their marriage is gonna get better and better and better over the years because the kids grow up And you guys are comparing yourselves to this really tough phase. But you know what? Ask them if they would be single. Put them in that situation; they wouldn't rather be single and childless.

Plus: Women discuss our Q&A with Lori Gottlieb at Read Marie Claire's response here.