Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Settling for Mr. Good Enough?

The March Issue of Atlantic Monthly has an article by Lori Gottlieb entitled, "Marry Him!" on "settling." As in, a woman lowering her expectations and marrying a guy who she doesn't see as her one and only perfect "soul mate." I agree with the general point and many of the specific assertions of the article.

Thing is, I find the language insulting and demeaning.

Gottlieb writes from the perspective of a 40-year-old single woman who has realized the pitfalls of "waiting for Mr. Right," recognized the benefits of marriage, even if it isn't to the idyllic man of a woman's dreams, and cautiously advocates settling "young, when settling involves constructing a family environment with a perfectly acceptable man who may not trip your romantic trigger—as opposed to doing it older, when settling involves selling your very soul in exchange for damaged goods." She correctly recognizes that marriage isn't mostly about romantic bliss; it's about "having a teammate" to go through life with, to share responsibilities and chores. She's absolutely right.

The problem is that the language of "settling" is, well, unsettling. I kept reading through the article looking for clues that this was all tongue in cheek, that all this talk of settling was really a matter of being both realistic and simply fair to any real live flawed human man who might actually be interested in marriage. There was one, just one, nearing the conclusion of the article, tucked away in a parenthesis:

Unless you meet the man of your dreams (who, by the way, doesn’t exist, precisely because you dreamed him up), there’s going to be a downside to getting married, but a possibly more profound downside to holding out for someone better.
The man of a woman's dreams doesn't exist, can't exist; and yet men are faulted for not being that. Even though Gottlieb pokes holes in the fairy tale that some day your prince will come, she also makes it clear that settling is still settling to her. The images of men that she discusses are all in some degree repulsive, which I get is her point, but it still puts the woman in the place of looking down her nose at her prospects and giving in to the inevitable with a weary sigh. Any faults that the woman has are attributed to age and motherhood, and Gottlieb discusses the unfair nature of the fact that women lose their appeal earlier than men do (although this is largely due to the fact that women are attracted to older men; whose fault is that?). Gottlieb simply doesn't deal with the issue of how pretentious it is for a woman to set such impossible standards in the first place. What woman could live up to such standards from a man?

Gottlieb argues that men don't settle, and when they do, they don't seem to mind it. She's missed the point entirely. Men settle all the time. Where does she think the stereotype of the Man Afraid of Commitment, the Sweaty Groom Looking for a Way Out, comes from? But men don't generally call it settling, because they don't generally have such Impossible Dreams floating around in their heads in the first place. They don't think of it as settling. They think of it as being realistic. "Dude, you're not going to do better than her," is a perfectly plausible and common conversation for men to have.

So my advice to women would be, don't settle. Because as long as you're thinking of it as "settling," you're demeaning the person you're committing your life to. First, get rid of the notion that one man is going to bring you unending happiness, that all your problems are due to not having him, or once you have him, that all your problems are due to his flaws. Dump the ego trip that says that anything other than the Prince Charming in your brain (to whom you've probably attributed self-contradictory attributes, anyway) is beneath you. Recognize that you're a human being, and any guy you meet is a human being, and if you find someone who treats you with kindness and respect and sticks in there through the long haul, then you're pretty lucky.

Then, you won't have to settle.
For more on marriage, check out my book, Marriage, Family, and the Image of God .

Marriage, Family, and the Image of God



  1. I can't really agree with the statement that men "don't generally have such Impossible Dreams". I think the percentage of men that have a "perfect soul mate" ideal is probably pretty close to females. I've known plenty of men who were looking for a swimsuit model who was a great cook, great housekeeper, loved sports, horror movies, and had a stratospheric libido. I don't think unrealistic expectations are the primary fault of one gender over the other.

    That being said, I wholeheartedly agree with the overall topic of your post. I hate the term "settling". It gets back to a very individualistic, selfish view of what marriage is supposed to be. The "perfect soul mate" idea says marriage is all about me and what I want, or as it's more often expressed: "need". That's why divorce is so common...but that's a topic for another day.

  2. You're right that unrealistic expectations are not really gender-biased; I guess what I was trying to get at was that it works itself out differently between men and women. Aside from the small minority of single men who are being pursued by more women than they know what to do with, and who therefore become extremely picky when confronted with the possibility of "settling down," I think most men carry these expectations mostly unconsciously, and project them onto any woman that they're attracted to. Men assume far too much, and then wake up to disillusionment after the honeymoon is over--which is of course unfair and totally the man's fault. With women, it's far more conscious and far more likely to prevent the relationship from ever getting to the honeymoon in the first place.