A reprint from February 2008.
The March 2008 issue of The Atlantic has one of those sure-to-start-a-heated-discussion pieces: Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough. The author, Lori Gottlieb, is exactly my age: forty, on the nose. She’s a single parent, having conceived her young son with donor sperm. Lori begins:
About six months after my son was born, he and I were sitting on a blanket at the park with a close friend and her daughter. It was a sunny summer weekend, and other parents and their kids picnicked nearbyâ€”mothers munching berries and lounging on the grass, fathers tossing balls with their giddy toddlers. My friend and I, who, in fits of self-empowerment, had conceived our babies with donor sperm because we hadnâ€™t met Mr. Right yet, surveyed the idyllic scene.
â€œAh, this is the dream,â€ I said, and we nodded in silence for a minute, then burst out laughing. In some ways, I meant it: weâ€™d both dreamed of motherhood, and here we were, picnicking in the park with our children. But it was also decidedly not the dream. The dream, like that of our mothers and their mothers from time immemorial, was to fall in love, get married, and live happily ever after. Of course, weâ€™d be loath to admit it in this day and age, but ask any soul-baring 40-year-old single heterosexual woman what she most longs for in life, and she probably wonâ€™t tell you itâ€™s a better career or a smaller waistline or a bigger apartment. Most likely, sheâ€™ll say that what she really wants is a husband (and, by extension, a child).
Gottlieb anticipates that this last sentence will arouse howls of indignation, but she pushes blithely ahead. She’s writing, it seems for younger women, and she’s offering what is only a slightly different spin on the by-now ubiquitous bromide that “feminism hurts women by suggesting that happiness is possible without a man.” I mean, it’s not as if there aren’t dozens of books and articles out there aimed at headstrong young women warning that if they don’t get hitched and start breeding early, they’ll miss their chance at the deepest and most satisfying source of happiness that the be-ovaried can ever know. It’s an old trope: the wiser older sister figure presenting her own story of woe as a cautionary tale. (And yeah, I know I sometimes do a similar thing here on this blog.) What’s interesting — and particularly galling — is Gottlieb’s hook: she urges smart young women to marry “Mr. Good Enough”.
By the time 35th-birthday-brunch celebrations roll around for still-single women, serious, irreversible life issues masquerading as â€œjokesâ€ creep into public conversation: Well, I donâ€™t feel old, but my eggs sure do! or Maybe this year Iâ€™ll marry Todd. Iâ€™m not getting any younger! The birthday girl smiles a bit too widely as she delivers these lines, and everyone laughs a little too hard for a little too long, not because we find these sentiments funny, but because weâ€™re awkwardly acknowledging how unfunny they are. At their core, they pose one of the most complicated, painful, and pervasive dilemmas many single women are forced to grapple with nowadays: Is it better to be alone, or to settle?
My advice is this: Settle! Thatâ€™s right. Donâ€™t worry about passion or intense connection. Donâ€™t nix a guy based on his annoying habit of yelling â€œBravo!â€ in movie theaters. Overlook his halitosis or abysmal sense of aesthetics. Because if you want to have the infrastructure in place to have a family, settling is the way to go. Based on my observations, in fact, settling will probably make you happier in the long run, since many of those who marry with great expectations become more disillusioned with each passing year.
Bold emphasis mine.
Yikes. Based on this last paragraph of Gottlieb’s, her injunction to “settle” is a dangerous one indeed. Gottlieb is doing something very problematic, which is to confuse two different kinds of “deal-breakers.” Now, I agree that an “abysmal sense of aesthetics” probably shouldn’t be a deal breaker. I suspect halitosis is treatable. But there’s a world of difference between poor fashion sense and the absence of “passion or intense connection.” Yes, passion may fade over time. But trust me on this one: there is a world of difference between being in a marriage in which the passion has cooled and one in which there was never any “heat” to begin with. Expecting sexual heat to endure (without any increase in effort) for years is unrealistic; settling for a marriage where there isn’t even any memory of fire and passion is, I think, too great a compromise.
I have some experience in this regard.
My third wife and I “settled.” When we met (on Matchmaker.com!), we were remarkably compatible. I was a new Christian; “A” was also an adult convert. We were both in academia, of similar age and from similar family backgrounds. The conversation between us flowed easily from our first date forward. “A” was finishing her doctorate at Fuller Seminary here in Pasadena, immersed in a evangelical culture that frowned on pre-marital sex and strongly encouraged marriage. Most of her friends were already married, and many had children. A was eager for marriage. I had already been divorced twice, of course, but those divorces had been “pre-conversion.” As a “new creation in Christ”, I longed for a different kind of relationship. A seemed to fit my bill, and I hers.
There was one problem: a lack of heat, of passion, of intense attraction. Oh, neither of us thought the other hideous. But there was never, ever, a moment of “I want to rip your clothes off right this second” between us. Having had a very colorful sexual past before my conversion, I was at a point in my life where I had little faith in chemistry. I’d made decisions throughout my teens and twenties based largely on desire; now I was determined to make one on the basis of spiritual compatibility. A, whose pre-conversion past was not entirely dissimilar, felt the same way.
A. and I were engaged within a few weeks of meeting; evangelical Christians tend to move faster through the courtship stage. Our families were thrilled; we were told over and over again how “perfect” we were for each other. We had similar interests, similar politics, similar cultural vocabularies. We were polite and kind to each other. A and I never raised our voices when we argued, and our arguments were few. And once married, behind the bedroom door, there was no heat, no chemistry, no intensity. I knew something was missing, but I was willing to settle. My logic was simple: I’d had my wild experiences in my youth. Now I was in my thirties, a believer, a youth leader and a future (I hoped) father. It seemed right to trade in passion for affection, to trade in heat for kindness. A and I had a lot of kindness in our marriage.
As we hit our first anniversary, and started trying for a baby, the tension over this absence of chemistry grew and grew. We were still unfailingly polite, and being the highly educated and verbally dexterous folks we were, we talked endlessly about ways to “generate more intensity.” All failed. One day, A said to me: “Hugo, if I had any memory of once having really, really wanted you, then I could build on that. I could nurture that flame back into a fire. I’m so sorry, there never was a time when I felt that for you.” I wasn’t offended, or even hurt — because I felt the same way. In a calm, sad voice I told A that I felt the same way. “We settled too much”, she said. And I couldn’t help but agree.
It was A who asked for the divorce. Initially, I tried to save the marriage. I knew that the sexual aspect of our relationship was hopeless, but I was desperate not to be divorced a third time. I’d constructed a “once was lost, now am found” narrative for my life — and getting a post-conversion divorce would spoil the dream I had for evangelical domestic bliss. I was willing, or thought I was willing, to stay in a kind, affectionate, intellectually compatible and passion-free marriage. A, bless her heart, was a psychologist and a feminist. Her understanding of the former told her that sooner or later, if we stayed married, the absence of passion would lead one or both of us either into an extramarital affair or intense resentment. Her feminism told her that she deserved to not settle, not on something as vital as attraction and heat. She was willing to put up with my various neuroses; she was not willing to live her life in a sexual relationship that didn’t even have the briefest history of a flame.
We argued only once about whether to get a divorce. On that day, A said to me: “Hugo, within a year or two you’ll thank me for leaving.” I told her she was wrong, but of course, she was right. I don’t blog much about my wife today, but I can say without hesitation that in this fourth and final marriage, the passion and intensity is present. We’re compatible in many other ways as well. I am happier than I ever was with A; I would never have had the chance to be as happy as I am had A not given me the gift of demanding a divorce. When I, clinging to evangelical teaching about divorce and my own fantasy narrative, insisted that living without “heat” was an acceptable level of settling, A had the grace and the insight to see that we both deserved better.
I don’t know much about where A is in her personal life today. After our divorce, which was as amicable as everything else in our short relationship, she moved out of state and we have no contact today. I pray, however, that she has found what she wanted, needed, and deserved. I will always be grateful to her for releasing me so that I could I could be with someone who craved my body and for whom I ached in return. A. gave me a great, great gift.
My third wife taught me an important lesson about “settling.” It’s one thing to marry someone whose politics you find inexplicable, or whose taste in movies is wince-inducing. (My fourth and final wife loves “Dirty Dancing.” ‘Nuff said.) It’s another thing altogether to build a partnership with someone who doesn’t inspire deep and intense longing. Yes, over time that longing may fade. It will certainly fluctuate. But the memory of passion can be a reliable fuel to sustain a marriage; if even that memory isn’t present, there’s probably trouble ahead.
There’s much to be said for compromise in intimate relationships. But wisdom is knowing the difference between a “have to have” and a “would like to have”. And I think the collective experience of a great many people is that at least a period of powerful, mutual, sexual longing falls into the first category. That has certainly been my experience, and as long as I live, I will be grateful to my penultimate wife for insisting that we “not settle.” In a small but undeniable way, the happiness I have now would not be possible without that insight on her part.