Settling for “Mr. Good Enough” (reprinted)

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 nearby—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 hadn’t met Mr. Right yet, surveyed the idyllic scene.

“Ah, this is the dream,” I said, and we nodded in silence for a minute, then burst out laughing. In some ways, I meant it: we’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, we’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 won’t tell you it’s a better career or a smaller waistline or a bigger apartment. Most likely, she’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 “jokes” creep into public conversation: Well, I don’t feel old, but my eggs sure do! or Maybe this year I’ll marry Todd. I’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 we’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! That’s right. Don’t worry about passion or intense connection. Don’t nix a guy based on his annoying habit of yelling “Bravo!” 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!), 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.

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0 thoughts on “Settling for “Mr. Good Enough” (reprinted)

  1. I agree generally, Hugo. But there are a couple caveats.

    First, a concept of desire should probably be described. Are desires cultural, and easily influenced by others? Are there desires aside from sexual attraction (or are you speaking precisely of this kind)? It seems to me that desire doesn’t arise from a tabula rasa, and that it may be subject to moral critique within the context of a relationship.

    I think there is some truth that our desire of persons of a particular sort (say, a list: s/he has to be educated, thin, good with their hands) may have little to do with a person’s ability to maintain a long term relationship (the characteristics of a sense of humor or reliability). I think that our current system of commerce encourages us to desire particular sorts of persons.

    I wonder if she had phrased it differently: might it be true that by and large women and men are being sold a bridge to nowhere when they assume that what will bring them happiness is easily identifiable?

    I wonder if she is discussing a particular class of the elite that presumes that men are like products one can purchase off a shelf – just find the right person who satisfies the checklist, and then one will have a suitable marriage partner.

    I also suspect that she is not merely discussing attraction, but something different. We may desire all sorts of people, but then choose, for seemly arbitrary reasons, that such a partner does not work (they are not of the same class or race).

    Definitely we should not settle. But it is worth reflecting what we desire, and why we do, and whether or not those desires bring us closer, or lead us further, from what we may truly want.

  2. I agree with what you say here as well, Hugo.

    I find that this “settle” evangelizing really looks to me like a woman who made the decision to have a child on her own and now needs some help (not necessarily financial help, but a fellow parent); she is projecting her personal issues on women in general. I don’t think she’s going to find this by “settling.”

    I am a woman only 2 years older than you and Gottlieb, and I have not had children because (a) my own dysfunctions from my patriarchal childhood took to long to correct and (b) I have not been able to find/attract a good dad partner. The social revolution toward equal-partnership marriage from patriarchal marriage (which is still not complete) in our lifetimes has also played a role, as I suspect it has for others in our cohort. While a very valid revolution, it has also created a lot of chaos and anxiety.

    There are signs of improvement, though.

    Statistics are starting to come in that people in the US now believe that both parents should work for pay and both parents should take care of children. See, for example, the recent Pew research poll “”About 62 percent say that the best marriage is one where the husband and wife both work and both take care of the household and children. That’s up from 48 percent who held that view in 1977.”

    The stereotypes around men not being considered part of the family and not being capable of parenting their children (or doing so in any way other than an authoritarian fashion) are now also crumbling fast as well, as the recent documentary “The Evolution of Dad” indicated and as books like John Badalement’s “The Modern Dad’s Dilemma” show. The “black hole” of the father’s relationship to the child is now getting the attention it deserves, and many children have much better quality fathers to show for it.

    I suspect it will be easier for younger women and men to form good marriages, to not have to contemplate single parenting, and to not have to miss out altogether as I did. Also some of the biological clock problems that both women and men face (the press is now starting to cover the issues of increased risk of autism and other chromosonal problems in fathers over 35) can hopefully be dealt with by both men and women having the maturity and the tools they need to have children earlier.

    I don’t think Gottlieb is on the right track. We Gen-Xers may have been trailblazers in defining a new model of parenting, marriage and family, and I think we all have stories to tell in that regard, but I think it is presumptuous for us to project onto younger women and men our own difficulties, unfair as it seems at times that we face them.

  3. Hugo,

    totally agree on this one. One thing though.

    There are people who are *always sure* and there are eternal doubters. The former will rapidly fall in love, experience the kind of passion we deem necessary for a loving long-term relationship of whichever legal status. But the latter likely won’t experience that kind of intense immediate passion that would help them to be “sure”, over and over again. If these people will not at one point decide to stop looking for more, they will keep searching for this feeling they don’t really know, they will keep searching for certainty that is probably elusive to them, don’t you think? To stop searching is the only way for people with this mental setup to trick their brain chemistry into happiness. Of course, there’s no guarantee that it will work, but in my opinion, for these people, settling is the first step towards making anything work in the relationship realm.

  4. Aaargh! I nearly tore my hair out reading that whole article. Dear Ms. Gottlieb, in response to your question, “How many long- married couples are having much sex anyway?” — Quite a lot of them, actually, and most of them report very high levels of marital and sexual satisfaction! IF, you’d bothered to look at some real science rather than armchair philosophizing.

    Hugo, I agree with you, but I think that your ability to disagree Ms. Gottlieb is centered in your own personal experiences (and narrative of those experiences), and so while it’s important to hear others speak up against such ridiculousness… I don’t think that the reasons you give to reject it are going to be helpful for a lot of people. The “4 marriages, 3 divorces, sex addict(?) turned evangelical and then finally seeing the light!” (no offense intended of course)–Narrative, I think is going to appeal to a very slim demographic. Besides the fact that, one of the things that Gottlieb is banking her point on, is that women feel this way and that’s just not a position you can speak to personally. And unfortunately.

    Well, I am not 40 and never-married pining for a baby. I’m 26, divorced, and don’t intend to have children, so maybe my personal narrative isn’t much help either. But what I DO know is that Gottlieb is talking about a phenomenon that, if it is real, is also centered in a certain demographic. Her own generation. (Ah, that is, her own generation of middle-to-upper-class educated [probably white] working professionals who can afford to be worried about such things like not having children. Instead of access to medical care. Or contraceptives. Or paying for college.)

    “Oh, I know—I’m guessing there are single 30-year-old women reading this right now….And all I can say is, if you say you’re not worried, either you’re in denial or you’re lying.”

    Yeah, bullshit, having a uterus does not mean that she suddenly has dramatic insight into the feelings of all women everywhere and this is a highly condescending statement, on par with the whole “young feminists these days don’t care about the movement..” and other similar generational based proclamations. She gets several facts and ideas about marriage, relationships, and parenting just plain confused. When she says that settling might actually make us happier because, “It’s hard to maintain that level of zing when the conversation morphs into discussions about who’s changing the diapers or balancing the checkbook,” she ignores that this is only half of the puzzle.

    Studies on divorce and relationships confirm several facts:
    – Most couples, both those that get divorced and those that stay together, fight about the same damned things. (Money and sex, mostly.)
    – Marriage satisfaction rates typically plumet about 2 years after the birth of your first child. (After that honeymoon phase from both the marriage, and the baby, wear off..)
    – 1/4th of all divorces take place within 3 years of marriage; 1/2 within the first 7

    Yes, it’s true, kids change everything, but that only makes it that much more important that the foundation of the relationships actually be, you know, stable. She misses that, along with:
    – Marital satisfaction levels (and thus, overall happiness levels perhaps?) are highest when the couples sexual preferences match one another, and match their behaviors.
    – As a couple AGES, sexual satisfaction goes UP
    – Staying in an unhappy marriage has a cumulatively and deterimental effect on one’s health.
    – How couples handle conflict — good communication and conflict resolution skills are vital to sustainable, happy marriages.*

    This last one, the point about good communication skills, is based on Gottman’s research on how couples handle conflict, is actually the lynchpin for why I think Ms. Gottlieb is completely wrong and her statements are downright DANGEROUS if people take her advice to heart. Gottman concluded that, among others, one of the worst indicators for a couple breaking up in the near future is showing contempt for one’s partner… But Gottlieb would have us believe that “settling” would actually make us happier. And that’s just not true if settling is also going to make us contemptuous, resentful and constantly overly-critical of our partners at the same time. That is, statistically, just a recipe for divorce.

    Therefore, this anecdote of hers,

    “…no matter how dull their marriages might be or how desperately they might long for a different husband. They, like me, would rather feel alone in a marriage than actually be alone, because they, like me, realize that marriage ultimately isn’t about cosmic connection—it’s about how having a teammate, even if he’s not the love of your life, is better than not having one at all.

    Is just that. An anecdote. And probably not even an accurate statement on those women’s parts, because it is (or has become, much to my dismay and frustration) a feature of our culture’s public narrative about marriage/relationships that it’s normal and common (and therefore assumed to be healthy?) for spouses to put down or denigrate their partners in front of their friends (even in front of their partners!) You see this in sitcoms CONSTANTLY, and it’s one of the reasons I don’t watch T.V., but it’s also very common in real life partnerships. These women may be using the female-only group setting as a way of simply getting off their chests some common frustrations with marriage (which, seeing as how she’s single, I suppose Gottlieb wouldn’t know anything about?) or they could be engaging in this socially-accepted tearing down of one’s partner, but in neither case should we be leaping to assumptions about what is “better than not having [a husband] at all.” Or, god forbid, that it doesn’t really matter ‘who’ you marry because “married [people] with kids don’t spend that much time with their husbands anyway”

    She also cites the “current divorce rate”, as if this is something that should scare us all into giving up our search for a compatible love match by the droves in favor of “settling” as she puts it. That’s just fucking scare tactics and damned offensive because it’s flat wrong to boot. The divorce rates in this country have been steadily dropping since the 1970’s to a more or less steady rate, and most importantly HER DEMOGRAPHIC are the ones that it’s most telling for. College educated folks who wait till their older to get married are LESS likely to get divorced than anyone else.

    I think it IS vitally important that we really start analyzing what it is exactly these measures we’re using to decide who “Mr. Right” really are, and if they’re appropriate or useful to us. I think that the “perfect” relationship narrative is flawed and leads a lot of people to bad decisions both in getting married, in staying together, and in getting divorced. I think that Romantic Comedies, and our cultural ideas about “true love” are woefully inadequate in guiding us to choosing good mates and building healthy relationships, but that is something that Ms. Gottlieb completely fails to adequately address, because she’s too busy telling us to “settle.” Because older people know better.

    *Note: I’d give citations, but most of these stats are from my notes so I don’t have the specific studies that produced them, except for Gottman.

  5. Oh, I forgot to mention some things about this actually love stuff that gets tossed around, which is relevant to this conversation. Luuuuuuurve, as we often call it, is really a very complicated concept and we incorporate a LOT of different ideas, desires, and models (some of them conflicting) into what we call “Love.”

    One of the things that, at least to me, this conversation brings up is the question of what “kind” of love is “best” for ensuring a long-term (hopefully satisfying?) relationship. Ms. Gottlieb fails rather spectacularly at addressing this, but I believe that is at least part of what she (and you Hugo) is trying to discuss.

    One of the few tropes that we have about love that might actually be accurate, is the part where, after falling madly and passionately in love with each other, the young couple race to get married only to find that a year or two down the road, all that passion has completely fizzled and they’re left wondering why they got married in the first place, because now the dishes are never cleaned and there’s always socks on the floor. This “Passionate Love” as “short-lived” isn’t inaccurate, and some studies have given support to the idea that this intense but short-lived sensation is like a physical “high”, with the accompanying physiological arousal and neurotransmitters, that we eventually develop a resistance to.

    But it’s also true, that this isn’t the only model for getting into a marriage, or for building love within a relationship.

    Western heterosexual couples are fond of the “love at first sight, instane passionate explosion” as an indication of finding their “match,” but that’s not universally true. Eastern cultures that still practice arranged marriages have a far different (practically inverted, by comparison) narrative, wherein the couple gets married for seemingly “pragmatic” reasons, and liking grows into loving and loving developes into a strong passionate connection (generally after many years and after children have grown.)

    …Granted, both of these ideals may fail spectacularly in plenty of cases, but to me that just means that living with humans is complicated and frustrating and there’s no perfect recipe for happiness. Curiously, in the West, the companionate-liking growing into passionate-loving pattern, is fairly common among lesbian couples in particular, where women tend to fall in love after being intimate friends for a long time.

    Dramatic and instantaneous passion is not the only path to marital satisfaction, although that may be hard to concieve, and thus find examples for, in our culture due to our beliefs about romance. (Which is not the same thing as saying your 3rd ex-wife was wrong in asking for a divorce, Hugo, and I’m glad that your final marriage is a stable and satisfying one.) Intimacy + Commitment may be another path to marital satisfaction, and if we want to talk about that, then yeah, I’m down. But Ms. Gottlieb doesn’t really sound like she’s talking about that, to me it sounds much more like she’s talking about settling for “Empty Love” marriages, and in my opinion that is just tragic.

  6. Another point worth mentioning is that she is setting up an ideal that not everyone wants. Let’s see, heterosexual, monogamous, married, long term, with children, etc. may not be what everyone wants, either ever or at any specific time. “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. ” Well, this isn’t everyone’s dream. I know women in their forties who are happily childless, who are happily single, who are happily non-monogamous. I also know women in their forties who have been offered marriage by boyfriends and steadfastly refused. My mother is one of those. She has no interest in marrying or living with her boyfriend, and that works just fine for her. As a queer polyamorus person who has no interest in participation in the institution of marriage, the idea that all relationships that are not part of this western ideal are failures strikes me as particularly ignorant. It is also rather culturally imperialist. My paternal grandmother was from a colonized culture. Before the European invasion and gencide, her culture was a matrilineal one with rather common polygamy as well as easy and common divorces. Your lineage of western marriage ideals only applies if you assume everyone is completely of western european decent and ‘time immemoriably’, refers to time after the middle ages. It is also worth noting that, even in these european models, many people resisted this structure. My maternal grandmother’s aunt was childless by choice, openly flaunting her illegal use of birth control (she not only did it, she taught others how, including her coworkers at the department store where she worked for half a century). On of my cousins has a grandmother who came out as lesbian after divorcing her husband, so her mothers going back ‘for time immemoriable’ did not dream of this either. If she likes long term hetero monogamy for herself, fine, but asserting it as everyone’s ideal or enforcing it as a standard erases the lives of huge portions of women.

  7. Well, at least she squeezes in somewhere around the second paragraph that who she’s talking about is “40-year-old single heterosexual women”.. So at least all of us queers know we can stop reading after we see that.. [sarcasm]

    You make a very, very good point Cat.

  8. I agree completely that this is ain’t an ideal that everyone wants. I write for those who 1) DO want this particular ideal and 2) are tempted to conclude that Gottlieb is right about how to achieve it.

  9. Ari, that was magnificent, that whole run of comments. I really learned something from it, things I had mulled over but never organized the way you did. Thank you very much.