Should You Settle?
By Lori Gottlieb
336 pages; Dutton
A year ago, writer Lori Gottlieb set off a firestorm—that's what Meredith Vieira called it on the Today show—with an essay in The Atlantic titled "Marry Him!" Her argument: If you're a woman on the cusp of 30, you should suck it up and settle down with Mr. Good Enough, as waiting for Mr. Right probably means missing out, resigning yourself to a purgatory of depressing dates and meaningless flings until, finally, no one bothers to call anymore because you're, gulp, too old.
In a generation of women coming off the bacchanal of Sex and the City, Gottlieb's article hit like a horrible hangover. It entered the pantheon of incendiary articles about women and marriage that pop up in every era—like the outrageous (and later debunked) claim, in Newsweek in 1986, that a 40-year-old woman was more likely to be killed by a terrorist than marry.
Gottlieb's piece polarized readers. Some said her argument was common sense, that women must confront the biological realities that suggest they're most marriageable when they're young and fertile. Other readers said she was telling women to sell out their dreams and shut down their hearts.
In time for Valentine's Day, Gottlieb is back, with an entire book devoted to her theory. Part The Rules and part Malcolm Gladwellian sociopop, Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough is surprisingly, unnervingly convincing. Gottlieb interviewed an array of experts—sociologists, behavioral economists, social psychologists, and statisticians—who presented evidence about why online dating doesn't work, what women can really expect when they're in their 40s (there are only 72 single men for every 100 women in the 45-to-65-year-old demographic, according to a U.S. Census figure she cites), and why women are fundamentally the choosier sex. "There are so many really wonderful men out there, men who want commitment, who want to be married, who are attractive and smart and interesting," Gottlieb says. "They may not be movie-star attractive, they may be awkward at first, they may not fit our cultural image of who Mr. Right or who Prince Charming is. But we shouldn't pass them up. Look what happened to me."
What happened to Gottlieb? Educated and independent, she is gorgeous, vivacious, and sharply witty. She went to Stanford Medical School; she has written several books, two of which have been optioned by Hollywood. In other words, she is such a fantastic catch that she assumed she would never have to settle, that a Superhusband—romantic, brilliant, baggage-free—would emerge from the ether and sweep her into an eternally fulfilling marriage. But, she says, she missed the boat—several times—by focusing on potential mates' flaws and expecting too much. Now 42, she has a 4-year-old son, courtesy of a sperm donor. "We are taught as young women in this culture that compromise is a bad word," she says. "We tell each other: 'You go, girl. You get the best. You deserve the best.' It's not so much narcissism as a false cultural perception of our worth. We want the ten, because we think we're a ten. But we're missing the fact that we're not. Nobody is. Men have flaws, but we have flaws, too."
Surely, some women will find Marry Him more than a little off-putting. Its subtitle makes the prospect of marriage sound like a life sentence. And sometimes Gottlieb's call to arms sounds so pragmatic as to be loveless.
Readers may also ask, what is an unhappily single woman doing, telling us how and why to get married? But maybe the question is, who better? For a woman who once wouldn't have thought of dating a short man in a bow tie, she has come a long way. (In the book, Gottlieb described dating just such a guy, and you root for the pair, until he moves to Chicago.) She is currently "accepting invitations from men everywhere," she says with a laugh. Or as she puts it in the book's dedication: "For my husband, whoever you are."