The Case Against Settling
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).
That quote comes from Lori Gottlieb's 2008 essay for the Atlantic, Marry Him!, which has now been expanded into the book, Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough
Gottlieb had plenty of suitors in her 20s and early 30s but rejected them all because they did not meet her notion of a great love. Waiting for the right man, in her case, resulted in becoming a successful career woman. Now in her 40s, she is a single mother to a child she conceived via sperm donor.
The couples my friend and I saw at the park that summer were enviable but not because they seemed so in love -- they were enviable because the husbands played with the kids for 20 minutes so their wives could eat lunch. In practice, my married friends with kids don't spend that much time with their husbands anyway (between work and child care), and in many cases, their biggest complaint seems to be that they never see each other. So if you rarely see your husband—but he's a decent guy who takes out the trash and sets up the baby gear, and he provides a second income that allows you to spend time with your child instead of working 60 hours a week to support a family on your own—how much does it matter whether the guy you marry is The One?
It's not that I've become jaded to the point that I don't believe in, or even crave, romantic connection. It's that my understanding of it has changed. In my formative years, romance was John Cusack and Ione Skye in Say Anything. But when I think about marriage nowadays, my role models are the television characters Will and Grace, who, though Will was gay and his relationship with Grace was platonic, were one of the most romantic couples I can think of. What I long for in a marriage is that sense of having a partner in crime. Someone who knows your day-to-day trivia. Someone who both calls you on your bullshit and puts up with your quirks. So what if Will and Grace weren’t having sex with each other? How many long-married couples are having much sex anyway?
I was married once upon a time. My ex-husband wasn't my "type" and I knew it: My type were men who were as much in their heads as I was. Pensive intellectuals, abstract creatives, battling wordsmiths –- if they spent as much (or more) time thinking as they did anything else, I was there.
As a result, I was in a lot of relationships that happened entirely in my head -– and the heads of the men I dated. We were not people, but concepts. Everything worked famously in theory, but theory and life are different things.
Then I met my ex-husband, who is only in his head long enough to figure out how to make something work. He is everything I'm not: outgoing, uncomplicated, warm but not overly emotional, a man who never spends more time than required in his head, and who certainly never considers anything that holds no practical value to him.
One time we were driving across the country –- Texas, to be specific –- and there were a lot of billboards about God and burning in hell, and I asked him whether he believed in an afterlife. He didn't say he didn't know the way an agnostic –- or someone who questions this –- might. He said he didn't know and then, after a brief pause, noted, "I've never really thought about it."
I remember asking him to think about it a little bit and he responded with some consternation, "Why?"
That's my ex-husband. If it doesn't have a purpose, why think about it?
Gottlieb is right about one thing: You don't need to be with someone who shares interests to run a household. Running a household and all the tasks that are involved in this require only a proper division of tasks and commitment to execution.
Having said that, a household –- being a system, at the end of the day –- doesn't even require that the tasks stay properly divided or properly executed. The system will naturally compensate. This is how households can continue to run despite decay in the relationship between the people running it.
After I was divorced, though still stinging from the collapse of my marriage, I found I had a craving for the connection I had lacked in my marriage. I was hesitant to go back to men who electrified my mind for fear we'd get tangled in theory and never go anywhere. At the same time, the idea of another relationship without a mental connection was paralyzing.
But I didn't know how to select for a middle ground. I didn't know how to identify a man who fulfilled both things. I decided to take a friend's advice and do something really unconventional for me: I would date everyone who asked and see if I found what I was looking for.
"Dating egalitarianism," I called it. Let's take our pick from the box of chocolates that is Los Angeles and see what we find and what happens! It sounded terrifying, but also very progressive and fearless. I like pushing my limits. Let's go.
Three dates: one was excruciating; one was fine, though I knew it would be the first and last; and one was actually all right. Mr. Almost Right didn't set my essence on fire, but was charming, attentive, passionate about what he did, and he could carry a conversation. A couple of dates later, I found that -– as a result of not setting me aflame –- the sex was just OK. It wasn't bad. But it wasn't the usual explosion of desire and uncontainable chemistry.
But I thought, what the hell? I've had the explosive sex, and six engagements later, look where I am.
We dated for a few weeks. I imagine it could have gone places –- why not? We had fun, we did things, we could talk.
He adored me.
I remember this episode like it was yesterday. I was 17 years old, lounging around my best friend's apartment, talking about boys, when her mother came into the room with her prom dress.
As Lee tried on the dress, her mother, who had taken a seat beside me on the bed, decided to impart some wisdom to us: "If you want a happy marriage, you must marry a man who loves you more than you love him."
I thought about this a lot growing up -– not about finding a man who loved me more than I loved him, but rather, about the practical matters that needed to be addressed when it came to a long-term successful partnership.
When my ex-husband first mentioned marriage to me, I thought about these things again. Pragmatically, I decided that some things were more important than others and organized these things accordingly.
The ability to identify and express desires and expectations was key. The ability to coolly discuss issues when in crisis, whether internal or external, was paramount. The ability to be physically apart without falling to pieces was important. Sex was essential, and we agreed we would have it at least three times a week, scheduled if necessary.
My ex-husband and I were so thorough in our discussion of what our marriage would entail, we drafted a document elaborating on our expectations and duties -– with as much attention as we gave our prenuptial agreement and terms for the potential dissolution of the marriage.
Cold, calculated, realistic, pragmatic as they come.
There was absolutely no way in hell we would fail.
But we did.
I was still seeing Mr. Almost Right when I met Tristan, a man who essentially made my world explode -– in the best and worst sense of the word.
On our first date, I asked him a few questions to define whether I felt we were suitable for the long term. His answers suggested it was a dangerously incongruous situation -– and, for the first time in my life, I didn't care. I saw a margin of error wider than the Grand Canyon with him, and it didn't make a difference.
I knew I could follow this man to the ends of the earth. I just did. Not just because he is intellectually stimulating, creative, loves the same music I do, is annoyed by the same things I'm annoyed, shares political affiliation, is well-traveled, loves my writing, writes well himself, reads the same books I do, gets my obscure references, loves physics, can build stuff as well as he can build counterarguments about non-practical subjects, can be every bit the alpha male and still express himself emotionally beautifully, makes my body tingle with a single look –- need I go on? -– but because there is this something else there, this other-worldly connection between us that is undeniable.
Ah, the chemistry, I can hear you say. The chemistry is passing.
Let me tell you a story. No, first, come here. Look in this window. Inside this house are a man and woman running around a living room with water guns. They're around 50. They're jumping around and giggling as they dance around furniture, sending the cats scurrying.
They're sober. What's perhaps more shocking is that they've been married almost 30 years.
They play dress up for no reason, at the weirdest hours. They make up strange games like "Let's make story lines about the lives of the people sitting at the next table." They sing when they drive anywhere together. I've even seen them break into dance, randomly, leaving a restaurant to music only they can hear.
They have always done this. Two kids later and these people are still kids.
Here's the argument I am leveling against Lori Gottlieb: Settling weighs you down.
Settling makes the household the most important thing. And while the household is important when it comes to having children and raising a family –- you are not just your children and your family. All of us, men and women, are a multi-dimensional, complex beings with many needs and desires. Children, once we have them, occupy a large part of our thoughts and fulfill us in a big way. But they don't fulfill everything.
If you say they do, then, to quote Gottlieb, "You're either in denial or you're lying."
Settling weighs you down. What happens when you're weighed down? You stop playing.
I'm not talking about playing "with the kids for 20 minutes so their wives could eat lunch" as Gottlieb describes. I am not talking about playing with the kids at all. I am talking about being kids themselves and playing with each other.
Playing like that is the stuff of people who have found someone that enables them to be who they really are, whatever that is.
I married someone I thought would stabilize me. He walked on earth while I flew with my head in the clouds. While I was staring at the desert skies, wondering how Pluto's demotion might affect my astrological chart, he was figuring out how to make a cooler out of plastic bags and ice to keep our drinks cool. Mental wankery and practicality! Together at last! It made so much sense.
My ex-husband would have never let me play with a water gun in the house. He wouldn't even let me play in the snow as we were driving through Flagstaff, even though I'd never been in snow before! ("You're going to get the car all wet," he said.)
I'm sure you could "settle" for someone more compatible. But can you really play with someone when you're so busy compromising and making concessions?
Now, I'm not saying you should be looking for Prince Charming as defined by anyone or anything other than your heart. The Super-Soaker-wielding man I described above was everything his wife shouldn't have wanted. He is new money, she is from an established family. He was a hard-partying Casanova when they met, she was a goody-goody-two-shoes. Her parents threatened to disown her if she continued to see him. She was more than willing to give it up -- yes, she refused his marriage proposals a few times until she felt he meant it, but that's just how she is. They planned to elope. Her family had no choice but to accept him.
Later, she would leave everything she knew to follow him around the world.
To her, none of it was a sacrifice. That's another thing: When you don't settle, there are no sacrifices. It just makes sense.
When I spoke with them last, she had just owned him on the Xbox and they were finally going to bed. It was 3:00 AM their time. On a work night.
BUT THE CHILDREN
Ah, the children, how dare I forget.
"There is nothing like knowing your parents don't really love each other, but are just there out of a stubborn need to keep things functional," Lindsay, a friend of mine, told me when we were talking about another friend who was contemplating divorce but worried about the effect it would have on her son.
"My parents didn't love each other, but they never divorced because it seemed to make more sense to just stay than start over," Lindsay said, sighing. "Yes, everyone's got issues and you can't blame them on your parents, but I also know that most of the time when I think about marriage, I think it's a matter of finding the person who makes you the least miserable, because the ultimate happiness with someone may be just a load of bullshit, and soul mates don't exist, and all you can really hope for is to be lonely with this person until you make another creature to kind of take up enough of your time so you don't really have to think about it anymore. Parents always think they're doing the noble thing by being together For The Children but it's not noble, it's sad. Kids can sense that no matter how old we are, and without a healthy template of a relationship, we end up living a life composed of the worst, most soul-sucking, co-dependent relationships."
I, on the other hand, grew up with parents who are crazy about each other. My childhood was as filled with play and adventure as it was filled with tedious music lessons and thank you note-writing.
I still have made my share of errors when it comes to relationships, but I'm willing to go all the way with someone who gets me, and keep looking if it doesn't work out, to try and find that kind of connection that made it possible for my parents to raise two really interesting, kick-ass women without losing sight of how vital it is to play no matter how old you are.
Because if you haven't guessed it already, they're the couple I told you about above.
AV Flox is the editor of Sex and the 405>--what your newspaper would look like if it had a sex section.
Reaching Deeper by Erica O'Grady: “I have never been in Love. I have loved people. And people have loved me. But I’ve never experienced a mutually breathless, palm-sweating, can’t focus, can’t sleep the night before I’m going to see him because it feels like Christmas kind of love. I recently started dating again – after leaving an unhealthy and loveless 11.5 year relationship. And it’s fun. And scary. And intoxicating. The truth is – I never really dated. I moved from my parents house – in with my ex. I never took the time to get to know different types of men or even myself. had no idea what I wanted. Now – I’m learning.”
Marry Him! by Lori Gottlieb: “A number of my single women friends admit (in hushed voices and after I swear I won’t use their real names here) that they’d readily settle now but wouldn’t have 10 years ago. They believe that part of the problem is that we grew up idealizing marriage—and that if we’d had a more realistic understanding of its cold, hard benefits, we might have done things differently. Instead, we grew up thinking that marriage meant feeling some kind of divine spark, and so we walked away from uninspiring relationships that might have made us happy in the context of a family.”
Are Women Too Picky? Marry Him Already! by Lauren Iannotti: “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.”