The Case for Mr. Not-Quite-Right

by Sara Lipka

The Case for Mr. Not-Quite-Right

Single thirtysomethings may talk about settling down, but rarely will they admit they’re settling. Nonetheless, many are, says Lori Gottlieb—and those who aren’t, she advises, should.

Gottlieb’s piece, “Marry Him,” in the March Atlantic, makes the “case for settling for Mr. Good Enough.” Directing her message toward single women over the age of 30, she writes, “If you say you’re not worried, either you’re in denial or you’re lying.”

Gottlieb, who is 40 and single, regrets not having settled for a decent (albeit imperfect) guy years ago. But back then she subscribed to the “somebody isn’t always better than nobody” theory of marriage. In fact, in 2005 she wrote “The XY Files” for The Atlantic, explaining her decision to break up with her long-term boyfriend—someone with whom she felt she lacked a “core connection”—and have a baby with a sperm donor.

Now she realizes her mistake: by holding out for that magic spark, that blinding love, she may have missed out on her chance at happiness with a life partner. “Marriage isn’t a passion-fest,” she writes. “It’s more like a partnership formed to run a very small, mundane, and often boring nonprofit business.” Plus, she says, couples with kids don’t spend that much time together anyway.

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?

Gottlieb expects to be told she’s been “co-opted by the cult of the feminist backlash,” but she insists that settling is a women’s game. Marriage, motherhood, and family life, she says, are the perpetual female dream. Even if post-millennial, self-empowered women won’t admit it, they still long to fall in love and live happily ever after. But even without the all-consuming love, she argues, the “ever after” can still be happy.

Gottlieb is a regular commentator for NPR’s All Things Considered and has also contributed to This American Life, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Slate, People, and Elle. Her most recent book, co-written with Kevin Bleyer of The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, is I Love You, Nice to Meet You: A Guy and a Girl Give the Lowdown on Coupling Up. She lives in Los Angeles with her son. We spoke by phone on Friday, January 25.

—Sara Lipka

What constitutes settling, exactly?

Well, it’s different for different people. But you look at what you need and what you want. You may have certain needs, like having a child. And kindness from your spouse. And reliability and stability and safety. But beyond that, what do you desire? You desire passion. You desire shared interests. You desire a certain level of intimacy. If your needs are met but your desires aren’t, that may be how you can tell if you’re settling.

Why does the term make people so uncomfortable?

Because we’re conditioned to crave that Big Love. Every romantic comedy we see, every novel we read, every ideal we might have had as teenagers is about that. I remember this scene in Sex and the City when Charlotte, who has just come back from another bad date, says, “You know, I’ve been dating since I was 15. I’m exhausted. Where is he?” Like he is this guy who exists somewhere. And Miranda shoots back, “Who, the white knight?” It’s painful how pervasive the fantasy is that the one is out there somewhere, that he’s just as lonely as you are, and that he’s eager to find you. And that destiny or $29.99 on or whatever it is will bring you two together.

For single people, the idea that we might not have that is really a bummer. And married people don’t want to think about settling either, because even though everybody compromises to a degree, nobody wants to believe they’ve settled. And they don’t want to acknowledge that their spouse might have. We all want to be loved passionately and unconditionally, and we want to feel like we’re special, and we want to reciprocate that. Settling implies, “You are one of many people I could be with, and I chose to be with you for these very practical reasons, and I also happen to like you, but you weren’t ‘all that.’ ”

What about soul mates?

I think the whole soul mate thing is sort of silly. I was dating this guy once, and we discovered very early on that we ate the same chocolate chip cookies, these really obscure ones, for breakfast. And we had the same weird flat-screen TV that nobody else had. And it was like, “Oh my God, we’re soul mates.” But it wasn’t that we were soul mates. It was that we had really poor nutritional habits and an interest in this strange aesthetic. I think people attribute commonalities to the fact that they’re soul mates. We want the soul mate thing to happen and so we look for ways to say to ourselves that it has.

So you don’t believe in soul mates?

Well, the rational part of me doesn’t. But despite what people may think after reading my piece, I really am a romantic. I still would like to meet a guy that I have this very visceral connection with, and that, to me, is a soul mate. But do I actually think there’s one person who’s my soul mate out there? Absolutely not. I think there are several people that any one of us could be with. Which makes me seem like more of a loser, because if there are dozens of soul mates out there, or potential guys I could be perfectly happy with, and I haven’t even married one of them, what does that say about me? If there’s just one and you haven’t found him, there’s a reason you’re still single. He’s a needle in a haystack.

You refer in your piece to “one-stop shopping”—the idea that people are looking for partners who fulfill their every qualification.

You know, I was saying to a friend the other day, “I really want to find a guy who’s my best friend”—something ridiculous like that. And she said, “But you already have a best friend. It’s me.”

I think when we’re younger and we’re dating and we’re trying to find our place in the world, we want that person who will be involved in almost every aspect of our lives. When you’re older, you say, “I’m really fulfilled in all these areas of my life, but you know, it would be nice to share that with somebody. But I don’t need the one-stop shopping necessarily.”

Also, by now I’ve heard so many of my married friends complain that they never see their spouses because they’re both so busy raising the children and going to work every day. So even if they found the one-stop shopping, they don’t spend enough time together to enjoy it.

So is one-stop shopping counterproductive, like Voltaire’s “the best is the enemy of the good”?

No one person is going to have all of the qualities you’re looking for, so if you’re always worried about what’s missing, you’re going to be perpetually lonely and frustrated. It’s human to think, I wonder if there’s something better out there. But it’s also crazy-making, because you can’t stop comparing. Like So-and-so wasn’t as creative as my last boyfriend. Or So-and-so doesn’t excite me the way this person does.

The question becomes: Are you willing to risk what you have in order to hold out for what either may not exist or, equally important, may not be attainable to you, even if it did exist? It’s nice to have high ideals, but the reality is, you may not be attractive to what you consider the best.

How, then, do you know a relationship is right?

Our culture has this view that you should just know if someone’s right for you. And that when you just know you’ll have no ambivalence or reservations, and you’ll never wonder if you’re truly in love, even if you fight all the time and you break up 17 times the way Rachel and Ross did in Friends or Carrie and Big did in Sex and the City. And so often you’ll hear in fiction or film or TV, or even at people’s weddings, these accounts of “We knew from the very first date, or after two weeks, that we would end up together.”

I have trouble with that because I’ve felt that certainty with boyfriends when I first met them. I’ve felt that incredible He’s the one or I just know. But then six months or a year or two years later we discovered we weren’t right for each other. It reminds me of the old Chris Rock joke that goes something like: “In the first three months of a relationship, you’re not you, you’re the ambassador of you.” How can you “just know” as soon as you meet someone? You have to peel the onion of who that person is and figure out if you work together.

You say it may take not settling, and ending up alone, to realize that settling is the better option. Is it necessarily a lose-lose proposition?

For me it was. I can’t speak to everybody’s experience. But I do know a lot of women who settled because they were tired of dating. They had realistic ideas of what they wanted, and they hadn’t found it, and they thought, Well, this guy is nice, and we have things in common. And even though I suspect there might be someone else out there I’d be happier with, I’m burned out on dating, and I’m ready to have a family, so I’ll just stick with him.

And the interesting thing is, the ones I know who have done this haven’t regretted that decision. And they haven’t had more complaints about their marriages than the women I know who married for what they considered love. So settling may not be the grim, bland existence I used to think it was.

Maybe, though, if you consciously settle, you don’t expect as much.

Right, definitely. The bar is lower. You may be more satisfied simply because you go in with fewer expectations, and then you’re pleasantly surprised when you develop a stronger bond with the person than you had anticipated. I think the people who go in with these very high expectations about what kind of fulfillment they’re going to get from the marriage and the partner are kind of set up for disappointment.

Friends who married for love have told me that the hardest part of their marriages has been wondering what happened to the people they and their spouses used to be. They have vivid memories of a shared romantic history, and when that wanes or even disappears, there’s a certain amount of sadness or grief that can morph into outright resentment as the years go on. Because the we is redefined so drastically from the we they were before marriage and kids and mortgages and all that emotional water under the bridge.

But in marriages where that intensity was never there, there’s no lost us, no “What happened to us?” or “Do we even know each other anymore?” The idealized version of your spouse, the one you fell madly in love with, never existed to the same extent, if at all.

Do you think people were generally happier in the days of arranged marriages, or are they today in places where that’s still the norm?

Well, they don’t go into marriage with those grand romantic illusions. They go into it, I think, with much more realistic expectations. The starting point is “OK, this is your teammate or your partner. Go work out your differences,” as opposed to “This is the person who’s going to fulfill you on all of these very profound levels.” Even if you have your head on straight, and you expect the mundane day-to-day to be the norm, some people still have a very hard time accepting that it‘s become the norm.

I’m definitely not an advocate of arranged marriages. And I’m not saying you shouldn’t marry someone you feel like you do have true love with. But I do think arranged marriages can work. Marriages in which people settle can work, and marriages in which you have true love can work or not. All of them can work or not. You can’t really predict marital success based on whether or not somebody settled. But marrying your soul mate doesn’t guarantee “for better or for worse” any more than marrying for other reasons.

Two and a half years ago, when you wrote for The Atlantic about your decision to have a baby on your own, you said you subscribed to the “somebody isn’t always better than nobody” theory of marriage. How did that change?

Having a baby alone wasn’t my first choice, but I thought it was a better choice than having a baby with somebody I wasn’t in love with or I didn’t share a connection with. Still, I didn’t have my head in the sand. I knew it was going to be hard to do this alone. I think what changed— and the reason I would make the case for settling now but I wasn’t willing to do it then—was that I had different notions of what was going to be important in a marriage. Now I see what I’m missing even in the marriages that seem passionless, but still warm and supportive. I didn’t see that back then.

I was so focused on true love that I hadn’t appreciated the purely practical benefits of having a husband. Not only does he contribute financially, help with the dishes, and share in the child care, but as his wife, if you want some companionship or physical intimacy, you don’t have to shave your legs, blow-dry your hair, find a puke-free outfit, apply lipstick, drive to a restaurant and sit through a tedious two-hour meal for the mere possibility of some heavy petting while the babysitter meter is ticking away. You don’t have to follow up with flirtatious e-mails or engage in time-consuming courtship rituals. You don’t even have to make conversation if you don’t feel like it.

I’m not saying that I’ve given up on finding love. In fact, I’d like nothing more, and I do meet men and date, but it’s certainly far more complicated to meet men now than I’d anticipated when I decided to have a child on my own.

Feeling as you do now, what would you have done differently?

I would have considered dating guys I never gave a chance. Platonic guy-friends, or guys I met who asked me out but I turned them down, or guys I went on just one date with because I didn’t feel any chemistry or whatever I thought I was supposed to feel. I was looking for a spark when I should have been looking for a solid life partner.

And some of those guys would have been really excellent life partners. They’re all married now, of course, because the guys always get married. Maybe it would have been nice to wake up with one of those guys every day and raise a family together. One in particular was much closer to the kind of person I’d want to marry than anybody I’d likely end up meeting now.

You also talk a lot about motherly advice, which is usually some form of “Don’t be so picky.” What is it that our mothers know?

Well, it’s not that they don’t want you to be in love, or they don’t want you to have some kind of grand romance. I just think they have more life experience.

I am sort of reluctant to admit this, because if my mother reads this I don’t want her to know she was right. But I do remember pooh-poohing almost everything she said about various boyfriends when I was in those relationships. She’d say things like, when I was with a musician, “Is he going to be able to support a family with you?” And when there were guys who seemed like they would be great husbands or fathers, she would advocate for them, despite my saying “I’m not really in love with him” or “I don’t really connect with him.”

At the time, I thought she was such a throwback to the ’50s, so old-fashioned and unenlightened and out of touch with women of my generation. But it turns out she was right. It’s sad, but things haven’t changed that much. We shouldn’t dismiss what our mothers have to say, even if we don’t like the message. Because what they’re saying is “I know that you want to be happy and I want you to be happy, too. But will you really be happy if you end up alone?”

Don’t hold out for the thing that’s going to really rock your world—that’s the message. It’s about a lot more than that.

Sara Lipka is a staff reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education.