The Blog

On Settling for Mr. Good Enough

There's nothing original about the idea that women have better marriage prospects at age 30 than at 40, and if we don't want to end up alone, we should pay attention.
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The week that my Atlantic essay, "Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough," was published, Bella DePaulo wrote me an email asking whether she could have her publicist send me her book, Singled Out.

I didn't take Bella up on her offer, but if I had, I hope I would have had the courtesy to give a fair critique rather than do what Bella did here, which was to attribute quotes to me that weren't mine, take every cited portion of my essay wildly out of context and, with these glaring inaccuracies, fail to convey the nuance of the piece and, as a result, its actual point. From someone who's a social scientist, this seems pretty unscientific to me. But I don't know -- maybe that's what they mean by the "social" sciences.

In any event, I'm surprised by the outraged vehemence of Bella's reaction for several reasons, one of which is that few people would dispute what I'm saying in the piece, whether it makes us feel all warm and fuzzy or not: Quite simply, a woman at 30-years-old is more likely to find a higher caliber of partner than that same woman might at 40. Likewise, most 40-year-old men would rather date a 35-year-old than a 45-year-old, all else being equal. And finally, the majority of heterosexual women in this country want to get married and have kids. Is that so controversial? Am I really "hurting America" (to quote Bella quoting Jon Stewart) by writing a piece based on these widely accepted beliefs? All I did was take them a step further and say to 30-ish single women: be aware and act accordingly.

As someone who decided to have a baby on my own with the optimism that I'd find Mr. Right later, only to realize now how difficult that might be to achieve given the realities of gender politics, I was suggesting -- and I never insisted that people had to take my advice; I was only offering it by way of opinion -- that at a certain point, say, your mid-thirties, if you haven't found The One, go with the guy who's nice and smart and interesting, and would be a good husband and father and a person you'd enjoy eating dinner with every night, even if he doesn't make your stomach get all jittery with butterflies whenever you see him, because the "zing" isn't the thing most long-married couples talk about anyway when asked about what makes their marriages work. As I said in the piece, the day-to-day of marriage (yes, even good marriages) is more about whom you want to run a household with than whom you want to go on vacation with. Again, not exactly controversial, and not a dating concept that hasn't been around for quite a while, but for some reason Bella portrays me as an affront to women everywhere for stating the obvious.

Meanwhile, for those who have been misled by the blatant inaccuracies in Bella's post, I'd like to set the record straight on as many as I have time to address (between work and childcare and what, as Bella probably believes is most important to me, Like, well, her opening line. I don't, as she asserts, have "one word for single women of any age: Settle!" In fact, I suggest settling specifically for women in their thirties who don't want to be alone for the rest of their lives and/or want the kind of traditional family in which there are male pubic hairs on the toilet seat in the master bathroom. How she got the impression that I suggested it for 18-year-olds, or 25-year-olds, or 45-year-olds, or gay women, or people with OCD who can't stand someone else living under the same roof and spreading all those guy germs, is beyond me.

Second, Bella erroneously states I'm urging readers to settle for guys who, quite to the contrary, I refer to in the article as people for whom I would clearly not advise settling. Interestingly, Time magazine recently devoted an entire issue to the science of romance, in which there was a piece that cited better health for both partners as one of the many benefits of marriage, partly because you have another person reminding you to get regular doctor check-ups. (Time magazine's writers use actual studies to back up their reporting; Bella would approve.) Perhaps Bella, without a spouse around to mention that she needs a vision test and reading glasses, took my examples one hundred and eighty degrees out of context not because she was willfully twisting my words to back up her point (that would be unethical, after all), but because she just couldn't see all that well (I'll give her the benefit of the doubt, being a fellow presbyopic singleton.) Had she actually read what I wrote, though, she would have noted that rather than urging that anyone "settle" for these men, I was suggesting that the kind of settling I was talking about shouldn't involve that much compromise, which is precisely why I was advocating doing it in your 30s, when you can still find a great life partner you'd likely be happy with, even if he doesn't meet your (perhaps unrealistic) definition of The One.

Third, and under the heading, "Her own little world" (which can't be that little, given that I share the desire for a traditional family with a large number of single woman in this country -- at least the 1,000 who claim to belong solidly in my little world in emailed responses to me after publication of the article), Bella asserts that I'm "creating my own reality." News flash: This is a personal essay. Note that it's written in the first person. I'm not writing about someone else's reality as a single mom in her 40s. I'm writing about my own experience and observations and conversations with men and women both single and married. Which in no way implies that I'm "the mom telling [my] kiddie readers that they must do as [I] say 'because I said so!!!'" First, I have never placed three exclamation points together in my life. But also -- and you can fact-check this with my 2-year-old son -- I've learned that using "Because I said so" is a highly ineffective way of getting my point across. In fact, it often results in a very childish response, similar to Bella's: mockery. So although Bella has responded to my piece the way a 2-year-old might, my essay was simply expressing a view, not shoving it down people's throats as the only way to live one's life. If your definition of a fulfilling life is one that consists of three cats and physical contact only with uncommitted partners or the masseuse at Burke Williams, then put down the Atlantic and go stock up on kitty litter. Obviously, this piece isn't written for you. But please be aware that you're the minority in the subset of heterosexual women in this country who have never been married.

The mommy line isn't where the unfair attacks end. Bella also takes issue with, of all things, the pull-quote the magazine ran. Hey, Bella, I don't have any say over the pull-quotes, okay? I'm just the "myth-peddling" writer. Can you get any more nitpicky? I mean, I know why I'm not married -- I'm controlling, moody, and nitpicky. So maybe we have something in common after all.

In fact, we do agree on one thing. At one point, Bella looks at the piece more objectively and states: "I will give Lori Gottlieb this, though: Scientific findings are about averages. There are always exceptions." True, and let me add that scientific findings are prone to error. As a former scientist myself (in medicine), I know from experience... oops, "my own reality" ... that studies are flawed and often not replicable in the so-called real world (not just mine, but even the real real world in which Bella implies she lives but I, apparently, don't). Especially studies that ask people to fill out questionnaires about how satisfied they are being single versus actual conversations with single people that probe more deeply and subtly than blunt questionnaires often can or do.

Hilariously, though, after this cogent observation, Bella moves on to the heading, "What does Lori Gottlieb want?" - a question by which even my therapist has been flummoxed for the past 10 years, but which Bella thinks she can answer in two inches of blog-space. Here, Bella continues to take text from the piece and apply it in an entirely different context. She seems to have missed that I was making fun of, rather than advocating, what relationship books tend to suggest. Unlike those books, I was recommending that people commit in their 30s to a perfectly lovely man with whom they may not be "feeling it," and not that they do what the relationship books urge, which seemed to me to be selling one's very soul in the service of finding a partner. In fact, my main point of the piece is that by tying the knot in your 30s with a great guy who perhaps isn't whatever idealized notion you have of "true love," you won't end up in your 40s or 50s or 60s with the only options for partnership being men who might make you feel like you are selling your very soul.

Oh, and I do want sex. True, I wrote in the piece that most married couples aren't having it as much as they did while dating, so the "chemistry" factor women look for in a mate might be over-emphasized. In the Will and Grace example, the point I was making -- which again, Bella twisted entirely -- was that I probably wouldn't be having a lot of it even if I was raising little kids with Mr. Exactly Right. That's the reality of married life with toddlers. But yes, I'd like to be having sex. I hope that clarifies "what Lori Gottlieb wants."

In regards to my "tragic husband-fixation" (let's not confuse this with, say, the "tragic" situation in the Middle East or Darfur), I hate to pop Bella's we-are-the-world view of female friendships but, no, my fellow single mom friends don't want to watch my kid so I can eat lunch. They want a break, like I do, because we never have a hand-off and can barely juggle our own kid. We're out of gas. When we single mom friends are together, we want to relax and -- gasp! -- have an adult conversation. Not eat alone for 20 minutes and then run around with two rambunctious toddlers so our friend can eat alone for 20 minutes. Unlike married women, we don't have another adult in the house to talk to on a regular basis, so eating alone while our single mom friend is 50 feet away on the jungle gym isn't quite the same as having a husband. Is it really that hard to see the difference between the two scenarios?

Bella really goes off the deep end, though, when she maintains that I consider myself to be "shockingly unconventional." Interestingly, my entire piece is about how much I crave the same thing most people do -- a traditional marriage rather than being the so-called trailblazers we single moms are often assumed to be. Nor am I trying to be original. As I said, there's nothing original about the idea that women have better marriage prospects at age 30 than at 40, and if we don't want to end up alone, we should pay attention. Why then, are people like Bella so incensed? Are they perhaps shooting the messenger because they don't like the message? Is that why so many women have written to me, thanking me for saying what they already knew, but also mentioning that they've been afraid to post publicly about this for fear of being attacked by people just like Bella simply for saying that they agree or found the piece honest or thought-provoking? Look, even I don't like the message, but I was still able to write about it because, to my mind, it's true for a lot of women.

Still, even if Bella were to accurately understand my points in the piece, and even if she still disagreed, I'm not sure why she felt the need to attack me so forcefully and personally. She even felt the need to denigrate my piece on her book's Amazon page. Again, I'm no social scientist, but I'm one class away from a graduate degree in psychology, and I have to wonder, shrink-intern that I am, whether my ideas have struck a raw nerve for her. I mean, if it's not advice that works for you, so be it. Stay single. List your fellow single female friends on your emergency contact form at the doctor's office, ask your female friends to make you chicken soup when you have the flu, eat dinner each night with your single female friends (but don't talk about dating or men; who needs them?). If she really finds the piece (and, by extension, me) ridiculous and laughable, then why spend so much of her clearly fulfilling free time as a single woman debunking it? Instead, the mere intensity of her reaction (rather than, say, a more calm and reasoned response to the actual message of the piece, or even simply sharing her thoughts directly and privately in the email in which she offered to send me her book) makes it seem like, well, Dr. Freud, sometimes a blog post isn't just a blog post. As we say in the trade, I think she's got some, uh, issues here.

Oh, and speaking of that email, Bella, thanks for your self-promoting offer (I lost count of the number of times you referred to your own book - chapter and page numbers included, in your post). Yes, please have your publicist send me a copy. I can't wait to read it with the same degree of intellectual integrity and objective critical thinking that you gave my Atlantic piece.