When we’re holding out for deep romantic love, we have the fantasy that this level of passionate intensity will make us happier. But marrying Mr. Good Enough might be an equally viable option, especially if you’re looking for a stable, reliable life companion. Madame Bovary might not see it that way, but if she’d remained single, I’ll bet she would have been even more depressed than she was while living with her tedious but caring husband.
What I didn’t realize when I decided, in my 30s, to break up with boyfriends I might otherwise have ended up marrying, is that while settling seems like an enormous act of resignation when you’re looking at it from the vantage point of a single person, once you take the plunge and do it, you’ll probably be relatively content. It sounds obvious now, but I didn’t fully appreciate back then that what makes for a good marriage isn’t necessarily what makes for a good romantic relationship. Once you’re married, it’s not about whom you want to go on vacation with; it’s about whom you want to run a household with. Marriage isn’t a passion-fest; it’s more like a partnership formed to run a very small, mundane, and often boring nonprofit business. And I mean this in a good way.
I don’t mean to say that settling is ideal. I’m simply saying that it might have gotten an undeservedly bad rap. As the only single woman in my son’s mommy-and-me group, I used to listen each week to a litany of unrelenting complaints about people’s husbands and feel pretty good about my decision to hold out for the right guy, only to realize that these women wouldn’t trade places with me for a second, 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.
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?
Interview: "The Case for Mr. Not-Quite Right"
Lori Gottlieb talks about soul mates, all-consuming love, and why it makes sense to compromise those ideals.
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 just want someone who’s willing to be in the trenches with me,” my single friend Jennifer told me, “and I never thought of marriage that way before.” Two of Jennifer’s friends married men who Jennifer believes aren’t even straight, and while Jennifer wouldn’t have made that choice a few years back, she wonders whether she might be capable of it in the future. “Maybe they understood something that I didn’t,” she said.
What they understood is this: as your priorities change from romance to family, the so-called “deal breakers” change. Some guys aren’t worldly, but they’d make great dads. Or you walk into a room and start talking to this person who is 5'4" and has an unfortunate nose, but he “gets” you. My long-married friend Renée offered this dating advice to me in an e-mail:
I would say even if he’s not the love of your life, make sure he’s someone you respect intellectually, makes you laugh, appreciates you … I bet there are plenty of these men in the older, overweight, and bald category (which they all eventually become anyway).
She wasn’t joking.
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.
All marriages, of course, involve compromise, but where’s the cutoff? Where’s the line between compromising and settling, and at what age does that line seem to fade away? Choosing to spend your life with a guy who doesn’t delight in the small things in life might be considered settling at 30, but not at 35. By 40, if you get a cold shiver down your spine at the thought of embracing a certain guy, but you enjoy his company more than anyone else’s, is that settling or making an adult compromise?
Take the date I went on last night. The guy was substantially older. He had a long history of major depression and said, in reference to the movies he was writing, “I’m fascinated by comas” and “I have a strong interest in terrorists.” He’d never been married. He was rude to the waiter. But he very much wanted a family, and he was successful, handsome, and smart. As I looked at him from across the table, I thought, Yeah, I’ll see him again. Maybe I can settle for that. But my very next thought was, Maybe I can settle for better. It’s like musical chairs—when do you take a seat, any seat, just so you’re not left standing alone?