Interviews March 2008

The Case for Mr. Not-Quite-Right

Lori Gottlieb, the author of "Marry Him," talks about soul mates, all-consuming love, and why it makes sense to compromise those ideals.

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.

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

Sara Lipka is a journalist with a local food habit. Since 2003 she has written about college students as a staff reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education, in Washington, D.C. Last year she was an intern for The Farm at Sunnyside, in Washington, Virginia, and this year she is starting a vegetable garden at the Bullis School in Potomac, Maryland.

Sara formerly interned at The Atlantic and has since interviewed authors about Roe v. Wade, libido, and settling. She graduated from Duke University summa cum laude in 2001, then spent a year in Chile as a Fulbright fellow, researching political theater.

An avid cook, Sara usually travels with a tiny bottle of truffle salt and keeps trying to concoct new combinations of ingredients. She has worked as a papergirl, camp counselor, umpire, and cashier at the Cosmic Cantina, in Durham, North Carolina, where she never got sick of the guacamole.

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