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.

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.

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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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