Reader, Marry Him!

A couple of weeks ago, trapped on an extended airport voyage with a malfunctioning laptop, I purchased a copy of Lori Gottlieb's Marry Him. The article that inspired the book ran in The Atlantic, and indeed, when I was interviewing for my job, I discussed it with James Bennet.  So it seemed like a better-than-average way to pass my enforced electronic hiatus.

Thankfully for me, it actually is an engaging read. Expanding on the themes she raises in her article, Gottlieb goes through a series of interviews and dating exercises. Out of these, she attempts to build her thesis: that feminism has made women too picky about their dating lives, and that they need to learn to accept a few flaws in their mate and settle down with a solid partner to raise kids.

Though the book is entertaining, she doesn't really prove that thesis. After several hundred pages, I have no doubt that Lori Gottlieb is too picky, and that this has adversely affected her dating life. But there's no real evidence that this is actually a characteristic common to most women who don't get married. And there's definitely no evidence that feminists are especially likely to stay unmarried; anecdotally, the feminists I know seem about as likely as anyone else to get married (lesbians aside, but hey, move to D.C., guys!).

But that is not the real content of the book; it's a sort of glossy layer appended on top of the real message to make it more relevant and edgy. Her real message she proves all too well, and I suspect that's why it drives young women nuts, as in this Emily Gould essay I came across yesterday. It is the same thing overanxious mothers have been telling their daughters from time immemorial: your looks matter, and they are a wasting asset. If you delay marriage too long, the men your age will find it easy to find a spouse; you will not. And unless you're a very rare sort of person, even if you're a feminist who has a fully actualized identity that needs no man to complete it . . . you will still want to get married eventually, especially if you want to have kids. She's urging an ugly sort of game-theoretic calculation on younger women still in the prime of their attractiveness. And she's absolutely right that some of those young women who reject her advice will eventually regret it.

This is a slightly sensitive topic for me to write about, of course--I'm a woman in her 30s who will, barring tragic accident, get married in six weeks. I guarantee that no matter what I write, someone will take issue with it. If I support Gottlieb, feminists will say that I'm somehow cozying up to the patriarchy; if I take issue, conservatives who accuse me of downplaying the dangers of playing the field too long.

I'm not exactly sure which side I come out on, actually.  My anecdotal experience doesn't support Gottlieb's thesis. My dating prospects did not dry up as I moved deeper into my 30s (much to my surprise), possibly because I was a skinny woman with a baby face. I won't say, coyly, that I never really thought about these things because I'm too fabulous to worry; I did, and frankly I find it awfully hard to believe any woman in her late 30s who declares that it never crossed her mind. I decided I wasn't going to settle, because I suspected that if I settled down with someone who wasn't a good match, I'd have killed either him, or myself.   Then as luck would have it I didn't have to--I met someone as ideally suited to me as is possible in this vale of tears.

But as many feminists have pointed out about Gottlieb's own work, the singular of data is not anecdote. Drawing on broader data, I can't say that Gottlieb is quite wrong. Feminists are right to say that women are bullied about marriage in a way that is harmful and demeaning. As I was striding through the airport with this garish orange cover in my hands, I realized somewhat ruefully that I would have been rather reluctant to carry it so prominently if I had not had an engagement ring on my finger.

But there's a tendency among some feminists, particularly younger ones, to take this laudable principle too far. I think Gould's essay is an example of this. There's an anger at Gottlieb that doesn't seem quite reasonable for saying that marriage is important, and women who want to get married are often going to have to make some hard choices. Gould implies that Gottlieb doesn't make the case that marriage is all that desirable for women, but in fact she does, quite well; it's the strongest analytic part of the book.

Gottlieb offers some pretty persuasive evidence that unless you're in a desperately unhappy marriage, you are better off being married, even if it's not to your soul mate . . . and that marriage is hard, even if your spouse is your soul mate.  Yet Gould just sort of airily ignores this argument, even though it's really quite strong, and goes on an extended rant about Gottlieb's poor grasp of feminist principles.

I mean, I too am annoyed by Gottlieb's tendency to make sweeping generalizations about women, and to hold up men as a better example, when really, men just have more time to fix their mistakes. But maybe because I've spent a bit of time thinking about these choices, I see Gottlieb trying to convey, somewhat hamfistedly, not that women are "too picky" in some metaphysical sense, but that for women in their early thirties the clock is ticking in a way that it isn't for men--which means that being picky is risky for them. So when women are tempted to hold out for something better, they should think hard about how likely that really is.

For all Gould's equally anecdotal evidence that women "aren't picky enough", Gottlieb is simply mathematically correct; the dating pool shrinks faster for women than men, which means fewer high quality fish left in the sea. Gottlieb's also right that the women who ended up alone in their 40s are, in my experience, mostly pretty unhappy about it. (So are the men in the same position. But the dating math isn't so cruel.)

That women should have to think about these things, while men don't, is certainly unfair, and I understand why feminists resist accepting it. But not all unfair things can be rectified. As far as I know, there is no evidence that we can change men's preferences about age--it's a pretty common preference, and it hasn't shifted all that much in 50 years of feminism, even though preferences about other things, like intelligence and education, clearly have. And while we've had some limited success battling the biological clock, the women I know who have gone through fertility treatments universally say that it was an emotionally and financially draining experience. Worse, it doesn't always work--and two years of fertility treatments followed by no baby seems to be one of the most emotionally brutalizing things that can happen to you.

If these things can't be rectified--and I suspect they can't--then a feminist who doesn't want to spend her life alone may want to consider such factors as how many other men are out there who might be better than the one she's dating now. Gottlieb doesn't suggest you should stay with men who are useless or abusive. Rather, she's urging that you compromise on less important matters like waistlines and hairlines, so that you don't end up tempted to compromise on the big stuff.

Obviously, all this has a large element of Gottlieb working out her own anxieties in public, which makes most of us uncomfortable--and leads her to overgeneralize her own experience. It also takes an uncomfortably practical approach to dating. Feminists are no less prone than other women to resist thinking of romantic choices as pragmatic. Maybe more so, even, because relationships are supposed to be about self-actualization, not the prosaic projects of economic security and diaper-changing. Gottlieb's straying a little too close to Jane Austen territory . . . and even for her own time, Austen was overly brutal.

Maybe for that reason, I wonder how necessary this heartfelt cri-de-coeur really is, other than as therapy for Gottlieb. Few women in their 30s have failed to notice either the shrinking pool of available men, or the shrinking number of years they have left to reproduce.  And women in their 20s mostly aren't emotionally ready to consider that yes, this could happen to them--or grapple with what that would really be like when all their awesome single friends are wrapped up in a few toddlers.

And in fact, most of them are right--they'll get married and have babies (if they want them) at some point in the next ten years. Some of them will have gotten lucky and met a near-perfect match, and others will have decided to settle, but either way, they won't have needed this book. The ones who did won't believe it until it's mostly too late.

But imagine that these critical few whom Gottlieb wants to save did take her (very) heartfelt advice. Would they make themselves better off? A lot of people, (including me) are not ready to get married at 26, even if they're with someone great. Perhaps college-educated people are more likely to stay married because they marry later, and are thus less likely to make rash and short-sighted choices with visions of wedding gowns dancing in their heads. If you assume--as I do--that the people who marry later tend to be the ones who are hardest to find a decent match for, then maybe settling wouldn't increase their chances of happiness. Maybe it would just increase the number of bitter, unhappy marriages in the world.

On the other hand, I suspect that if you're raising a couple of kids, even a bitter, unhappy ex-husband is often better than none at all. Gould and I can opine all we want, but neither of us has to assume sole support of a toddler. Whether or not Gottlieb should have done so voluntarily is a question for another thread. But assuming the toddler arguendo, I can certainly see why Gottlieb thinks she'd have been better off settling. The question, as with so much of the book, is how well that generalizes to anyone else.