Now that Valentine’s Day is safely around the corner and all the romantic breezes have blown out to sea, let’s take a cold, hard look at Lori Gottlieb, the marriage maven of the post-Sex and the City era. Savvy enough to publish a book about marriage in time for V-Day and reap the subsequent media blitz, Gottlieb has suffered from poorer timing in her love life. Two years ago, she lamented her ill-advised dating strategy in The Atlantic: Rather than “settle for” (read: marry) one of her numerous boyfriends during her twenties or thirties, she kept holding out for “something better,” convinced she had not yet met her “soul mate.” But still alone at age 40, with a sperm-donated baby and no husband prospects on her horizon, Gottlieb doubted the wisdom of her choice. “Marrying Mr. Good Enough might be an equally viable option, especially if you’re looking for a stable, reliable life companion,” she wrote. “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.
Now she’s spun the article into one of those books whose argument doesn’t go much further than the title: Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough. Women today, Gottlieb explains, have unrealistic expectations of the qualities they want in a mate, bringing a checklist 30 items long to the dating table and automatically excluding anyone who doesn’t perfectly conform. (He’s blond; she prefers tall, dark, and handsome. Next!) If you really want to get married, she writes, you should stop looking for qualities immediately attractive in a boyfriend—passion, intensity, brilliance—and open your mind to men who on the surface might be less scintillating but in the long run would make better partners.
What’s interesting about all this isn’t the dating advice Gottlieb offers, which is nothing new. Among the old standards she falls back on is the wisdom of the arranged marriage, in which partners unite owing to a meeting of values rather than minds or hearts and fall in love later (ideally). While her evidence is largely anecdotal, buffered with statistics from the National Marriage Project and various psychological studies, her research methods are clever. At the book’s start, she interviews a group of single women in their late 30s and early 40s. A friend tells Gottlieb, “Even if he’s not the love of your life, make sure he’s someone you respect intellectually, [who] 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).” But it’s not “settling” to marry a guy who is intelligent, funny, appreciative, and so on, if you connect with him intellectually and emotionally—as many of these women, even Gottlieb herself, say they did with their boyfriends. To marry a man you “adore,” even if sparks didn’t fly at the first meeting, sounds like a rational start for a happy relationship, not a radical way to readjust your priorities. What is settling is to accept a vision of marriage utterly different from the one you thought you wanted. This happens to be exactly what Gottlieb originally suggested, perhaps inadvertently, in her Atlantic article. Charles Bovary, after all, wasn’t “tedious but caring”; he didn’t respect Emma, make her laugh, or appreciate her. To suggest that the Bovary marriage might have had a happier ending if Emma had just readjusted her expectations is like saying Werther could have been cured by a little Prozac.
Gottlieb never devotes her considerable analytic skills to the most obvious question: Why does she assume that being married is better than being single? In the article, she acknowledged that marriages might not always be ideal, and even admitted the possibility that her life alone “is better (if far more difficult) than the life I would have in a comfortable but tepid marriage.” But she made it clear that she’d still rather be unhappily married than on her own. “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,” she explained. “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?” But I would venture that rarely seeing your husband isn’t what most women envision when they think about marriage. We can take out the trash and set up the baby gear ourselves; that’s not why people want partners.
In Gottlieb’s unashamedly marriage-boosting book, I counted all of two references to unhappy marriages. Marriage is simply presumed to be a good, better by definition than being single. There is no awareness of domestic violence and other abuse—not to mention other far more minor grievances that seem petty on the surface but erode a person’s well-being: the daily squabbles, the claustrophobia, the loneliness of discovering that the person you thought would be your constant companion no longer has the interest or ability to meet your needs. In ten years, will Gottlieb’s comfortably, tepidly married subjects reunite for the sequel, Divorce Him? That’s a book I’d be curious to read.
Ruth Franklin is a senior editor of The New Republic.