Thursday, August 26, 2010

Marry Him

Another entry from my list of books inappropriate to my stage of life, gender, habits, etc.: Lori Gottlieb's Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough. I married a man I met at 22, so Gottlieb isn't really talking to me. But Gottlieb's book provoked a media firestorm upon publication, and I was eager to see what got everybody so riled up. Also, much like a closeted bigot titillated by Glen Beck's inflammatory rhetoric, I was eager to see Gottlieb articulate a thesis I'd only allowed myself to whisper.

On the marriage market, women are depreciating assets.

Any sentence that pairs the word "women" with the word "assets" is on dangerous ground ("show me your assets, baby!") and I can see why Gottlieb was pilloried in the blogosphere. It has become socially unacceptable to forward anything that smacks of female disempowerment, and the idea that women, as they age, might be worth less on any scale -let alone one so central to our lives as the ability to attract and retain a mate- is profoundly disempowering.

Which doesn't, unfortunately, make it false.

Most of the anger directed at Gottlieb centered on her (arguably, though not necessarily, cogent) understanding of marriage as a market and on her articulation of women's worth therein. Gottlieb, a 41-year-old single mother, describes unsparingly her decline in "datability," starting with a decrease in real-world prospects, and moving on to matchmakers who are unable to find candidates who will accept a woman in her age bracket, and a demoralizing speed dating event in which all the men looking to meet women over 40 are 76, apoplectic, or dead.

I exaggerate. Gottlieb probably does too, but her anguish seems real: She always meant to get married and start a family, and now, on the far side of 40, she is trying to make sense of why her life didn't go as planned.

And here we get to the real meat of Gottlieb's thesis, a point largely lost, to my mind, in the media frenzy. Simply: we set our expectations too high. Gottlieb's indictment falls heavier on women than men, but she doesn't spare the male sex. We've been socialized, she argues, to believe that good relationships are easy relationships, that without "butterflies" something is missing, that we deserve to have all our needs, big and small, met. Never mind that we might not be up for catering to someone else's smallest desires, or that we ourselves might be neurotic, complicated, or just plain imperfect. We want the best. We deserve the best.

Entitlement. In Gottleib's vision, that's the canker at the root of what's wrong with dating in America. And I do believe Gottlieb has this nailed. We are entitled! I am entitled! We all, every last one of us, deserves fulfilling careers, exciting marriages, rich family lives, because our mothers told us we deserved them, and, moreover, sacrificed so we could have them.

No one likes to part with her entitlements, and Gottlieb's prescription, paring down our expectations and hence our standards, is a tough sell. It's the rational approach, but Gottlieb -and here, in my view, she stumbles- embraces rationality only halfway. She's ready to accept, after speaking with experts such as behavioral economist Dan Ariely, that humans do not always know what is good for them, that our"gut feelings" are frequently off. Yet, Gottlieb never interrogates something else her gut is telling her: that she, and we, will be happier married and with a family.

Yes, Gottlieb craves domestic life. But after spending a whole book explaining that we do not always know what we really want, for Gottlieb to glibly accept the superiority of domestic life seems strange. It's true that there is research to the effect that married folks are happier than singles. But there's also research suggesting that people with children are significantly less happy than people without, and Gottlieb never breathes a word about childlessness.

(And who set happiness as the goal anyway? I, personally, prefer placid contentment, but I respect the rights of those who enjoy a merry-go-round of sturm und drang!)

And finally there's this: Gottlieb argues that acceptance -of our mates' flaws, of the state of our unions- is the key to contentment. Surely, then, if follows that acceptance of one's own marital status is an equally essential ingredient of happy juice? Why, then, isn't Gottlieb working harder at accepting her singlehood? Why all the speed dating and matchmaking and book writing?

Still, for all its flaws, Marry Him -in the narrowest of ways- speaks Truth to Power. And heck, that's always entertaining.

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