Two years ago, journalist Lori Gottlieb hit many raw nerves when she published her contentious article, "Marry Him! The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough" in The Atlantic; this week she will release a book with the same title. Women across the country have been weighing in with varying degrees of rage and agreement in what amounts to a discussion about women's role and purpose in modern society. Ms. Gottlieb argues that we're here to procreate -- in an unhappy union with a mismatched partner, if need be; below, Lesley M. M. Blume begs to differ.
This article was originally published on February 19, 2008.
It's been a long time since I wanted to jab my eyes out after reading an article, but Lori Gottlieb's creepy feature, "Marry Him! The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough" in March's Atlantic had me reaching for the closest pair of scissors.
"Every woman I know - no matter how successful and ambitious, how financially and emotionally secure - feels panic, occasionally coupled with desperation, if she hits thirty and finds herself unmarried," she says. "If you say that you're not worried, either you're in denial or you're lying."
She then offers herself up as a piteous example of someone who held out for too long, a fabulous yet overlooked woman who had to resort to artificial insemination once she realized that her saccharine notions of Mr. Right weren't going to develop into a tangible man.
Don't be like me, she says. Lure the closest man into your lair and once he's there, slap on the cuffs. Do it young, before the prospects run thin. So what if he's a serious depressive? Who cares if he's a recovering alcoholic? Don't be so picky.
"Overlook his halitosis or abysmal sense of aesthetics," she quips.
Sadly, this is not a feeble comedy routine, premised on the hackneyed portrayal of Woman as Man Trap. It's Gottlieb's universal plan for women to "have the infrastructure in place to have a family." In her view, all heterosexual women "really want a husband (and by extension, a child)." Our purpose on the planet is to breed, and if we deny this fact, we are "being disingenuous." Husbands are really just walking sperm banks. Marriage and love - or even marriage and compatibility - are mutually irrelevant entities.
And what a rosy picture of marriage she paints:
"[It] isn't a passion-fest," she says. "It's more like a partnership formed to run a very small, mundane, and often boring nonprofit business."
Oh, reader, don't get so upset. It won't be so bad. After all, you'll hardly ever see the guy! He's just the one who will "take out the trash and provide you with a second income that allows you to spend time with your child."
Oh, wait - you're already married? And you're actually in love with your husband? Boy, did you fuck up. According to Gottlieb, you're still destined for misery: "Those who marry with great expectations become more disillusioned with each passing year."
Frankly, I don't know why anyone should heed Gottlieb's glum advice about marriage, considering that she's never actually seen the institution from the inside and didn't even bother to consult one happily married woman - or man - throughout the seemingly endless piece. It's kind of like reading a version of The Devil Wears Prada written by a Vogue subscriber.
Yet it irritates me that such a prestigious publication made the decision to perpetuate the stereotype that the American woman is really just a brain stem attached to a ticking womb.
To test Gottlieb's hypothesis about the ubiquity of marital desperation, I asked a sampling of my contemporaries to read the article and get back to me with impressions. Most of them replied with repulsed ire.
"Wow, what a throw-back," said one. "Even Phyllis Schlafly married for love."
"How dare she speak for us?" said another, who then commented that Gottlieb lost a real opportunity to garner sympathy for the difficulties facing the single working mother.
And, most cruelly: "When you opt into a marriage of convenience solely because you want the material support, especially when you admit to being repulsed by the man -- that's low-grade prostitution legitimized by a marriage certificate."
However, another friend suggested that Gottlieb articulated what many women feel but don't dare admit, and called it "revolutionary."
I'm afraid that I don't see the revolution; I only see the regression. When Gottlieb calls for "settling," she's essentially calling for the return of the arranged marriage. Yes, Ye Olde Arranged Marriage in brand-new clothes, in which husbands and wives are commodities to be matched, bartered, traded.
Except the modern version, a la Gottlieb, is that women are now in charge of commoditizing and peddling themselves.
Now, that's progress.
It never ceases to astonish and dismay me how this generation of American women obsesses over the male psyche and strategizes its way into marriage. Especially when those who obsess over it the most seem to have the grimmest view of what marriage actually entails.
We are supposed to be pursuing happiness, not infrastructure.
When someone takes such a desiccated approach to human relations, it's not difficult to fathom why she has trouble with successful relationships. Hell, I had a difficult time gleaning why she wanted children in the first place. She made childrearing sound as dreadful as marriage, calling it a process that "ages you ten years in ten months."
Consider what Ms. Gottlieb's personal ad might look like:
SWF will condescend to tolerate a subpar, chores-oriented, largely-absentee man to participate in joyless marriage that will resemble a mundane non-profit. Interests include over-analyzing old Friends episodes (from which all insights into the workings of the human heart are derived) and exhausted abstinence ("because how many long-married couples are having much sex anyway?").
That's definitely going to have 'em lining up at the door.
The more I read, the more delusional, destructive, and self-centered the argument appeared. Delusional because no man in his right mind is going to buy into this sort of poisonous, alienated arrangement. Gottlieb repeatedly implores women to search out mediocre mates who would nevertheless make good "daddy material." The question: would men find such a reductive, calculating, and cynical person to be good "mommy material?"
It's additionally delusional because Gottlieb totally underestimates the emotional toll of being in a loveless (or "tepid," as she euphemistically describes it) marriage. As the unhappily-married Lottie says in The Enchanted April: "You'll get colder and colder, until at last you die of it. That's what it's like living with someone who doesn't love you."
The argument is destructive because it advises women to make themselves vulnerable to litigious divorces from "tepid," ill-conceived marriages down the line. Let's try to get that divorce rate above 50%, shall we? A further obvious note: divorce is incredibly expensive, not to mention harrowing for the children in whose name these dubious unions are manufactured.
And furthermore, her argument is unfair to the rest of us women who don't want to be reduced to Desperate Housewives-in-the-making. It shreds our credibility across the board: emotionally, professionally, and economically. Gottlieb has created yet another ugly division in a generation of women defined not by solidarity but by Mommy Wars and the Opt-Outs-vs-the-Opts-Ins. It's also selfish and presumptuous to impose this worldview on the next generation of daughters, teaching them by example that marriage is based not on emotional commitment but rather by sheerly "market-driven" forces.
Parents are supposed to want their children to aspire to the best. Would Gottlieb tell her own daughter - as she advises thousands of anonymous female readers -- that fulfillment and happiness are chimeras and therefore not worth pursuing? Instead of telling her, "Reach for the stars," would she say, "Just cut a deal?"
Would she advise her daughter to "sell [her] very soul for damaged goods," as she so nicely phrased it?
Gottlieb does not need a husband. She needs hired help.
And I only wish that she'd hired some before she wrote her latest article, and spared us a glimpse through the window into her dingy, myopic world.