I've made no secret of my feelings for Lori Gottlieb. Ever since my response to her "Settle for Him Girls" piece two years ago, I've strapped on the view that her Atlantic article-cum-book-cum-potential-chick flick is nothing more than the fallout of a woman unhappy with her life choices, who felt compelled to mold those crappy choices into a societal trend in order to find some peace. It's a classic case of Misery Loves Company -- only packaged into a self-help treatise and marketed to every (upper-middle-class, white, educated) unmarried woman over 28.
The Book Version of Gottlieb's soul-stomping "settle" doctrine hit bookstores earlier this month, to torrents of controversy. I'm hardly the only one brimming with distaste for this self-serving "dose of honesty" from a woman who talks about her past relationships with all the tenderness of a septic tank repairman. Plenty of other writers have taken her argument down with a hunting rifle, pointing out that the analysis is wrong, the "trend" of the unmarried 30-something isn't much of a trend, and the whole thing conveniently fails to take into account that individuals are (gasp!) responsible for their own happiness, married or no.
To be fair, the one male response I've seen to the book hailed it as a valuable purveyor of "tough love" for single women (though on that point I'll say: Why the hell would I read a "here's what you have to learn about getting married" manual written by a woman who's been too critical of every man she meets to ever get married?).
Yes, there are grains (specks) of truth in some of Gottlieb's analysis -- relationships and perfection have no place together, and long-term commitment is not about checking off boxes and creating some childish simulacrum of "The One" you formed while watching Disney movies. And the author has learned a thing or two about how to deal with backlash, such as by writing "Screw you, I'm not embarrassed for wanting a husband" screeds in the Washington Post.
But even now, she's missing the point -- yes, there are women out there criticizing her for wanting a husband. Yet such criticism is easily dismissed as irrelevant -- human beings seek companionship, male and female alike, and she is writing for a group of women who, by virtue of their reading this book, want to be in a relationship, whether or not it's politically correct. The real danger in Gottlieb's so-called "advice" is that it's a call to worship false idols -- it's a relationship guide completely about the "wants" and "needs" of a single individual who has, through her actions, utterly disqualified herself to show anyone else how to beget a loving and functional relationship.
Gottlieb is quick to blame feminism for her love woes -- it's a convenient scapegoat. But feminism didn't fuck up her love life -- she did that all on her own. It's true that feminism has capsized and flipped the old societal norms, household roles, and gender dynamics, all in less than a century. But while the reasons for getting married, and the socioeconomic position of women, have all been turned upside down, the elements that create a fun and loving relationship are still pretty much the same as they always were: respect, compassion, affection, loyalty, honesty. And familiarity - the acceptance of the fact that this person knows what you look like after a night of Knob Creek shots and blue-cheese-smothered breadsticks.
Which brings us to the gaping hole in the "Settle" doctrine (and since "settle" is the word Gottlieb allowed in the title, that is the word we're using - she can't rely on its controversy-stirring power and then disown its meaning): It's a doctrine built on a faulty premise. There is no "settling" in a happy relationship, specifically because the word implies marrying someone "worse" than you -- someone you find lacking. The assumption is that the readers of this book (aka white wealthy unmarried women) are unequivocally "better" than the men they are dating. And if you think the person you're marrying is inferior to you, then you either don't love him, or don't respect him, or both. Which means, in essence, that you're doomed from the start.
It can all be summed up thusly: Would you want to be with a guy who thinks he's settling for you?
This assumption of superiority comes with another assumption: Narcissism. Yes, it's a word thrown around like a Frisbee on a college campus, but here it has real meaning. Not once in her endless lovelorn musings does Gottlieb ask: What about what my potential partner wants? What about considering how I could work on myself, find my own peace and well-being, and as a by-product of that become a loving and attractive (and not in the physical sense) partner for someone else?
Amongst all the data, so-called "expert testimony," and clumsy agenda-driven analysis in the book, this point is never addressed. Instead, the conversation sticks to the confines of, "He's balding, he's divorced, he has issues with his mother, but you [I] must find a way to accept him anyway, because you [I] can't have everything even though that's what you [I] actually want."
Meanwhile, apparently we're to assume that the balding troglodytes Gottlieb uses as examples are so consumed with their own patheticness that they can only lie prostrate at her feet begging to be "settled" for. And while it's possible she's managed to find such spineless human beings to mate with, I doubt that tells the full story -- but then, if Gottlieb was capable of considering how other people, including the men in her life, actually feel, she wouldn't be writing a book about "settling" in the first place.
This post originally appeared on Opinionistas.com.
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