THE BLOG
02/17/2008 02:07 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

"Marry Him!": Atlantic Magazine Back-of-the-Book Backlash Porn

Lori Gottlieb, writing in the Atlantic magazine, has one word for single women of any age: Settle!

Settle, she exhorts us, even for the guy who smells bad or who gives you "a cold shiver down your spine at the thought of embracing" him. Settle for the man who has "a long history of major depression," is enthralled by terrorists, and is obnoxious to the wait staff. Settle for the guy so boring that you "preferred reading during dinner to sitting through another tedious conversation." Settle for "a widower who has three nightmarish kids and is still grieving for his dead wife."

HER OWN LITTLE WORLD

I'm a social scientist, and in the next section I'll show that Gottlieb is peddling myths about singlehood and marriage that do not pass scientific muster. I don't expect Gottlieb to be open to data, though. She's already gathered all of the evidence she believes she needs, from every 30-year old single woman that she knows. No matter how successful these women are, Gottlieb proclaims, they are all panicked about their unmarried state.

Now look at the line that comes next - the one that the Atlantic has turned into a printed shout-out:

"If you're a single 30-year old and you say you're not panicked about your marriage prospects, then you're in denial or you're lying."

Try telling a person who would say a thing like this that you feel differently. Gottlieb is creating her own reality.

She is also the mom telling all her kiddie readers that they must do as she says "because I said so!!!"

SCIENCE - THAT PESKY PROTESTER

Gottlieb buys into just about all of the myths about singles that I debunk in my book, Singled Out. She believes, for example, that singles are interested in just one thing - getting married. She warns that even if they have great jobs, their jobs won't love them back. She thinks that if single women wait too long, the available men will all be "damaged goods." Most of all, she seems to believe that single people are miserable and lonely, and that the cure for what ails them is to get married.

Science demurs. A study in which thousands of people have been followed for 18 years (and counting) shows that people who get married enjoy, at best, a brief and tiny bubble of happiness around the time of the wedding (a honeymoon effect); then they go back to being as happy or as unhappy as they were when they were single. Moreover, only those who marry and stay married experience the early blip in happiness; those who marry and then divorce are already becoming less happy, not more so, as the day of the wedding draws near. (See Chapter 2 of Singled Out.)

The words "lonely" or "alone" occur a dozen times in "Marry Him." Gottlieb seems to be channeling Bridget Jones's fear of ending up "dying alone and found three weeks later half-eaten by an Alsatian," only without the humor.

I've studied the scientific research on loneliness in later life (Chapter 11 of Singled Out). It shows that no group is LESS likely to be lonely in their senior years than women who have always been single.

Gottlieb also believes that mothers who settle, regret that they did, and then divorce, will still be better off financially than if they had never married. The science does not support that, either.

I will give Gottlieb this, though: Scientific findings are about averages. There are always exceptions. Perhaps if Gottlieb marries the rude, terrorist-enthralled depressive, she will indeed be happier than she is now. And maybe she will be wealthier, too, even if she eventually divorces him.

That's more than Gottlieb will grant me, or any other single woman. Recall her insistence that any report of single life that differs from her own is disingenuous.

Oh, and by the way, she's wrong, too, about the history of love and marriage. It is not true that the dream of women "from time immemorial was to fall in love, get married, and live happily ever after."

WHAT DOES LORI GOTTLIEB WANT?

After trudging through all of Gottlieb's admonishments to single women to settle even if it "involves selling your very soul," I was surprised to learn what she was fantasizing about finding upon entering the gates of marriage. For one thing, it wasn't sex.

Here are her "role models" for marriage: "the television characters Will and Grace, who, though Will was gay and his relationship with Grace was platonic, were one of the most romantic couples I can think of. What I long for in a marriage is that sense of having a partner in crime. Someone who knows your day-to-day trivia...So what if Will and Grace weren't having sex with each other?"

Gottlieb opened her piece by recalling a time when she and her son were picnicking with a close friend and her daughter. The two adults - single mothers both, whose children arrived by way of sperm donors rather than storks - looked longingly at other mothers who were there not just with their children but also with their husbands.

Here's how she explained the longing: "The couples my friend and I saw at the park that summer were enviable not because they seemed so in love [but] because the husbands played with the kids for 20 minutes so their wives could eat lunch."

THE TRAGEDY OF GOTTLIEB'S HUSBAND-FIXATION

I have to admit that there was one paragraph in Gottlieb's essay that I loved. It was a description of a typical single woman in her 30s:

"She has friends who have known her since childhood, friends who will know her more intimately and understand her more viscerally than any man she meets in midlife. Her tastes and sense of self are more solidly formed."

Tellingly, Gottlieb did not intend this description as a compliment. Instead, she was explaining why 30-something single women are so dense when it comes to realizing that they should settle.

I think it explains something very different. It is a great big hint as to why women who have always been single are so unlikely to be lonely in later life - they have close friendships that have outlasted many marriages.

Gottlieb's husband-fixation is tragic not just because she is trying to foist it on all other single women, but because it leaves her oblivious to, and unappreciative of, some of the most important relationships in life.

Wouldn't the person she calls a close friend, a fellow single mom who had her child in the same way that Gottlieb did, be willing to play with the kids for 20 minutes so Gottlieb could eat lunch? And considering the significant experiences that the two women shared, weren't they, in a way, partners who knew one another's day-to-day trivia?

In 2000, a pair of scholars reviewed 286 studies to find out what predicts feelings of well-being in later life. One answer? Spending time with friends. (See p. 205 of Singled Out.)

ATLANTIC MAGAZINE: THE GO-TO PLACE FOR BACK-OF-THE-BOOK BACKLASH PORN

I think what Lori Gottlieb is writing is Atlantic magazine back-of-the-book backlash porn. It is nakedly and proudly regressive - taunting and in-your-face. Egged on, perhaps, by all the sound and fury set off years ago by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead's piece, "Dan Quayle Was Right," the Atlantic now offers us the likes of Caitlin Flanagan and Lori Gottlieb.

It's a shtick. Consider Gottlieb's style as she scolds fully-grown single women:

"take a good look in the mirror and try to convince yourself that you're not worried, because you'll see how silly your face looks when you're being disingenuous."

Now compare it to this, from Caitlin Flanagan:

"If you want to make an upper-middle-class woman squeal in indignation, tell her she can't have something."

They're interchangeable.

UTTERLY CONVENTIONAL

I suspect that Flanagan, Gottlieb, and their ilk fashion themselves as shockingly unconventional. Look at me, they seem to be saying: I'm smart, I'm educated, and I alone am daring enough to say what those deluded feminists will not - that a woman's place is in the arms of her husband. Even if he stinks - literally.

In fact, though, their positions are profoundly conventional. Women have long been told, even by other educated women, and even now, that they belong with a man. The more progress women make, the more insistent the message becomes.

It takes an utterly unoriginal voice to pose the question, "Is it better to be alone or to settle?" and think that the universe of options has thereby been delineated. It is also kind of dopey to think that women who are single are alone.

MY ADVICE TO LORI GOTTLIEB AND THE ATLANTIC MAGAZINE

I have some advice of my own for the Atlantic. In the famous words of Jon Stewart, as he stuck a fork in CNN's Crossfire and declared it done:

"Stop, stop, stop, stop hurting America."