Settling

Fillyjonk at Shapely Prose mentioned a somewhat horrifying article at the Atlantic arguing that women should “settle” for marrying someone they don’t necessarily love now (in their 20s) rather than waiting until they’re 35 and desperate to marry someone – anyone – in a quest to avoid spending the rest of their life alone. Pandragon has already done a good job tearing it apart, but I’d like to add a few thoughts of my own. The article itself is 4 pages long, so for those who’d like to save their sanity for more important things, I’ll just pick some choice parts.

To the outside world, of course, we still call ourselves feminists and insist—vehemently, even—that we’re independent and self-sufficient and don’t believe in any of that damsel-in-distress stuff, but in reality, we aren’t fish who can do without a bicycle, we’re women who want a traditional family.

Since when has being a independent, self-sufficient feminist who doesn’t need to be rescued from any sort of “distress” had anything to do with whether or not you want a “traditional” family? I don’t see any conflict there – unless “traditional” means a situation where marriage rescues a woman from the “distress” of having to be independent and self-sufficient. But that’s not the same as just wanting to be married and have children.

one of the most complicated, painful, and pervasive dilemmas many single women are forced to grapple with nowadays: Is it better to be alone, or to settle?

Let’s first ask the question of why this dilemma is “complicated” and “painful”. Is it really because all women at heart really think that marriage is the most important thing in their life? Or is it because the society we live in makes it really damn hard to be single at any age? The message that women learn from a very early age is that if we don’t have a man we can point to as proof that someone loves us, we are in fact not lovable, and what’s more, it’s our own fault for not being pretty/thin/funny/smart/sexy enough. Or, in this case, that we just aren’t willing to settle. If we would just set our standards a bit lower, then we would be lovable – and we’d have the man to prove it.

My advice is this: Settle! That’s right. Don’t worry about passion or intense connection. Don’t nix a guy based on his annoying habit of yelling “Bravo!” in movie theaters. Overlook his halitosis or abysmal sense of aesthetics.

If objection to these minor sorts of things is really the reason most single 35-year-old women ended up that way, then Ms. Gottlieb’s point would seem quite reasonable: accept that men are human beings with flaws like everyone else, and don’t expect that the man you marry will be perfect. Maybe it is – I’m neither 35 nor single, so I can’t really say. But I somewhat doubt that that’s the case.

Either way, that’s not the point she’s making. Her message is quite clear: if you want a family at any point in your life, settle for the first guy that comes along that you think you could stand to be with, or else you risk being old and alone once the dating pool dries up.

It sounds obvious now, but I didn’t fully appreciate back then that what makes for a good marriage isn’t necessarily what makes for a good romantic relationship. Once you’re married, it’s not about whom you want to go on vacation with; it’s about whom you want to run a household with. Marriage isn’t a passion-fest; it’s more like a partnership formed to run a very small, mundane, and often boring nonprofit business.

This is another point that sounds good out of context. I even agree, to some extent: if you’re considering marrying someone, you should think about whether you want to run a household with them. But that doesn’t mean you can’t take into account whether you would want to take a vacation with them too. Marriage involves physical and emotional attraction, not just friendship. Marriage is not just about providing a structure to raise children (if it were, could childless couples ever really be married?). To say otherwise is to devalue the importance of marriage.

They, like me, would rather feel alone in a marriage than actually be alone, because they, like me, realize that marriage ultimately isn’t about cosmic connection—it’s about how having a teammate, even if he’s not the love of your life, is better than not having one at all.

Here is false dichotomy upon which this entire article is based: the idea that a woman’s choices are 1) be married, or 2) be completely and utterly alone. This, of course, is false – most single women have friends and/or family who can provide them with some of the help and support they need. On the other hand, many women who “feel alone in a marriage” may not have this support. A woman whose husband abuses her, for example, may have been coerced into cutting herself off from her support networks – a common tactic of abusers.

when I think about marriage nowadays, my role models are 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. … So what if Will and Grace weren’t having sex with each other? How many long- married couples are having much sex anyway?

“I just want someone who’s willing to be in the trenches with me,” my single friend Jennifer told me, “and I never thought of marriage that way before.” Two of Jennifer’s friends married men who Jennifer believes aren’t even straight, and while Jennifer wouldn’t have made that choice a few years back, she wonders whether she might be capable of it in the future.

I’ll confess, I’ve never seen an episode of Will and Grace, so I can’t comment on the show itself, except to state the obvious “Television doesn’t equal reality!” But the implication here is disturbing: it’s okay if you marry a gay man, so long as you’re married to someone! Never mind whether that man would be happy married to a woman. Never mind whether, if the men Jennifer’s friends married are in fact gay, the friends knew about it at the time. The only thing that matters is whether or not the woman is married.

All marriages, of course, involve compromise, but where’s the cutoff? Where’s the line between compromising and settling, and at what age does that line seem to fade away? Choosing to spend your life with a guy who doesn’t delight in the small things in life might be considered settling at 30, but not at 35. By 40, if you get a cold shiver down your spine at the thought of embracing a certain guy, but you enjoy his company more than anyone else’s, is that settling or making an adult compromise?

Apparently, if you’re single at 40, anyone who you can stand to be with is an acceptable husband, if he’s the best option you have at the time.

A thought: If you get a “cold shiver” in relation to anyone, at any time, run the other direction! Your body is trying to tell you that this person is potentially harmful to you, and you ignore it at your peril. I’ve been in this situation, where the guy whose company I enjoyed “more than anybody else’s” asked if I wanted to start dating him, and I couldn’t imagine touching him at all. Luckily, it only took me a few months of steadily increasing emotional abuse to get out of that situation. Many women are not so fortunate, especially if they place a high level of importance on being (and staying) married.

It’s like musical chairs—when do you take a seat, any seat, just so you’re not left standing alone?

The problem with this mentality is that in musical chairs, there’s fewer chairs than people, so someone is guaranteed to be left standing. In dating, there’s (more or less) one man for every woman of equal age, at least until the gender difference in life expectancy kicks in.

I realize that if I don’t want to be alone for the rest of my life, I’m at the age where I’ll likely need to settle for someone who is settling for me. What I and many women who hold out for true love forget is that we won’t always have the same appeal that we may have had in our 20s and early 30s. Having turned 40, I now have wrinkles, bags under my eyes, and hair in places I didn’t know hair could grow on women. With my nonworking life consumed by thoughts of potty training and playdates, I’ve become a far less interesting person than the one who went on hiking adventures and performed at comedy clubs. …. And even if some men do find us engaging, and they’re ready to have a family, they’ll likely decide to marry someone younger with whom they can have their own biological children.

Did you hear that, younger women? If you look old or don’t live an “interesting” life, you don’t have the same appeal to a man. No man could possibly love someone who is old and boring – and of course, infertile (because fertility ends at 35!) If someone is interested in you, be grateful that they’ve decided you’re “good enough”, and show your gratitude by deciding they’re “good enough” too.

authors often resort to flattery, telling the reader to remember how fabulous, attractive, charming, and intelligent she is, in the hopes that she’ll project a more confident vibe on dates. In my case, though, the flattery backfired. I read these books thinking, Wait, if I’m such a great catch, why should I settle for anyone less than my equal? If I’m so fabulous, don’t I deserve true romantic connection?

Why, indeed?

these single-mom books fail to mention that once you have a baby alone, not only do you age about 10 years in the first 10 months, but if you don’t have time to shower, eat, urinate in a timely manner, or even leave the house except for work, where you spend every waking moment that your child is at day care, there’s very little chance that a man—much less The One—is going to knock on your door and join that party.

But it’s okay to trick a man into coming to “that party” by roping him into a marriage while you’re still young, slim, and carefree? When half of all marriages end in divorce, this argument just doesn’t hold water. If a man can’t accept what it means to have children, he’s not going to be a good partner in childrearing – whether you married him before the kids came or not.

“By the time she turns 37,” Chris said confidently, “she’ll come back. And I’ll bet she’ll marry me then. I know she wants to have kids.” I asked Chris why he would want to be with a woman who wasn’t in love with him. Wouldn’t he be settling, too, by marrying someone who would be using him to have a family? Chris didn’t see it that way at all. “She’ll be settling,” Chris said cheerfully. “But not me. I get to marry the woman of my dreams. That’s not settling. That’s the fantasy.”

That’s the fantasy, all right – the patriarchal fantasy, where a man gets the woman of his dreams whether she wants it or not.

Sorry, Ms. Gottlieb, but I’m not going to settle for that.

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1 Comment »

  1. […] thoughtful discussion of divorce which emphasizes marriage as a serious decision. (Instead of just something you should do because it’s better than the alternative!) Again, I don’t agree with all of this, […]

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