Let me tell you about the women I know who are unmarried in their 30s and 40s. One’s a world-roving journalist and author of several books; one’s a partner at a law firm; two are acclaimed photographers; one’s an international culinary expert; one’s written five novels; one’s a professional musician; one’s a choreographer; two make prize-winning documentaries; others write plays and TV scripts. All of them are beautiful and sexy by agreed standards (fit, slender yet shapely, big eyes, symmetrical features). They’re not heartless careerists; they cook, dance, decorate, entertain, and dote on their boyfriends (when they have them). They’ve loved and lost in the past, yet still hope, one day, to love and win. If that day never comes, they’d rather be alone than ill-matched. Their achievements, (which include, for some, single parenthood by choice) are the result of abilities, motivations and ambitions so central to their self-definition that suppressing them would have been a form of suicide.
What of the misery of the sad, pathetic, partnered woman, stuck at home with a somnolent spouse or boyfriend who sits around watching TV and eating Chunky soup and won’t let her play her Netflix?
Now let’s add to this mix another remarkable single woman (and single mom): the journalist, author, and NPR commentator Lori Gottlieb, 42, whose new book, which comes out February 4, is being made into a movie by Tobey Maguire. This book, Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough, grew out of a provocative essay Gottlieb published in 2008 in The Atlantic, in which she wrote about how tough she has found it to raise a child on her own (something 10.4 million American women already knew, as of the last census), and how fervently she wishes that, back in her 20s or 30s, she’d married one of the unexciting “scab-eating mouth breathers” (to quote Sue Sylvester from Glee, not Lori Gottlieb) whom she thinks she could have nabbed, rather than squander her most nubile years on non-marriage-minded time wasters. Even so, she admits that, in her late 30s, when a married friend urged her to date nice men who were “older, overweight, and bald,” she thought her friend was “kidding” and couldn’t bring herself to heel. But half a decade on, furnished with a toddler (via donor sperm) and a U-Haul of regret, she wishes she and others like her had taken her pragmatic friend’s advice and made finding a “solid, like-minded teammate in life” job-one from the outset. She writes, “I wish I’d entertained the possibility when the possibility still existed.”
But did—and does—that possibility truly exist: that is, of ensuring your happiness by contracting yourself to an accommodating chump you don’t desire? (Gottlieb waxes this drab compromise to high luster, calling it “taking the best available option and appreciating it.”) Is it true that willing, if non-luscious, bachelors can be plucked like so much low-hanging fruit? If Gottlieb and thousands of singletons in her demographic had gritted their teeth and partnered off with “older, overweight, and bald” suitors, would they all be married by now, as if in a mass ceremony of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, but under the banner of cynical resignation, not the Unification Church? A woman doesn’t always find it easy to persevere in a tepid affair once it’s actual, not notional. And a man doesn’t have to be handsome to bolt—or to take umbrage at the suspicion that he’s being “settled” for. Perhaps in the future, in an over-perfected, suspense-less, Gattaca universe, men will come with LED displays on their foreheads that read: “I mean business” or “I’m deliberately wasting your time,” or, “Actually, I’m gay,” or “I’ll marry you, but we’ll loathe each other and I’ll leave you for a 20-year old when you’re 37.” Until that day comes, one wonders how Gottlieb can be so emphatic in her pronouncements, so blistering in her blame of single women for being entitled and picky in their 20s, and “desperate but picky” thereafter.
The way she sees it, as she explains in a chapter called, “How Feminism Fucked Up My Love Life,” a generation of women (or should I say ‘girls’?) who ought to have been taught—like their great-grandmothers and like women in Taliban-era Afghanistan—to be demure in deportment and modest in aspiration, were tricked by the women’s movement into “ego-tripping themselves out of romantic connection.” That’s right girls: If you’re unwillingly unwed, blame it on mom and Title IX for duping you into educating, respecting and supporting yourselves. She intends this book, she writes, as a blood-chilling cautionary tale, “like those graphic anti-drunk driving public service announcements that show people crashing into poles and getting killed.”
To drive home her message, Gottlieb consulted matchmakers and courtship “experts,” psychologists, online dating gurus, and scores of ordinary men and women of multiple generations. She also tested her theories (with depressing results) by speed-dating men in her age group (they turned out to be a generation older) and by trying to date a short, widowed, bald guy with a kid (he moved and the affair ended). Certainly, a woman would have to be a masochist to want to repeat the grisly “accident” of Gottlieb’s dating life; and the rank desperation she brings to the dating game robs it of any whiff of fun. One can see why she wants out. But not everyone does: Courtship is a massively multiplayer game whose rules shake down differently for each player.
There is such a thing as luck. Many unpartnered women who grew up in Gottlieb’s era dated successfully for ages, but the relationships didn’t work out; others married and got divorced. Gottlieb moans about the misery of the sad, pathetic single woman, stuck at home with Netflix. But what of the misery of the sad, pathetic, partnered woman, stuck at home with a somnolent spouse or boyfriend who sits around watching TV and eating Chunky soup and won’t let her play her Netflix? What of the un-sad, un-pathetic single women who go to concerts, plays, films and parties, carouse with friends, date, travel, work out, dance, take classes, produce valuable work, and, generally, live life as if they were not coma patients? This is not to say that Gottlieb isn’t correct to assert that some single women are lonely (just as some single men are). This is merely to point out that a human being bears a certain amount of responsibility for his or her own entertainment; and that having a partner is no guarantee of a roaring good time or of a rich emotional life.
Her subject is of clear interest. It’s true, as she writes, that “the number of single women is rising in every age category.” What’s at issue isn’t her facts, but the conclusions she draws from them, and the mood of misogynistic hysteria that colors them. She’s turned her own self-pity and self-loathing outward—picture a tank-sized Roomba, with machine gun turrets around its perimeter, zooming around strafing anything with two X chromosomes. Gottlieb is right that a niche generation, born in the '60s and '70s, find themselves in an unprecedented position. A vanguard of women in this cohort–not the majority, but a sizable flank—went about their lives the way ambitious men traditionally have. They pursued their dreams, sowed their oats, established their careers, then began to think about settling down—not settling.
Latterly, some of these women have discovered that the end game of this strategy is not working terribly well for them. A man who begins thinking seriously about starting a family after the age of 35 is in luck, a woman... not so much. Do the women Gottlieb scolds (including herself) bear sole responsibility for their outcast state? Maybe some do. But a lot of these women were pathbreakers whose ideals outpaced reality. Some of them may still find the man of their dreams, or the schlub of Gottlieb’s; but if they don’t, are they to be reviled? Is a gold ring a fair trade for 20 years of exhilarating post-collegiate freedom, adventure and growth? Has Gottlieb never heard of an unhappy marriage? The advances produced by four decades of unhindered female derring-do are more worth cheering than the stifled, thwarted, mind-numbing security (which was always dependent on male favor) that Betty Friedan deplored in 1963 in The Feminine Mystique, and which Betty Draper lately has bedewed with retrogressive allure on Mad Men.
Still it’s worth keeping in mind that a vast number of American women in their 30s and 40s today have found a mate. An example that comes to mind is the journalist Mika Brzezinski, who is Gottlieb’s age but is married and has two children. In her memoir, All Things at Once (which I reviewed elsewhere), she writes that when she graduated from college in 1989, she knew that marriage and family were at least as important to her as career. She met her future husband in 1990, when she was 23, and after their third date, told him that “he should never call me again if he wasn’t interested in the concept of getting married.” She felt surer, earlier in life than many in her demographic, that the marriage stakes were high enough to merit risking all. Also, she’d met someone she was sure she wanted who was amenable to a march down the aisle. Hats off to her and to other prescient women like her who identified what they wanted and got it; but hold your brickbats for the women who are still waiting for another roll of the dice. It’s not sporting to bet against them, and not every woman—not 20 years ago and not today—feels like holding a groom to her head while making her major life decisions.
There’s such a thing as luck, and there’s such a thing as love. Sometimes the two forces combine, sometimes, they don’t. If luck and love had combined for Gottlieb, today she might be a housewife in Teaneck with an SUV of her own, two kids and a mortgage, and she would not have had the need or the time to have built her fabulous career, or to have written this whining, corrosive, capricious book. Now there’s a happy ending. But for anyone who dares order millions of people she doesn’t know to sell out their dreams, regret their accomplishments, fear their futures and “Marry him,” whoever he is, I have two words: You first.
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Liesl Schillinger is a New York-based writer and literary critic whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, New York magazine, The Washington Post, the New Republic, The London Independent on Sunday, and other publications here and abroad.