Questions for Lori Gottlieb, author of MARRY HIM: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough

What led you to write this book?

Well, it came about in kind of an unusual way. I work as a journalist, and one night I was having dinner with an editor to talk about article ideas. A few years earlier, I’d written about my decision to have a baby on my own in my thirties while holding out for Mr. Right. But that night, after complaining about another dismal date I’d just gone on, I said that if I’d known ten years ago what I knew now about what would be important in my life, I would have made very different choices with men.

This editor was surprised I felt that way, and he wondered why so many women of our generation were finding themselves in exactly my position – falling through the marital cracks. What was going on that so many of us were still single in our late 30s and early 40s? Did we have unrealistic expectations? Inflated egos? How did the culture play into this? What led to this societal and demographic shift? We were still talking about it even after the check came, and finally he said, “You should write about this.”

So I did, in an article for the Atlantic. But it’s one thing for me to say, “I should have had more realistic expectations” and another to know exactly what that meant out in the dating trenches. After the article was published, a woman in her late twenties sent me an email that said, “I’m not looking for the perfect ‘10’ in a mate, an ‘8’ would be great. In fact, I’m dating an ‘8’ right now. But what if I want a different ‘8’?”

That’s exactly what my book tries to answer. It’s not just about being happy with any ‘8.’ It’s about figuring out which ‘8’ is right for you. How do you know if you’re being too picky or if you’re just not right for each other? What does healthy compromise look like? How “good” should Mr. Good Enough be? What’s going to be important ten years down the line in your relationship, and what’s not? Have we been making choices based societal messages that do us a disservice and run counter to what we really want? If so, what kinds of choices should we be making to get what we want?

Were you surprised by the huge reaction to the Atlantic article – both positive and negative?

Oh, definitely. I mean, I thought I was simply laying out the facts: That a woman at 30 is more appealing and has a more appealing dating pool to choose from than that same woman has five or ten years later; that all things being equal, most 40-year-old men would rather date a 30-year-old than a 40-year-old; and that the majority of women in this country want to get married and have kids by the time they’re 40. Is that so controversial?

But here’s what happens. Many women in their twenties or early thirties are either breaking up with really good guys, or refusing to even go on a first date with a really good guy, because there’s not instant “chemistry” or because the guy is kind (but not a mind-reader), successful (but not wealthy enough), cute (but balding), and funny (but not Jon Stewart), and they think there’s someone better out there. So they pass up the ‘8’ in order to hold out for the ‘10’ – and then suddenly they’re 38 or 40 and now they can only get a ‘5.’ The ‘8’ would have been the catch. Most of us would be very happy married to the ‘8.’ But we don’t realize this at the time. This whole business of “having it all” is a problem because guess what, most of us aren’t ‘10s’ either. Some guy is going to have to put up with our flaws and give up certain things he may want in a partner, too. Maybe he wanted someone taller, or someone with a better sense of humor or someone less sensitive. We tend to forget about that because our female friends are always telling us how fabulous we are, and soon we think we’re so fabulous that we always find a reason that this guy or that guy isn’t good enough for us.

Someone posted on a message board that they thought the article enraged people because it was so true. That might be. But I also think the truth is powerful. By acknowledging these truths, you can adjust your behavior so you’re not always sitting there wondering why you can’t find Mr. Right. If you’re like many single women today, you’ve probably been passing up a lot of Mr. Rights along the way because of these unrealistic expectations.

You say this is a book with a hopeful message. How so?

It is hopeful! Especially if you’re younger. I think that if I’d really taken an honest look at myself and at what was going to be important in a partner for the long-term, I would have fallen in love with a great guy and been happily married by now. I missed a lot of romantic opportunities because I was chasing after the wrong things. I didn’t realize that you could absolutely have zing and passion with certain kinds of people who might not make a strong impression from the get-go. When I met someone, either he fit my image of The One or it was game over before we even had a chance to get to know each other. Meanwhile, I spoke to many women who said they weren’t ga-ga when they met their spouses – or even when they married them! – but now they’re very much in love with their husbands, they have that passion, and they’re extremely happy with the way their lives have turned out.

So I’m not saying settle for the first guy who proposes. I’m saying, consider your real requirements. I’m asking us to look at ourselves and our belief systems around what it really means to be in love. Our culture has a distorted view of what marriage is supposed to be about, and it affects the way many of us date and pick life partners. The divorce rate isn’t high because people are settling and then feeling dissatisfied. It’s high because people are confusing romance with love and it isn’t until later that they realize they aren’t compatible with their spouses when it comes to the business of making a marriage work. And it is a business. “All you need is love” is nothing more than a nice song lyric. You need a lot of things to have a fulfilling marriage – love is just one aspect of it.

I think it’s very reassuring to know it’s not that there are no good men out there. There are plenty of really good men, and by broadening your perspective and looking for the important qualities, you’ll be able to find the one who’s right for you. That, to me, is hopeful.

MARRY HIM is a very personal journey, but you also spoke to a number of experts in various fields as part of your journalistic exploration. How do they figure into the narrative?

Well, first and foremost, I wanted to be very clear that I’m no expert – I’m just a single woman who happens to be a journalist and who goes out there looking for some answers. And once I started talking to people – marital researchers, matchmakers, divorce attorneys – it became clear that anything having to do with love and marriage touches on a number of areas: sociology, psychology, economics, neurobiology, religion, culture, feminism, demography. It’s complicated. So I spoke to a number of different kinds of experts while researching this book.

Many scientists corroborated the things I’d observed and experienced in the dating world, but others completely surprised me with their data! Of course, there’s research and there’s the real world, so I also felt it was important to put what I’d learned into practice in my own dating life. And to look at these issues on a larger scale, I included the thoughts and experiences of women and men of various ages and backgrounds. I was especially careful to include the male perspective, because we aren’t dating in a vacuum. How we women behave influences the way men make dating choices, too.

Are women really pickier than men?

Statistically, yes. And according to the couple therapists and marital researchers I spoke to, that seemed to be their opinion as well. The examples they gave were very telling. I also found that myself, when I spoke to men and women about what they wanted in a partner. Men mostly talked about finding someone cute, kind, warm and interesting to talk to. Women got very specific – he has to be tall, but not too tall. He has to be successful but not a workaholic. He has to know how to order wine in a restaurant. He has to be stylish but not too into fashion in a feminine way. And the lists went on and on.

One married guy who said that he loves his wife, but she’s not “everything” he wanted, observed that women often want “one-stop shopping” – a guy who is going to be her best friend, share all of her interests, stimulate her intellectually and sexually and connect deeply with her on every level. Men, he said, accept that they may get certain things from their friendships, others from their work colleagues, and others from their spouses. Guys don’t care if you don’t want to hear about the baseball game but women are deeply disappointed if the guy doesn’t want to hear the details of her book club discussion. It gets to a point where no guy measures up, because no human being can be everything to anyone. It’s an unattainable fantasy.

Is this related to the sense of entitlement you talk about?

Absolutely. Not only do many women have unrealistic expectations, but they also don’t see themselves clearly. They have an inflated view of themselves. This whole culture of “empowerment” and “girl power” and “I’m so fabulous” has gotten to the point where women are ego-ing themselves out of relationship after relationship. In reality, most of us are pretty ordinary – and a lot of women have trouble seeing that. As a result, nobody’s good enough. Every guy is dismissed on a technicality; or a regular, normal, decent guy is considered “boring.”

There’s nothing wrong with having high expectations. But there’s a difference between having high expectations and having a completely unrealistic sense of what you can offer a partner and what he can offer you.

So are we supposed to give up the idea of a soul mate?

I think David Wolpe, a very wise rabbi I spoke to, put it best. He said that the notion of a single soul mate is lovely, but it’s not reality. In reality, he said, there are many potential soul mates – it’s just that your soul develops differently with different people.

Is that why you looked at arranged marriages in MARRY HIM?

Obviously, I’m not saying women should call up Mom and Dad and tell them to send over a spouse next Tuesday. But I did find it interesting that when I spoke with Jayamala Madathil, a researcher at Sonoma State University in California and an expert on arranged marriages, she told me that when she compared satisfaction in arranged marriages and marriages of choice – both in the United States – she found that the people in arranged marriages were just as satisfied, if not more so, than those in marriages of choice.

What people forget is that dating has very little to do with the day-to-day life of a marriage. You kind of have to peel the onion of someone’s personality and get to know them. In arranged marriage, you get married and then you fall in love. In dating, it’s the opposite: you fall in love and then you get married.

But the interesting thing is, people I spoke to in both arranged marriages and choice marriages all agreed that real love happens over time. You may think you’re in love when you say, “I do,” but deep and meaningful love comes from the banal day-to-day togetherness as you go through the joys and challenges of life together. It’s about having a shared history and shared goals and what you hope for out of life, not whether you both love sushi and watch The Daily Show and like to rollerblade or go to the beach.

There’s also a very practical component to marriage, but people find talking about that to be antithetical to our notion of what “real” love is. They like to think about marriage as some kind of divine union without considering that it’s more like a contented partnership formed to run a very small, mundane nonprofit business. And while that may not sound super exciting, that aspect of it can actually be really, really nice. You have to be compatible with your partner on a practical level as well. Arranged marriages account for that. Many women in choice marriages go the altar not having fully considered the practical aspects.

But you still have to have a spark, right?

Yes, but a lot of us feel sparks for some unhealthy reasons, and others of us don’t recognize the potential for a spark because we have such a fixed idea of who Mr. Right should be.

It’s not that we should stop looking for Mr. Right – it’s about changing our perception of who Mr. Right is. Dr. Michael Broder, a couples therapist I interviewed, said he tells women all the time that you can’t just order up a husband a la carte – I’ll take a little of this, a little of that, less of this and more of that. A guy is a package deal, as are you. Many women throw out the guy because they don’t like a part of the package, even though it’s a pretty appealing package. We’re all flawed human beings. Recognizing that isn’t settling. The more we accept this, the more choices we’ll have and the happier we’ll be.

Did writing this book get you any closer to finding your Mr. Good Enough?

Well, you’ll have to read the book to find out. But let’s put it this way: There’s a reason there’s a short, bald guy wearing a bowtie on the cover!
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