marriage fears"Marc" wants me to marry him. Even though he has so much of what I'm looking for, I just wish he had the sense of humor and sexiness of the guy I broke up with before him. I'm feeling tempted to say yes but I can't help wondering if I'd be settling. Then again I will be turning 34 next week and I think it's starting to affect my thinking. I don't know what to do!"

A new book called Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough would suggest that this client "settle" for someone who satisfies her major needs but not her laundry list of wants. Author, Lori Gottleib, defines settling as freely choosing someone good enough to satisfy her revised criteria for what it takes to have a decent lifelong marriage - not a resignation to some unfulfilling fate. She also mourns the fact that she didn't do this in her 30s when her mate pickins were juicier. Gottleib has been attacked as "desperate", "ageist," "sexist", "anti-feminist" and lacking self-esteem by her critics1. They say she buys into stereotypic assumptions about married life equaling better life (as in PychologyToday blogger Bella DePaulo's blog post).  Consummately satisfied singles such as contributer, Liesl Shillinger quip: "There's no way I'd trade my singular life with my personal freedom, my wide circle of friends and my joyful independence to be tethered to Mr. Not Quite Right." 

The marriage-minded and satisfied singles are both correct! We shouldn't assume everyone wants or needs to be married, and we can certainly be mature and happy without a spouse. By the same token, there are lots of miserable married folks in the world.

Looking past stereotypes, Gottleib's basic premise is a sound one. A majority of people say they would rather be coupled up than single later in life and her book was written for and about them. She notes correctly that the qualities that make a good spouse and parent are different from the ones that just make us weak in the knees. Sharing finances, a home and raising a family are better served by attributes such as loyalty, emotional maturity, willingness to compromise and trustworthiness than a head full of hair or perfect tits. (See my last post - Is This The One? for more on the importance of emotional maturity and situational timing when determining if you've met "The One"). She also calls women out for feeling entitled to cream-of-the-crop partners while expecting men to overlook their own mixed bag of attributes that don't necessarily fit men's preferences.

Fair or not, most women have the juiciest array of partner choices when they are in their 20s since (1) many more women than men are willing to date people who are older than they are once they reach their 30s and 40s, (2) men still prioritize looks more than women do when choosing a spouse (3) women still prioritize financial status more than men do when choosing a spouse and (4) men are not restricted by a biological clock if they want kids. So the size and fit of the available partner pool peaks differently for men and women. It's not rocket science; it's simply free market behavior that creates more competition among woman for the most desirable mates as they get older.

Gottleib's epiphany that the average-looking guy who is rather short and losing his hair but is kind, stable and would make a good father and husband was partly spurred by the realization that the guys who are kind, stable, make good fathers and are also cute with hair haven't been choosing her. They're rare in any pool but the possibility of being chosen by those guys is less of a long shot when a woman in her 20s and childless. That's not settling; that's a rational adjustment on pickiness in a free-market dating economy.  It's also rational for men who have been rejecting fine potential mates while holding out for the perfect "10" to take a good look at themselves and who is choosing them - and amend their own lists.  

The problem I often see in my office is that a lot of people are ambivalent about remaining single or getting married because they want to have their cake and eat it too. They want to enjoy the perks of single life and have the benefits of partnering up and raising a family while avoiding the down sides of both.  There are some typical ways that people behave when they have contradictory values that both seem too important to give up. I'll talk more about that in my next post.  Stay tuned...

1. Lori Gottieb takes on the haters and looks for love on Valentine's Day.  Washington Post, Feb 7, 2010.

About the Author

Linda Young

Linda Young, Ph.D., is a psychologist and relationship coach whose work has appeared on or in CNN, NPR, The Oprah Magazine, and USA Today, among others.

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