It's another Valentine's Day, and oh, how I wish I were spending it with a husband. Not an Adonis with the humor of Jon Stewart and the bank account of Bill Gates; just a good-enough guy.
This might sound innocuous — a single woman wishes she were married — but apparently, it makes me a throwback to the '50s, pathetic, desperate, needy, immature, creepy, weak, Ann Coulter meets the Devil and a few other phrases I can't print in a family newspaper. I know, because I've made this confession before.
A couple of years ago, I wrote an essay for the Atlantic titled "Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough". I wrote that having found myself still single at 40, with a donor-conceived toddler, I'd reached an uncomfortable realization: Had I known when I was younger what would make me happy when it came to marriage and family, I would have made very different choices in my dating life.
All hyperbole aside, my main message was simple and serious: Look for the important qualities in a partner, and let go of the stuff that won't matter five, 10 or 20 years down the line, when you're more concerned about child care and contented companionship than you are about height or hairlines.
Some readers got tripped up by the word "settle," which I wasn't using literally, but to make people really think about that concept. The majority of single women who responded to a survey I sent out said that getting 80 percent of what they wanted in a mate would be "settling." The majority of single men said finding a woman with 80 percent of what they wanted would be "a catch." For these women, it seemed, "settling" meant not much less than "everything."
It's no wonder, then, that while hundreds of married folks and single men backed me up with moving personal stories, many single women — mostly those in their 20s — went wild with rage and disdain for my confession: Mr. Good Enough was just fine; in fact, I'd happily take the 80 percent, if only it was as available to me as it had been when I was 30. Not because I'm desperate now that I'm older, but because I'm wiser. I realized I'd been too picky about the trivial things and not picky enough about the important ones.
Suddenly I was "ageist," "sexist" and "anti-feminist." All because I wasn't a fish who could do without a good-enough bicycle.
Now I've written a book on this theme, in which I interviewed dozens of scientists in fields from psychology to neurobiology to behavioral economics. This time, the experts have shared their data and insights on what makes for a happy marriage. But by merely reporting their findings, I'm still considered sexist, pathetic and all the rest.
I'll admit, just a few years earlier, I might have been one of the women bashing this Lori Gottlieb chick for saying the unthinkable. I, too, felt that women should "have it all" (whatever unrealistic ideal I took that to be) and that anyone who suggested otherwise was out of touch, offensive or just plain off her rocker. Compromise? No way. That would mean not being true to myself.
A lot of women my age and younger grew up thinking this way. They're operating under the logic that women today aren't just supposed to be strong and independent — we're also supposed to be happy about it.
We're supposed to focus on our own lives, and when a partner comes along, that's gravy, not the main course. We're supposed to have high standards, and if a guy doesn't meet them, we should be gloriously fulfilled on our own. We're "empowered"!
But at 40, I didn't feel so empowered. Instead, I had a sinking feeling that my standards might be a bit unrealistic. Besides, I wasn't happy alone. No matter how full my life (career and good friends; later, adding a delightful child), I ultimately wanted to go through it with a partner. But the mere fact that I said I craved a conventional family with a good-enough guy made me, in some people's minds, the kind of woman who wanted it too badly.
According to some readers, I was an affront to the entire women's movement (one actually wrote: "You are an affront to the entire women's movement! You should be ashamed of yourself!"). My in-box filled with vitriol, telling me that I was needy, co-dependent and tragic. Women wrote:
"Could you be any more desperate?"
"I am totally appalled by your need for a man."
"Get some self-esteem!"
Somehow, post-Jane Austen (a romantic who, incidentally, never found a partner), it became shameful for a woman to admit how lonely she was and how much she wanted to be married. What kind of educated, sophisticated modern woman with an active social life has time to be lonely?
I remember watching a group of young women on the Today show discussing my article and the fact that they'd rather be single than with Mr. Good Enough. Really? They'd rather be 40 years old and still going to bars looking for "the one" to walk through the door? One even said she'd rather be alone because you never know when you might find true love — maybe you'd find it in the nursing home. Is that empowerment — holding out for Mr. Senior Center Stud?
It's probably no accident that once women adopted this "I don't need a man" attitude, many were left without men. According to the Census Bureau, the percentage of never-married women ages 25 to 44 more than doubled between 1970 and 2006. In a 2007 Time magazine article titled "Who Needs a Husband?", a 32-year-old media producer explained that she ended a seven-year relationship with her investment banker boyfriend because although she "totally adored him," she felt life with him would be too limiting. Yet she "adored him" enough to stay with him for seven years.
In that same article, though, a 49-year-old single woman confided: "There was a point where I had men coming out of my ears. I don't think I was so nice to some of them. Every now and then I wonder if God is punishing me. Sometimes I look back and say, 'I wish I had made a different decision there.' "
Another woman proudly said she could easily get her sexual needs taken care of without marriage. So what? In a Time/CNN poll cited in the article, 4 percent of women said what they wanted most from marriage was sex, while 75 percent said it was companionship. Can she get that need easily taken care of outside of marriage — on a daily basis, with the same degree of intimacy, for the rest of her life?
One woman wrote, in response to my Atlantic essay, that before she married her Mr. Good Enough, "I never spoke about my loneliness as a successful architect with a life of travel, wonderful friends, and a beautiful home. It was my shameful dirty little secret. I know many women like me."
She agreed that women should give more men a chance and have more realistic outlooks because, she continued, "if I had made a list of what I wanted in a husband, I would not have had the wisdom, creativity and self-awareness to create a husband as wonderfully quirky and perfect for me as my husband is."
It's not that women like her feel incomplete without a partner. And of course, not all women are looking for a long-term monogamous relationship. But still, if no man is an island, most women aren't either. How lonely it was, before I had my son, to wake up in an empty house every morning, eat breakfast alone, read the paper alone, do the dishes alone.
How dispiriting it felt to move to a new place alone, to shop for groceries for only myself, to have nobody to talk to in those sleepy moments before bed except for girlfriends on the phone, chatting about — what else? — men.
Having a child in the house changes the specifics — I'm never alone and, in fact, I desperately crave some solitude. But my loneliness after having a child wasn't diminished; it was different and perhaps even compounded. It's both single-person loneliness and the loneliness of not sharing the little moments of my son's life with someone who cares about him as profoundly as I do.
But saying this aloud makes people uncomfortable. I got an e-mail from a never-married single mother like me who said that when she shared her loneliness on a single-mom listserv, people told her to stop feeling sorry for herself and to "get a life." One woman even suggested that if she was so unhappy being a single mother, she should put her child in foster care.
"I got flamed for saying I get lonely sometimes," this single mom told me. "But nobody flamed this other woman for telling me to put my kid in foster care!"
Is there really something wrong with our self-esteem or our values if we crave someone to share the actual and metaphorical driving with? We're so worried about not settling, but then we find ourselves unhappily unsettled — living in our single-person apartments, eating dinner in front of the TV and hoping to meet the right guy so we can settle down.
Ultimately, what most of us are looking for isn't the guy who keeps us so intoxicatingly distracted that we're tingling in anticipation of his every phone call. It's the guy we feel completely comfortable with, the guy who "gets us," hugs us at our parents' funerals, laughs with us, reminds us to go to the doctor, fixes the toilet, has our backs and eventually sets his dentures on the counter next to ours.
Do we need passion and physical attraction? Absolutely. But instead of chemistry of "9" and compatibility of "5," we'd be happier with chemistry and compatibility of "7." Good enough. Because nothing about good enough implies that you haven't found a true love — or, in fact, a much deeper kind of love.
I've never believed that we should stop looking for Mr. Right — but, like all the experts I spoke to, I think we'd be happier if we changed our perception of who he is. A guy is a package deal, as is any woman. Many women throw out the guy because they don't like a part of the deal, even if it's a pretty appealing deal overall.
Nor is it unromantic to acknowledge that if I'm lucky enough to find my Mr. Good Enough, I'll be his Ms. Good Enough. After all, he's chosen to spend his entire life with me, despite my many less-than-ideal qualities. Sure sounds like love. Recognizing that isn't settling. It's maturity. And if you figure that out at 30, you have a much better chance of finding your wonderfully imperfect mate than if it doesn't sink in until you're 40.
Am I lonely? Yes. Pathetic? No. Smarter about finding love? I think so. Now all I need is a date for Valentine's Day.
Lori Gottlieb is a frequent commentator for NPR. Her new book is Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough.