Sunday, March 16, 2008

Marry Him!

I just finished reading “Marry Him!” by Lori Gottlieb in this month’s Atlantic. (via Erika and Amber) I’m all sorts of torn, which is good because it means I’m getting closer to my ideal of living realistically in a grey world rather than seeing everything in black and white. But it’s unsatisfying. I would like to be able to shout, “No! She’s wrong! True love and partnership are out there for me!” or “Yes! Finally! Someone who speaks about the real world and not the movies!” But I can’t. Most of this has to do with how well she writes. She openly acknowledges that touting the benefits of “settling” for a partner rather than a lover is unpalatable, especially since it is advice she is giving to younger women (my age) from the perspective of missed opportunity since she no longer possesses the physical ability to attract men worth settling for anymore. But even in taking this stance, she admits the possibility that the sense of longing that would result from settling might have spoiled everything with any of those men. She describes a friend:
“At the time, she couldn’t imagine settling, but here’s the Catch-22: ‘If I’d settled at 39,’ she said, ‘I always would have had the fantasy that something better exists out there. Now I know better. Either way, I was screwed.’”

But her point is that raising a child without a tag-team partner is hard. And being lonely is hard. And facing the prospect of growing old alone is hard.
“[Women who complain about their husbands], 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.”

I don’t disagree with anything she’s said. I can see that in a few years my criteria could and probably should change. I should be willing to knock “chemistry” and “the ability to understand my spiritual desires” lower on the list of priorities so that they live underneath “caring” and “stable.” Most of my unwillingness to do that right now stems from already having married a man with whom I had no chemistry and being unwilling to go back to a Woody Allen life of bad sex and not enough of it. As my eggs get older, I might reconsider. It’s also possible that I will make the same decision Ms. Gottlieb did to have a baby on my own and just live with the consequences.

The biggest problem that I have with her essay is her implication that there were plenty of men that she dated in her 30s who she dumped when she shouldn’t have:
What I didn’t realize when I decided, in my 30s, to break up with boyfriends I might otherwise have ended up marrying, is that while settling seems like an enormous act of resignation when you’re looking at it from the vantage point of a single person, once you take the plunge and do it, you’ll probably be relatively content. 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.

Where are those men in my life? Of the five men I’ve been in a dating relationship with since my divorce, only one could qualify as being someone “I might otherwise have ended up marrying” if I hadn’t left him. I would probably have joined my life happily with the other 4 (and only one would have been a total mistake). Why didn’t I?

They didn’t want to. They were classic male commitment-phobes. Or to be more generous, they weren’t ready to settle for me yet. One felt like he needed to work out his own dysfunctions alone before offering himself up for partnership. One just didn’t feel a spark even though he loved spending time with me. Two were still working through the early stages of their own divorces and were unwilling to tie themselves to someone else so soon after being set free. In all cases, even amidst the pain and jealousy of re-creating my life without them at the center, I was thankful they hadn’t let me settle.

Hell, I was willing to work things out with my ex-husband, even after learning that he had lied to me about who he was on our first date and kept up that habit throughout our 7 years together, even after I learned about the other woman, even after I learned about the drugs. Only his own horror at having to face himself saved me from that fate.

I want a relationship. I want a father for my child. I want a companion to grow old with. I used to want this no matter what the cost.

But not anymore. Because what I really want is to feel like I haven’t wasted a minute of this life. That every minute mattered, even if it was mistake. I’m not into delayed gratification. If something doesn’t have inherent value, it’s not worth doing, regardless of the ultimate rewards. The best way to make God laugh is to tell her your plans. I’d rather listen to her as she tells me what to do next. The only way I know how to do this is to get quiet every once in awhile and ask. Usually, a thought bubbles up from somewhere around the base of my sternum and pops just behind my eyelids and I can see what next step will have inherent value. Often, it’s the opposite of what I wanted before and often it doesn’t make any sense. But she has yet to steer me wrong, although it would be misleading to say that what God wants for me doesn’t involves hard work or suffering. Sometimes it does, but it always leads to joy.

To this end, I want someone who thinks I’m the most important person in the world, without hesitation. I want someone to respect and be proud of, flaws and all. I want someone who is actually a partner, willing to sacrifice his own comfort for my needs. I want someone that will make me a better person through my own desire to sacrifice my comfort for his needs. I want someone who is vulnerable to me and with whom it is safe to share my deepest secrets. I want to feel passionate about someone in whom I arouse passion. This has inherent value. The rest is just logistics.

Spouses die. God help us, children die. In the cost-benefit analysis, how does settling pay off then?

Anything other than honest partnership will leave me feeling trapped. Like someone tied my left arm to my waist rather than offering a second set of hands to help finish my project.

Ms Gottlieb writes,
“I’ve been told that the reason so many women end up alone is that we have too many choices. I think it’s the opposite: we have no choice. If we could choose, we’d choose to be in a healthy marriage based on reciprocal passion and friendship. But the only choices on the table, it sometimes seems, are settle or risk being alone forever. That’s not a whole lot of choice.”

She’s right. It’s not a whole lot of choice. But I’m not willing to accept her premise just yet. I’m not sure she does either, despite a clear thesis and persuasive structure in her writing. One of her last sentences belies a willingness to accept that this desperation that has set in now that she’s older is simply the monkey-mind trying to deny her the happiness of spiritual contentment: "I also acknowledge the power of the grass-is-always-greener phenomenon, and allow for the possibility that my life alone is better (if far more difficult) than the life I would have in a comfortable but tepid marriage."

I respect Ms. Gottlieb’s willingness to live in mystery, not pinning down an absolute black or white on an issue. There are no choices that make life perfect and there is no way of knowing what life would have been like if we had made different choices. But we can make choices that spread the risk of hardship, investing time and energy into a network of partners, and working toward a spirituality of imperfection that helps us find joy in and add color to the mottled black, white and grey lives that are available to us.

1 comment:

Ali BG said...

I appreciate hearing some thoughtful commentary on this article--I've heard a lot of not-so-thoughtful commentary.

I think I'm on the other side of Ms. G's coin--a person who tried to settle and was saved from it (long story)--and then married a true life partner.

Ultimately, it seems to me that we each have a story with its own choices--leading to its own joyful moments and regrets. The advisability of this woman trying to write the story for other women seems sketchy at best...