A somewhat defeatist cafe patron who often recounts to me his tales of woe as a 40 year old man trying to navigate the dicey waters of New York City dating recently mentioned the New York Times Book Review of “Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough,” by Lori Gottlieb. Together, he and I cringed at the review’s listing of the author’s impossible standards as she endeavored to find “The One,” the perfect man, the one with whom she would fall hopelessly and devastatingly in love the moment they met. Ms. Gottlieb, on her quest for lasting love and happiness, wanted someone who was “creative but not an artist,” someone “talented but humble,” someone not too short (must be taller than 5’10”) but not too tall (must be shorter than 6’0″). According to the review (I haven’t read the book, and most likely won’t), the book recounts the plight of many a picky urban, single woman and then encourages them/us to do what I would call “expand your horizons” and what the book calls “settle.” Lower your standards, the book seems to tout, without offering even the courtesy to shroud that idea in euphemisms like “deviate from your checklist.” You may not find Mr. Perfect, but maybe you’ll find his second-cousin, Mr. Convenient and Willing. Because, let’s face it, you’re not getting any younger. In an article Ms. Gottlieb wrote for The Atlantic in March 2008 (setting the stage for this book), she poses what she believes is “… one of the most complicated, painful, and pervasive dilemmas many single women are forced to grapple with nowadays: Is it better to be alone, or to settle?”

I’m sure you’re all answering this question for yourselves right now. And I doubt that your response matches that of Ms. Gottlieb: “My advice is this: Settle! That’s right. Don’t worry about passion or intense connection. Don’t nix a guy based on his annoying habit of yelling “Bravo!” in movie theaters. Overlook his halitosis or abysmal sense of aesthetics. Because if you want to have the infrastructure in place to have a family, settling is the way to go. Based on my observations, in fact, settling will probably make you happier in the long run, since many of those who marry with great expectations become more disillusioned with each passing year.”

As the four or five loyal readers of this blog may have already guessed, this argument and book nauseate me. On the one hand, it offends the romantic in me, on the other, it offends the pragmatist in me. How can women ever expect to find any sort of happiness or love when their attitude towards their mate begins as – and remains – settling? How damaging to your own self-esteem! How hugely unfair to the man for whom you’ve settled! What a waste of time, effort, affection and emotion! And how is marrying based on “great expectations” suddenly the best-case scenario?

Is it better to swap the lament of the Single Woman for the boredom of the Settled Woman? The book seems to argue “Absolutely yes!” whereas I reply with a resounding “HELL, NO!”

Perhaps anticipating reactions like mine, the Times’ review closes by offering that Gottlieb didn’t “lower” her standards – she changed them. That, readers, is a load of bullcrap. When you’ve lived with your list, your standards for as long as Ms. Gottlieb did, use whatever nomenclature you’d like, but the very nature of “settling” automatically implies that standards have been lowered, that you’ve opted to no longer pursue your ideal, that you’ve essentially given up on the things you wanted. Even when those things are ludicrous and pretentious, at least they’re yours. And – it’s clear from the demographic of the subjects in the book, as well as Ms. Gottlieb herself – the standards are not being ‘changed’ so that empty-handed painters are now in the running as potential mates; they’re being ‘changed’ so that the 5’6″ investment banker now has a chance whereas previously he’d have been written off as too short. And this is all predicated on the notion that settling has precious little to do with love – it’s only about marriage, the holy matrimony of social rank and shared benefits. In her piece in “The Atlantic Monthly,” Ms. Gottlieb lists marriage as the end-goal, the place we all strive to get to, the status that we all want, that defines us and will make us happy. Gottlieb tries to cleverly reveal the fact that she believes most single women know, deep-down, but deny: that we’re closing ourselves in by being too demanding of what we want out of partnership, and that this finickiness is mostly an excuse to ourselves for why we’re not married yet.

I reject that completely.

My inner-romantic (certainly my more substantial side) hates what this book preaches because, frankly, I feel I can easily debunk it as malarkey: I know that I am an incredibly picky woman, yet my list of “musts” has little to do with height, profession or astronomical sign. In fact, my checklist consists of exactly two things, my Two Cs:
• chemistry
• compatibility

That’s all.

I’ve engaged with men whom I haven’t felt the slightest presence of either of those two elements, and it wasn’t hard to let those embryonic relationships fizzle away to nothing. I’ve met several people with whom I’ve felt a strong pull of compatibility, which wakes me, helps remind me how it feels to be alive. (I’m not so nearsighted as to claim that I’m willing to give-it-shot with anyone, for the sake of seeing what develops. I’m well aware that part of the compatibility I’m seeking most likely entails some kind of like-mindedness in demographic or lifestyle, but I’ve seen that there’s leeway for a healthy amount of diversity there, as well.) As for chemistry, in my experience, it has never existed on its own; the very presence of chemistry indicates a huge potential for compatibility. I know it’s not always that way, but I’ve been lucky enough, I suppose to have met a few men – two? three? – with whom I feel the real magnetism of both compatibility and chemistry. These experiences have given me faith that it’s absolutely worth it to wait for the person who meets both ‘requirements’ on my ‘checklist.’ And I refuse to accept that my long-lived singleness is due to ‘impossibly’ high standards; nor do I accept that for my own happiness, it’d ever be worth it to change them.

I say this because there have been a few people with whom there really was/is a profound compatibility, and a strong potential in wait for what (could have) lay in store for a future relationship. We were both aware of it, the undeniable attraction that made our encounters fun, exciting and invigorating. A few times (more so recently, I hate to admit – perhaps because it feels like I’m ceding something to the aforementioned book), I’ve really tried to convince myself that it’s possible for a great compatibility to blossom into chemistry. But, as I’ve been reminded each time, no amount of wishing or hoping can create what’s not there. Attraction grows, compatibility intensifies, the ‘fit’ of two people becomes increasingly comfortable – but trying to generate chemistry is like trying to make a dollar out of ninety-nine cents.

Still, all that trying feels worth it, sometimes, because that chemistry that I hope we do all strive for produces an indescribable high, so good and warm it cannot be rivaled. The last time I felt it, a single kiss made my heartbeat radiate from head to toe, as the room spun around us and I was aware of everything and nothing all at once. What bliss – I can only imagine – to have access to such intensity every day! Why would any one want to lower their standards to deviate from that ideal?

Beginning with my first real relation-whatever-you-want-to-call it, I started getting more specific in what I wanted (the phrase “rock star” popped up on my list at the tender age of 20). Some years passed and I got what I thought I wanted. It took almost no time to see that the relationship was thoroughly dysfunctional and my rock star bore the emotional maturity of a 14 year old. I amended my list. A little while later, I thought I’d serve myself well by articulating the things that I most certainly didn’t want (based on experiences ranging from not-so-good to downright very bad). I narrowed down these “off limits” to actors and bartenders. A few years later, that came back to bite me in the ass like a bad joke, more than once in the form of an actor/bartender (inevitable in New York City; I was only fooling myself). But their stories, while hardly great romances, weren’t anything like the ones that had prompted my “off limits” list, and so, again, the list was revised. It’s now returned its original form: the Two Cs.

Frankly, I’ve invested too much time in holding fast to my ideals to abandon them. To settle, as Ms. Gottlieb is encouraging me to do, would cheapen and discredit the self-discovery and self-realization that I’ve lived through during my very single 20s. Given that, you can understand my rage at Gottlieb’s sentiment that the woes of being single in your late 30s & 40s can be avoided by settling earlier, rather than later. Wretched middle-aged dating, she argues “…supports my argument to do it young, when settling involves constructing a family environment with a perfectly acceptable man who may not trip your romantic trigger—as opposed to doing it older, when settling involves selling your very soul in exchange for damaged goods.”

Good lord. How could anyone take her case seriously when she essentially warns that if you don’t settle “early” (thus ruling out the slightest potential for a greater connection, but increasing regret exponentially), you’re signing yourself up for, at best, a half-assed matching of weary baggage? I feel that she’s actually made a rather strong case for staying single – when the alternative entails trading your battered emotional soul for someone else’s equally miserable company. And while I’m not against marriage, I certainly hope that I’ll never jump into it (with someone I’ve ‘settled’ for, no less) just because it seems like the time to do so.

In the “Atlantic Monthly” article as well as the Times’ book review, there is acknowledgment that settling can seem like a rejection of the feminist values that so many before us fought for: the freedom to choose fulfillment from work and other pursuits as opposed to just motherhood. Gottlieb claims that her stance is aligned with the new post-modern feminist, that it is an active choice to select who we want to ‘settle’ with. After choking on a “WTF?!,” I must point out that there is still this huge assumption that marriage is not a choice, but rather an imperative, or worse, an absolute. Gottlieb argues that marriage is the definite, but the spouse does not have to be; that for those of us who are single past our early 20s, marriage is the necessity, love is the luxury. This notion makes me throw up in my mouth a bit. Marriage is a luxury that the government provides to certain pairs of people who file for it; last I checked, love didn’t require paperwork. How did our ideals get so utterly and horrifically confused?

I’m sure someone could argue that my two “requirements” are too broad, that they’re impossible to ever have to renege on because they’re too vague and abstract. I don’t mind saying that when it comes to compatibility and chemistry, either on their own or together, I know it when I see it, and that’s good enough for me. These two things are so personal, so unique that finding the person who meets both requisites is just as rare as, say, finding that 5’11” creative, talented, humble, financially comfortable and emotionally stable professional who lives within a four-subway-stop radius and/or a $10 cab ride.

To that end, I’ve got some advice for Ms. Gottlieb’s readers, the women whom, I’m guessing, endeavor to have their romantic lives mimic “Sex and The City” and then wind up unhappy with the real-life results. Reject settling. And don’t “lower” your standards so as to simply broaden the pool of potentials you’re willing to consider, as the book seems to advocate.

Instead, overhaul your standards completely: trash the notion that Mr. Right lives in a certain zip code and rakes in a certain salary each year. Do away with the limitations of height and shoe size. Starting with a fresh piece of paper, create your list to reflect how your Mr. Right should make you feel. We can acknowledge together that this list may change as time passes, it may change on a daily basis. But as long as it’s aligned with the truth, it will reflect the person that you are, and the person that you want to be with. Don’t ever compromise on that.

I have faith, and have seen proof, that, even if it takes time, the happiness you seek will find you, without having to begrudgingly redefine your notion of happiness. I believe that we can find a way to feel good about being single and that will engender – should the opportunity arise – feeling even better when we’re not.

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How We Grow

17 February, 2010

Every year, when the calendar has flipped its last page and starts anew, it seems appropriate to look ahead and think of how we’ll change, what goodness we can instill in ourselves to make the new year better than the last, to take control of whatever we can grasp and be responsible for what will befall us.

And then something happens that proves it’s all entirely out of our hands.

Just a few weeks into the new year, while I was still high on promising resolutions and a quickly-fading vacation tan, one of my best friends related, via the newsreel that is Facebook, what began as an unexplained oddity and all-too-quickly spun in to a complete and utter shitstorm of chaos: her healthy and active mother was diagnosed with leukemia, placed on a respirator, and passed away – all in less than a week.

When I found this out, I choked, I felt ill; my head felt light and my stomach felt heavy. I felt an urge to run to my own mother and smother her with hugs and apologies and “I love yous.” Once I had re-combobulated myself, a few days later, I couldn’t help but wonder why I had been so plagued with grief over my friend’s mother. I had never met her mother; in fact, I didn’t even know her name. There were some uncanny similarities between her and my mom – they were about the same age, taught special education and, apparently, had the patience of saints. But why was I so overwrought? I have, unfortunately, other friend’s who’ve lost parents, in one instance even more suddenly than this. And be it parents, grandparents, friends – the one uniting factor each time someone has died is that I have handled the situation terribly. I claim to be paranoid about saying and doing the wrong thing, so I say and do nothing. But in truth, I’m petrified of my own emotions, paralyzed by the fear that I will not be able to control a Niagara Falls-worthy onslaught of tears and wretched emotions.

In clinging to my attempted general resolution of self-betterment, I pledged to do my best to handle my friend’s tragedy like an adult. In reality, while I didn’t entirely shut down and essentially ignore the situation, I did my fair share of hiding – I sent her worried, supportive, loving and sympathy-ridden emails and text messages. The modern-day condolence card? Hardly. I think I was indulging myself: do not shy away, but do not directly confront the issue. Keep yourself in the safe place, that of immense inner-turmoil that stays – well, inner. I was intent on giving my friend “space” – it took me until a week after her mother’s death to actually pick up the phone and call her. I am ashamed to say how relieved I was to hear her chipper outgoing voicemail message. I left her a message trying to excuse myself from the inexcuseable sin of a being a bad friend, and assured her that – despite my behavior/cowardice – I was here for her any moment of any day. I learned that a few of her other closest friends from New York had gone up to New Hampshire for the funeral, and I felt like dirt – for as much as my schedule couldn’t have allowed it, the thought hadn’t even crossed my mind. I continued to feel awful until I realized that it wasn’t even my place to feel badly in all of this, and then became consumed by guilt that I was hogging all of the grief for myself.

Time passed, in that strange slow/fast way it does these days. In trying to recover from my shame, I felt compelled to use my friend’s mother’s passing as an excuse to embrace the unknowable, to capture this motivation and better myself, to seize the day! – I was fueled by an inexplicable fear-inspired carpe diem, and decided that, by turning the tragedy into something proactive, even life-inspiring, I was “handling it like an adult.”

Then I got stuck. How exactly should I carpe my diems? I thought about all the things one imagines they’d do when reminded of their mortality – call up that guy from years ago and tell him how deeply you fell for him, jump out of an airplane, buy yourself something indulgent, eat rich, wonderful food, travel the world, tell off your old boss – essentially, do all the things you’re scared of every other day. (It’s not a Bucket List. It’s a Brave List. It’s a Scare You Shitless List.) But in making my list, I found myself, my over-thinking, over-rationalizing self, unable to even fathom executing any of those things. Specifically, because I was – I am – too alive.

Could any of us suffer something horrible at any moment? Sadly, yes. Might we lie there, the light in our eyes slowly fading, wishing we had done more, said more, loved more, lived more? There is no way to measure regret, remorse, rue or repentance. And now I find myself thinking that to live, to grow, is not to only cower in fear, and it’s not to only embrace fear. I believe now that to live is to exist between those two – not in the middle, but constantly fluctuating, floating between the extremes that define excess and depravity. It’s what keeps us human – the fact that we will endeavor to constantly be challenged, to search for love, to seek adrenaline, while not abandoning the fears and secrets that define who we are right now.

For the past two years, dramatic events in January (last year, the Miracle on the Hudson (for some reason), this year, my friend’s mother) have made me re-evaluate my lease on life, and seek to learn and live in a new way, in an inspired way. Hopefully this time, it’ll stick. Émile Zola once said “If you ask me what I came to do in this world … I will answer you: ‘I am here to live out loud.'” I think it’s time to start shouting.