A Never-Ending Play in Three Acts. Eat your heart out, Tom Stoppard.

Cast of Characters

MacMillan – a thrice-married woman, 45 year-old single mom, a premium cable television writer living in New York.

Ravitz – a once-engaged, never-married 41 year-old writer/blogger living in Atlanta.

Me – a never-engaged, never-married, 30 year-old woman living in Brooklyn, who cannot tell how many relationships she’s had because there’s no easy way to define “relationship.” She thinks it might be two, but on a good day could be as high as five.

Act I: MacMillan, who is equally as misguided as her single friends, tires of hearing those single friends complain about their singledom. She embraces her unwarranted High & Mightiness and writes a fairly offensive piece on the Huffington Post about how singledom is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Single ladies, she argues, want marriage, they want it more than anything they are willing to admit to. But we—she’s thrown Ravitz and Me into the mix, though she does not know us—are self-destructive creatures, we are petrified of our own happiness. And we’ll stoop to grievous lows (bitchiness, shallowness, sluttiness, dishonesty, selfishness and low self-esteem are MacMillan’s Six Self-Sabotaging Sins of Single Sisters) to ensure our safety within that realm of ceaseless singlehood.

Needless to say, Me and my friends—between us we can boast a history of every type of relationship imaginable—erupt in a collective cry of disagreement. As a 5’10” friend pointed out, the article assumes a huge double-standard, in that it chides women as being shallow for having physical preferences (such as, I hope I get a guy who’s taller than me, but if my soulmate is 5’7″, I’ll happily deal), when a guy having loads of physical ‘standards’ is just seen as par for the course. No one’s writing blogs telling those dudes to give it up. The same tall, astute friend also took issue because “the implication in the article is that to find a husband you must be sweet and never angry.  I know plenty of super angry bitches who have husbands.” It seems that’s MacMillan MO—why is she disproving her own point? Does she want to keep all the guys who are willing to be with angry women to herself?

Another friend commented that MacMillan “doesn’t deserve a pat on the back for marrying 3 times, (like she’s some kind of expert man-catcher), she deserves a dunce cap for not being smart enough to run away from what obviously turned out to be bad ideas.” She warned of MacMillan’s safety in her Glass House…

Act II: Ravitz, a better-intentioned writer/blogger at CNN is one of the thousands for whom MacMillan’s pointed diatribe pinched a very tender nerve. She offers a publicized counter-argument, in which she claims that it is not for our own self-hatred that we are unmarried. It is not lack of opportunity—but lack of the right opportunity (a swipe at MacMillan’s perhaps too-easy approach to wedded bliss). Ravitz tells of her own romantic history, one littered with oases and boulders, love and disappointment, self-admitted commitment issues, too much truthfulness and bad timing. Ravitz argues that sometimes, life wants you to be single, and it “just works out that way.”

Me and my friends are glad for the clever rebuttal, one in which we single ladies are not lambasted for the choices we have made. However, there is still a sense among us of something unfinished, of a still as-yet untold point of view.

Act III: In steps Me and My big, unmarried mouth.

I do not believe in, and cannot subscribe to, boiling down relationships to singular factors–whether you’re in them, or trying to find out why you’re not in them. If some TV writer were to finally define that one reason why relationships don’t work (the point MacMillan’s subtext was attempting to make), then no one would ever bother with relationships at all—hello, Children of Men-esque future. There’s a reason romantic partners are not interchangeable, and why we can’t just pick anyone and happily spend the rest of our lives with them (so long as we follow the rules). Firstly, that would be tediously boring. Secondly, and more importantly, people and relationships are nothing if not nuanced—which is a Very Good Thing. We cannot be reduced to 6 defining misdeeds, nor should we count our virtues and bemoan a plot by the universe to keep us loveless (even though I am often guilty of that myself). A million infinitesimal, incomprehensible factors are responsible for everything in our lives, from where we live to what television shows we watch, from what we eat to who we choose or reject to spend the rest of our lives with.

At the heart of both women’s arguments is that the key factor in relationship-finding is opportunity. Angry Slut Lady (guess who) says JUMP, don’t hop, at opportunity, at any opportunity, no matter how bleak it may seem, because at the heart of it, you’re rather unlikeable, and good opportunities don’t come along often, if ever, especially for the likes of you. She clearly believes that it’s better to be once, twice, three times a bride, than never married at all. Personal Drama Lady (Ravitz, naturally) says it’s not lack of opportunity, it’s lack of accepting the opportunities because you’re able to recognize that they’re not right for you… so calm your hormones, Angry Slut Bitch.

Yes, these are two points of view… and one of them might even be valid. But Grounded Romantic Lady (that would be Me) has to say what, seemingly, no one else has:

Any single woman knows that on certain bad days, we look inside ourselves (or into the mirror) and see all the reasons why we’re single. And on other days, sometimes good days, we know that our inside is stupendous, and we look outside ourselves to see that it’s not our problem that we’re single—it’s everyone else’s because they’re not with us. But unless you’re obsessed/crazy/desperate (like Angry Slut Lady thinks you should be), no one spends 100% of their time dwelling on either eventuality. We can’t. Because on most days, we know that there’s something else to it—something that’s not about our inside or outside, but about chance, and about how it can create a connection to someone else’s inside and outside. Some of my friends call it the X-Factor, others call it “clicking,” I call it Chemistry. Most importantly, we know what’s right when we see it—it’s not availability, it’s not looking good on paper, it’s feeling good from the tops of our heads to the soles of our feet, feeling good not only about the person, but about the situation. It’s thinking about someone who gives you butterflies in your toes, makes your whole body tingle with not only the sense of “This Is Right,” but also: “This is Right, for Me, Right Now.”

The beauty of this thing, this chemistry (my blog, my term), is that it is a giant heap of je ne sais quoi. It is undefinable, unquantifiable, and inarticulatable. Which means it doesn’t fit into the six designations of what you’re doing wrong, it can’t be counted like opportunities missed, canceled or aborted for any reason. I think of it like salt. It’s certainly not imperative in every dish. But most dishes—from brownies to curries to salads to margaritas—benefit from having some of it. You don’t need this to have a lasting relationship. But it often tastes better with it. For some people, just a hint is enough. For others, the more the better. (If you’re concerned about high-sodium risk in the metaphor—CC, I’m talking to you, too—we can just as easily substitute ‘spices’ in for salt. But I was afraid to complicate things with that one.) Everyone’s tastes are different, and yes, there are those bland people out there (Angry Slut Lady) who stay away entirely, claiming that just having food in front of you is good enough, you’re being greedy if you want it to taste good, too. I live in Brooklyn—I simply cannot submit to that philosophy (or metaphor).

There are some other crucial points that MacMillan needs to be reminded of in the search for why, why, why.

One: For many single people, being unmarried does not mean you are incomplete. Marriage need not to be an end goal, or a goal at all. The fact is, we are all real people by ourselves. Partners may enhance us, but they do not define us, at least not at the outset. I’ve met people (Angry Slut Lady, looking at you) who believe otherwise; they seem clingy, their urgent sense of finding someone—anyone—blurring all other priorities. They find vulnerable partners and wear them down until they get that ultimately dissatisfying ring on it. I know loads of people who have eschewed a balls-out search for a mate in favor of the rest of our lives, and have happily lived to tell about it. While we’re almost always open to the idea of meeting someone, and hope to do so sooner rather than later, we’re proud of who we are otherwise. We’re not just waiting on a wing and a prayer, but we’re living. So many friends caught on to Ravitz’s acute observation: “Maybe you’re a searcher with a healthy dose of wanderlust, someone who needed time to commit to furniture, let alone a man, because there was so much you needed to see, do and become.”

I honestly can’t think of anything better than to be a woman in her 30s with healthy wanderlust, single or partnered. Life would be terribly boring otherwise!

Two: Being single is not the same as being desperate. Angry Slut Lady certainly can’t grasp this one—she’s too busy being petrified that no one will ever love her. The few patronizing married friends I have can’t quite understand it either. But ask most any man or woman who’s spent a significant portion of their 20s or 30s single, and you’ll find that they know themselves well, well enough to be confident in the things they want and the things that they don’t. And why wait this long only to compromise when you’re 30? 35? 40? Wanting the affection, company, love of a relationship is not the same as being desperate for one. It’s something on the To-Do list, and we all go about checking that box off in our own unique ways. But the moment you give in to desperation, the moment you believe any of the BS that Angry Slut Lady is feeding you, that’s when you’ve got a big, big problem. In fact, my initial response to these blogs was:

Nope, no one’s ever asked me to marry them, no one’s ever fallen in love with me (that I know of), but that doesn’t mean I’m going to fucking slum it just because I consider myself desperate. Because the catch is that I *don’t* consider myself desperate, much to Angry Slut Lady’s dismay (and disagreement).

Epilogue

All that said, here is what I believe:

It’s not about men being crazy or women being crazy. Everybody is crazy. And if you’re lucky, you end up with someone who complements and supports your kind of crazy.

Where to go from here? One friend suggested, upon reading MacMillan’s piece, “introducing a new question on OK Cupid: ‘Is Kim Kardashian your ideal woman?'”

Would love to add that MacMillian, who wrote the Huffington Post piece, is a television writer for Mad Men and The United States of Tara. Fascinating to note that the woman who has had three marriages writes for a show that boasts misogynistic lotharios and one wherein the female protagonist has a dissociative identity disorder—a less severe version of which, you could argue, could lead to three distinct and doomed-to-fail marriages. Just sayin’…

x

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.