Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Real Contentment Never Has to Settle for Good Enough

Being that we are growing closer and closer to Valentine's Day, the supposedly most romantic (or depressing) of all holidays, I'd like to branch out a bit and take on a different topic than the norm today. NPR commentator Lori Gottlieb has just released a book entitled Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough. In it, Gottlieb insists that a generation of contradictory messages and empowering commandments largely advanced by Feminism have prevented women from choosing a more-than-adequate husband when the opportunity presents itself. Instead, as Gottlieb suggests, such pronouncements have encouraged women to hold out for the perfect mate. Liesl Schillinger's review of the book in The Daily Beast summarizes and echoes my own response to a very incendiary text.

The way she sees it, as she explains in a chapter called, “How Feminism F****d Up My Love Life,” a generation of women (or should I say ‘girls’?) who ought to have been taught—like their great-grandmothers and like women in Taliban-era Afghanistan—to be demure in deportment and modest in aspiration, were tricked by the women’s movement into “ego-tripping themselves out of romantic connection.” That’s right girls: If you’re unwillingly unwed, blame it on mom and Title IX for duping you into educating, respecting and supporting yourselves. She intends this book, she writes, as a blood-chilling cautionary tale, “like those graphic anti-drunk driving public service announcements that show people crashing into poles and getting killed.”

Even I, as a man, take issue with many of Gottlieb's conclusions and rather glib pronouncements because they seem to reflect personal experience more than abject truth. A variety of factors besides luck, personality, and presentation determine our success at the often-infuriating dating game. Gottlieb's analysis never takes into account rudimentary and simplistic variables that cast doubt as to the veracity of her entire work as a whole. Of all of the areas she neglects to take into account, that which comes to mind first is location.

In Washington, DC, my adopted home, one gratefully finds a vast amount of young adults like me in their twenties and thirties. A disproportionate share of them are female, which means that the competition for available men can be fairly fierce, if not deeply frustrating at times. A 2006 Washington Post article confirms this.

The U.S. government has confirmed what we single women in Washington have known for some time -- there are no single men in the District. Or, more precisely, not enough single men in the District.

According to the Census Bureau's recently released 2005 American Community Survey, the District has the lowest -- read, worst -- ratio of single men to single women in the nation. For every 100 single women in Washington, there are only 93.4 men. That's just over nine-tenths of a man for every woman. Now, if you've been single for as long as I have in this town, nine-tenths of a man is starting to sound pretty good.

Further compounding this struggle is that the stereotypical Washingtonian male is heavily Type A, married to his job, bereft of an actual personality outside of his occupation, and inclined to frequently take his work home with him, both literally and figuratively. Speaking purely from my own experiences, my girlfriend jokes that she had to import me from elsewhere, since many prior experiences finding a suitable relationship partner had been dismal. I wasn't aware of how common the problem was until, while at dinner one night, each of her female friends seated around the table mentioned they'd had the same exact problem. If we're to take Gottlieb at face value, then these women ought to put the blame at the feet of Feminism or at the dissolution of the traditional ways of courting.

This inequality in gender distribution also reflects the percentage of married couples in the DC Metro area.

According to a recent Pew Research study, the District of Columbia has the lowest marriage rate in the country. Only 23 percent of women and 28 percent of men and in D.C. are married, compared to 48 and 52 percent nationwide. The rates in D.C. are so low that they lie entirely off the Pew map’s color key. The closest states to D.C.’s numbers are Rhode Island, where 43 percent of women are married, and Alaska, where 47 percent of men are married.

Why aren’t D.C. residents getting hitched?

The Pew poll offers up one possibly related figure: residents of D.C. get married significantly later in life than do the residents of the 50 states. In D.C., the median age at first marriage is 30 for women and 32 for men. In contrast, the median age for a first marriage in the state of Idaho is 24 for women and 25 for men.

In the suburban, middle class, predominantly white city in Alabama where I grew up, most in my age range got married either in their early twenties or at least by their mid-twenties. When it came time for my tenth high school reunion this past August, I noticed by a quick survey of the Facebook page thoughtfully created for the event that roughly 60%-70% of my class had already gotten married. Of those, based on my own research, it appeared that 40% of my female classmates had given birth to at least one child. To say that I didn't quite fit in to the prevailing demographics would be putting it exceedingly lightly.

To return to Schillinger's analysis,

A woman doesn’t always find it easy to persevere in a tepid affair once it’s actual, not notional. And a man doesn’t have to be handsome to bolt—or to take umbrage at the suspicion that he’s being “settled” for. Perhaps in the future, in an over-perfected, suspense-less, Gattaca universe, men will come with LED displays on their foreheads that read: “I mean business” or “I’m deliberately wasting your time,” or, “Actually, I’m gay,” or “I’ll marry you, but we’ll loathe each other and I’ll leave you for a 20-year old when you’re 37.” Until that day comes, one wonders how Gottlieb can be so emphatic in her pronouncements, so blistering in her blame of single women for being entitled and picky in their 20s, and “desperate but picky” thereafter.

I wouldn't at all encourage anyone, male or female, gay or straight (or somewhere in between), cisgender or transgender, to find much helpful or worthy of emulation in the traditional strategies regarding marriage and/or settling down that are prevalent in the region of my birth. Had I been born in the rural South rather than the city South, most people in my high school class would be married by now and many would probably have had at least one child well before the age of thirty. I've often been a proponent of waiting and using extreme caution before jumping into marriage or parenthood---both require a tremendous amount of patience, maturity, and energy. As such, I take tremendous offense to Gottlieb's bitter hypothesis, since I doubt she'd be any happier with three kids, a mortgage, and a lingering sense of doubt that she'd tossed aside the freedom of adulthood for the supposed contentment of marriage and motherhood. Between the fear of spinsterhood and the fear of being forced into a role of great responsibility at too early an age rests the reality. Life promises us nothing but the chance to roll the dice or play a hand at the table. Both sides of the coin, be it a lifetime of cats as companions or PTA meetings and dirty diapers are not necessarily the only two expected outcomes from which women can choose.

Schillinger concludes,

There’s such a thing as luck, and there’s such a thing as love. Sometimes the two forces combine, sometimes, they don’t. If luck and love had combined for Gottlieb, today she might be a housewife in Teaneck with an SUV of her own, two kids and a mortgage, and she would not have had the need or the time to have built her fabulous career, or to have written this whining, corrosive, capricious book. Now there’s a happy ending. But for anyone who dares order millions of people she doesn’t know to sell out their dreams, regret their accomplishments, fear their futures and “Marry him,” whoever he is, I have two words: You first.

Though I, as a man don't quite feel the same societal compulsion to marry, I will mention in all seriousness that I always craved the stability and the solid grounding of, if not marriage, certainly a long-term relationship. Though I am nearly thirty, I spent most of my twenties being ahead of the learning curve, and my expectations were always severely tempered by prior relationship partners who wanted only to have fun and to not entertain anything particularly serious. Now, finally, what I want and have wanted for a while is more in line with others my age, but in saying this, I would never make the assumption that every presumably heterosexual woman in her early thirties and beyond who isn't married is desperate to find a husband and start a family. This is certainly true with some, but not all. Not even close. Believing what Gottlieb has to say means that we must take her overblown postulates and acerbic suppositions at face value without expanding them beyond a very narrow sample of the population.

No successful movement is instantly realized upon enactment. Establishing greater equality for women at times looks a little raggedy and uneven because change doesn't happen overnight. Like Gottlieb, it is easy to confuse states of transition with proof of their ultimate dysfunction. It doesn't take a leap of faith to trust that gender equality is inevitable, but it does take an open mind and with it quite a bit of patience to recognize that no unfinished work in progress will find its way onto the walls of an art gallery as an unquestioned masterpiece. This same kind of buyer's remorse I see from time to time in books like Gottlieb's, each of which reflects the same basic frustration and fear that irrefutable results for generations worth of effort are never going to manifest themselves and that these sorts of struggles have created more problems than solutions. Again, I counter that true contentment lies within the self, not necessarily within the parameters of any movement. Each of us has more control over ourselves than over any progressive construct of seeking cultural evolution. Look within the movement as a whole if you want to know where to leave your mark, but look within yourself if you want to find a relationship partner. Never confuse the two.


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