Just as heart-shaped candies and pastel greeting cards filled drug store shelves, in time for Valentine’s Day of 2010, a new book came out: Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough by the journalist Lori Gottlieb. The timing of the release was another aspect of the book’s culture trolling. Amid the red-and-pink ramp-up to Cupid’s holiday, here was a book using unromantic words like “settling” and “good enough.” Here came a book warning heterosexual women that they might end up alone and regretful if they didn’t compromise on their high expectations. Here came a book with a chapter title reading, “How Feminism Fucked Up My Love Life.” Here came a book destined for the bestseller list.
Two years earlier, the Atlantic had published—in its Valentine’s Day issue, no less—an essay by Gottlieb bearing that same unforgettable title. She was a single, never-married 40-year-old mother who had conceived via donor sperm, and Gottlieb was offering herself up as a cautionary tale. “My advice is this: Settle! That’s right. Don’t worry about passion or intense connection,” she wrote. “Because if you want to have the infrastructure in place to have a family, settling is the way to go.” Both the article and the book sparked a firestorm of criticism: Jezebel’s Anna North referred to Marry Him as “possibly the worst book about marriage of this young millennium.” But the New York Times’s Amy Finnerty deemed the book “an unexpected delight.”
Nothing in Gottlieb’s narrative rose to the extreme of the infamously debunked Newsweek cover story of 1986, declaring that 40 year old, white, college-educated single women were more likely to be killed by a terrorist than marry. Still, even at the time, Gottlieb’s message, as much as the attention it received, felt like a significant signpost. She had tapped into a burbling well of anxiety around how young women, buoyed by feminist advancement, were approaching their love lives—namely that they were dating, cohabitating, delaying marriage, and having casual sex. The journalist Laura Sessions Stepp had recently published the attention-getting Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both, which cautioned young women who sleep around, arguing that they might be damaging their “ability to sustain a long-term commitment.” Now, some saw Marry Him as declaring the party officially over: reviewer Alex Kuczynski wrote in O Magazine that Gottlieb’s message had hit “a generation of women coming off the bacchanal of Sex and the City... like a horrible hangover.”
In the decade since the book’s publication, marriage rates have continued to decline, awareness has grown around single women as a potent political force, and we’ve seen the rise of the “single positivity” movement. Ahead of the book’s 10-year anniversary, past the sometimes vision-blurring heat of Marry Him’s cultural moment, I found myself wondering: Is it as bad as I remember? Is it worse?
Here is where I cop to my personal investment in the subject matter. Is anyone else in this entire universe as tuned into the 10-year anniversary of Marry Him as I am? Likely not. In the late 2000s, when I was 26, there was a man I thought I could marry (someday, maybe). He was kind, sensitive, funny, talented, and intelligent. We had already dated for three years and I loved him. I loved him. “He’d be a great dad,” I occasionally reminded myself, knowing that parenthood was something I wanted (someday, definitely). But there were these sneaking, inescapable feelings: I’m not ready. Something is missing. I have more “exploring” to do.
Ultimately, I set fire to the maybe-could-be-marriage relationship in the cowardly and destructive fashion of someone too terrified to make a choice. Then, days later, and as if on cue, Marry Him came out.
Newly single and filled with fearful doubt, I tearfully emailed my mom, using the same hyperbolic stereotypes that I was used to encountering in internet debates about single women reaping what they sow. “Will I end up as some lonely cat lady regretting my past decisions and writing books about how young gals should snag the first good guy they find?” I wrote. In the Atlantic article, Gottlieb had written that “our culture tells us to keep our eyes on the prize (while our mothers, who know better, tell us not to be so picky).” My actual mother, however, pointed out that I was really more of a dog person. She also told me, more seriously: “Somewhere in you is the answer to what is right for you.”
I listened to my mom instead of Gottlieb, which is to say: I listened to myself.
The opening pages of Marry Him begin with a metaphoric joke about “The Husband Store,” which you can only visit once and features six floors where the “value” of men increases with each successive floor. You can choose any man from a floor, but once you go up to the next floor, you can’t go back down. The first floor: “MEN WHO HAVE GOOD JOBS.” The second: “MEN WHO HAVE GOOD JOBS AND LOVE KIDS.” The joke continues in this fashion until the eventual eviscerating punchline. “YOU ARE VISITOR 42,215,602 TO THIS FLOOR,” it reads, in all-caps. “THERE ARE NO MEN ON THIS FLOOR. THIS FLOOR ONLY EXISTS TO PROVE THAT WOMEN ARE IMPOSSIBLE TO PLEASE.”
The joke is on women, obviously, because they expect too much of men. I am not sure there was ever a time when this joke was funny, but it is definitely not now, amid a society-wide reckoning with the many ways in which women have had to put up with too much from men, and had their own expectations dashed because of them.
This opener is representative of what Gottlieb does repeatedly in the book: paint a caricature of petty, shallow, and self-aggrandizing women. Meeting in a bar with a group of single women in their thirties, Gottlieb relays outrageous examples of the reasons these sources say they once broke up with seemingly good men: He was bald, too optimistic, or a cryer. He bought the wrong kind of flowers, had long nose hairs, or loved her too much. Gottlieb writes of women who “nix” a man on the grounds that he is “obsessed with sports,” “spends too much time playing video games,” “has a tendency to get stressed out during tax season,” “laughs too loud in public,” or forgets “the name of her best friend from high school.”
Not only are these women wildly unforgiving about fixable problems, like nose hair, but they simply will not settle for anything short of an internationally recognized sex symbol. Gottlieb quotes a married woman as saying, “I think the difference between women who get married and women who don’t is that women who don’t get married never give up the idea that they’re going to marry Brad Pitt.” These women are real, live sources, and yet they read as exceptional, hand-picked to prove a thesis developed in response to Gottlieb’s own personal disappointment.
These caricatures are interspersed with portraits of women whose concerns are significantly more nuanced and reasonable: For example, a woman who turns down a proposal at the age of 22 because she thought she was too young to get married, “should have other experiences with men,” and needed to “grow as a person.” The ultimate effect is one of context collapse: Vital questions around growth, experience, and independence are conflated with the absurd and the selfish. Persistent feelings of “something missing” or needing to explore—which dogged me as a 26-year-old: the signature of a young dating life—get muddled with over-the-top superficialities, like the woman who dumped a guy because he bought her the wrong kind of flowers.
Gottlieb is just as dismissive of her own previous romantic dissatisfactions, painting herself as an unreasonable Goldilocks. She writes of dating a “freelance artist, only to say that next time I wanted someone financially stable.” When she dated a doctor, she found they “didn’t connect creatively.” In a self-deprecating flourish, she writes, “Finding a financially stable artist or doctor who wrote novels in his spare time wasn’t impossible—but pretty rare.” Of course, desiring a partner who is both creative and financially stable is not akin to finding a doctor who writes novels on the side, except in the punishing frame of Marry Him. Meanwhile, men come under no meaningful critique for superficiality or entitlement in the realm of sex and romance. They are largely the sane observers of women’s irrational whims.
Feminism is immediately to blame for women’s absurd expectations. “We grew up believing that we could ‘have it all,’” writes Gottlieb of her generation. “‘Having it all’ meant that we shouldn’t compromise in any area of life, including dating. Not compromising meant ‘having high standards.’ The higher our standards, the more ‘empowered’ we were.” Of course, Gottlieb does not interrogate this common misinterpretation of feminism as an individualistic project of personal advancement. Instead, she lobs such attention-grabbing lines as, “feminism has completely fucked up my love life” and “empowerment somehow became synonymous with having impossible standards and disregarding the fact that in real life, you can’t get everything you want, when you want it, on your own terms only.”
She adds, with signature flare, “Which is exactly how many of us empowered ourselves out of a good mate.”
At the time of the Atlantic essay, Gottlieb tried to pre-empt critiques of anti-feminism. “Oh, I know—I’m guessing there are single 30-year-old women reading this right now who will be writing letters to the editor to say that... I’ve been co-opted by the cult of the feminist backlash,” she wrote. “And all I can say is, if you say you’re not worried, either you’re in denial or you’re lying.”
Her defensive position was smart, given that she was publishing in a magazine then noted for employing the antagonistic Caitlin Flanagan (and which would soon run that incendiary cover image of a baby in a briefcase alongside the headline, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”). But in reading her words now, it also strikes me as marginally true. Gottlieb’s position didn’t arise from a backlash to feminism, so much as from anxiety around what it had afforded women like her: the unpredictable reality of living a life of greater freedom.
Of course, that kind of anxiety sells magazines and books—and not just to single women, but also to members of “the cult of the feminist backlash.” It makes freedom seem like a danger that women need to be warned against.
In the decade since Marry Him’s publication, Gottlieb—now a psychotherapist, popular public speaker, and the author of another bestseller Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, HER Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed—has maintained that both the Atlantic article and book were misunderstood. (Gottlieb declined an interview with Jezebel.) Last year, she told NPR’s Terry Gross that she tried to change the book’s title, but “lost that battle with the publisher.” She continued, “I think the book is really, ironically, about having higher standards about the things that matter, like the character qualities, generosity, kindness, reliability, and not getting so hung up on things like, you know, whether you’re going to go on a second date with a guy because of how he dressed.”
There are softer messages in Marry Him that were lost in the media frenzy following its publication ten years ago. Several chapters in, once the book moves beyond the catchy “settling” hook—and beyond the finger-pointing at feminism and humorous self-flagellation emblematic of the era’s personal essay boom—it is fundamentally about the destructive myths behind romantic fairytales. “I expected to feel some sort of divine connection (even if that meant being in a constant state of nausea and having an obsessive need to check my voice e mail every thirty minutes),” she writes. Gottlieb admits that “deep down” she “had a classic Cinderella complex” and “expected that, as the famous song goes, someday my prince would come and ‘thrill me for ever more.’”
At its most nuanced points, Marry Him catalogs the ways that we fail to accurately predict what will actually make us happy, particularly when it comes to online dating, with its unsettling paradox of choice and bias toward the superficial (and this was before the advent of swipe-based dating). She also addresses the cisgender biological reality of men generally being able to reproduce later in life, as well as the fact of living in a culture that eroticizes youth in women.
These are the reasonable messages, occasionally backed by interviews with researchers, as well as much less convincing dating gurus that elude the attention-getting hook of the Atlantic article and book. It is in these muted chapters that it might be possible, for a fleeting moment, to see the book as misunderstood, but only by a degree. The attention-grabbing title and punishing early chapters are followed by a bait and switch. Culture trolling and finger-wagging is traded for inarguable wisdoms, like that love can blossom where there isn’t an immediate spark.
In 2010, intuitive, reassuring, and compassionate messages around single women’s love lives were unlikely to make the bestseller list. They certainly wouldn’t have launched the kind of fiery debate around singlehood and feminism that landed the author on The Today Show. It is no surprise that, as Gottlieb tells it, her publisher gave an ultimatum: Go with this title or there is no book. “That was my choice and I wanted to publish this book because I was passionate about it,” she told me in a 2014 interview. Of course, I’m inclined to rail at the craven opportunism of the publishing industry. The problem, though, is it wasn’t just the title, but also great swaths of the book itself that scuttled its more compassionate insights.
A few years after worrying so intensely to my mom about becoming the “lonely cat lady regretting my past decisions,” I ended up getting married. The same is true of most, but not all, of my similarly aged marriage-seeking friends who are now in their mid-30s to early-40s (which tracks with national data on marriage rates by age). Now that we’re here, many of us have realized, if we hadn’t long ago, that marriage isn’t a guarantee of happiness, it doesn’t automatically secure an equal partnership in parenting, and it’s often only a temporary state.
More to the point: no predictive storyline emerged around pickiness or settling, because there are no rules to this game. An individual woman’s marital status at any point in time is often chiefly representative of the unpredictable lives many of us are now allowed to live.
(Updated 3/2/22 with new details)