Thirty-five? Or worse, 40, and unmarried? Should a girl give up on romance and settle for someone who will take out the trash?
What does a single woman in her thirties want more than a better career, a smaller waistline or a bigger apartment? According to American writer Lori Gottlieb she wants to get married and have a family. Yes, married. And that is from a liberated gal who is in a position to know. Ms Gottlieb, well known for her humorous commentary on singlehood and dating, has reached 40 with a young son conceived by donor insemination, and in a more serious mood. In an essay in this month’s Atlantic magazine she urges younger women to temper their romantic notions of marriage with a large dose of realism, to forget about Mr Right and “settle” for Mr Good Enough. Because, as she puts it, “if you want to have the infrastructure in place to have a family, settling is the way to go.”
“Infrastructure.” Hmmm… But I recognise the problem she is talking about. I was a partner in a large professional services firm with a successful career and a substantial salary. I had always wanted to get married and have children but for a variety of reasons I did not meet my husband until I was 36 and then marry when 37. I am now 43 with two boys aged three and five and another child due in May. However, I reached this happy state not by “settling” for a partnership without the warmth of true love, as Ms Gottlieb advises, but by growing into an understanding of what love truly is.
For many women who marry late, I suspect that, like me, it is not a case of settling for Mr Not Quite Right, but of taking time to reach the point of understanding what true love and marriage is.
False romanticism is certainly a problem. In the days before the contraceptive pill, people used to grow out of it by facing up to the fact that sex, marriage and the responsibility of providing for children all went together. Ms Gottlieb and I grew up in an era when separating them was considered liberation, and putting them together again piecemeal by single parenthood and cohabitation was considered a legitimate choice. Delaying the commitment of marriage — a trend that shows no sign of slowing down — prolongs adolescent hopes of finding a “soul mate” with whom one will have an intense emotional and sexual bond. This has become the primary meaning of marriage. Children are then desired to perfect the happiness of the couple.
There is some truth in these ideals, of course, but they have lost their proper relationship and in the process have made marriage increasingly difficult to achieve. This is much more of a problem for women than for men, since women live in shadow of their biological deadline for having children — something most are unwilling to do without the benefit of marriage. Given that nearly a quarter of women in the United States are unmarried by age 34, Ms Gottlieb is addressing a real problem. But her solution — a team-mate who “takes out the trash, sets up the baby gear, and … provides a second income” — is tragic. It reduces marriage to mere pragmatism and the single life to one with no positive potential. It completely misses what I believe is the real answer to today’s marriage dilemma.
For many years I was like most young women and had an immature understanding of marriage and all that it entails. I was (and still am) a romantic and thought that marriage would be a surreal experience where I was madly attached to my husband and would of course be the centre of his universe. Over time I realized that this was an extremely self-centred way of looking at a friendship which would be the cornerstone of marriage. I began to understand that a relationship of this kind needs to take place on different levels.
Love is a single reality with different dimensions that are needed or emerge at different times. One dimension is necessary to attract a person to another, but this becomes less necessary over time and especially as one matures. This is eros, or the “madness” that intoxicates, displaces reason and drives a person powerfully toward another. It is the central theme for movie romances and modern sitcoms.
But for all its thrills, this dimension is not enough. In fact, on its own it becomes an obstacle to the maturing of the relationship. We see this played out all the time. Love is reduced to its caricature, to the amount of gratification that each can take from it. Bartering begins: “I’ll do this if you do that.” “I will stay with you as long as the sparks last.” “If you love me you will let me do what I want.” “I won’t have children with you until I have had my career and spent my youth.” “You can have children but I am not going to let this cramp my style”. “I will absorb all you can give to me, your good humour, good looks, money, sensuality but I am not prepared to give you anything back.” It destroys the relationship or at worst leaves spouses in a permanent adolescent-style union.
The other dimension is the reaching out of one person to the other. It is a love that is, indeed, ecstasy — not a momentary sensual intoxication but an exodus out of oneself, seeking liberation through giving oneself to the other. It is a journey toward authentic self discovery and happiness. This is played out in different ways: the sharing of hopes, dreams, values, desires, sorrows and disappointments, successes and failures, laughter and tears, and of our sexuality by pleasure giving and childbearing.
I learned through a long process of maturing that I almost always ignored the second dimension when I thought of marriage and assessed a prospective spouse. Although the example is superficial, it was like shopping for a Ferrari when what I really needed was a Bentley. One would soon lose its appeal, especially as I aged and found the rough ride of a sports car uncomfortable in certain weather and on some roads; the other would prove exciting and durable under any conditions, have plenty of room for others and fit any environment.
I learned that when the two dimensions of love are combined — the thrill of eros and disinterested self giving, in measures that move like waves over time and vary in intensity with the maturity of the individuals — love achieves its true grandeur.
For many women who marry late, I suspect that, like me, it is not a case of settling for Mr Not Quite Right, but of taking time to reach the point of understanding what true love and marriage is. In the process, many will have made choices that affect their situation — some good, some bad, some indifferent — and these choices will affect other decisions that a woman can make as she ages. Nor should we forget that the single life is not necessarily a choice between loneliness and endless dating, but can be embraced as a lifestyle with its own unique opportunities for love and service.
In my case, having reached a deeper understanding of love and marriage I actually started looking for an entirely different, and in all ways far better, spouse. For others this may mean rekindling relationships with those they previously dismissed, for others it means looking for different things in a man. For single mothers it may mean looking more intently for the second dimension (even if it is made more difficult by the demands of motherhood). For some who have already married it may be a time of lamentation: “If only I had known what true love is.” For most it is seeking what always was authentically best.
Lori Gottlieb has been honest in admitting that most women still want “a traditional family” and that the current obsession with soul mates gets in the way of realising this goal. But in her desperation to get there anyway she is willing to sacrifice the very bedrock of marriage, which is true love between the spouses. The result, in her case, would not be a traditional family at all but, in her own language, a completed “construction”.
If only she had been brave enough to inquire into the nature of true love and not dismiss it in a throwaway line (“whatever that is”) she might have done her sisters a real service. Instead, she has tried to persuade us that love can be put in brackets while we persist in our twentieth century habit of getting what we want. Perhaps few people will be swayed by her argument; certainly, no-one will be helped.
I momentarily stress each time I think of the mistakes I could have made in choosing a spouse with my earlier immature understanding of love and marriage. Instead I psychologically pinch myself each time I think of my husband and how much I truly love him and, with our children, of how perfect we are for one another.