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What about love?

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There’s been a lot of feminist response to the fact that Lori Gottlieb expanded her article imploring women to settle down for Mr. Good Enough into a book titled Marry Him: The Case For Settling For Mr. Good Enough. It’s based on the false assumption that educated, middle class women are too picky and have trouble getting married. I’m not going to tear up the logic—the links provided do a handy job—but I have a serious question to ask in the face of this argument about “settling”: What about love?

The underlying assumption in this book and anything of the “you’d better settle or you’ll die alone with your cats!” genre is that women marry (or at least partner up) for children, companionship, and above all, so to prove that someone liked it enough to put a ring on it. And that men marry so that they have a nice house, children, and a regular source of sexual release that isn’t their hand. Anna at Jezebel summarizes Gottlieb’s point of view on this:

It’s not just that Lori Gottlieb takes an incredibly narrow view of what marriage is for (she keeps mentioning the desire “to be part of a traditional family”), or that she views life without a man as necessarily lonely and shitty (she’s especially harsh on the topic of girlfriends) — she also does all this with a vitriol that’s frankly bizarre.

This narrative about why people want to marry and do marry has a lot of traction in media, because it’s basically sexist and a lot of people fucking love that. But it also has no relationship to why most people actually want to marry, and what most people want their marriage (or partnership) to look like, which is love, baby, love. That’s what’s never directly discussed, and it’s frankly bizarre. The reason that women balk at the term “settle” isn’t because they’ve been poisoned by feminism to have too high of standards. It’s because the term implies marrying someone you don’t love, and agreeing to a terse exchange of your body and housework for the social approval and companionship of being a wife.

“But,” you might say, “She’s just saying that women are too picky and need to consider guys who aren’t maybe as tall or rich or handsome as they’ve been told they should want!” Well, I have to agree with the link to Matt above that at best you’re talking about a few women who refuse to listen to sensible advice like that. But more importantly, that argument is a red herring. The book isn’t titled Hey, Go Out With The Guy And Enjoy New Experiences, You Never Know Who’ll Knock You Off Your Feet. It’s titled Marry Him. To which I say to Ms Gottlieb: You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make her drink.

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Hey, maybe I’m all wrong here, and Gottlieb addresses the giant flaw I’m seeing. But I honestly doubt it. From Anna’s review, it seems Gottlieb thinks there’s a nationwide problem of women who are madly in love with excellent men, but throw them over for something relatively inconsequential. Or maybe Gottlieb is skeptical of love and romance, and sees dating as a game like “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire”, where you see how high you can go without failing out, and she’s suggesting you cut your losses at the quarter million question. Either way, “settling” is something people don’t do as much as Gottlieb would like, mostly because it falls out of the realm of how dating actually works.

I don’t know about you, but for myself and almost everyone I’ve ever known, you end up with your partner by going on a bunch of dates with different people until you meet someone who really does it for you. You probably do a lot of laughing and a whole lot of fucking, and by god! You’re in love and want to eat each other up. Sure, most people end up in a match with someone a lot like them, but it’s probably due less to actively rejecting and refusing to “settle”, and more to do with the fact that having a lot in common with someone rings a bunch of your bells. Indeed, I would point out that someone’s close friends are probably hitting a lot of the same notes as their beloved. I can’t even believe I’m explaining how this works, because duh. It’s a mystery. Even if you’ve never experienced it yourself, roll out some nauseating “save the date” videos on YouTube and get a full frontal gross out story of someone else’s passion. Why is it gross? Because it is in fact passion—private, unique, and even if the results are often close to what you’d get if you made a checklist of what you want in a potential partner, for those involved, it doesn’t feel that way. It feels like love.

Books and articles like this are aimed pretty much solely at women, which is fascinating if you look at it in this light. Women are being encouraged to see ourselves as items on sale, and to assess the bids we’re getting on our “price” realistically, instead of thinking our asses are so expensive. This is the anti-love view of relationships, but it’s certainly one that appeals on a misogynist level, since it devalues women as human beings who are capable of inspiring and feeling that kind of love, and instead positions women as products trying to attract the best price on the market. However, the implicit assumption of these articles is that men aren’t interested in love and passion, or else they’d be subject to the same entreaties to settle. The assumption is straight out of macho culture dictates—treat women like sex objects, disdain feminine things like romance, or you’re not a real man—but I’m not really sure that men, even sexist men, are generally interested in buying so deeply into this stereotype. Even the usual sexist crowd that shows up like clockwork every time Matt takes time to link a feminist on his blog were shockingly silent on this issue, squigged out by the mercenary, passionless assumptions behind calls to settle.

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Not that I think that there aren’t men who are so misogynist that they buy into a worldview that precludes real love between men and women. For instance, Glenn Beck characterized women as “psycho” while bragging about how men have no use for women beyond a source of food, housework, and sexual services—and that these should be provided in silence, because men have absolutely no interest in women’s personalities. But our culture has elevated romantic love so high that even the most sexist men occasionally feel obliged to flatter their wives with suggestions that deep down inside, they might actually like the old broad.

This, I think, is why you’ll hear some leftist types, including myself, suggest that love has a lot of radical potential. Our culture is very confused about romantic love. On one hand, men’s increased expectations for love and passion mean that men can’t always be counted on to punish women for being smart or funny or otherwise possessing the sort of traits that can inspire genuine crushing. On the other hand, we’re increasingly being told that it’s “romantic” for women to assume a submissive pose in love, when we’re not being subject to books prescribing a mercenary approach to dating that presumes men and women can’t really fall madly in love. On one hand, gay rights are gaining momentum in part because the American love of love is such that we can’t just exclude people arbitrarily. On the other hand, you’ve got this fundamentalist Christianity trend that is lashing out at the companionate marriage and demanding a return to “traditional” patriarchal marriage, though even they try to sell that as romantic. The wedding-industrial complex exists to make people feel if they spend enough money on the spectacle, they can have it both ways—passionate regard for each other, but traditional roles for women, too. It’s very interesting. Personally, I think love is winning out, and countervailing forces like fundamentalism, dating guides that take a mercenary approach, and spectacle weddings with lots of retrograde misogyny are going to lose this battle.

I will say that being a feminist seems to make love a lot easier in most ways. When you can declutter yourself of the role-playing and expectations put on you by a sexist culture, and commit yourself to looking at someone as a human being, it just goes more smoothly. And it’s more fun.


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