Mr Good Enough: The case for choosing a Real Man over holding out for Mr Perfect
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The Case for
Choosing a Real Man Over Holding Out for Mr Perfect
For my husband, whoever you are.
The events and facts presented in this book are true and based upon my reallife experiences and research. Names and personal details of some of my friends and others who appear in the book have been changed or, in a few instances, composites created either at the individual’s request or out of my concern for their privacy.
You know you’re in love when you can’t fall asleep
because reality is finally better than your dreams.
—Widely attributed to Dr.Seuss
A NEW STORE HAS OPENED. A HUSBAND STORE! THERE‘S A SIGN AT THE ENTRANCE:
YOU MAY VISIT THE HUSBAND STORE ONLY ONCE. THERE ARE SIX FLOORS, AND THE VALUE OF THE PRODUCTS INCREASE ON EACH SUCCESSIVE FLOOR. THE SHOPPER CAN CHOOSE ANY ITEM FROM A PARTICULAR FLOOR, OR GO UP TO SHOP ON THE NEXT FLOOR, BUT SHE CANNOT GO BACK DOWN EXCEPT TO EXIT THE BUILDING.
So, a woman goes into the store. On the first floor the sign on the door reads:
FLOOR I– MEN WHO HAVE GOOD JOBS.
“That’s nice,” she thinks, “but I want more.” So she continues upward, where the sign reads:
FLOOR 2—MEN WHO HAVE GOOD JOBS AND LOVE KIDS.
She’s intrigued, but continues to the third floor, where the sign reads:
FLOOR 3—MEN WHO HAVE GOOD JOBS, LOVE KIDS, AND ARE EXTREMELY HANDSOME.
“Wow,” she thinks, but feels compelled to keep going.
FLOOR 4—MEN WHO HAVE GOOD JOBS, LOVE KIDS, ARE EXTREMELY HANDSOME, AND HELP EQUALLY WITH THE HOUSEWORK.
“It can’t get better than this!” she exclaims. But then a voice inside her asks, “Or can it?” She goes up and reads the sign.
Floor 5—MEN WHO HAVE GOOD JOBS, LOVE KIDS, ARE EXTREMELY HANDSOME, HELP EQUALLY WITH THE HOUSEWORK, AND HAVE A GREAT SENSE OF HUMOR.
Having found what she’s looking for, she’s tempted to stay, but something propels her to the sixth floor, where the sign reads:
FLOOR 6—YOU ARE VISITOR 42,215,602 TO THIS FLOOR. THERE ARE NO MEN ON THIS FLOOR. THIS FLOOR ONLY EXISTS TO PROVE THAT WOMEN ARE IMPOSSIBLE TO PLEASE. THANK YOU FOR SHOPPING AT THE HUSBAND STORE.
To avoid gender bias charges, the store’s owner opened a Wife Store right across the street.
The first floor has wives who Love Sex.
The second floor has wives who Love Sex and Are Kind.
The third floor has wives who Love Sex, Are Kind, and Like Sports.
The fourth, fifth, and sixth floors have never been visited.
–My version of an old joke about choosing a husband
Okay, here they are. The qualities, off the top my head and in no particular order, that would be on my shopping list if I visited a Husband Store.
• Extremely funny
• Loves kids
• Financially stable
• Emotionally stable
• Same religion but not too religious
• Optimistic but not naive
• Ambitious but not a workaholic
• Talented but humble
• Warm but not clingy
• Grounded but not boring
• Soulful but not new-agey
• Vulnerable but not weak
• Quirky but not weird
• Free-spirited but responsible
• Charismatic but genuine
• Strong but sensitive
• Athletic but not a sports nut
• Open-minded but has conviction
• Decisive but not bossy
• Mature but not old
• Creative but not an artist
• Supportive of my dreams and goals
• Has a sense of wonderment about the world
• Is close to my age (shares my cultural references)
• Good listener and communicator
• Flexible and can compromise
• Sophisticated—well-educated, well-traveled, has been around
• Over 5’10” but under 6’0”
• Has a full head of hair (wavy and dark would be nice—no blonds)
• Has shared political views
• Has shared values
• Is not into sci-fi or comic books
• Has good taste/sense of aesthetics
• Health-conscious and physically fit
• Cares about the community at large
• Cares about animals
• Handy around the house
• Likes the outdoors (hiking, biking, Rollerblading)
• Likes my friends (and I like his)
• Not moody
• Is a team player
• Is literary and enjoys wordplay
• Is math– or science-oriented
• Likes discussing (but not arguing about) politics and world events
• Not a slob—respectful of our living space
• Is madly in love with me
Actually, this isn’t my current list. This is what I started off with when I sat down to write this book. I’d never made a “list” before, but a married friend put me up to it. I told her I didn’t have a list, and she insisted I did, even if it only existed in my head.
“I can’t quantify what I’m looking for,” I said. “I always just fell in love.”
But she was right: It took me all of three minutes to give a detailed description of my ideal guy. Even if I’d never written a list, I clearly kept a mental file. Then she took it a step further: Hone down the list to make it more realistic.
I gave it a try. I crossed off some easy items—he doesn’t have to know how to cook (besides, he could always learn); if he’s 5’7” instead of 5’10", I could live with that. But even as I eliminated some qualities, I found it hard to get rid of most entirely. Maybe I could compromise on “funny,” but where do you draw the line between a guy whose banter makes your heart race and one whose sense of humor merely makes you smile? On a sliding scale, how much passion would he need to be considered “passionate”?
There were so many variables. In the past, I dated a freelance artist, only to say that next time I wanted someone financially stable. Then I dated a doctor, but we didn’t connect creatively. Finding a financially stable artist or a doctor who wrote novels in his spare time wasn’t impossible—but pretty rare. And combine that with all the other characteristics I wanted, not to mention “chemistry,” and suddenly the mystery of why I was still single was solved.
Maybe the man I was looking for on paper simply didn’t exist. And maybe, as my friend suggested, some of these qualities weren’t that important when it came to a happy marriage anyway.
Yikes. What if she was right? Had I overlooked men who might have turned out to be great husbands because I was drawn to an instant spark and a checklist instead of a solid life partner?
Of course, I wasn’t completely clueless. By the time I hit 30, I knew that nobody was perfect (including me) and that whoever I married would be a flawed human being like the rest of us. I wasn’t expecting perfection so much as intense connection. I also knew that none of that heady first-blush excitement guaranteed everlasting love, but I felt that without this initial launching pad, romance would never get off the ground. As far as I was concerned, there was no point in going on a second date if there wasn’t a strong attraction on the first.
So, at least in the beginning of a relationship, I expected to be dazzled (even if that meant being so distracted by my object of affection that I nearly lost my job and risked my very livelihood). I expected to “just know” that he was The One (even if it often happened that a year later, I’d “just know” that I wanted to break up). 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 mail every thirty minutes). This was what “falling in love” felt like, right?
Meanwhile, my unconscious husband-shopping list grew even longer. Like a lot of women, the older I got, the more things I wanted in a guy, because while life experience taught me what I didn’t want in a relationship, it also gave me a better sense of what I did want. So the thinking would go: The last guy wasn’t X, so next time I want X … plus all the things I had on my list before. Basically, my Husband Store went from a six-story building to the world’s tallest skyscraper. And I didn’t think I was alone.
Could this be one reason that in 1975, almost 90 percent of women in the United States were married by age 30 but in 2004, only a little more than half were? Or why the percentages of never-married women in every age group studied by the U.S. Census Bureau (from 25 to 44) more than doubled between 1970 and 2006?
I wanted to find out.
A DIFFERENT KIND OF LOVE STORY
This book is a love story. It’s not mine, exactly, but it could be yours.
It all started with a dinner I had with my editor at the Atlantic. I was 39 years old, a journalist and single mother with a toddler, and I was grumbling about a date I’d had the night before with a lisping 45-year-old lawyer who chewed with his mouth open and talked nonstop for three hours about his ex-wife but failed to ask a single question about me. I didn’t know if I had it in me to go on another date. Ever. I was so tired of having to talk to strangers over plates of pasta when all I wanted was to hang out in sweatpants with my husband on a Saturday night, like my married friends did.
How had this become my life?
Just two years earlier, I’d written “The XY Files” for the Atlantic, where I told the story of my decision, at age 37, to have a baby on my own. Obviously, this wasn’t my childhood dream, but neither was marrying someone who wasn’t The One—and so far I didn’t think I’d found him. I wanted to have a baby while I still could, so instead of signing up with another online dating site, I registered with an online sperm donor site. Soon I found myself pregnant and still hopeful that I’d meet Mr. Right. My plan was to have a baby first, find “true love” later. At the time, I felt empowered and even wrote in the pages of the magazine that what I was doing seemed somewhat romantic.
Well … hahahahahahaha!
Now, at dinner with my editor, I couldn’t stop laughing. Of course, I was ecstatically in love with my child, but let’s face it: Things weren’t so romantic over in the Gottlieb household. Like my married friends with small children, I was sleep-deprived, cranky, and overwhelmed, but unlike them, I was doing it all alone. Sure, sometimes they complained about their husbands and, at first, I felt proud of my decision not to end up like them—in what seemed like less-than-ideal marriages, with less-than-ideal spouses. But it didn’t take long before I realized that none of them would trade places with me for a second. In fact, despite their complaints, they actually were really happy—and in many cases, happier than they’d ever been. All those things that seemed so important when they were dating now had little relevance to their lives. Instead, the idea of choosing to run a household together—as unglamorous and challenging and mundane as that was—seemed to be the ultimate act of “true love.” Why hadn’t I looked at marriage that way five years ago?
“If I knew then what I know now,” I told my editor, “I would have approached dating differently.” But how could I have known?
As a single 42-year-old friend put it, for many women it’s a Catch-22. “If I’d settled at thirty-nine,” she said, “I always would have had the fantasy that something better exists out there. Now I know better. Either way, I was screwed.”
I remember being surprised that my friend, a smart and attractive producer, was basically saying she should have settled. But she explained that I had it all wrong. She didn’t mean resigning herself to a life of quiet misery with a man she cared little about. She meant opening herself up to a fulfilling life with a great guy who might not have possessed every quality on her checklist. In her thirties, she told me, she used to consider “settling” to mean anything less than her ideal guy, but now, in her forties, she’d come to realize that she’d been confusing “settling” with “compromising.”
I’d come to the same conclusion, and I started asking myself some important questions. What’s the difference between settling and compromising? When it comes to marriage, what can we live with, and what can we live without? How long does it make sense to hold out for someone better—who we may never find, and who may not exist or be available to us even if he did—when we could be happy with the person right in front of us?
I brought up these questions with my editor that night, and neither of us had the answers. For the next two hours, he talked about his marriage and I talked about the dating world, and when the check came, he thought I should explore these issues in an article.
Over the following weeks, as I spoke with friends and acquaintances about their relationships, something surprised me. Whether or not these people went into marriage head-over-heels in love, there seemed to be little difference in how happy they were now. Both kinds of marriages seemed to be working or not working equally well or poorly. Meanwhile, the women I spoke to who were single—and unhappy about their single state—were still nixing guys who were “obsessed with sports” or “too short,” because they figured that if they married the short guy who didn’t read novels, they’d be unsatisfied in that marriage. Yet the women who had done just that weren’t.
When “Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough” appeared in the Valentine’s Day issue of the Atlantic, I pored over e-mails from complete strangers—men and women, married and single, ranging in age from 18 to 78. The notes were incredibly personal, and most people admitted that they’d struggled with these same questions in their own lives. Some had resolved them happily and felt grateful to be with a more realistic Mr. Right. Others regretted letting a great guy go for what now seemed like trivial reasons. Still others said that marrying for “fireworks” left them feeling like they were settling once the pilot light went out because once they could see each other clearly, they realized they weren’t that compatible after all. Some—including priests, rabbis, matchmakers, and marriage therapists—felt that adjusting our expectations in a healthy way would help members of their congregations, clients, friends, or family members find real romantic fulfillment.
But where did that leave me? Out in the dating world, I was doing exactly what I’d suggested in the Atlantic article. I was trying to be more open-minded and realistic, and focus on what was going to be important in a long-term marriage instead of a short-term romance, but somehow that didn’t seem to be working. I was still drawn to guys who were my “type,” and when I dated guys who weren’t, I just wasn’t feeling “it.” I wasn’t looking for instant butterflies anymore, but there had to be some “it” there, right? And if so, how much “it” was enough?
WHAT IF I WANT A DIFFERENT 8?
Then I got an e-mail from a single woman who wrote that she wasn’t looking for the perfect 10 in a mate—an 8 would be great. She was even dating an 8. But there was just one problem, she said: “What if I want a different 8?”
That, I realized, was exactly my problem—and so many other women’s, too. She agreed that we should be looking for Mr. Good Enough (who exists) instead of Prince Charming (who doesn’t), but she didn’t know how to make it work in practice. Neither did I. In fact, when readers wrote in saying that they’d decided to get engaged because of my article, I worried that five years later, I’d get a slew of e-mails saying that they were getting divorced because of my article, since nobody knew what being more realistic actually meant. How much compromise is too much compromise? How do you know if you’re being too picky or if you’re really not right for each other? If being with Mr. Good Enough means sharing both passion and connection, but also having more reasonable expectations, how do you balance those things?
In order to find out, I decided that I’d have to become a dating guinea pig. I’d go out there and get some answers—then apply them to my life in the real world.
I started by talking to cutting-edge marriage researchers, behavioral economists, sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, neurobiologists, couples therapists, spiritual leaders, matchmakers, divorce lawyers, dating coaches, and even mothers. I also listened to stories from single and married people who had helpful experiences to share. I didn’t expect anyone to have the answer, of course, but I was hoping that with some guidance and insight, I’d come closer to finding the right guy. Maybe I’d help others do that, too.
What follows isn’t an advice book or dating manual. There are no worksheets to fill out or “rules” to follow. Instead, it’s an honest look at why our dating lives might not be going as planned, and what our own roles in that might be. Then it’s up to the reader to decide what kinds of choices she wants to make in the future.
I’ll warn you that you might not like what some of these experts have to say. At first, I didn’t either, and I spent a lot of time kicking and screaming in denial of the facts. But eventually I realized that knowledge was power, and this journey changed me and my dating life profoundly. It could change yours, too.
Because in the end, I discovered that finding a guy to get real with is the true love story.
One night, my friend Julia called to say that she had just broken up with her boyfriend, Greg.
“I just wasn’t inspired by him,” she said.
When Julia met Greg two years earlier, they were both 28 and he was her coworker at a nonprofit. She thought he was cute, sweet, and very smart. He was kind of unstylish—he wore nerdy highwaisted corduroys all the time—but she liked how “real” he was, how “unpretentious” and “nonmaterialistic.” She also felt at ease with him in a way she hadn’t with previous boyfriends. Julia had never dated anyone as supportive as Greg. Whatever her goals were, he helped her out. Whenever someone wronged her, he had her back. Whenever she felt insecure, he made her feel beautiful. You’d think this would have made her love him all the more, and it did—at first. But now, as Greg started talking about marriage, it began to have the opposite effect.
“Greg made me feel like I was the most wonderful woman in the world,” she said. “So then I started thinking, ‘If I’m so wonderful, maybe I should be with someone better.’”
By “better” she meant, in part, “someone more charismatic.” Greg could be shy and somewhat insecure in social situations, while Julia was confident and outgoing. Julia was quick with the one-liners, while Greg had a more subtle sense of humor. Greg came from a more modest background than Julia did, so he didn’t always share the more sophisticated references that came up with Julia’s friends in conversation.
Meanwhile, thanks to Greg’s encouragement, Julia had risen up the ladder at work—and eventually earned more money than he did. Not a lot more, but it made Julia uncomfortable.
“I want to work,” Julia said. “But I don’t know. It’s not how I imagined my marriage would be.”
When I asked how she imagined it, she let out an embarrassed sigh.
“Honestly?” she said. “I guess I want my husband to be more of a go-getter.”
I pointed out that Greg was sweeter than anyone she’d dated, especially her last boyfriend, the ambitious lawyer who often “forgot” to call her when he said he would. Greg was loving and reliable. He was passionate about his work. They had great sex. They shared similar interests, especially because they worked in the same field. They had a lot of fun together.
“But he wasn’t inspiring enough,” Julia repeated. “He’s just this, you know, really nice, regular kind of guy. I started feeling like, ‘This is it? This is the guy I’ve waited all my life for?’ I’m worried that long-term, I’m going to outgrow him. I’m going to want more.”
“More what?” I asked.
The phone line went silent for what seemed like a long time.
“More like I imagined,” Julia said. “He just wasn’t husband material.”
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