Friday, February 24, 2012

Should You Settle?

If you are living in a great cosmopolitan metropolis and you are looking to marry you will almost always feel that you will have to settle.

The question inspires a pun: does settling down always involve settling? One thing we know: it’s not “settled” science.

People who live in smaller communities have to choose among a small number of potential spouses. They will be more practical and more rational in their decision-making. They will seek out one who will make them the best spouse.

People who live in very large cities are necessarily surrounded by an excess of potential mates. Thus, they abandon the idea of choosing who would make the best spouse and refer primarily to their own feelings.

Instead of setting out to find a mate they set out to find true love.

It’s a bad way to choose a spouse.

You might recall that Lori Gottlieb famously raised the question of settling, first in a magazine article, then in a book called: Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough.

Gottlieb argued that women should not wait around for Mr. Perfect. Since social and biological imperatives make the search for true love with Mr. Perfect a losing game, she recommended that women settle for Mr. Good Enough.

It’s actually an old argument. It says that something is better than nothing. It also says that if you wait until you have everything you will most likely end up with nothing.

Gottlieb addressed young women. She was trying to help them to steel their souls against the feminist siren song that has been telling them to postpone marriage and childbearing in favor of career advancement. She was trying to clue them in on marital reality.

Feminism has promised women that once they develop a fully independent life, to the point that they no longer need a man, then they will find the truest love. When they are no longer dependent on a man a man will love them for who they really are.

It was a clever marketing ploy. Feminists were not going to recruit young women to their cause if they told them that being a feminist would make them less marriageable. So, they told young women that if they became a feminist they would find the truest of true of love; they would be loved for themselves alone.

To the adolescent mind it’s a powerfully alluring message.

Gottlieb was encouraging young women to resist the feminist message and to make thoughtful and more intelligent decisions about mating.

Unfortunately, the question has gotten confused. Allow me to clarify the issues.

At its core the question of settling assumes that marriage is the natural and normal expression of romantic love.

If that is true, then the absence of a mad passionate romantic love means that you are settling.

This distorts reality. Most women draw a clear distinction between loving and being in love. And sometimes they distinguish between loving, being in love, and lusting after someone.

All these feelings should be distinguished from desperation.

If a woman loves a man but is not in love with him does that mean that she is settling or that she is making a reasoned decision. If she loves him and he loves her, if each would make an excellent spouse, and neither is madly in love with the other, does that mean that they are settling? Or does that mean that there is more to their marriage than sentiment?

If you call it settling you are casting a spell on marriage. You will have distorted the meaning of the ritual, while at the same time teaching people an unproductive way to make life-altering decisions. You will also have inflated everyone’s expectation of what marriage should or should not do.

Somehow or other people have lost track of the fact that marriage is a social arrangement where compatibility and character ought to be crucial factors.

Social institutions have NOT been created to fulfill your spiritual longings or to provide a therapeutic benefit. They exist to allow you to feel like a contributing member of the community.

As it happens some women have the good sense to fall in love with men who would be appropriate mates. Others seem to believe that they can only feel true romantic love if they are attracted to someone who is unacceptable on multiple levels.

Now the waters have been muddied even more by Jessica Bennett’s suggestion that when men are ready to settle down they too settle. Moreover they settle more often than women do.

To me this feels like yet another afternoon at the gender-bender’s. It sounds like Bennett wants us to believe that men and women place equal importance on romantic love.

Reporting on research performed by Prof. Helen Fisher Bennett writes:

Rather than living up to the stereotype of commitment-phobic bachelors, modern men reported that they fell in love just as often as women, were just as likely to believe that marriage is “forever,” and scarcely bit when asked whether they'd prefer to “just date a lot of people.” But most shocking was how many of the single men wanted to settle down—and how willing they were to lower their standards to make that happen. A whopping 31 percent of adult men said they’d commit to a person they were not in love with—as long as as she had all the other attributes they were looking for in a mate—and 21 percent said they'd commit under those same circumstances to somebody they weren't sexually attracted to. The equivalent numbers for women were far lower.

Are these men settling?

Not at all. They are simply making decisions befitting the male mind.

True enough, our culture has conditioned them to believe in true love and to think that they fall in love all the time.

But, back in the old days, when marriages were arranged by men, love was NOT an important or deciding factor.

When women were allowed to choose their husbands freely true love became a major component the decision to marry.

In most civilizations women have little say in the marital arrangement. Western civilization, especially the Anglo-American branch, righted that wrong. But, now we have gone from a situation where love had no say in marriage to a situation where we want love to have all the say.

Unfortunately, when love has all the say reason has very little. When you silence reason you are going to make a bad decision.

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