I’ve been thinking about settling.

Yesterday I followed links through to Lori Gottlieb’s infamous article Marry Him!, published a few years ago in the Atlantic Magazine. It’s a call on women to settle, because otherwise they won’t have a chance to get married.

It didn’t irritate me as much as I thought it would. I mean, mind you, I disagree with it on pretty much every point, especially the silly tired refrain that women’s dating shelf life is shorter than men’s because middle-aged men are still attractive and middle-aged women aren’t anymore. Like, OK, I think this is something that Hollywood thinks is true, where female actors are edged out the minute they turn 40. (Or are given stupid roles – see e.g. Winona Ryder playing Zachary Quinto’s mum in Star Trek. They had to draw wrinkles on her, for goodness’ sake.)

But I don’t think it’s something that’s actually true in real life – I’ve never seen evidence for it that goes beyond the anecdotal. Mostly it seems to be a stick that women beat themselves with and something ageing male single losers tell themselves to soothe their bruised egos. Insofar as it is true, and there is no evidence that it is, the basis for the idea – that middle-aged men still have money and prestige to attract partners with, and middle-aged women have lost their beauty which is women’s only currency – is no longer holding true, since nowadays women have money and bigass careers as well. It’s not an idea that works if you acknowledge that both genders can hold power in the same ways.

But I am getting distracted! Settling. There’s a lot of discussion and anxiety about settling in the comments to that article, with some people saying oh yes it’s got to be done, and other people saying oh I would never.

It occurred to me that one never talks about settling in the context of any other type of relationship. You wouldn’t worry about “settling” for your best friend. Of course, after the age of 13 few people swear lifelong commitment to their best friends, but even if there is no legal structure to hold that sort of commitment as there is for two-person romantic relationships, if you’re lucky enough to have a BFF I think you hope to be BFFs indefinitely. And “indefinitely” is really just a noncommittal way of saying “forever”.

But if you want to talk about lifelong relationships that society acknowledges as being incredibly important, what about children? Of course, usually you don’t choose your children; they arrive and you’re grateful for what you’re given. But say if you were adopting. It would be pretty chilling if your approach was, “OK, so now I’ve managed to adopt this kid … but is this really the best possible kid for me that I could have? Couldn’t I maybe shop around for another?”

I mean, the conjugal relationship is obviously different for various reasons, and I would never encourage anyone to settle for somebody they didn’t love and respect and get along with. I think women tend to be pushed too much to settle anyway. (See Gottlieb’s article, and various articles along the same vein of threatening independent-minded, self-willed women with ETERNAL LONELINESS.) I’ve been enraged before when people have told me to back off on arguments with P on matters of principle because “other guys wouldn’t put up with it”, implying that I should just be grateful for what I had and stay quiet. Well, I’m not with other guys and I’m not going to hold back on things I feel strongly about, things that really matter, out of a craven desire to keep my man. Now that would be settling, in the worst kind of way.

But equally, the anxiety about settling seems to me slightly overblown – a symptom of a consumerist culture that tells you you can have anything you like, done up to your specifications, if you’re willing to pay for it. So to think of a person you get along with and love and think, “He’s all right, but if only he was about 20% more passionate and liked backpacking instead of staying in fancy hotels, and if only he wasn’t quite so bald – ” Man, that’s not you knowing your mind and carving out a path to an optimally fulfilled life. That’s you treating people like things. (And that applies just as much to required levels of passion as to conditions regarding hair.)


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