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.)


The privilege of marriage

I left a rather preachy comment on APW drawing lawyerlike distinctions between the advantages of married/partnered life and the cultural privilege attaching to marriage. I felt a bit embarrassed afterwards – it always embarrasses me to disagree with strangers – but it seemed important to me to make the distinction.

(For the record I think the distinction lies in the fact that an advantage is a benefit that arises from the relationship itself – so if you’ve got a partner you get the benefit of, e.g., a buddy to go to the cinema with whenever you want. Whereas privilege is about benefits that arise from sources external to the relationship and that are institutionally enforced/reinforced: the fact that most people regard marriage as being more significant than an unmarried long-term partnership, the tax benefits, legal rights, fact that divorce courts are used to dealing with similar cases, etc.)

Perhaps it’s difficult for someone in my position – and many of the APW commenters will be in this position – to talk about the cultural privilege of marriage. As a lady marrying a dude it was clear from the outset of our relationship that if we wanted to marry that option was open to us. But then again, since we have decided to get married, clearly we are doing so because we want to access the privileges accruing to that status.

And it’s a bit tricky to define what those privileges are if you’re just going to focus on the social and cultural privileges and not the legal or economic. For a woman, marriage is definitely a social marker of success. I know Western feminists come under a certain amount of internal pressure not to marry – there’s this view that it means settling down, sacrificing your dreams, giving up your life for a man (I imagine this doesn’t apply as much to same-sex marriages) – but all the same, if you’re talking about external societal views, failure to marry by a certain age is seen as, well, a failure. (See, e.g., Kate Bolick’s much-publicised but boring article about marriage. I prefer Hadley Freeman’s treatment of the issue. You can tell Freeman is writing in a British newspaper because all the commenters think it’s hilarious that Bolick’s name sounds like bollocks.)

So when I told my relatives I was engaged my aunt said to me, “Wow, everything going well in your life, hah? Job going well, planning for your wedding … ” The implication was that everything was ideal because I had all the boxes ticked. If my career had been going well but I didn’t have that “engaged!” stamp, that wouldn’t have presented quite as rosy a prospect. I remember thinking bemusedly that yes, everything was going fairly well (though haha, I don’t know about the career, but never mind about that for the moment). But everything had been going well before the engagement. I’d already had an awesome partner, a decent job, and an occasionally-paid evening hobby/vocation that I was having some small success in.

I think this widespread view of marriage as an essential component of the good life, particularly for women, is the reason why my friends – most of them single, high-achieving young female professionals – come under so much pressure from their parents to find a dude and eventually get married. After all my friends (and I!) have been pushed from a young age to succeed academically, collect the right sort of extracurriculars, get into a prestigious university and get a good job. So of course we are pushed to succeed on the relationship side as well. What parents often say when they do this kind of pushing is that they want us to be happy, they don’t want us to be alone when we’re older, etc. But it’s not about happiness because my friends are happy and I was happy when I was single, and there’s no guarantee that a relationship will provide happiness – it’s just as likely that a relationship will introduce chaos and despair! It’s about success.

That said, I don’t think this aspect is really about the privilege of marriage; it’s more about sexism – women being viewed as less-than if they can’t get a man. The cultural privilege of marriage definitely exists, I just find it difficult to sort out what it is. Something to keep thinking about!

An idea of married life

I was going to call it “a dream of married life”, but that implies it’s an ideal, and it is in some ways (the enduring affection, the shared dream) and not in others (the dream deferred, opportunities lost).

But it makes me have a lot of feelings, and even more so now that married life is a reality I shall soon participate in rather than something hypothetical.

On a shallow note, I think her dress is really cute!