Should You Just "Settle"? The Art of Finding a Mate

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Lori Gottlieb, Author, Marry Him

Author Lori Gottlieb's new book, Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough, has caused a furor among readers. The controversy -- Is the book advising women to settle for too little, or is it simply advising women to reconsider what they value most in a mate?

Here Ms. Gottlieb discusses the nuances of "settling."

Define “settling.”

Let me clarify that I’m not using “settling” literally – you should absolutely be truly in love with and attracted to your partner, and you must have physical and emotional chemistry.  I’m using it instead to get women to think about what really matters for romantic happiness and fulfillment – and what doesn’t. 

In a survey I cite in the book, women and men were asked if they’d be happy if they got 80 percent of everything they want in a partner.  Women said “No, that’s settling.”  Men said, “Yes, that’s a catch!”  So how close to our ideal is close enough that we’ll be happy?  That’s what I explore in MARRY HIM.

Why should a woman settle? 

She shouldn’t, if you define it to mean being with somebody you’re not in love with.  MARRY HIM isn’t about lowering your expectations – it’s about having high expectations, but about the things that truly matter so you can fall in love – real love, deep love that lasts.  I’m not asking women to stop looking for Mr. Right – I’m suggesting that we change our sometimes rigid perception of who Mr. Right is.  People can surprise you.

Does this advice apply to adult women of all ages, or just to women of a certain age? 

In MARRY HIM, I interviewed a rabbi and asked, “Would you be giving me this advice if I were 31?”  And he said, “Absolutely!  In fact, I’d be giving you this advice at 21, because the younger you are, the more you’re going to be dazzled by the wrong things – the things that won’t matter at all when you’re married to this person and going through day-to-day life together.”

You present the sense that time is of the essence for women hoping to find a partner. Does this urgency apply to women who want a partner in life, but who may not feel the need to be married or have children? Can they wait longer? Are there different rules for these women?  

Marriage or no marriage, kids or no kids, the fact is – and this isn’t my opinion, these are other people’s data I cite in the book – it’s harder to find a partner the older you get.  But – and this important – I’m not saying, "Oh, now that you’re older, panic and lower your standards."  Not at all!  I’m saying that, at any age, look for the qualities that are important, and let go of the ones that aren’t.  And if you figure out what those qualities are when you’re 30, you have a much easier time finding the person closer to your ideal than if it doesn’t sink in until you’re, say, 40 (like I was when I started working on this book).

Have you settled?

Absolutely not.  Instead, I opened up to the possibility that maybe I was wrong that there was a certain type of guy who could make me happy.  The guy who became my boyfriend was 5’6” and I used to think, in a knee-jerk way, “I won’t be attracted to somebody who’s 5’6”, so why bother even meeting him?”  Then I’d click over to another profile.  But I did meet him, and it turned out I was very attracted to him and the height made no difference in terms of how sexy I thought he was. 

I also used to tell myself, “I’m a writer, I need to be with someone creative – not a numbers guy.”  And he wasn’t an artist or a writer, but he was incredibly creative in other ways – and we never lacked for conversation or commonalities.  So what I might have assumed would be settling, sight-unseen, was actually not settling at all.  Turns out a guy who’s 5’6” and not in a creative field can be a much better match for me and make me a lot happier than the 5’10” writers I’ve dated in the past.

How can a woman know when she’s over-settling?

Well, that’s what a full 318 pages in the book explore.  So I won’t even attempt to sum it up in one sentence here!

Do you think it’s possible that being alone is better than settling?

Being alone is much better than being with someone you aren’t into.  No question.  But again, my book is about finding someone you’re totally into, by letting go of our preconceived notions of what that guy must be like.

Does your advice apply to men too? (I’m thinking of those men who are single and lonely – but who continue to go for girls who are “out of their league” and would never reciprocate their affections.)

I do talk about men and what they’re unnecessarily picky about.  There’s an entire chapter in the book about people who are “maximizers” (people who need the absolute best in any given thing or person) and people who are “satisficers” (people who have high, but realistic, standards) – these are terms coined by Barry Schwartz, a professor at Swarthmore who studies the way we make choices.  And Schwartz found in his studies that the maximizers are less happy than the satisficers, in all areas of life.  But while men and women can both be maximizers, women tend to be maximizers more than men in the dating world.  Which, of course, leads to unhappiness in the dating world.

Are there areas in a relationship where you just should not settle?

Again, you should never settle for somebody you’re not in love with.  But the point of MARRY HIM is to look at what we consider deal-breakers (he has kids from a previous marriage, he’s not literary enough, etc.) and separate those out from the things that really matter for long-term happiness (shared values, ability to make each other laugh, ability to communicate well with each other, kindness, empathy, “getting” each other, etc.).  Many experts told me that we’ve been too picky about the things that don’t matter, and not picky enough about the things that do!

Does this idea of settling apply to other areas of one’s life – are we all just asking for and expecting too much these days?

We do live in a culture that focuses on “having it all” and “getting the best” – whatever that means.  And this goes back to Barry Schwartz and that chapter in MARRY HIM on maximizers and satisficers.    Most people are happiest getting most of what they want – they don’t need “everything” to be happy.

Lori Gottlieb is a bestselling author and journalist whose work has appeared in publications such as The New York Times, The Atlantic, Time, People, and many more.  She is also a commentator for NPR’s All Things Considered and a contributor to PRI’s This American Life.

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  • It is important to think about what is important in your life. Is it important if he alphabetizes the spices? no...Is it important if he cleans the bathroom perfectly every Saturyday morning? it important if you are interested in each other and care about each other? ...yes ! It is very important to listen to yourself and then to also listen to what your partner is saying as well.

    Posted by Randi, 8 March 2010.