Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Natural "Rules"

The March Atlantic Monthly has a significant piece on bringing reality back to romance. The author, Lori Gottlieb, is a single woman whose arrival at her 40th birthday has made her realize that she had been living in a world floating free of reality, that fantasy constructed by Hollywood and Madison Avenue in which each of us is destined to find heaven on earth in a "soul mate".

About two and a half years ago Ms. Gottlieb wrote about breaking up with her good but imperfect boyfriend and having herself impregnated artificially1. At the time, I was surprised at her frank block-headedness but also her chutzpah in insouciantly defending her decision to be a "single mother by choice" in the letters section a couple months later. (Let me make it explicit that I'm not faulting singles mothers who have no alternative; the stupidity is Ms. Gottlieb's wholehearted choice to do so.)

Well, Ms. Gottlieb has realized she was wrong and publicly admitted it, for which we should commend her.1 She's not quite to the point of admitting the injustice she's done to her child by choosing to raise him without a father, but she does at least clearly see the unnecessary trouble she's put herself through:

The couples my friend and I saw at the park that summer were enviable but not because they seemed so in love—they were enviable because the husbands played with the kids for 20 minutes so their wives could eat lunch. In practice, my married friends with kids don’t spend that much time with their husbands anyway (between work and child care), and in many cases, their biggest complaint seems to be that they never see each other. So if you rarely see your husband—but he’s a decent guy who takes out the trash and sets up the baby gear, and he provides a second income that allows you to spend time with your child instead of working 60 hours a week to support a family on your own—how much does it matter whether the guy you marry is The One?

That's right: nature has designed procreation to be a package deal. Women need husbands not just to become pregnant, but also to help raise the issue of the union. As she puts it, "marriage ultimately isn’t about cosmic connection—it’s about how having a teammate, even if he’s not the love of your life, is better than not having one at all."

She's also realized (surprise) that being a single mother has made her less attractive to potential mates. You've got to wonder about a culture that allows an educated woman to get to her thirties without realizing the hard realities of love and family.2

But article is not so much about how much she needs the presence of a father for her child, but about the bill of goods about romance that she'd been sold and how she knows better now.

A number of my single women friends admit (in hushed voices and after I swear I won’t use their real names here) that they’d readily settle now but wouldn’t have 10 years ago. They believe that part of the problem is that we grew up idealizing marriage—and that if we’d had a more realistic understanding of its cold, hard benefits, we might have done things differently. Instead, we grew up thinking that marriage meant feeling some kind of divine spark, and so we walked away from uninspiring relationships that might have made us happy in the context of a family.

In an online interview she calls this hard aspect of reality "settling."

Well, [settling is] different for different people. But you look at what you need and what you want. You may have certain needs, like having a child. And kindness from your spouse. And reliability and stability and safety. But beyond that, what do you desire? You desire passion. You desire shared interests. You desire a certain level of intimacy. If your needs are met but your desires aren’t, that may be how you can tell if you’re settling.

I think she's needlessly dour about "settling." Isn't it simply a virtue (humility) to conform oneself to reality? There are two forms of "settling": the first is dumping all standards to marry anyone, the second is shedding the illusions our culture has foisted on us. The first is settling in the fully pejorative sense, and the second is just waking up to reality. Ms. Gottlieb's continued ambivalence about reality is the remnant of the thinking that got her where she is today, relationship-wise. Reality has a way of not only denying our expectations, but of transcending them.

But at least she now realizes that there are illusions that need to be discarded:

Because we’re conditioned to crave that Big Love. Every romantic comedy we see, every novel we read, every ideal we might have had as teenagers is about that. I remember this scene in Sex and the City when Charlotte, who has just come back from another bad date, says, “You know, I’ve been dating since I was 15. I’m exhausted. Where is he?” Like he is this guy who exists somewhere. And Miranda shoots back, “Who, the white knight?” It’s painful how pervasive the fantasy is that the one is out there somewhere, that he’s just as lonely as you are, and that he’s eager to find you. And that destiny or $29.99 on or whatever it is will bring you two together. (from interview)

In the article she goes further and says that our culture's ideals are not only empty illusions, but even were they true, would actually misdirect to less happy matches.

And while Rachel and her supposed soul mate, Ross, finally get together (for the umpteenth time) in the finale of Friends, do we feel confident that she’ll be happier with Ross than she would have been had she settled down with Barry, the orthodontist, [she left at the altar] 10 years earlier? She and Ross have passion but have never had long-term stability, and the fireworks she experiences with him but not with Barry might actually turn out to be a liability, given how many times their relationship has already gone up in flames. It’s equally questionable whether Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw, who cheated on her kindhearted and generous boyfriend, Aidan, only to end up with the more exciting but self-absorbed Mr. Big, will be better off in the framework of marriage and family. (Some time after the breakup, when Carrie ran into Aidan on the street, he was carrying his infant in a Baby Björn. Can anyone imagine Mr. Big walking around with a Björn?)

When we’re holding out for deep romantic love, we have the fantasy that this level of passionate intensity will make us happier. But marrying Mr. Good Enough might be an equally viable option, especially if you’re looking for a stable, reliable life companion. Madame Bovary might not see it that way, but if she’d remained single, I’ll bet she would have been even more depressed than she was while living with her tedious but caring husband.

She seems to be describing a sort of game of chicken our illusions push us toward: how long can you go without lowering your standards?

Take the date I went on last night. The guy was substantially older. He had a long history of major depression and said, in reference to the movies he was writing, “I’m fascinated by comas” and “I have a strong interest in terrorists.” He’d never been married. He was rude to the waiter. But he very much wanted a family, and he was successful, handsome, and smart. As I looked at him from across the table, I thought, Yeah, I’ll see him again. Maybe I can settle for that. But my very next thought was, Maybe I can settle for better. It’s like musical chairs—when do you take a seat, any seat, just so you’re not left standing alone?


The paradox, of course, is that the more it behooves a woman to settle, the less willing she is to settle; a woman in her mid- to late 30s is more discriminating than one in her 20s. She has friends who have known her since childhood, friends who will know her more intimately and understand her more viscerally than any man she meets in midlife. Her tastes and sense of self are more solidly formed. She says things like “He wants me to move downtown, but I love my home at the beach,” and, “But he’s just not curious,” and “Can I really spend my life with someone who’s allergic to dogs?”

So by making the perfect the enemy of the good, she like too many women (and men) these days has backed herself into having to find contentment with far, far less than she would ever have conceived in her younger days.

There's much more worth reading in the article, which is available for free online.

Of course, none of this is new. Just as men have always been prone to sensuality—to objectifying women, using them as means to their own sexual gratification—, women have always been prone to the sentimentality that rules today's popular notions of love and marriage. Karol Wojtyla defines sentiment as "susceptibility (which is different from sensual excitability) to the sexual value residing in a ‘whole person of the other sex’, to ‘femininity’ or ‘masculinity’" (110). He further describes sentimentality and the problems to which it gives rise:

Idealization of the object of love is a well-known phenomenon....The ideal is more powerful than the real, living human being, and the latter often becomes merely the occasion for an eruption in the subject’s emotional consciousness of the values which he or she longs with all his heart to find in another person. (112)

[Sentiment] shows a characteristic ambivalence; it seeks to be near the beloved person, seeks proximity and expressions of tenderness, yet it is remote from the beloved in that it does not depend for its life on that person’s true value, but on those values to which the subject clings as to its ideal. This is why sentimental love is very often a cause of disillusionment. (113, emphasis added)

Sentimentality, like sensuality, can become an occasion for using another person to gratify one's individual desires.3 This is the core temptation that Ms. Gottlieb, like so many modern women, fell prey.

No, none of this is new. What is new is the technology and the social structures it inspires that allow such sentimentality to continue for so long unchecked by reality. But new technology hasn't and never can touch the core reality of humanity. At best technology helps us to perfect what we are; at worst it warps what we've been created to be and alienates us from ourselves, but it can never give us a new nature: the parts we kludge together out of our detached desires will never come together to form an integral whole. They cannot because they are imposed from outside and don't develop from an inner unity.

The Pill may make it possible for women to sleep around as carelessly as men, but it cannot excoriate the innermost essence of femininity: to nurture life. We'll never be rid of that without destroying womanhood itself. Artificial insemination may make it possible to conceive a child in the absence of a father, but it will never eliminate a woman's need for a husband or a child's need for a father without eliminating women and children altogether.

None of this is new, but we can thank Lori Gottlieb for exposing the problem today. Perhaps it will inspire a new generation to rethink "better living through chemistry" and return to the perennial wisdom inherent in nature.

More worthy commentary on this article on GodSpy.


1. I just wonder if there are women, inspired to follow her example, to whom she should apologize.

2. Ms. Gottlieb's outsized ego doesn't seem to fit in someone else's shoes, so to speak. On the other hand, while her repentance at having her child on her own appears to revolve purely around herself and her own convenience, I'm willing to chalk that up to being merely her rhetorical approach to convince today's self-centered populace.

3. As I've long observed, romance novels are women's equivalent of pornography. C.S. Lewis had some instructive words to remind us how our culture had bollixed up its conception of marriage in his The Screwtape Letters, in which a senior devil writes his nephew advice on tempting his "patient":

We [devils] have done this [derailed marriage] through the poets and novelists by persuading he humans that a curious, and usually short-lived, experience which they call "being in love" is the only respectable ground for marriage; that marriage can, and ought to, render this excitement permanent; and that a marriage which does not do so is no longer binding.

The Enemy [God] described a married couple as "one flesh". He did not say "a happily married couple" or "a couple who married because they were in love", but you can make the humans ignore that. You can also make them forget that the man they call Paul did not confine it to married couples. Mere copulation, for him, makes "one flesh". You can thus get the humans to accept as rhetorical eulogies of "being in love" what were in fact plain descriptions of the real significance of sexual intercourse. The truth is that wherever a man lies with a woman, there, whether they like it or not, a transcendental relation is set up between them which must be eternally enjoyed or eternally endured. From the true statement that this transcendental relation was intended to produce, and, if obediently entered into, too often will produce, affection and the family, humans can be made to infer the false belief that the blend of affection, fear, and desire which they call "being in love" is the only thing that makes marriage either happy or holy. The error is easy to produce because "being in love" does very often, in Western Europe, precede marriages which are made in obedience to the Enemy's designs, that is, with the intention of fidelity, fertility and good will; just as religious emotion very often, but not always, attends conversion. In other words, the humans are to be encouraged to regard as the basis for marriage a highly-coloured and distorted version of something the Enemy really promises as its result. Two advantages follow. In the first place, humans who have not the gift of continence can be deterred from seeking marriage as a solution because they do not find themselves "in love", and, thanks to us, the idea of marrying with any other motive seems to them low and cynical. Yes, they think that. They regard the intention of loyalty to a partnership for mutual help, for the preservation of chastity, and for the transmission of life, as something lower than a storm of emotion. (Don't neglect to make your man think the marriage-service very offensive.) In the second place any sexual infatuation whatever, so long as it intends marriage, will be regarded as "love", and "love" will be held to excuse a man from all the guilt, and to protect him from all the consequences, if marrying a heathen, a fool, or a wanton.

Lori Gottlieb, "Marry Him!," Atlantic Monthly (March 2008), 76-83.

Sara Lipka, "The Case for Mr. Not-Quite-Right" (February 7, 2008).

Karol Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1981). Helpful summary here.


Anonymous said...

Bravo. Very insightful! A physicist that can think- A rarity!

JS Wilson

Lawrence Gage said...

Thanks, Mr. Wilson!

Also of interest: Amanda Witt of Wittinshire links not only this post (flattering!), but also a great piece on the unreality of thinking there's always something better than what ya' got: "WHAT YOU THINK IS OUT THERE, AIN'T OUT THERE".


Anonymous said...

Might want to change the name of your blog for this post. Not a single bit to do with physics.

Lawrence Gage said...

Dear Anonymous,

You might want to read the blog before displaying your ignorance.