In her Atlantic article, Gottlieb calls the problem one of the "most complicated, painful, and pervasive dilemmas many single women are forced to grapple with nowadays: Is it better to be alone, or to settle?"
In her review of Gottlieb's book in The New York Times Book Review, Amy Finnerty describes Gottlieb's restatement of the problem as follows:
Gottlieb makes a case that many women today end up alone because they hold men to insanely high standards. . . . She convinces us that we women are simply too fussy, entitled and downright delusional about our own worth in the mating marketplace. We overanalyze and seek undiluted sexual and intellectual fulfillment, thus setting men up for failure.But both formulations of the problem miss the point. Gottlieb is closest to the real issue when, in her Atlantic article, she observes:
I've been told that the reason so many women end up alone is that we have too many choices. I think it's the opposite: we have no choice. If we could choose, we'd choose to be in a healthy marriage based on reciprocal passion and friendship. But the only choices on the table, it sometimes seems, are settle or risk being alone forever. That's not a whole lot of choice.Sadly, Gottlieb doesn't expand upon this insight. Neither female pickiness nor a sense of being forced to choose between settling and solitary lives is the problem; these phenomena are side-effects of the real problem: American men aren't well-matched for America's post-feminist women.
The most serious failure of feminism was to ignore the fact that gender roles are relational. Men's and women's roles fit together like puzzle pieces (or like yin and yang). Radical alteration of one of the roles requires a similar level of change in the other role for the two roles to continue to be compatible. Feminists devoted extensive thought, theory and action to the cause of revising a woman's role; to the extent that the gave any thought to men's roles, however, they seem to have assumed that men would adjust.
Men have not adjusted. While women struggle under extraordinary social pressure to be educated and sociable, have careers and families, be sexy and mothers, be emotionally competent and financially wise, men grapple with the sense of being intimidated by women, of feeling inadequate and fearing they are a disappointment to the beloved women in their lives. In my experience, they deal with this complex of issues by taking refuge in extended adolescence and staying stoned a lot.
In this context, settling - as Gottlieb advises - is insanity. As anyone who has lived through a divorce (or who has witnessed parents get divorced) knows, a bad marriage causes vastly more damage that no marriage. And if a society is grooming men who aren't suited to the women that the society is producing, the choice is not between settling and solitude, but between a bad marriage and a decent life.
I'm not alone in either my conclusion or my analysis: two hundred years ago Jane Austen wrote a more persuasive argument than this blog post can offer in her novel, Pride and Prejudice. As any reader of that novel can recognize, American women live today in a world where too many of the men are Wickhams, the con artist scourge of Pride and Prejudice. By the conclusion of that novel, Eliza Bennett has learned that her own haughtiness and preconceived notions had prevented her both from seeing the dangers of the charming Mr. Wickham and the goodness of the more remote Mr. Darcy, her future husband.
Gottlieb would have American women unlearn the lesson of Eliza Bennett - would have American blind themselves to the unsuitability of the available partners out of their prideful need to get married and their prejudice against carving out a satisfactory life for themselves beyond the bounds of marriage. Gottlieb urges American women to settle for Wickham.
Jane Austen has already illustrated the perils of that choice.
(Picture of Lori Gottlieb from The New York Times Book Review)