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This month's issue of the Atlantic Monthly features an article that, since it was published online more than a month ago, has been passed like a chain letter from woman to woman, eventually making its way through the ranks of high-achieving singles in the Twin Cities. The article, an impassioned essay called "Marry Him! The case for settling for Mr. Good Enough" by Lori Gottlieb, urges women in their early 30s to get married -- and get married fast -- "while [their] marital value is still at its peak," with little to no regard for how they feel about the lucky guys. In other words: Stop fussing over finding Mr. Right. Instead, race to the altar with the first flatulent chump to come along. The pickings get all the more slim once you turn 40.
To make measure of the article's impact: "Marry Him!" quickly became a viral sensation, something that not only landed in countless inboxes, but was also used to fuel blog posts and dinner party conversation. Gottlieb, a delicate and frightened-looking fortysomething who forfeited much of her "marital value" when she had a baby by an anonymous sperm donor in her 30s, spent the ensuing month defending her thesis to the rounds of radio and TV talk shows, including NBC's "The Today Show," National Public Radio's "Talk of the Nation," and Minnesota Public Radio's "Midmorning" program last Friday.
In some single women, the article inspires genuine self-examination. Here in Minneapolis, Melanie, a 30-year-old graphic designer, is left wondering which of her criteria are negotiable. "If there's going to be drawbacks for every guy you date, how do you know what matters and what doesn't?" she said. "What's the most important? Respect? Attraction? The ability to work as a team and get things done? I haven't a clue."
Of course, many single, successful women are too socially ambitious -- that is, they seek to marry their professional and intellectual superior. And here's where Gottlieb's article has a point. A self-striver is likely to be happier if hitched to a friendly enough guy who's not quite as smart, or whose abs aren't so finely toned, if she's after a life partner. After all, the hot-looking careerist (her true love) probably won't be so helpful around the house. Gottlieb suggests she try the short guy, or the one with an unfortunate nose.
For all its merits, Gottlieb's well-written exposition is still plenty a peeve. Andrea, a 34-year-old area musician and music teacher, wonders why Gottlieb projects her regrets on the entire female population. She's puzzled as to why "there are still educated women who believe that the only way to have a teammate is having a husband. What about couples who cohabitate? What about siblings, roommates, parents, friends? If I felt like I was playing this game of life alone up to this point -- and thank God, I don't feel that way -- sure, I'd look for a husband."
"I think what she really missed is the fact that everyone is going to spend part of their life alone," said D'Ann, 38, a Minneapolis-based marketing executive. "It might be at the beginning of your life. But it might happen later because of a divorce, or you might end up widowed." So, a woman unable to make peace with her solitude will end up unhappy one way or another.
Still other women point out that settling for Mr. Good Enough is dangerous territory, the stuff of divorce. If a woman is to overlook a potential partner's halitosis, as Gottlieb suggests, this puts her on the fast track to one of two unhappy existences: a sexless marriage or, worse even, a lifetime of having to feign interest in the partner who tastes of rotten eggs. Sure, the wife might get positive results by nagging him to floss. But what if she ends up bedding Dr. Atkins for the rest of her life? In any case, it's often lonelier to go through the motions with a stinker than it is to be alone.
Finally, the article is sprinkled with self-defeating evidence. Take the example Gottlieb gives of the friend who settled for "a recovering alcoholic who doesn't always go to his meetings." If this point isn't laughable, it does, at least, leave the reader questioning her judgment. Gottlieb also expresses envy for the friend married to "a widower ... actively grieving for his dead wife," another who's married to a man "so socially awkward that he declined to attend his wife's book party" and even a few women with husbands of questionable sexual orientation.
Another passage, riddled with tragic sitcom references, exercises the ladies' latent laugh lines. Gottlieb actually argues that Rachel, from the '90s sitcom "Friends," would have been better off had she married Barry the orthodontist. As for Carrie Bradshaw in "Sex and the City": She should have stuck with her Season Three boyfriend, Aidan. After all, when Carrie runs into Aidan on the street, in a later season, he's carrying his infant in a Baby Björn. "Can anyone imagine Mr. Big walking around with a Björn?" asks Gottlieb.
"Why do all of her examples come from television?" lamented Andrea. "Let's take a look at some great pieces of literature. 'Middlemarch,' anyone? There's a lot of settling going on there, for financial or familial reasons, and a lot of women who would have been better off not doing it."
Of course, women don't have to look to fiction to find these cautionary tales. The real world is full of nightmarish spouses as well as singles who keep impossible standards. To the bachelorette who read Gottlieb's article very carefully and now finds herself issuing marital ultimatums to her gay neighbor, consider this additional wisdom: Avoid taking such silly, self-loathing advice any too seriously.
Christy DeSmith is a Minneapolis freelance writer.