When Albert Ellis was 19 years old, he used to hang around the Bronx Botanical Gardens near his home and longingly watch the pretty girls who came and went. Ellis was painfully shy, so he would watch and hope, but all that ever came of it was more yearning.
So he gave himself an assignment. Every time an eligible girl would sit on the park bench in the garden, he would sit next to her and start up a conversation. He set a deadline of one minute.
Ellis made a discovery in that minute and the minutes that followed: “Nobody took out a stiletto and cut my (unprintable) off, nobody vomited and ran away, nobody called the cops.” More broadly, Ellis concluded that we are prisoners of our thoughts and expectations, and if we can change the way we think, we will transform our lives and be happy in the process.
Ellis offended many people with his ideas and his ways of presenting them. But in the end — he died last year — he was recognized as a groundbreaking theorist and a founding father of the highly successful cognitive-behavioral approach to therapy. Though not handsome or rich, Ellis was married three times, the last time at age 90.
Author and journalist Lori Gottlieb had an idea that offended lots of people, which she expressed in an Atlantic Monthly article in 2008. She wrote that feminism had convinced women of her generation that by “settling” for anything less than perfection — in a man, a job, whatever — they were betraying the movement and their destiny as women. She argued that these women, mostly age 40 or older, had made bad life choices as a result.
Now Gottlieb has taken the next step, and there is a book — called Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough — coming out next month, and maybe even a movie in the works. The book will offend lots of people, too, which is what makes it worth reading. Gottlieb tells a great story of her own recent travails on the dating and mating circuit, along with a million entertaining anecdotes from her fellow travelers.
But she also does some things that are tough to do in a book appealing to a wide popular audience: She explores the psychology and culture responsible for the suffering of the legions of women looking for husbands. “This book is about finding true love by looking for what’s important in a partner, and letting go of the things that aren’t,” Gottlieb told me in an e-mail. Marry Him makes a convincing argument that women have been blinded by the post-feminist zeitgeist to those qualities that matter most.
As a prime example of both the victim and the purveyor of this message, Gottlieb holds up Sarah Jessica Parker and her character on Sex and the City. She quotes Parker in a Time interview: “My friends are looking for relationships as fulfilling, challenging and fun as the one they have with their girlfriend.” Gottlieb doesn’t mince words. “What an idiotic idea!” and, “The majority of single women who responded to a survey I sent out said that getting 80 percent of what they wanted in a mate would be ‘settling,’” Gottlieb told me. “For these women, it seemed, ‘settling’ meant anything less than ‘everything.’”
Marry Him takes an exhaustive look at how these ideas germinate in our thinking and proliferate in the culture. Gottlieb tells the story of her own painful journey through the thicket of cognitive distortion, coming back again and again to the core message. As Ellis framed it, “Rational beliefs bring us closer to getting good results in the real world.” Gottlieb’s version: Stop thinking like an idiot or you will end up alone.
More broadly, the gospel that Ellis began spreading after his epiphany in the botanical garden goes like this: Events out there don’t make you happy or unhappy. It’s your interpretation of events that makes all the difference. The way out of unhappiness, therefore, is to examine your automatic expectations and assumptions (or attributions, as cognitive therapists like to call them). When you find and correct the flaw in your thinking, happiness follows. In the end, this is Gottlieb’s message, too. “I’ve never believed that we should stop looking for Mr. Right,” she explained, “but I do think we should change our perception of who Mr. Right is so we can find the right Mr. Right.“
Along the road to her epiphany, Gottlieb talks to people such as Helen Fisher, an anthropological biologist at Rutgers who studies the biochemistry of romantic love; Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist at MIT who looks at the crazy way we place value on things (and people); and Indian-born researcher Jayamala Madathil, an expert in arranged marriages.
Marry Him makes some arcane science pretty accessible, most often by describing how her own brain has led Gottlieb into making crazy decisions about love. Her basic conclusion goes like this:
» 1. Our bodies and brains send us bad signals. (“That one. He’s perfect for me!”)
» 2. These are based on anachronistic evolutionary assumptions (e.g. broad-shouldered men make better husbands when times get tough).
» 3. Over thousands of years, various cultures have developed rules to offset these bad signals (e.g. marry the person your mother chooses, not the one who lights your fire).
» 4. Enlightenment values and romantic notions of love have gradually weakened these rules, but modern American culture threw them out entirely in a bold social experiment about 40 years ago.
» 5. The experiment is finally yielding its data and, for the me-generation of 40-year-old unmarried women at least, the data don’t bode well.
While the book makes a great point in a fun way, I have a few disagreements with its message.
First, Gottlieb relies on an economic analogy: too many women older than 40 and not enough men — a problem of supply and demand. To begin with, it’s a little hard to buy the argument that Gottlieb is herself suffering from dating market forces. She is smart, talented, pretty, funny and something of a celebrity — and only 41! More importantly, the market metaphor is only that — a metaphor. If it has any statistical validity for women generally (I’m not convinced), it still says nothing about whether you will be successful in partnering up. Based on Ellis’ premise (and Gottlieb’s, to be fair), your belief in the existence of some powerful and inescapable market force will reduce your chances of dating/mating success far, far more than any statistical trend.
Equally significant, there is good science and clinical wisdom that runs counter to the current cognitive trend in psychotherapy and science that Gottlieb taps into. Maternal attachment — your connection to your primary caregiver — is now known to be a highly accurate predictor of your basic emotional stance as you grow and develop. Even as we reach adulthood, it seems that our availability for emotional connection, as well as the style and depth of the emotional connections we attain, are largely affected by those attachment patterns we developed in infancy. If those patterns were fearful and overcautious, they make you fearful and cautious in your mating efforts. Because these patterns were formed before you had any narrative capacity or even words at all, you have no conscious memory — no picture or story — to go with this fear, so it may take unrecognizable shape as pickiness, criticalness, narcissism, angriness, etc.
A woman (or man, of course) could reach 40 without finding a mate, in other words, not because of distorted thinking, but because of unacknowledged terror. “I can’t trust you to be there for me, so I’m not going to connect with you deeply.” This points to a different way of dealing with the issue, not through thinking, but through feeling. This is a huge subject itself, of course, one dealt with in fascinating ways in two of my favorite books: Becoming Attached by Robert Karen and Hold Me Tight by Sue Johnson.
The Gottlieb book is a great one, too — whether you’re suffering in love or just looking for a good read. Gottlieb will be on the Today show Feb. 4, she tells me, and the book will be in stores the same day.
— Russell Collins is a Santa Barbara psychotherapist and divorce mediator. Click here for more information.