Friday, August 17 , 2018, 6:44 pm | Fair 74º


Russell Collins: Settling for Mr. Not-Quite-Right

Many single women struggle with whether it's better to be alone or to be with someone who falls short of their 'romantic perfectionism'


On her way up the coast to Big Sur, the daughter of a high school friend of mine stopped off for a visit over coffee. She was vacationing with James, her boyfriend, who took off to the beach so Jane and I could talk. “I want to talk about settling,” she said immediately after the waiter took our order.

Russell Collins
Russell Collins

Jane, who had just turned 30, had suffered much in love. This was surprising, because Jane was not only beautiful, she was extremely talented and funny, and had a nurturing quality that men found attractive. After a brief and disastrous marriage to a professional athlete just after college, she had carried on a dating relationship with a married but well-known political figure for three years. She was a highly paid executive in the fashion industry. Her life was full of good things, but Jane was longing for something that had eluded her so far: a lasting relationship and a family of her own.

Not surprisingly, she was being pursued by several suitors, all of whom had some qualities she liked or admired, and some she found less than desirable.

She was most interested in James. He was a photographer she had met on a fashion shoot in New York. He was sophisticated and good-looking (“handsome enough” was how she described him), and he had a commanding air on the set that immediately drew her to him. As she got to know him, she discovered warmth and authenticity in him, too. Like Jane, he had been married once before, and he had two daughters in private school in Manhattan.

“Still,” she said with a sigh, “there’s something not quite masculine enough about him. He’s like that great friend you always wanted in high school. We really can talk about anything.” They had developed a strong connection over two years, since James worked regularly in Los Angeles. Even better, they spent hours together on the phone each week, “like an old married couple,” Jane said. “But I don’t miss him physically when we’re apart. And I don’t get all giddy when he’s coming into town, even if we haven’t been together for a month. I keep waiting for the chemistry. I’m afraid it will never come.”

The Controversy

Last year, writer Lori Gottlieb created a firestorm by observing in an Atlantic Monthly feature titled “Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough” that, at age 30, she had confronted “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?”

Gottlieb made the admission that, looking back on her choices at 30 from the vantage point of a 40-year-old single mom, she was regretting the road not taken. For her candor, Gottlieb was flamed by commentators who felt that she had betrayed, respectively, all women, unmarried women older than 40, feminism, and anyone else with big dreams and aspirations.

“I never insisted that people had to take my advice; I was only offering it by way of opinion,” Gottlieb said later in a blog. If you’re in your mid-30s and haven’t found “the one,” she argued, doesn’t it make sense to pick the guy you enjoy having dinner with, even if he doesn’t bring the “zing”? “Quite simply, a woman at 30 years old is more likely to find a higher caliber of partner than that same woman might at 40. Likewise, most 40-year-old men would rather date a 35-year-old than a 45-year-old, all else being equal. And, finally, the majority of heterosexual women in this country want to get married and have kids. Is that so controversial?”

Well, it is controversial. Because Americans are in love with love and happy endings.

Stephanie Coontz, author of an epic study of marriage, spent seven years researching the institution of marriage from a historical perspective. What she discovered is that the institution of marriage in Western Europe and the United States is an entirely new animal in the history of the world. She found that a “gigantic marital revolution” occurred between the 18th century and the present, one that turned the traditional marital concept on its head.

“Can I marry someone whose fields are next to mine” was a more relevant consideration to the 18th-century match seeker than “how zingy does he make me feel.“ “Finding a husband was the most important investment a woman could make in her economic future,” Koontz said. And it didn’t go just one way. A woman’s dowry was “often the biggest infusion of cash goods or land a man would ever acquire.”

Whatever could have happened between then and now to make Gottlieb’s rather modest proposal a matter of public outrage? What transformation took place that could cause my old friend’s daughter to look at me soulfully over coffee and describe marriage to a high-functioning, authentic, fundamentally nice guy as “selling out for second best”? And just because she found him a little soft?

Psychology has an answer to that question, and good advice on how to avoid the life of solitary splendor that might happen to those who are locked in to seeing the world as Jane did. I want to talk about that answer, but I want to describe something first: how psychologists and social scientists may have had a role in creating the problem, too.

“We must shift America from a needs culture to a desires culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed. ... Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.” Those are the words of Paul Mazer, a Wall Street banker working for Lehman Brothers in the 1930s, quoted by documentarian Adam Curtis in his 2002 film The Century of the Self.

Curtis describes how psychology and social science have been used, starting with Sigmund Freud and extending through the end of the 20th century, to create a society of people primed to desire, consume and perceive themselves as fundamentally deserving of ever more and satisfaction in life. So successful was the experiment in social engineering that by the end of the ‘60s, they had transposed the concepts of desires and needs, so that desires came to be described as needs.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need was conceived in the 1940s, but by the ‘70s was considered a staple of humanistic psychology. The idea was that in the highest functioning people, their basic survival needs were no longer of very central concern. Instead, the needs of these “exemplary people” included such self-actualizing objectives as self-esteem, spontaneity, creativity, achievement and recognition.

I wonder if Maslow would have been comfortable with the ripple effects of his philosophy of self-actualization these many years later. In her 2007 advice book Better Single Than Sorry: A No Regrets Guide to Loving Yourself and Never Settling, author Jen Scheffts has this to say: “If you’re a self-assured woman with a lot to offer, there’s no excuse for it. Low self-esteem is one of the forces of evil that drives women to settle.”

Sheffts is not a mental health professional herself — she is a former “Bachelorette” from the ABC television show — but she echoes perfectly the ideas of self-fulfillment and natural entitlement that were fresh and exciting when Maslow first articulated them a half-century ago. They seem less so today.

Here is an idea from a more authoritative source: David Burns, adjunct clinical professor emeritus of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine, and author of Intimate Connections, one of a series of exceptional books by Burns on the application of cognitive behavioral concepts to life problems.

Burns has another term for what Jane describes as her reluctance to settle. He calls it “romantic perfectionism,” assigning it to a category of distorted thinking (perfectionism) that results in poor decision-making. In other words, Jane’s desire to deep-six James and wait for something better to come along may be less related to Sheffts’ ideal of the “self-assured woman” and more the result of a self-protective mechanism designed to keep her from getting hurt.

Although we can’t say for sure, negative early-childhood experiences in romantic perfectionists may have created a fear of being abandoned in their closest, most intimate relationships. This may result in them putting up impossible “barriers to entry” to those vulnerable places where intimacy resides.

This is actually my suspicion about Jane. Her father was a successful surgeon who traveled extensively and lectured all over the world. She worshipped him, but he was almost never there. Ironically, he died of a heart attack when Jane was 13, further exacerbating the emotional injury. Far from having an excess of self-esteem, I imagine that Jane’s longing for her unavailable father created a reservoir of self-doubt and loneliness that has caused her to keep her distance from any man who could truly, authentically love her. Further, her idealized image of her father created a false internal model in Jane’s psyche of what a man should be: perfect, famous, brilliant, sought after and never really there. Until she finds this man and falls in love with him, she is safe from the painful arrows of love.


So, where are they today? Well, Jane is 36 and living with her 2-year-old daughter in the East. She and James are still close friends, but James is married again and has his stepdaughters living with him. And Gottlieb’s article “Marry Him“ is being published as a major book by Dutton next spring, and optioned as a movie by Tobey Maguire of Spider-Man fame.

— Russell Collins is a Santa Barbara psychotherapist and divorce mediator. Click here for more information.

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