Single women, duck and cover, it’s the Valentine’s season - of mysterious chocolates and red books with titles designed to make you feel like crap. In the latter category, this year already has a clear winner, the much discussed book Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr Good Enough.
In it, author Lori Gottlieb argues that single women, particularly those who have hit the big 3-0, need to have more realistic expectations when it comes to men. They cannot rule out potential suitors simply because they have red hair, or no hair, or find chores disagreeable.
It they do, they risk spending the rest of their lives alone and lonely. The women in the book are mostly caricatures, ditzy and overly "picky" who seem not to have a thought beyond that of their partner’s physical appearance, while men escape pretty much scot-free, almost always portrayed as emotionally balanced and sensible.
This is frustrating for many reasons, but especially because Gottlieb’s subject – the question of compromise in modern relationships – actually deserves attention, just not of the sort she gives it.
I’d venture that, oh, 80 per cent of the book implies women turn down potential mates solely because of their hand size or their penchant for light-green bow ties, but even when she attempts to engage with the difficult choices facing contemporary women – women who have grown up with feminism, and who rightly expect respect in both personal and public settings – Gottlieb takes the cheap and well-travelled path of dismissing these choices as extravagant, burdensome, or even petty.
At one point, she empathises with a woman who wished she had accepted, at 23, her college boyfriend’s marriage proposal. She had refused because she felt she was supposed to pursue her dreams first.
She goes onto blame the women’s movement for making women feel this way, but how not to lose oneself in a relationship is hardly a silly concern. Whether you’re married or not, the question of compromise is and should be constantly on the minds of women.
How much can you give up in a relationship? What does an equal, mutually fulfiling relationship look like? These are definitely more difficult questions to answer now, than 40 years ago, when women did not have the economic and social standing they often have today. But they shouldn’t be dismissed for this reason, only treated with the appropriate amount of care and scrutiny.
I’m not one for blanket statements, but if you’re a female writer today your best bet at making it is to write this sort of book – one that forgoes nuance and thoughtfulness for "controversy" and "counter-intuitiveness," a book, that is, that claims to be about empowering women, but is actually aimed mostly at pissing off feminists, that supposedly dying breed whom publishers nevertheless need to get things going.
In the end, a huge disservice is done to women. Instead of focusing on the real issues they face in modern relationships – and, no, that’s not likely to be whether their suitor wears a bow tie or not, but whether he will still be interested if they make more money than him, or still respect them once the kids come along – culture gives us fake debates, an endless stream of pathetic-looking singles, or in other cases haggard looking mothers, with the words "picky", "petty", and "pathetic" scrolling underneath them.
I just hope that, along with the chocolates, women don’t actually buy it.
- The Guardian