Ryan’s notes

Marry Him by Lori Gottlieb

★★★

This was a curious book to pick up as a 30 year old male, but I enjoyed Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb so I figured I’d give it a read. I suppose that finding myself single at 30, frustrated by dating, also contributed to my interest.

Gottlieb writes this book as a 40-something single mother wishing she’d found a husband (she pursued IVF instead). She has few interested suitors or dating leads and reflects on what went wrong for her. The book is a plea to be more realistic in what we hope to find in a partner: to whittle down a long list of wants to a few key needs. While aimed at women in their 30s hoping to start a family someday, it’s applicable to all who want to build a life with another as witness. Gottlieb offers a good balance of research and anecdotes that mostly kept me engaged, but she belabors her points. This book could have remained an article.

Key points

Modern society expects romantic partners to meet an unrealistic set of needs. This strikes me as true and mirrors commentary in Mating in Captivity by Esther Perel. Perel sums it up well: “Today, we turn to one person to provide what an entire village once did: a sense of grounding, meaning, and continuity. At the same time, we expect our committed relationships to be romantic as well as emotionally and sexually fulfilling. Is it any wonder that so many relationships crumble under the weight of it all?” Gottlieb argues that we can be too picky in choosing a partner and that committing to someone that meets a small set of key needs is likely to deliver more fulfillment in the long run, especially if you hope to build a family. The risk of holding out for someone who checks every box is particularly exacerbated for women, whose appeal as a potential partner declines rapidly after 30 (a point that Gottlieb returns to repeatedly).

We often look for the wrong things in a romantic relationship. We tend to over-value traits that don’t indicate a good partnership and under-value those that do, e.g. the ability to communicate and compromise is far more important than the witty banter that makes dating fun. A multi-decade long marriage with a family is like running a “very small, mundane nonprofit business,” so selecting for characteristics that make for a good "co-CEO" may deliver more long-term satisfaction than selecting for spice. It's true in my experience that we're attracted to people that are interesting, unique, sexy or fun. But we might have different ideas about what we want in a relationship, deal with stress in conflicting ways, or struggle to resolve conflicts. I try to imagine myself under-slept with three children running about, a messy kitchen to clean, behind on work, with an equally stressed partner across the room, and ask myself: could this work?

Satisfaction comes from commitment, not a perfect choice. One bit of research that pops up in the book is that people that purchase a returnable item are less satisfied than those who purchase a nonreturnable item; humans are really good at making peace with our situation once it’s been determined. This overlaps with research that shows that “maximizers” (people who consistently look for the very best thing) are generally less satisfied than “satisficers” (people who form a criteria and then choose the first thing that satisfies that criteria). “Instead of wondering, Am I happy?, maximizers wonder, Is this the best I can do?" The way we talk about finding “The One” promotes a maximizer mindset, but Gottlieb argues that we’d be more satisfied if we formed a reasonable criteria for our partner and pursued the next relationship that measures up (this isn't “settling” so much as “getting a good deal”). I'd classify myself as a recovering maximizer and perfectionist who is working toward the satisficer ideal. Still, it's easier to embrace the satisficer mindset when it comes to a sweater than a lifelong partner.

Takeaways

While this book wasn’t written for me (rather, for the cavalier 32 year-old who declared on our first date, "there'll always be someone to date!"), I did take some things away from it: I intend to shift my focus in search of a partner away from shared interests toward shared values. For instance, I've biased toward athletic women on datings apps, but I don't actually need a partner that will ride bikes and run trails with me on the weekend. I have friends for that. I do, however, need a partner that appreciates silliness and play, invests in friendships like extended family, and wants to raise kids in a sprit of context-based learning.

I'm not sure I'd recommend this book to anyone outside of the target audience: women in their 30s looking to start a family and beginning to see their dating prospects dwindle. And I'm not sure I could even make such a recommendation without insulting anyone. However, the broader idea that we might find what we're looking for in commitment, and that we might not want to spend our entire lives looking for the perfect thing to commit to, is one to take seriously. For that, I'd recommend reading How to Stop Living in Infinite Browsing Mode and watching the associated commencement speech by Pete Davis.


Highlights

Ariely said yes: Knowing too much about a person sight unseen makes it harder to become interested in him. In one study, he told me, online daters were given traits of a potential partner, like the ones you’d find on an online dating site. When participants were given a higher number of traits, they perceived the person to be less similar to them than if they were given a smaller list of traits. The more traits you have knowledge of, the more information that gives you to rule someone out. It’s what he calls “the less is more effect”: If you describe yourself in more ambiguous terms in your profile, you’ll be more likable. (p112)

Instead of wondering, Am I happy?, maximizers wonder, Is this the best I can do? They experience what Schwartz calls regret in anticipation of making a decision. As he puts it in his book: “You imagine how you’ll feel if you discover that there was a better option available. And that leap of imagination may be all it takes to plunge you into a mire of uncertainty.” (p151)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention puts the divorce rate of people who live together before marriage at 12 percent higher than those who didn’t cohabitate before marriage. (p151)

people are more satisfied with nonreturnable items than they are with returnable ones. (p152)

“When a decision is final”—like, say, marriage instead of cohabitation—“we engage in a variety of psychological processes that enhance our feelings about the choice we made relative to the alternatives.” (p152)

“Jeff was the package that arrived at my doorstep a couple of times,” Julie said, “but it wasn’t until he was unwrapped and just sitting there that I could see what a treasure he was.” (p194)

“Love should increase over time, not start at a high,” she said. “Real love is developed over time. It’s about learning to trust, bond, and build family together, with or without children. So I’m in favor of not overthinking yourself to death in the beginning. Women, especially, tend to rule people out too quickly. In my experience, it’s the women who won’t go on second dates more than the men.” (p201)

even our best friends don’t meet all our needs. That’s why we have many close friends, not just one. So why does a husband have to be an uber-friend who meets every need and shares every interest? Who can handle that kind of pressure?” (p207) — Mating in Captivity by Esther Perel and the explosion of expectation in romantic relationships in modern society

“Fine, don’t compromise. Just don’t be too surprised if everyone else ‘compromises’ their way into a fulfilling relationship while you keep chasing a dream that never has a happy ending.” (p209)

According to my married friends, once you’re married, it’s not so much about who you want to go on a tropical vacation with; it’s about who you want to run a household with. Marriage isn’t a constant passion-fest; it’s more like a partnership formed to run a very small, mundane nonprofit business. (p227)

It turns out that if you’re an ordinary-looking guy whose online picture is ranked around the median in attractiveness, you’d need to make $143,000 more per year than a guy whose picture ranked in the top tenth percentile. If your picture ranks in the bottom tenth, you’d need to make $186,000 more than the guy in the top tenth percentile. “Women care so much about height,” he told me, “that to be as appealing as the average five foot ten man, I’d have to earn $40,000 more per year at my height of five feet nine.” Ariely found that a 5’4” man would need to make $229,000 more than a 6’ tall man to have equal appeal; a 5’6” man would need $183,000 more; a 5’10” man would need $32,000 more. (p238)

“What do you think a husband today is for, and why do you want one?” (p248)

‘But what is it, and is it beautiful?’ rather than thinking, ‘It’s not this and it should look like this.’ The question you have to ask is, ‘Do I like it?’ instead of ‘How does it compare to what I thought I wanted?’ People can surprise you.” (p268)

unlike the kids in the high-conflict marriage families, it wasn’t a relief and they didn’t see it coming. The good enough marriages were good enough for the kids, because kids don’t care if their parents are being self-actualized. They had stability and ready access to both parents, and they were happy. The fact that their parents were having an existential crisis didn’t matter to them.” (p276)

“But by the time you reach the 1970s and 80s,” he continued, “love is the most important reason for getting married, and the other reasons drop substantially on the list. This whole idea that love is the overriding reason for getting married is relatively new. We now see marriage based entirely on finding the perfect lover. (p277)

“Cooperative teamwork was the definition of a good marriage,” Amato said, “but now the focus has shifted to personal satisfaction through the marital relationship itself. (p277)

Well, I think that a marriage is like a construction in the sense that, at a certain point in the marriage, you’re no longer just married to the person, you’re married to the marriage and everything that it means. The children, the past that you share together, the friends that you have—you’re married to the whole thing, (p285) — Depth of Commitment