Thursday, February 14, 2008

On Romance

Who at The Atlantic thinks that articles like this discussion of settling - where the author acknowledges that our culture has created an unhelpful panic around certain issues, then proceeds to engage in said panic for several thousand words (c.f. everything written by Caitlin Flannigan) - are either interesting or helpful? In this particular piece, the author's central claim seems to be that for a woman of a certain age, being married to anyone is better than being married to no one.

What depresses me most about this article isn't the gender essentialism on display in statements such as:

Of course, we’d be loath to admit it in this day and age, but ask any soul-baring 40-year-old single heterosexual woman what she most longs for in life, and she probably won’t tell you it’s a better career or a smaller waistline or a bigger apartment. Most likely, she’ll say that what she really wants is a husband (and, by extension, a child).

Nor is it the vague wave at the degree to which the whole notion of "settling" is gendered in our society, before rushing into the comforting embrace of "everyone else is doing it" (though there's a whole different post I could write about both the warnings to "uppity women" and the deep contempt for men on display in this article):

I’ll be the first to admit that there’s something objectionable about making the case for settling, because it’s based on the premise that women’s biological clocks place them at the mercy of men, and that therefore a power dynamic dictates what should be an affair solely of the heart (not the heart and the ovaries). But I’m not the only woman who accepts settling as a valid choice—apparently so do the millions who buy bestselling relationship books that advocate settling but that, so as not to offend, simply spin the concept as a form of female empowerment.

What really depresses me is the view of romance on display throughout the article that seems to be all about avoiding dealbreakers. She writes:

Don’t worry about passion or intense connection. Don’t nix a guy based on his annoying habit of yelling “Bravo!” in movie theaters. Overlook his halitosis or abysmal sense of aesthetics...Some guys aren’t worldly, but they’d make great dads. Or you walk into a room and start talking to this person who is 5'4" and has an unfortunate nose, but he “gets” you.

There's no sense anywhere in her article that there's a vast difference between giving up hope for passion and connection, and being willing to overlook annoying habits and less-than-perfect looks. Is the author conflating the two to add legitimacy to her argument for settling, by claiming most everyone does this to some degree or another? Or are there people out there who genuinely find what I'd perceive as trivial differences to be insuperable barriers to passion or connection?

Perhaps this is as much about the stories we tell ourselves as about realities. I could construct a narrative of settling for my current boyfriend, (he may be short, but at least he does the dishes) but it just wouldn't make any sense to me. What do minor imperfections matter when weighed against all the wonderful things he brings to my life? In which case, an article extolling the beauties of lowered expectations is only going to encourage people to think about normal trade-offs in rather dire terms. Hardly what I'd call a positive contribution to human flourishing.

It's a common trope of fairy tales and love stories that your grand passion comes to you in the form you least expect it (the son of your worst enemy, a scullery maid, a beast). Overweight and balding may lack a certain panache, but it's no repudiation of romance to fall in love with someone who fits that description. Or if it is, that's a romantic ideal I'd be happy to repudiate.

The moral is supposed to be “Don’t be too picky” but many of the anecdotes quote women who seem to be trying to convince not just the reader, but themselves, that they haven’t settled.

“I should be with some guy with a vast vocabulary who is very smart,” said Heather, a 30-year-old lawyer turned journalist. Instead, she’s dating an actor who didn’t finish college. “My boyfriend is fun, he’s smart, but he hasn’t gone through years of school. He wanted to pursue acting. And you can tell—he doesn’t have that background, and it never ever once bothered me. But for everyone else, [his lack of education] is what they see.” Another woman says she dates “the ‘secrets’ … guys other women don’t recognize as great.” How’s that for damning praise?

Your husband has imperfections but you're happy nonetheless? Congratulations! You've talked yourself into settling.

Bah, I say.


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