From time to time, I post short interviews with interesting people about their insights on happiness. During my study of happiness, I’ve noticed that I often learn more from one person’s highly idiosyncratic experiences than I do from sources that detail universal principles or cite up-to-date studies. I’m much more likely to be convinced to try a piece of advice urged by a specific person who tells me that it worked for him or her, than by any other kind of argument.
The relationships among love, marriage, and expectations are some of the most complex and important issues within the subject of happiness, so I was very interested to read Lori Gottlieb’s book, Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough — though she is quick to emphasize that the book is about finding true love by looking for the RIGHT Mr. Right, by focusing on what’s important in love rather than on things that don’t really matter.
For the book jacket, I wrote:
“Marry Him shows women how to find true happiness when seeking love–by giving them a new way to look at the world. Gottlieb manages to be hilarious yet thought-provoking, light-hearted yet profound on the questions of: Why do we fall in love? What qualities really matter in a marriage? For what reasons do we make the decisions that affect our whole lives? Like provocative relationship classics such as The Rules and He’s Just Not That Into You, Marry Him will set people talking for years.”
Gretchen: What’s something you know now about romantic happiness that you didn’t know when you were younger?
Lori: Like most young people, when I was dating, I had no idea what was really going to make for a happy long-term relationship, much less marriage. Even in my late twenties and early thirties, I was still so misguided by our cultural ideals of what “true love” was supposed to look like. It wasn’t until I found myself 40 and unhappily single, that I started to look at my friends’ happy marriages to men who were outstanding husbands and fathers, but who might not knock your socks off if you met them out in the dating world. And suddenly, I realized that I could have had that kind of happy marriage, had I not repeatedly overlooked potential mates for all kinds of silly reasons.
In fact, now when I look at my friends’ marriages, with their routine day-to-dayness, they actually seem far more romantic than any dating relationship might be. Dating seems romantic, but for the most part it’s an extended audition. Marriage seems boring, but for the most part it’s a state of comfort and acceptance. Dating is about grand romantic gestures that mean little over the long term. Marriage is about small acts of kindness that bond you over a lifetime. It’s quietly romantic. He makes her tea. She goes to the doctor’s appointment with him. They listen to each other’s daily trivia. They put up with each other’s quirks. They’re there for each other.
That’s happiness. I didn’t realize that happiness was so simple. Like many single women today, I confused romance with love, and that left me with a lot of unrealistic expectations.
In researching your book, is there anything you’ve found women do that repeatedly that gets in the way of their happiness?
Absolutely! If you look at surveys, most single women very much want to get married and have a family eventually, yet they find themselves going from relationship to relationship, or from blind date to blind date, or surfing Match.com, and they’re miserable riding this exhausting rollercoaster. But they can’t get off it. They complain that there are “no good men” out there, when really, there are plenty of good men out there, but they can’t see them because they have a fixed idea in their head of The One. And anyone who isn’t their “type” is immediately eliminated.
It might not even be conscious. Very few people think they have “a list” of qualities they want in a guy, but when a friend told me to write down what I was looking for, it took all of three minutes to list nearly 50 things characteristics I was seeking –as specific as hobbies and hair color! So even if I’d never written a list, I’d clearly kept a mental file. No wonder it was so hard to find my dream guy – I’d actually dreamed him up.
The problem with a list, I realized, is that it’s hard to translate the bullet points into a real, live human being. The fact is, you can’t make a list that doesn’t either oversimplify or take things out of context. For instance, even if you make a list of qualities you want, they aren’t all weighted equally (is height as important as honesty?), and with many qualities you want, it’s not like people have them or they don’t. Often, they have some degree of that quality—like sense of humor or financial stability—which may not be exactly what you had in mind when you wrote it down.
Lists are also confusing because they’re about qualities a man has independently – they don’t account for the qualities he’ll have inside a relationship. He may be the right age, have the right sense of humor, and have the right job, but what is he going to be like when he’s with you? How are you going to feel when you’re with him? Will you get along well? None of this can be quantified on paper.
So I think this fixed image of “our type” gets in our way. It’s not about the preconceived image of Mr. Right. It’s about recognizing the right guy for you when you actually meet him.
Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”) Or a particular book that has stayed with you?
I interviewed a psychologist for MARRY HIM named Barry Schwartz. He’s a professor at Swarthmore and he also wrote a terrific book called THE PARADOX OF CHOICE. We had a long conversation about how having so many choices actually makes people depressed. You’d think it would be liberating — who doesn’t want to have options? — but actually, having so many makes us dizzy with indecision. And when we do make a choice, we second-guess ourselves because we compare it to all the other options that we didn’t choose. The same applies to having so many choices in a potential spouse.
So Schwartz said to me, about the way we choose spouses these days, “You have to remember that good enough is good enough.” And that mantra has helped me and many women I know enjoy the men we meet much more, and also make much better choices out in the dating world.
Is there anything that you see people around you doing or saying that adds a lot to their happiness, or detracts a lot from their happiness?
Well, that’s what the whole book is about – all the things we’re doing or not doing that get in the way of our happiness. I spoke to dozens of experts ranging from sociologists to historians to behavioral economists, and I learned a lot that surprised me. Turns out the people who are happiest in life are happy with “good enough” and don’t compare their significant others to other men they meet out in the world. They also don’t have a sense of entitlement or an unrealistic view of their own appeal. It’s part of the American mindset to want “the best.” We all want a “10” but we have to remember that nobody’s a “10” – ourselves included. It helps to remember that somebody has to put up with all of our own quirks and flaws and less-than-appealing qualities and instead of judging someone else’s flaws, happy people are grateful that they’ve found a person who has decided to spend his life with them, despite all the compromises he’s going to have to make, too!
Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t – or vice versa?
Definitely! Without giving away the book’s ending, I’ll just say that there’s reason there’s a short, bald guy wearing a bow-tie on the book’s cover. In fact, many happily married people I spoke to said that they wouldn’t have picked their spouses from an online dating profile because they never expected to end up with the kind of person they fell in love with.
One person I interviewed is Susan Page. She’s become a well-known relationship expert after having been a campus minister at Columbia University and Director of Women’s Programs at the University of California, Berkeley, where she helped found the nation’s first university-based human sexuality program.
She told me that she’d always envisioned herself marrying a highly educated professional, but she ended up marrying a potter. And if was through her husband’s work as a potter that Page came up with an analogy she finds relevant to relationships.
“In America,” she said, “when a potter makes a pot, they put a glaze on it and put it in the kiln and know exactly what it’s supposed to look like when it comes out. When the Japanese make a pot, they put it in a wood- fire kiln that could be any temperature, and when they take the pot out, it’s not always exactly like they thought it was supposed to look like. And they say, ‘Oh, wow, this is what the fire did to the pot and it’s gorgeous!’ They believe that there’s no beauty in perfection.
“So instead of knowing what the person across from you is supposed to be like, ask yourself the pot question, ‘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.”
In my own dating life, I’ve certainly found that people can surprise you that way.
* When I was on my book tour, some folks told me about a great site, ThankfulFor — a way to keep a personal, and collective, gratitude journal. I love when technology can help us be more mindful of transcendent goals.
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