Why (Some) Women Might Consider Settling

Why (Some) Women Might Consider Settling

I got an email from my sister the other day. She was forwarding an article written by Lori Gottlieb for The Atlantic, called “Marry Him — The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough”. Actually, that’s not quite right. In fact, she was forwarding me a link to a gossip site called Jezebel, which was ripping the author for even posing the notion that settling was a reasonable idea. So first I read the criticism, then I read the article, then I read a post-article interview with Gottlieb, and then I watched Gottlieb defend herself on The Today Show.

It was very clear that Gottlieb was onto a hot-button issue. But why was she getting attacked from all angles? Why the seething vitriol at a single mother who suggests that it might be wiser to compromise at age 34 than to continue searching through a thinning talent pool at age 40? It was clear to me that the messenger was being shot for carrying a controversial message. But it wasn’t fully clear why. So I started talking with the very people who were upset about this piece — single women, 35-45. My clients.

They told me that the piece was offensive.

They told me that it speaks more about the author than it does of them.

They told me they were very happy being single and would sooner die alone than settle.

They told me that it’s unfair to single out women for “settling”. What about men?

Now, to be clear, I am very sympathetic to the plight of women looking for love. No, I’m not a woman, which inherently limits my understanding, but I am a dating coach who listens to the fears and complaints of women every single day. You’d be hard pressed to find a man more attuned to the frustrations of single women than I am. Yet from a coldly logical standpoint, I found Gottlieb’s argument virtually unassailable.

She didn’t say settling was ideal. She wasn’t saying that you should “settle” to the point that you’re miserable. She wasn’t saying that you couldn’t possibly be happy alone. She even admits that “talking about settling in a positive light makes people profoundly uncomfortable”. So what was she saying? To paraphrase:

If you DO want that traditional American dream of husband + house + kids who look like you, then your odds of achieving it are greater if you “settle” in your early 30’s.

If you want to have your own biological children with a quality man, your options are considerably greater when you’re 32 than when you’re 42. And if that’s the case, it might behoove you to settle for a “good” guy when you’re younger, rather than hold out for an ideal guy when there are fewer quality options available.

I’m not sure what there is to argue with. I mean, you can make the argument that you’re perfectly happy being single. Great. Stay single. You can make the argument that you’d be suicidal if you were to marry the “wrong” guy. Certainly, you shouldn’t marry under those circumstances. But if you DO want that traditional American dream of husband + house + kids who look like you, then your odds of achieving it are greater if you “settle” in your early 30’s.

Here’s why:…

1) If a tall, dark and handsome 40-year-old man with a six-figure income and great family values is on the hunt for a wife, he is most likely is going to be attracted to someone younger. Wait, don’t shoot! I’ve got an older wife, and have long advocated for the wisdom and experience of thirtysomethings over twentysomethings. But youth and beauty have always been coveted by men, and wishing it away doesn’t change a thing.

2) If a tall, dark and handsome 40-year-old man with a six-figure income and great family values wants to be the biological father to his own children, he is mostly likely going to be searching for someone younger. It makes perfect sense. He doesn’t want to have to rush the relationship, much less get engaged, married, and pregnant in a year. Thus, all things remaining equal, most 40-year-old men with a choice will choose to date a woman younger than 35. It buys them time. Time that 35-40 year-old women don’t have IF they want their own biological children.

If a tall, dark and handsome 40-year-old man with a six-figure income and great family values wants to be the biological father to his own children, he is mostly likely going to be searching for someone younger.

And that’s the caveat that I need to emphasize more than Gottlieb did in her article. If you don’t want children, you’ve got no reason to settle. If you already have children, you’ve got no reason to settle. If you’re fine adopting children, you’ve got no reason to settle. But if you want to have your own kids, you have a far better pool of male applicants at age 30 than you do at age 40. It’s not that it’s impossible. Women in their late 30’s and early 40’s fall in love, get married, and get pregnant all the time. It’s just more difficult, that’s all.

Which is why this should not be taken as a judgment against women over 35. It’s merely an observation about the dating preferences of men. It’s not like women don’t know this. If they weren’t fully aware that men discriminated by age, they wouldn’t be lowering their ages to 29, 34, and 39 on dating sites across America. And what these women have surely realized — what they voice to me on the phone daily — is that the quality of their suitors is abysmal.

Are all the good ones taken? Not quite. But here’s a lot of what you’re going to get as a 40-year-old woman on Match.com: Commitmentphobes. Players. Financially unstable guys. Unattractive guys. Socially awkward guys. Much younger guys. Much older guys. Look in your in-box. I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know….

So where are the tall, dark and handsome 40-year-old men with six-figure incomes and great family values? Searching for women 25-35, that’s where. And while some of those 25-35 women are getting married to these guys, many others are holding out for better men —younger, richer, cuter, smarter. Are they wrong for doing so? Hell, no. They’re following their hearts. They know what they’re worth. They WILL. NOT. SETTLE. In the meantime, they focus on their careers, their friends, their travel, and their homes, because that’s more rewarding than the tedious, maddening process that is dating. But occasionally, as these women near 40, things begin to shift. They find themselves lonely at holidays, or fed up with weddings, or feeling a biological pull that can’t be ignored. So, once again, they decide to gamely search for Mr. Right. But who’s left to choose from? Mostly (not exclusively), a parade of the “wrong” men on Match.com.

Given all that, I find it hard to disagree with Gottlieb’s assertion that, for women who want their own kids, it may be a better long-term decision to snap up Mr. Good Enough at 32 than to hope for Mr. Perfect at 42.

It sure ain’t romantic, but it is practical. People hate practical.

It sure ain’t romantic, but it is practical. People hate practical.

You may be reading this and getting upset. Maybe you’re upset at me for my take on this. Maybe you’re upset with Gottlieb for perpetuating the myth that women need men. Maybe you’re upset with men for wanting younger women. But mostly, I think what is most upsetting is that the article challenges our worldview that we can have it all without having to compromise. And the fact that a few people seem to have it all makes it all the more tantalizing. But when the high wears off – and, oh, it does – what do those people have left? Ask any older married couple. They’ll tell you about the virtues that have kept them together for forty years. Friendship. Loyalty. Patience. Values. Compromise.

So why do we single people so arrogantly insist that our elders have got it wrong? And if you’d rather be alone than compromise, why get so upset that other people like Lori Gottlieb have a different point of view?




Click here to read more:

Lori Gottlieb’s Article in the Atlantic: “Marry Him”

Jezebel’s criticism of Gottlieb

Lori Gottlieb defending her article on The Today Show.


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  1. 21
    Angela Crisp

    One final comment on the above. Men do have a biological clock. Low sperm count is a problem that strikes across age groups, and is surely a biological problem for any pair hoping to have children. Male fertility problems has sponsored an entire medical industry. It is not fair to only hang the biological clock on women by the time they pass the age of 32. Thanks again for reading my questionable wisdoms. I hope it means something.

  2. 22

    Here’s the money quote from Lori’s interview:
    I was so focused on true love that I hadn’t appreciated the purely practical benefits of having a husband. Not only does he contribute financially, help with the dishes, and share in the child care, but as his wife, if you want some companionship or physical intimacy, you don’t have to shave your legs, blow-dry your hair, find a puke-free outfit, apply lipstick, drive to a restaurant and sit through a tedious two-hour meal for the mere possibility of some heavy petting while the babysitter meter is ticking away.

    The only two I would insist on the shaved legs and the puke-free outfit and I would compromise on the puke-free outfit if it came off quickly enough 🙂

  3. 23

    This article makes me think about several guys I work with who are single, but would really like to find “the one.” One guy, Greg, is a stocky balding man, but when you get to know him, you find he is witty, honorable, hilarious, intelligent, and downright adorable. He had such a difficult time finding the right woman. I personally think that a lot of women in this area did not look past the most superficial aspects of him (the bald head, if you can believe that). Because, other than that, I cannot explain why he was still single at 39 (though, shortly to be married).

    A man doesn’t have to look like a Ken doll to be a “real” ™ man who is definitely someone that is a keeper. My friend Greg sure is, and the girl who has kept him is a lucky woman.

    I have another friend Kurt who is by far one of the nicest men I’ve ever known. He’s shy. But when you get to know him, he’s so much fun to spend time with. He’s 30. He doesn’t have a super trendy hairstyle. He doesn’t have that square jaw. But he’s not a bad looking guy, he’s just an average-looking guy. He has so many redeeming qualities, but it seems to me that women in his age group don’t even look at him.

    It makes me sad. From my perspective, at 42, I know that there are many guys like my friends out there who really want to find love, who want a commitment, who want to be married, who want kids. And they are often overlooked by women ages 25-35 who want to have it all.

    You know, I had the handsome, square-jawed husband. And when he cheated on me for the 3rd time, and we got a divorce, I started to learn that the superficial does not matter, in the longrun. What matters is finding a person of substance.

    unfortunately, some of us don’t realize that until we’re in the been there, done that category.

  4. 24


    Good question and point. Disc. Health does mention the divorce laws as a reason. Here’s the quote,

    Two-thirds of all divorces are initiated by women. One recent study found that many of the reasons for this have to do with the nature of our divorce laws. For example, in most states women have a good chance of receiving custody of their children. Because women more strongly want to keep their children with them, in states where there is a presumption of shared custody with the husband the percentage of women who initiate divorces is much lower. Also, the higher rate of women initiators is probably due to the fact that men are more likely to be badly behaved. Husbands, for example, are more likely than wives to have problems with drinking, drug abuse, and infidelity. (Discovery Health)”

    The dots Disc Health did not connect are that the divorce laws favor women retaining custody, and the most oft-used tactic in doing so is to allege drinking, drug abuse, and infidelity. So the laws reward ladies who allege this. I haven’t found any evidence indicating husbands actually have more of these problems. They are, however, more likely to be accused of it, whether true or not, precisely because ladies stand to receive the children (child support) and usually the house as a result of these allegations. I have no problem with the true allegations of alcoholism, etc. The problem is that there is a major built-in incentive to falsely allege these issues, and the stats do not indicate the breakdown of false vs. true claims. There is no way to. A frequent tactic is to get an order of protection by alleging that she is scared of him to kick him out of the marital residence. Possession is 9/10ths of the law, right? (sarcasm). Everything flows from there.

    Whether my comment applies only to white upper & middle class, I do not know. I did not consider that. However, if the the ‘settling’ woman settles on someone who is in part, a good provider (based upon Selena’s original post and other posts I’ve heard in other threads), so that she does not have to work, the class distinctions you mentioned seems as though they’d apply. I disagree with the race one however.

    Markus, I understand that you think my post is a bit far afield. However, if she’s ‘settling’ (particularly to have kids) she is precisely more likely to divorce you later because she’s ‘missing out’ in some fashion. My point is that men who meet these women generally have the laws, courts, and odds stacked so far against them, it isn’t worth pursuing the marriage/children route. If you (or anyone) feels that knowing the risks, those risks are acceptable, so be it.

  5. 25
    Angela Crisp

    Steve: You have made me laugh, so thank you. I totally agree that effort is required to maintain passion, and the image of the outfit (however puked, lol) coming off, like right now, is priceless. The article that started all this does seem to focus mostly on what a man can do for a woman rather than what two people can do for each other. Financial considerations are pretty minor, because even a millionaire can blow it all in a hurry. Will you love him when he has to stay home, looking for work? Perhaps a good question to ask before it gets very serious. I would like to think real passion can sustain that, as well as the usual stress of child rearing. I would love to get together with you sometime in D.C. I am actively dating now, so a lot of this comes home for me. Great blogging everyone, thank you.

  6. 26

    Angela, I understand your point, but I’m quite certain that the numbers of women paying alimony to men are far, far in the minority. One of the big reasons for this is that most ladies seek men who earn more so they can have children & potentially stay at home.

    I’m not sure I get get the thrust of your point “I don’t think anyone should get paid out a relationship they wanted unless they are too disabled to work and provide for themselves.” Disability doesn’t matter. The fact is that the law operates to pay out and redistribute money absent any disability. It pays people who choose not to work and let their skills atrophy. That is my point.

  7. 27
    Angela Crisp

    verbosity: Here I am arguing against the state of current US laws. I don’t believe in alimony unless circumstances, such as losing the use of one’s legs, arms or eyes, makes for a special circumstance. I would make allowances for those situations, but as a rule, alimony, in any direction, breeds resentment, and reinforces stereotypes. Perhaps I know a few women who make money in excess of their ex husbands, who knows? But I have seen this happen, so I am against alimony because it motivates people to pay attention to the money, rather than the passion, of a particular relationship. Child support, ok, we are talking about kids who can’t work and need to grow up. Most of the women I know with small children don’t get child support or alimony without going back to court. Two I cover through my own health care insurance because they are so panicked about their kids. Money after a relationship is over is simply wrong in my view. Children need and deserve support, so the little ones do change the situation of who ever provides the most care. If a marriage breaks up, and no kids, I say each can support themselves. I have never been married so I have never been divorced. I would never accept a payment after a relationship ends, and have never sought such a situation. I recognize what the law does, and I find the law to be deficient, and not helpful. No fault divorce should mean no fault. Thank you for your response. A.C.

  8. 28

    I hear ya Angela & agree.

  9. 29
    Angela Crisp

    verbosity: And so I argue against the law, whether it benefits women or men. Are you not resentful of these laws? It seems to simply breed up stereotypes of women, the old “gold digger” standard. I believe that this kind of 19th century legal structure should end. No one should have to pay their old lover just because they were in love, and now that has changed. A few mitigating circumstances I can see, but if considering those circumstances means maintaining a structure that causes men to suspect, and resent women, I think women can live without it. I get called an alimony seeker anytime I even bring up marriage, so I prefer to remain unmarried, and keep my men feeling safe with me. Thanks for your insights. A.C.

  10. 30

    I was trying to read this article with an open mind, but then I saw this section line.

    “They, like me, would rather feel alone in a marriage than actually be alone, because they, like me, realize that marriage ultimately isn’t about cosmic connection it’s about how having a teammate, even if he’s not the love of your life, is better than not having one at all.”

    I felt like I was punched in the stomach…do women really feel this way?

    Wow-i just can’t swallow this. I mean, i don’t think we should hold out for perfection, but geez, it’s a little extreme. its almost like saying a man can give me a family and those children are going to make up for what I am missing in my marriage, in my life? That seems MORE dangerous because the children will pay the price…

    can companionship between spouses provide a healthy home life for children? is companionship what you want to teach those children to look for when it comes to marriage?

    this whole idea makes life seem so dull.

  11. 31

    Thanks to my buddy Lance for turning me on to this thread. The comments seem to have taken their own turn, but here’s my take:

    1) As a friend I mentioned this to pointed out, if “settling” to have your own kids is what women are after, 30 is too late. Guys in their 30s are dating girls in their 20s. Guys in their 40s are divorced, have already had their own biological children, and don’t want to make any with you.

    2) A HUGE cause of divorce is the stress of child-rearing. Would you really want to undertake that with someone you knew wasn’t a perfect fit from the very beginning?

    3) This in the spirit of Evan’s blog, which doesn’t shy away from controversial issues. WHY DO PEOPLE HAVE THEIR OWN BIOLOGICAL KIDS ANYWAY? Seriously.

    Given world overpopulation, the scarcity of resources, and the number of unwanted children all over the world, I feel it is unethical to do anything other than adopt. I understand I can only speak for myself with any sort of authority, but not one thing about having children sounds compelling, interesting, or even rational to me. It does not sound financially responsible. It does not sound intellectually compelling. It does not sound emotionally fulfilling.

    Now, I understand that I’m in the minority, and that there are people out there who truly enjoy the company of children and are willing to make tremendous sacrifices in order to have the presence of children in their lives. However, I would argue that number is a FRACTION of the people who say they want children and/or who actually have them. And jumping onto that bandwagon uncritically or uninformed is a great way to end your romantic partnership, whether he/she is your “soulmate” from the beginning or not.

    IMO, people want to have their own biological children for the same reasons they hold out when they should, according to Gottlieb, “settle”: they overestimate their own value. In the case of having kids, they overestimate their value to the point that they believe their (potential) offspring are (or will be) smarter, better looking, or otherwise more deserving than any of the MILLIONS AND MILLIONS of kids who already exist. If we’re going to talk about adjusting our priorities here, then that seems to be the place to start to me.

  12. 32

    Bravo “Honey”!

    FWIW, the world replacement is slightly over 2 children per couple. If you have to have your own kids, think about the world your grand children will have to live in and limit your family size to 2 kids. If enough people do that, the fraction of the world replacement rate to the right of the decimal will let the world population slowly come down.

  13. 33

    Honey, THAT’S the money comment of the week right there! I’ve had those same thoughts (maybe from talking with you) but I’ve never articulated as concisely as that.

    Why have kids? Seriously? To satisfy an internal craving? It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

    Consider that, on average, over 357,000 babies are born daily. EVERY SINGLE DAY. One could argue that it’s not just foolish to bring more children into the world, but it’s irresponsible.

  14. 34

    I have to say, I think this topic is far more universal than some of the people here are making it. This is not just about women, and not just about people who want their own biological children. It’s the question of how good does one’s significant other need to be in order to make a life-long commitment to him/her.

    Even for people who do not want kids, I think there’s still a strong desire to find someone. I think it’s part of human nature to want to share that companionship, trust, and intimacy with someone else. And no matter how great our friends and families are, and how happy we are being single ourselves, we’re still looking for that other person. Particularly since, statistically speaking, most people are going to get married and have kids. And if you’re the one left over, still single, you find yourself increasingly alone. Though there’s nothing wrong with being alone, most people want companionship, somewhere to share their hopes and dreams with, and accomplish them.

    So, that brings me back to my original question. How good does someone need to be to make a life-long commitment to them? I think Steve made a really good point. Settling, I think, in this context means accepting accepting Mr. Human instead of holding out for Mr. Knight In Shining Armor. Just make it a gender-neutral (or gender-inclusive) comment. Is it 98%, 90%, 80%, 60%, or 51%? I’m 27, and I’m aiming for 90%. I’m also hoping that it’s realistic, but high enough of a standard that there won’t be any regrets. I’ll just have to see.

  15. 35

    I really don’t like all of this “oh, woe is me I’m a single woman who needs advice blah blah” stuff.

    I think this all has to do with how you define “settling”. Is it someone you really don’t love and might resent 5 years down the line while having an affair with the UPS guy? I have girlfriends who married in their late 20’s because they were afraid of being alone, only to divorce a few years later.

    As for 40something commitment phobic guys, I have news for you, these same guys were commitmentphonbes when they were in their 30’s and 20’s. I also think it’s a bunch of bullcrap that single guys in their 40’s all prefer women under 35; sure many do but I think it has more to do with the guys than with the women, as lots of guys I know that age prefer someone closer to their maturity level. I also know women in their early 30’s who have had fertility issues and women in their 40’s who got pregnant the old fashioned way. Fact is, most married people have kids within a year or two of marriage, regardless of age. And if a guy in his 40’s will only date women under a certain age, he’s also ‘settling’ because he’s seeking love for the wrong reasons.

    When I was in my late 20’s early 30’s I thought the idea of dating a guy 10 years older was creepy. Also, women outlive men, so why would I want to spend the prime of my life and sexual peak being someone’s nursmaid?

    The real message is about having realistic expectations about what makes a good relationship – a tall guy who runs a hedge fund but doesn’t always have time for you, or a short, bald guy who makes you smile and would move mountains for you, you and only you?

  16. 36

    Americans tend to be spoiled idealists…we’ve largely got it all wrong in this society, and I think Evan is right by saying that there are way too many folks looking to “have it all”, and that just doesn’t exist. People immediantly jump to opposite extremes in their thinking…to compromise is not settling at all, it’s reality. It might be politically incorrect at the moment, but most things that are politically incorrect are just that…incorrect. This notion of finding “the one” is really ill conceived and there is nothing biblical about it AT ALL. I read in a book called “Keeping Love Alive” by Gary Smalley that the three most important things in a relartionship are 1) Honor (which would include respect, etc – try having a relationship without it), 2) deep levels of communication (to go past areas of conflict to get to deep levels of emotional intimacy), and 3) building each other up (mutually supportive). So it seems to me that compatibility is more important than chemistry, and just about any two people can have an extremely satisfying long term relationship if they continue to do these ‘right’ things stated above…meaning that it is not really a matter of finding Mr or Mrs right (or “the one”) anyway, but BEING Me or Mrs right. The bible puts it another way…”men love your wives, wives respect your husbands” (Eph 5:33) – BOTH are unconditional (key…women have a harder time with that concept then men do…respect should not be something that is earned…it is as unconditional as love) . In short, we are to do certain things as men and women in a relationship and if we do, we’ll be successful.

  17. 37

    Right on, Lance! As recently as the 19th century, it may have been practical for couples to produce a lot of kids to make sure a few lived to adulthood. But in today’s world (esp. in the US, Canada, Australia & European countries) a couple can have just one child who most likely will live to adulthood. I for one am thankful that my family is doing its part to save the world just by staying small. I am the younger of 2; neither my sister nor I have ever married or had kids, or expect ever to do either. And just like verbosity, I’m concerned about the high risk of being divorced & incurring child support debt. In contemporary western societies, when a man fathers a child, he sows the seeds of his own financial ruin.

    But to get closer to the original topic, “settling” can apply to BOTH genders. For example, a man’s ideal mate might be a Heidi Klum or Tyra Banks lookalike, but if he’s realistic he’ll “settle” for the Plain Jane with a few extra pounds. I may picture myself attached to a woman with singing/musical talent, dark skin & thinly braided hair, but I can do without all that as long as she pulls her weight in the r’ship & accepts the equal responsibilities that come with equal rights. Looks may attract me initially, but attitude keeps me in the long run.

  18. 38

    First, and I don’t know if this is permitted but the author was on “Talk of the Nation” the other day and it was fantastic. Here is the link: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=18952108

    And Honey, point number one is right on. I’m 38, had 2 kids by the time I was 32 and I am NOT getting this vascectomy reversed for anyone. And believe me, it costs me on the dating scene.

    Anyway, to everyone out there that isn’t getting this point: the point about settling is precisely that even if you find Mr. Perfect on his white stallion your buzz will not last and you will resent him anyway. We need to stop thinking that those feelings can last for the rest of our lives. 3, 5 years into any marriage, esp one with kids, and even with a solid man, you will feel like you’re settling. Book it.


  19. 39

    downtowngal Feb 14th 2008 at 08:06 pm 36

    I think this all has to do with how you define settling. Is it someone you really don’t love and might resent 5 years down the line while having an affair with the UPS guy?

    It is those shorts, isn’t it? 🙂

  20. 40

    Paul Feb 14th 2008 at 08:48 pm 37
    I read in a book called Keeping Love Alive by Gary Smalley that the three most important things in a relartionship are 1) Honor (which would include respect, etc – try having a relationship without it), 2) deep levels of communication (to go past areas of conflict to get to deep levels of emotional intimacy), and 3) building each other up (mutually supportive).

    I’m surprised he didn’t put money in that list. FWIW, I think an equitable distribution of housework is the Pearl Harbor of relationship killers…too many men, including relationship experts don’t take it seriously as a relationship stressor.

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