Another look at an important book

One of the many issues Altmuslimah covers is the Muslim marriage crisis—not just the difficulty many Muslim women encounter when trying to find suitable matches but also the rising divorce rate in the Muslim American community. Altmuslimah has featured several commentaries on these and related topics. In her article, When I Think About Marrying, Zeba Iqbal explored the sheer irony of being told throughout her life that one’s level of education and professional success defines success, only to later be labeled a failure because she hadn’t also been able to secure a husband.

In his response to Zeba’s piece, Hussein Rashid noted that women, to be considered successful, must outperform their male counterparts in both schools and workplaces, resulting in an imbalance where “successful” men barely measure up to “successful” women. The disparity in men and women’s degree of accomplishments then leads to men looking elsewhere for a wife. My contribution to the debate, in Love of God, Husband, and Self, was simply:

“[W]hether it be Muslim men who are intimidated or turned off by successful women, or successful women who feel they cannot connect with anyone outside their intellectual sphere, perhaps the way forward is to put aside external categorizations and social expectations of “appropriate” matches, and to explore the possibilities that lie beyond.”

Sage advice, it seems, given the success of Lori Gottlieb’s recent book, Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough, which offers similar insight. She encourages women to look beyond the façade to the core—and to do so before many a good man is passed up and one is left middle-aged and alone, like Gottlieb herself.

Gottlieb first made her case publicly in an article with the same name in The Atlantic. She notes that most heterosexual women want to marry and have a traditional family, despite being encouraged from adolescence to postpone marriage in favor of education, career, and the pursuit of the ever-elusive “love.” It is the third such pursuit that she spotlights in her writings, arguing that “love” as many women conceptualize it is not real. It is often based on finding a man who is both physically attractive and perfectly in sync with ones interests and aspirations, capable of making a woman breathless and light-headed with romantic delight. In the pursuit of this ideal, women meet, date, and dump a series of men, holding up each man against the ideal, inevitably finding some fault or another and then discarding him.

These women are searching for what Gottlieb contends is the non-existent Mr. Right. Her advice is to go after the more satisfying, more real, Mr. Good Enough:

Settle! That’s right. 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. Because if you want to have the infrastructure in place to have a family, settling is the way to go. Based on my observations, in fact, settling will probably make you happier in the long run, since many of those who marry with great expectations become more disillusioned with each passing year. (It’s hard to maintain that level of zing when the conversation morphs into discussions about who’s changing the diapers or balancing the checkbook.)

To be clear, when Gottlieb advocates “settling,” she’s not suggesting women set aside their needs and marry a man just for the sake of marrying him; “[t]here’s certainly a difference between ‘being realistic’ and being with the wrong person” (153). When analyzing her happily married female friends, Gottlieb realized that “[t]hey’re happy because they know that good enough is good enough. They realize that nothing is perfect in life … so taking the best available option and appreciating it makes sense.” (154).

Gottlieb encourages women to focus on core values and throw superficial lists to the wind. Too often, women search for men who share similar hobbies and interests, not realizing that such external factors are irrelevant to a happy marriage. A man who is husband material is someone whose values and broader outlook on life parallels your own. Compatibility on needs rather than wants leads to greater success.

Although many, if not most, happily married women would echo Gottlieb’s message—indeed, she did extensive research not just with married friends, but with dating coaches, academics, social scientists, such as the creators of eHarmony, and others—Gottlieb nonetheless faces criticism for advocating a realistic, not idealistic, approach to marriage. As she notes in her Atlantic article:

It’s not only politically incorrect to get behind settling, it’s downright un-American. Our culture tells us to keep our eyes on the prize (while our mothers, who know better, tell us not to be so picky), and the theme of holding out for true love (whatever that is – look at the divorce rate) permeates our collective mentality.

And why the focus on women and not on men? Gottlieb’s research reveals that, for the most part, men evaluate potential spouses in more substantive ways. When a researcher asked both men and women how they knew they had found the right person, women relied on “butterflies,” chemistry, and fireworks to assure them that they had found “the one.” A typical male response: “… we’d been dating for six months and she had to go away for a week, and when she was gone, I missed her so much.” (279). Recognizing he felt happier when his girlfriend was around was testament to her being “right.”

Dating parlance aside, Gottlieb’s message easily translates into Muslim terms, especially with its emphasis on marriage rather than dating for the sake of dating. It goes to the root of many Muslim women’s concerns about finding men who fit certain socially acceptable parameters, and pushes them to instead take more than a cursory glance at men who don’t fit the mold. The very nature of the infamous “biodata” (or, in the modern context, an online profile) forces women to evaluate men in terms of their profession or appearance. While these profiles are an important first step, Gottlieb suggests that women approach them with a willingness to compromise on surface characteristics, such as expanding age limits, diversifying the types of acceptable professions, and overlooking small, annoying details. There are gems to be had if one just looks below the surface!

Marry Him also provides a roadmap for how to explore compatibility in a way that leads to more successful matches and marriages, zeroing in on qualities that provide for a sturdy marital infrastructure rather than short-term euphoria. While the two are by no means mutually exclusive, her book makes evident that one is clearly more important – and more desirable – than the other. Dating done Gottlieb’s way helps ensure a successful, long-term relationship.

Asma Uddin is Editor-in-Chief of Altmuslimah

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