Life is not, in fact, like a sitcom (or, What I learned from Carolyn Hax)

I’m a little late to this one, but I finally read “Marry Him!” — a buzz-fishing article in last month’s Atlantic that ostensibly makes the case for settling for a spouse instead of holding out for Mr. Right. Here’s the gist:

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).


My advice is this: Settle!

What stands out from the article isn’t the fact that author Lori Gottlieb herself hasn’t settled (she’s a 40-something who, along with a friend, decided to have a baby with donor sperm “in fits of self-empowerment” — surely the best reason to have a baby). Or her attempt at ironically defusing the shock and vitriol she just knew her taboo-busting article would provoke (“Oh, I know—I’m guessing there are single 30-year-old women reading this right now who will be writing letters to the editor to say that the women I know aren’t widely representative, that I’ve been co-opted by the cult of the feminist backlash, and basically, that I have no idea what I’m talking about.”) Or her repeated undermining of her case for settling.

No, the most notable aspect of the story is that Gottlieb is dispensing romantic advice even though she seems to be the kind of person who believes that life is like a romantic comedy. Or rather, that romantic comedies are true to life, and that adults should draw their lessons about life and love from TV and the movies.

First we get this penetrating analysis of Friends and Sex and the City:

[W]hile Rachel and her supposed soul mate, Ross, finally get together (for the umpteenth time) in the finale of Friends, do we feel confident that she’ll be happier with Ross than she would have been had she settled down with Barry, the orthodontist, 10 years earlier? She and Ross have passion but have never had long-term stability, and the fireworks she experiences with him but not with Barry might actually turn out to be a liability, given how many times their relationship has already gone up in flames. It’s equally questionable whether Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw, who cheated on her kindhearted and generous boyfriend, Aidan, only to end up with the more exciting but self-absorbed Mr. Big, will be better off in the framework of marriage and family.

Um, does she know that Ross, Rachel, Carrie, and Big are fictional characters? Immature, spoiled fictional characters. Who ultimately end up together for the sake of dramatic television, because the audience will smile even though they (the mature, living-in-the-real-world parts of the audience, anyway) recognize that the pairings would be bad if the characters were real-life people, which they aren’t.

It gets better. Gottlieb writes:

In my formative years, romance was John Cusack and Ione Skye in Say Anything. But when I think about marriage nowadays, my role models are the television characters Will and Grace, who, though Will was gay and his relationship with Grace was platonic, were one of the most romantic couples I can think of.

Wow. Okay, I’ll play this game too. In my formative years, romance was Ben Affleck and Joey Lauren Adams in Chasing Amy (it was truth, maaan — aside from the confused-lesbian plot and Jay and Silent Bob). But when I think about marriage nowadays, my role models aren’t fictional sitcom characters. They’re real people whose mature, real-life marriages I admire.

I could understand a pop culture reference here and there; it’s easier to invoke Friends than to explain a real couple you know. But the way she repeatedly raises these examples — later we get, “Remember the movie Broadcast News? Holly Hunter’s dilemma — the choice between passion and friendship — is exactly the one many women over 30 are faced with.” — as though they’re relevant to romantic advice, is just weird.

As are her ideas of what real, non-sitcom marriage should be and what settling means in that context. Take this passage:

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.

Sure, if you define “passion and intensity” as “high-drama, frequently argumentative, immature sitcom love,” then you shouldn’t worry about that. But notice her default assumption is that yelling “Bravo” in a theater is annoying, and that an abysmal sense of aesthetics is bad (I grant her the halitosis one). Whereas a more, shall we say, realistic view of people would allow that these could be among the many idiosyncrasies that make each of us different and potentially appealing to the person who views those quirks as sweet and quirky, not as by-default annoying. (Has Gottlieb never read Carolyn Hax?) She continues along these lines in a later section, where she describes how settlers should reconsider what they (meaning she) previously considered “deal-breakers”:

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. My long-married friend Renée offered this dating advice to me in an e-mail:

I would say even if he’s not the love of your life, make sure he’s someone you respect intellectually, makes you laugh, appreciates you … I bet there are plenty of these men in the older, overweight, and bald category (which they all eventually become anyway).

She wasn’t joking.

Wait, so there’s more to love than looks? Is she trying to say that a book’s inside words and pages may not be identical in spirit and appearance to the binding and jacket? (If only there were a pithier way of saying that!) This is all so unexpected and confusing!

The truth, of course, is that “someone you respect intellectually, makes you laugh, appreciates you,” who also yells “Bravo” in a movie theater and has an abysmal sense of aesthetics, sounds like a pretty good foundation for the interesting love of someone’s life. But I never saw a sitcom that had a couple like that, so what do I know, anyway.

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