Why Mr. Meh Is SO Not Worth It: Kate Bolick Makes The Case Against Settling

We'll admit it: We wait with bated breath for the women and relationships and future of dating/marriage stories that The Atlantic puts out once every six months or so. Some of them we don't quite love (Lori Gottlieb, we're looking at you), and some of them, we're truly perplexed by (Lori, that's you again). But this month's cover story, "All the Single Ladies," really got us thinking. In it, Brooklyn-based writer Kate Bolick delves into a fascinating, terrifying, beautiful, brilliantly researched exploration of the reality of dating and marriage today, and what it means to live in a society with a shortage of eligible men (for us, that means someone brilliant, engaging, and moderately attractive, but define it how you will).
Still, the reason her story elicits such an emotional response in us (terror, hope, a sense of calm, and a few other yet-to-be-identified feelings) has to do with more than just her research. We fell in love with Bolick instantly. She unabashedly owns her single-girl status and spills her heart out about previous relationships which almost worked, as well as the ones that definitely never would. She poses on the cover of the magazine looking gorgeous and happy. And even while she's making us realize that we might not just bump into Mr. Right on the subway one day (the numbers don't lie — we might never meet him at all), she makes the case against settling. And as far as we're concerned, no woman or man should ever have to.
Bolick's piece definitely sparked conversation around the R29 offices...and still is. Single or otherwise, we all have a stake in the decline of men and in the future of marriage. So, we locked her down to pick up where she left off in The Atlantic. Read on for our intimate convo with this inspiring single lady, and let us know in the comments how Bolick's story affected you.
We loved your interview with the Hairpin—particularly when you delve into your takeaway of how women are altering their definitions of what "marriageable" means. As a single girl, this resonates with me in a very real way. It feels like an ongoing struggle to define that one word for myself. How have you seen your own standards morph over the years?
"I like this question so much, in part because I’m finding it so hard to answer. My friends sometimes tease me for not having high enough standards — they think I’m open to a fault. The truth is, I have no standards. I mean, I’m attracted to specific things — intellect; creativity; humor — but outside of those and a few other core qualities I have no set expectations around what a man should be, whether rich or poor, or tall or short, or whatever. I think I read too many fairy tales as a child — “The Frog Prince”; “Beauty and the Beast” — and created a worldview based on love popping up where you least expect it. And the thing is, love does pop up where you least expect it."
You also mentioned to them, right when the story came out, that you were sure you'd get tons of hate mail about why you're single. Have you? What kinds of responses have you gotten to this story? What's been the most shocking, and what's been the most inspiring or encouraging?
"My first bona fide hate message arrived just yesterday. It’s titled 'Get a real life' and begins: 'You make me sick. Why can’t all you educated white females just go out on a date and be as nice to a man as you are to all your cell-phone freak girlfriends.' Shockingly, the overwhelming response has been incredibly positive. I’ve received hundreds of emails from men and women of all ages from all over the world — long, confessional outpourings describing their own romantic stories and attitudes. It’s been fascinating, and I haven’t even begun to figure out how to respond."

Photographed by Patrick Romero

We saw a lot of comments to the effect of, "you're not that special — you should just settle," on the story, online. A) Mean, but also B) It seems a bit like these people are missing the point. What is it that you wish they understood about your decisions and your larger thesis?
"Right? It’s like people who write in the comments sections make it a point to miss the point. Granted, I do think that my decision to not be didactic makes my piece somewhat confusing to respond to. The assignment was simply to take the current statistics around the worsening prospects of men and the bettering prospects of women and, drawing on my own observations and experiences, explore what that could mean for the future of dating and marriage. I had no idea where my search would lead me, and frankly I consider it ongoing. There’s no one answer to any of this.
"But, along the way I did come to a few conclusions, or clarifications rather, of ideas I’d held but not known how to articulate. Mainly: Marriage as we’ve known it is changing before our very eyes, and this is a very good thing. I see myself as among the first wave of a transitional generation that embarked on adulthood blinded by a certain cognitive dissonance. We were raised to believe we would conduct our lives as our parents had conducted theirs, yet our reality is radically different than theirs were, economically, socially, and demographically, and the old scripts simply don’t apply anymore. This doesn’t mean that people won’t continue to get married — a committed, loving relationship is a beautiful and necessary ideal. But it shouldn’t be the only ideal, or the highest one."
You've surely read Lori Gottlieb's story on settling ("Marry Him!"). Do you see the woman you are speaking to as coming from a different place, or do you think you just understand her differently? Do you think Gottlieb does a disservice to women?
"Gottlieb does a disservice to everyone. Her message is simply a rewording of the same old message that women have always received: You don’t know what you want; What you want doesn’t matter; You should spend the rest of your life sleeping with a guy who doesn’t interest or excite you. How is an enervating, loveless marriage possibly good for anyone? Even her tone is condescending in the old male fashion, such as her infamous paragraph about how any 30-year-old woman who isn’t worried about her prospects is either in denial or lying: 'Take a good look in the mirror and try to convince yourself that you’re not worried,' she writes, 'because you’ll see how silly your face looks when you’re being disingenuous.' I mean, really.
"I am without a doubt saying don’t settle. For the first time in history women are actually equipped — with college and graduate degrees; with valuable workplace skills; with real earning power — to write their own lives, and because of this we should all pause and think very hard and honestly about what we actually want. All along I thought I wanted marriage, and entered all of my relationships with that ideal in mind, but then I kept leaving. What was that about? I wasn’t being 'picky' — my complaint was rarely with the man himself — it was that the act of coupling kept feeling like a narrowing rather than an expansion, and I would get tired and depressed. Finally, I had to have a good, long talk with myself to try and figure out what I truly craved, which turned out to be — for the time being — experience and unpredictability over stability and security. Given my temperament, I do believe that I’ll eventually want to be married, but only when I’m ready for it, and with a man who shares my values. For now, I feel very fortunate that I’ve built my life in such a way that I have the resources and freedom to pursue my own interests, and to truly enjoy being single."
The positive note you end on, regarding the celebration of female friendship — female bonding filling the same function as a relationship with a man, in a lot of ways — is so inspiring. Do you see the 'It takes a village' model of community child-rearing as the next iteration of the modern family, or just as an ideal?
"I think it would be amazing if we consciously went in this direction, but I suspect that it’s a little utopian. The myth of the nuclear family looms large, and it’s going to take quite a lot for people to let go of it. But we’d be so much better off if we could."
That idea of female friendship affecting our relationships with men is something my girl friends and I so often discuss. How maybe we have more trouble committing to guys who other girls (who don't have those some types of close friends) would be perfectly happy with, because our standards for support and love and consideration are higher. How does that story play out, though? Do you think as some of those same friends get older and do get married, the rest of us change our perspectives on relationships?
"I know exactly what you mean. But it’s nothing for any of us to be worried about. Love begets love. If you have great, supportive friend networks you are actually opening and preparing yourself to love romantically in a more sustainable way. After my college roommate got married, she told me that our friendship had taught her the communication skills she needed to build a true relationship with her husband. It was one of the nicest things anyone’s ever said to me.
"Another thing to keep in mind is that our life trajectories are less and less linear. People get married — and then 50% of the time they get divorced. In all these years of being unmarried I’ve watched friends split up and remarry, or have affairs, or be cheated on, or stay in relationships they didn’t want to be in. After a while I realized that none of us was any better or worse off than anyone else."
Photo: Courtesy of The Atlantic
You celebrated the joys of auntdom in the New York Times last month, and talked about the level of influence an aunt can have on a child's life. Is there anything you would do differently from your mother (and aunts), in terms of gender education (or gender blindness), in what you tell your nieces?
"I really like the idea that the true role of an aunt in a child’s life is simply to be an example. As in, I’m not going to tell my nieces much of anything about gender education — unless they ask, I suppose. I think it’s important that their mother raise them according to her own ideas, and that I sort of lurk around in the background representing an alternative that they can either accept or reject."
I loved the anecdotes you shared about the T-shirts you wore as a child ('women belong in the house — and the senate' was a particular favorite!) — but do you have any regrets about the second-wave ideals that shaped your childhood?
"No regrets at all. Though second-wave feminism isn’t perfect, it was the best available thinking at the time, and I’m grateful that my mother was wise enough to embrace those ideals and pass them along to me. My job is to build on and refine them."
What's the one myth about growing up and falling in love that you wish you could completely wipe clean from the national consciousness of every upcoming generation of little girls?
"I am so glad you asked this. Simply: Love is something that happens in due course, not something that you plan on a schedule. If you are open to life and to people, you will find it when you’re ready, and in your own time. Meanwhile, cultivate your powers, treat others well, and live honestly. I can’t believe I’m suddenly being didactic. I sound like a New Age guru!"
It feels both surprising and obvious at the same time to learn that you felt alone, and like you were the only woman who felt unsure about your relationship with Allan as you were ending it. Do you feel like you would have felt differently, or would have made any slightly differentiated choices, if you had felt like you had more of a network of like-minded peers, back then?
"Oh, without a doubt. Even a cultural figure or two would have helped. It was shocking to realize that in the year 2000 — the future itself! — there was no readily available conversation to be had around these topics. If I’d been less alone with my thoughts, I wouldn’t have made a different choice, but I would have done it more gracefully, and with far less angst."
What do you wish someone had told you ten years ago? What do you wish you could go back and tell yourself? (Full disclosure: As I approach my 30th birthday, this is a slightly selfish question, but I think so many of our readers feel that same sense of uncertainty, and that need for guidance.)
"Good lord I’m going to get New Age again, but here goes: Trust yourself. You’re making the right decision. Everything works out somehow. Life just gets weirder, and better, and worse, and more wonderful. Certainly the 30s are better than the 20s, and those older than I insist that the 40s are even better yet. We are all of us so lucky to be of a time and place where we are free to choose the lives that we want. Think deeply, and you will choose well."
Photo: Courtesy of Kate Bolick

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