Is A "Good Enough" Marriage Good Enough?

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Forty-one-year-old single mother and journalist Lori Gottlieb has written candidly of spurning "good enough" men in search of the perfect romantic mate. But in her provocative new essay for the Atlantic, Gottlieb advises singles - especially women - to consider settling when it comes to a love relationship, arguing it will likely lead to long-term happiness.

In her essay, Gottlieb likens a "good-enough marriage" to a small nonprofit business with a likeable mate who can problem-solve. Gottlieb spoke exclusively with WebMD about the reaction it has generated.

"I've gotten quite a response, and it's been all over the map," Gottlieb tells WebMD. "Married people are very supportive of the point I am trying to make. Some single women applaud me for saying out loud what many are thinking but not saying. But many single women think it is an affront. They think it is an unpalatable challenge to an empowering world view that you can have it all."

At the heart of the "good enough" argument is that too many of us have been brainwashed into a "fairy tales and fireworks" view of romance that lacks long-term stability. Gottlieb writes that marrying Mr. Good Enough is a viable option, especially if the goal is to land a reliable life partner and create a family.

"The point of the article is not to settle for any schmo off the street, but a good guy you like, enjoy the company of, and have realistic expectations of," she says.

"If you want to be with somebody and you're holding out, you may end up with nothing," Gottlieb says. "That's the crazy-making part - you're always comparing."

Defining The Good-Enough Marriage

London pediatrician Donald Winnicott coined the term "good-enough mother." A good-enough mother stands in contrast to a "perfect" mother. She provides a safe environment, connection and ultimately, independence, to facilitate the child's development. A good-enough mother meets some, but not all, of her child's needs.

Can the good-enough theory apply to romantic partners as well?

"Good enough, rather than the fairy-tale model, which is a big disappointment, is a reasonable way to picture married life," says Louanne Cole Weston, PhD, WebMD's sex and relationship expert.

Katharine Parks of Chillicothe, Ohio, married John at 19 and has been happily wed for 32 years. She says the terminology is right on target. "In American society, we are always going for much more than we actually need. We're expecting too much from a relationship. I think realizing this is 'as good as it gets' and that life isn't 'once-upon-a-time' is important to building a life together."

Scott Haltzman, MD, a clinical assistant professor at Brown University's department of psychiatry and human behavior, says the issue of settling for a certain person or behavior in a relationship is one of the principles of happiness - if you reframe it as "acceptance."

"We live in a culture where we're being told through all forms of media, 'Don't accept anything but the best.' We all marry 'the wrong person.' I think the real challenge of marriage is to get out of the romantic, over-idealized phase and into the 'Now what?' phase. Making adjustments, modifying expectations, and settling is something that happens throughout the entire relationship, not just the day you stand in front of the altar," he tells WebMD. "We need to broaden our view of what acceptable means."

Pepper Schwartz, PhD, a relationship expert at perfectmatch.com and professor of sociology at the University of Washington, acknowledges that the term "good enough" carries a negative - and unnecessary - connotation.

"The implication of settling for good enough is that at some core level you will be dissatisfied," Schwartz tells WebMD. "It's a downer concept for sure. The whole feeling has infected society in a way that is shocking." She draws a sports analogy. "I'm a good skier, I have a lot of fun skiing, but I don't say I'm a 'good enough skier.' I wish we could just call it a 'good marriage.'"

Schwartz says that being in a state of constant aspiration is a form of "self-torture."

"If I had to settle for a new Oldsmobile when what I really want is a Porsche, I'll never be satisfied. In truth, the Oldsmobile is new, it's pretty, and it works. Why wouldn't I be satisfied with it?"

Haltzman notes in his book, "The Secrets of Happily Married Women: How to
Get More out of Your Relationship by Doing Less" (Jossey-Bass), that for centuries happiness was not a factor in good marriages. Rather, marriage was a practical matter that ensured social and financial security and provided for offspring. It's only over the last century that couples have expected marriage to bring them happiness. We're learning as we go.

David Rice of Alpharetta, Ga., agrees. Married for five years to Cynthia, he points to his parents' long marriage and the role model of World War II couples. "Think back to those soldiers, who just wanted to get home to a woman who came from a church-going family, could dance, and was happy to marry a nice guy. Prerequisites have changed."

He admits that his romantic journey didn't go as planned. "At the ripe old age of 44, I felt the time was right and I wanted to get married. I found somebody I could build something with, but regardless of the attraction, it wasn't puppy love. I actually treated it like a business decision, as cold or callous as that might sound. I didn't feel I had time to make a couple of mistakes. I felt I had to hit it out of the park."

A Pragmatic View Of Marriage

Experts and married couples both agree: It's a fantasy to think you'll achieve perfection in a relationship. Chemistry, while important, is not all-important, and the "soul mate" concept sets the bar unrealistically high.

"The good-enough marriage that de-emphasizes romantic love in favor of a pragmatic relationship is a very important topic that addresses the idealization of romance and the failures that inevitably occur due to unattainable expectations," says Michael D. Zentman, PhD, director of the postgraduate program in marriage and couple therapy at Adelphi University.