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The 'Good Enough' Marriage

Experts and couples discuss whether settling for 'Mr. Good Enough' is better than waiting for the perfect soul mate.
By Suzanne Wright
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

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.

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"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."

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