The 'Good Enough' Marriage

Experts and couples discuss whether settling for 'Mr. Good Enough' is better than waiting for the perfect soul mate.

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on March 02, 2009

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 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 or 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, 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.

Belinda Rachman, an attorney in Carlsbad, Calif., has been married to Eliot for more than 20 years. "I made a rational choice that had nothing to do with romantic love and have been very happy. I had a written 'man plan.' As each successive relationship failed, I took a look at what I had to have in a man, what qualities I had to have and what was negotiable; I knew I didn't want to go on another emotional roller-coaster ride. When I look at the utter mess made by couples who have based a marriage on being in love with no thought to basic compatibility, I know I made the right choice."

Terri, an artist based in Roswell, Ga., who has been married for eight and a half years, says the good-enough concept resonates with her.

"I did have a fantasy idea of what marriage was going to be. By the time I got married in my mid- 30s, I had a lot of dating experience and the bubble burst. We had a child within the first year of marriage, and it got pretty practical pretty quickly," says Terri, who asked that her last name not be used. "The ever-shifting process of coming together, compromising, and the day-to-day of housekeeping and child rearing have taught me to accept Thomas for who he is. When that happened, I truly felt a sense of relief, a comfortable feeling of where I have landed. I'm much more relaxed."

Recognizing Mr. or Ms. 'Good Enough'

In Tyler Perry's films, the girl often gets the guy -- but there's a caveat: He's not usually the guy she pictured herself with. In fact, it's usually a regular guy -- the proverbial "diamond in the rough" -- that she's overlooked.

As we mature and learn more about who we are, recognize our inadequacies and learn to accept those of our mate, we are better equipped to "screen in" candidates who are good enough, experts say.

Gottlieb believes many of us -- herself included -- have dismissed potential mates based on looks, habits, or other superficial "deal breakers." In her article, she writes about her own change of heart in terms of what romance and marriage is or isn't supposed to be.

Cynthia Rice underwent a similar change. "Earlier in my life, I had certain criteria in my mind, like 'I'm not going to choose someone without a certain stature in life or money," she says. "I consider [settling] reprioritizing. We all have a little more baggage. I realized David was really smart. We can have a conversation and connect even while we are grinding out the day."

"I made a practical choice in a mate," she tells WebMD. "It's not what we look like to our neighbors or to society. It's what we have here in our home."

Although everyone has different requirements of a potential spouse, experts offer five guidelines to help you determine the qualities needed for sharing "good enough" lifetime together.

Compatibility. "Similar styles in living, similar ways of operating, whether more rational or emotional, will help you avoid chronic disappointment," Weston says. Gottlieb speaks of lifestyles that can "meld."

Sexual Attraction. "You need adequate sexual attraction, some chemistry, but you each don't have to like 17 body parts," Weston says.

Similar Goals. You may have a laundry list of ideal qualities in a mate, but narrow down your list to three must-have traits, Schwartz suggests. "You only have so many "slots" someone can fulfill, whether it's a shared love of travel, a similar outlook on money, or raising children." Schwartz cautions about seeking what she calls "incongruent characteristics" from a partner. "Some women marry industry lions and then are surprised when they bite," she says.

Respect. "If you admire someone, you are way ahead," says Schwartz.

Gut Check. Finally, Weston suggests trusting your gut for clues on whether someone is good enough for you. "Nine years before I married my husband, I was engaged to another man," she says. "I had funny little shooting pains and a twitch in that hand; I wasn't sleeping well. My body was giving me clues."

Show Sources


Lori Gottlieb, writer, Los Angeles.

The Atlantic: "Marry Him!" March 2008.

Louanne Cole Weston, PhD, marriage and family therapist; board-certified sex therapist, Fair Oaks, Calif.

Pepper Schwartz, PhD, relationship expert at; sociology professor, University of Washington, Seattle.

Scott Haltzman, MD, clinical assistant professor, department of psychiatry and human behavior, Brown University, Providence, R.I.

Michael D. Zentman, PhD, director, postgraduate program in marriage and couple therapy, Adelphi University, Garden City, N.Y.

Katharine Parks, Chillicothe, Ohio.

Terri, Roswell, Ga.

Belinda Rachman, Carlsbad, Calif.

David and Cynthia Rice, Alpharetta, Ga. "The Good-Enough Mother."

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