Why Does the Romantic Fantasy Continue???
I just read a fascinating interview with Lori Gottlieb, author of Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough. Apparently, just the title–and the suggestion of “settling” in a relationship–has made women go bonkers. Gottlieb says that women are angrily buzzing in the blogosphere about the book, even though many haven’t read it. It goes right up against the romantic fantasy that we women have been spoonfed since Disney’s The Little Mermaid: look, there’s a REAL PRINCE out there who will take one look at you and sweep you off your feet so that you will live in a castle happily ever after. Oh sure, we’re now too old and sophisticated to believe in that stuff…or are we?
Gottlieb mentions a study in which men and women were asked: if you could get 80% of the things that you want most in an intimate life partner, would you be happy? Women tend to say, no, that’s settling for less than the whole enchilada. But men say, 80%–wow, what a find that would be! Sounds like “someday my prince will come” to me. Gottlieb’s message is a wake up call to women. She asks us to take a good look at ourselves–are we the perfect partner that we expect in our mates? (That’s a point made by many “soulmate” coaches: if you aren’t living fully and making the most of yourself and your life, then why would some great guy even be interested in you?) It reminds me also of Arielle Ford’s forthcoming book, Wabi Sabi Love: Finding Perfect Love in Imperfect Relationships.)
But the bigger question to me is: why is it that women are still so spellbound by the romantic fantasy, the desperate desire to be fulfilled and completed in relationship, at the beginning of the 21st century?? For three centuries, since the dawn of the Modern Era, women’s sole means of social mobility was marriage to Mr. Right (read: Mr. Rich). The basic romance narrative is the story of how an attractive and smart young woman of lower birth meets a wealthy and powerful man and, through her character alone, captivates him totally so that he falls hopelessly in love and marries her. There are variations on this theme, of course, but there are many lessons from it: that a woman’s power and selfhood exists in her capacity to compel a perfect man to love her, that a woman’s security and identity is through her husband, that success for a woman is all about who she marries.
But, yikes, this is, as I said, the 21st century–where women tend to be more educated than men, where the recession hit men harder than women…right? Not to mention that women have equal rights to education, employment, and so forth. We aren’t living in the 19th century when it was believed that if a woman thought (yes, used her mind!) she would cause her womb to atrophy and become infertile. When there were few ways for a woman to earn money on her own in a city, except by being a nanny, house servant, or prostitute.
So, why does the romantic fantasy continue? Why do women feel such a profound lack that they need Mr. Wonderful to make them full people? I’d like to offer a hypothesis: that it’s because we haven’t developed real agency, a real capacity to stake our claim in life and make it all happen. I remember as a young woman, I sought out men to be with who did things–make deals, write books, travel, create businesses–that I didn’t know how to do and was too scared to try on my own. It’s not unique to me: we women often live vicariously through our male partners. (Women’s social status is often based on the position of the man she is married to.) Ironically, perhaps, I think it may be the more educated, middle class, and postmodern among us who struggle the most with creating our own wide path through life and want to have someone else define it for us–someone who is dashing, creative, interesting, courageous and will show us the world that we are dying to see but are reluctant to make our own. And somehow we don’t think we should have to–we think we deserve the prince. There is a strange and distasteful entitlement to this that is so anachronistic.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this capacity for agency–Eros (check out my first blog post on this site!). The very structure of who we are, as Woman, has been created to be Other, the mirror for reflection, to the One who makes it all happen–Man. We see who we are in our relationships, find our self in that perfect idealized relationship. Perhaps that’s why it means so much–we are nothing without it! This insight about “woman as Other” was made by the great Simone de Beauvoir in her classic treatise, The Second Sex. It’s unbelievably important. Woman as Other means that Woman is not a true Creator–and in both a cultural and spiritual sense, that is a disaster.
What do you think? Are we seeking agency through relationship rather than developing it within ourselves? Is that why this romantic fantasy still holds such a huge place in our psyches?