You know that scenario you hold in your head about The One? One day, you'll be walking into your local grocery store to buy a mango, and there he will be, squeezing them too, ready to seduce you with an opening gambit about, say, ripeness.
Well, it's a dream, and that makes you a fantasist.
Such is the new thinking from the front lines of modern dating. Forget about finding Mr. Right. You should settle for Mr. Good Enough. Heck, go for Mr. Just Okay. Don't expect a head-spinning courtship. You should not even want love. In fact, you'd be wise to borrow a few pointers from arranged marriages.
Last month in London's Sunday Times, Lori Gottlieb caused a stir by writing a piece about her longing to be married. At 40, she laments the decisions in her 30s to break up with certain boyfriends. Looking back, she figures she should have married one. A single mother, she conceived her child through donor sperm because she had not met Mr. Right.
Her advice to women is to settle before they panic about feeling they might never have a family. "Don't worry about passion or intense connection," she writes.
Marriage is "more like a partnership formed to run a small, mundane and often boring not-for-profit business. And I mean this in a good way."
Reva Seth agrees. Born in Canada to South Asian parents, she has written a book, First Comes Marriage, Modern Relationship Advice from the Wisdom of Arranged Marriages, based on her discussions with more than 300 women in arranged marriages. Does she think modern women are fantasists? "Very much," she says in an interview. "Our expectations have become so high in terms of what we are looking for. … Even the idea of a soulmate is a list [of attributes]in our head that keeps changing."
Women should seek the inverse of what Hollywood and the culture in general dictate they should expect, she says. Don't look for connection or expect to feel something the minute you lock eyes. That's sexual chemistry, which fades over time. Look for shared values, even if that comes in a guy who is 5 foot 4 and suffers from halitosis, she says.
Depend on marriage to make love grow, she says.
Ms. Seth, whose professional experience includes journalism, public relations and the practice of law, readily acknowledges that her research is not conclusive. She began conducting interviews with women in arranged marriages out of curiosity. Her parents had one, and were happy. As a young girl, she observed their friends, many of whom were in arranged marriages, too. "I could never really tell the difference between the odd love marriage in the group and the arranged marriage. There was no difference. And that really bothered me."
She recognizes that the women she spoke to were probably self-selecting - only those who had generally happy experiences in their arranged marriage were willing to come forward.
Ms. Seth is not advocating arranged marriage. It is the principle of being strategic about selecting a husband that she upholds. Husbands don't need to be the centre of your life, she says. It shouldn't matter that they don't like to do all the things you like to do.
Her advice is to make a list of marriage musts - basic core values, not superficial attributes. That's what she did on New Year's Day, 2003. Then 28, she had been in a five-year relationship that ended and "was dating around the city" of Toronto. She found herself drifting into relationships, without a plan or clear idea of what she wanted. "We end up marrying the men we date," she warns.
Women would be better off to seek the men who meet their "marriage musts" with the same determination that they would have to tackle a project at the office. Online dating and introduction agencies are good for this, she writes.
Five months after drawing up her list - which included attributes such as being positive and having lived outside Canada, as she had - she met a suitable man at a party. She struck up a friendship with the man - it was casual, she says - and after their seventh time together in person (there were many e-mail exchanges), they became engaged. (She does allow that they had slept together.)
"We decided we could date or we could just go for it," she says. "It was this idea that commitment is the new ambivalence." Five months later, they married. Four years later, they have a son.
Hers is a happy story, but it is hard to use as an example to other women. Her husband is also South Asian, and his parents have an arranged marriage. He, too, understood and perhaps wanted on some level to emulate what his parents have. I can't think of many men willing to jump into marriage after seven face-to-face meetings. Non-committal men are the obstacle faced by many young women who want to marry. They are what gave rise to The Rules and all the other how-to-snag-a-hubby books.
But more than anything, what rankles about Ms. Gottlieb's and Ms. Seth's advice is their promotion of low expectations and the idea that you don't need to love the guy you marry. I don't think many women, once they are past the dreamy teenage years, really think that they will marry a Brad Pitt. They are not fantasists. The dating scene is rife with hazards, for both men and women. It's not easy to find someone you think you can live with - and who wants to live with you. And we should choose carefully, just as men should. Unlike women in previous generations, we don't necessarily need men for financial support. The priority is building a happy life.
The best observation I ever heard on the subject of when (and if) women should marry came from sex therapist Lou Paget. "People marry when they are ready to," she told me once. "It's not so much about who they are dating. It's about when they are ready to make the commitment." To apply that reasoning, if Ms. Gottlieb didn't marry one of those Mr. Good Enoughs in her 20s and 30s, maybe she wasn't prepared to undertake what it would mean. Ms. Seth, on the other hand, was clearly ready to take the plunge.
Ms. Gottlieb is right that marriage is no passionfest. It is hard work, just like being single. But that is why you should start it off by being madly in love. Feeling a romantic connection with another person is one of the lovely privileges of being human, and the memory of that initial romantic spark can sustain you through the rough patches.
As for lasting happiness, divorce happens in all kinds of unions - in marriages to the man of your dreams and to Mr. Okay. It can be as mysterious as love in some ways.
What the two women do have right is that nothing is perfect: not men, not marriage and not life.