don’t marry him

I couldn’t write anything yesterday except for poems about Sandy Hook. I couldn’t stop reading the articles. And today, instead of writing about that, because I don’t feel able, I’m writing about something else entirely. 


I finally read “Marry Him,” by Lori Gottlieb. She’d written that big Atlantic piece a while back, and then the book, which is an argument in favor of settling for a good-enough man (if you’re straight and want to get married, otherwise she’s not writing for you), because you’re probably not going to find a perfect one.


I don’t know what made me want to read the book. No, I’m lying—I’m remembering now. It was a comment under her recent piece in the Times Magazine about therapy branding. Someone said something like “EYEROLL! Like I’m going to believe anything from the woman who single-handedly convinced women that they were nothing without a man and should marry the first lame guy who came along so that they didn’t have to die alone. Thanks A LOT, Lori.” Or something to that effect.

And I was curious, because single-handedly convincing women that they are nothing without a man sounded sort of impressive for one book. And I’m sick. So my brain sucks right now.

So I read it.

And I’m still not exactly sure what I think, which is why I’m writing about it.

Basically, Gottlieb argues that when women are in their twenties, they reject everyone, all the time, because they’ve learned that a better guy will come along and they will eventually settle down with him. But even when great people come along, these women continue to reject them, because there might be someone better out there. And then, all too soon because time is so fickle, the women are almost forty, and the good men are taken, and now the women have to either learn to make compromises, or they can just up and die alone, forty-five or so years later.



It sounds really, really sexist, and Gottlieb is well-aware. She mentions how depressingly sexist the whole thing sounds a lot. But she’s like, still, let’s be real, sometimes the reality is kinda sexist. Like the reality that never-married forty-something guys often want to be with still-fertile thirty-something women, instead of forty-year-old women. So if you’re forty and dating online, you’re looking at divorced dads most of the time. Also, most women want to be in a committed relationship, and no one is helped by the pressure to be proud of being single when you don’t want to be single anymore.

Which is pretty fair.

Some of what she says I see around me. Women in their twenties who reject absolutely every single guy they meet because of some barely perceptible flaw. That is a thing. I’ve listened to my friends laugh uproariously over a thing a guy cluelessly did that of course resulted in his immediate disqualification—and that thing is the same thing that Bear did when we were first dating, except that I thought it was adorable. Or I just didn’t care. Or I just like awkward guys.


I know people who won’t go on a second date if they don’t feel a shower of sparks on the first. Even though sometimes it really does take more than just one date! I have seen girls break up with guys over stuff that doesn’t seem to make sense. Over stuff they don’t even understand themselves. Mild irritations. Slightly annoying habits.

I’ve heard young women tell each other and themselves over and over “you deserve better!” When sometimes, honestly, it’s not at all clear what that means.

I know plenty of women in their thirties who are single. Their dating pasts are long and dramatic and often, they are frustrated. I also know plenty women in their twenties who appear to be settling.Who are definitely settling. Who are tying themselves into suffocating situations with men who don’t treat them well. Sometimes with men who are actively destructive.

And much of what Gottlieb describes, though I can sort of get my head around its logic, feels instinctively wrong to me. Which is just the problem, she might say. Except that I’m married. But she’d say that if I were single now.

Gottlieb keeps describing situations where the girl is just not that into the guy, so she breaks it off. And then, years later, he’s happily married with three kids in various sports and scouts related uniforms and she is alone, and she wishes she’d grasped what she had back then, while she’d had it.

(he lives in the house behind this fence, for sure. source)

The thing is, I am so enormously relieved that I eventually got out of the relationships where I was never totally sure, where I agonized and agonized, and told myself very firmly, over and over, that it was love.

I guess I am one of those girls. I once broke up with a guy because he “didn’t smell right.” A handsome, devoted, talented songwriter guy who wanted to marry me. Who wrote a song called “Dear Kate” that I still sometimes wish I had a recording of because how many times does THAT ever happen? God. I wish I had a recording. We only went out very briefly.

“You are insane,” said my friend. “Send him to me.”

I felt a little insane. And I also felt absolutely sure that he wasn’t right for me. And of course, it wasn’t really just about the way he smelled. The way he smelled was a symbol. I couldn’t seem to feel comfortable with him. I felt numb, unresponsive. I didn’t want his body.

I have more than one of those guys that Gottlieb is so fond of in my past.

My grad school boyfriend—a guy I didn’t even mean to start dating. This is classic, in “Marry Him”: We had become good friends when he asked me out. And I—yes, this is lame—didn’t want to hurt his feelings. So I said yes. And then, for months, I wimpily prayed that he wouldn’t say “I love you.” And then finally, like a tiny suicide, I said it to him, one morning, as though desperate to get it done. And then he said it on the phone all the time, in parting, and I would try to hang up quickly so that I could pretend I hadn’t heard.

And the thing is, this guy was really a great guy. Funny, kind, with fantastic hair and many published papers. Exactly the kind of guy I might have described to myself when describing the kind of guy I could end up with.

I can’t tell this story without people thinking that I’m a terrible person, because people are always very sure what makes someone terrible and this is one of those things: I cheated on him.

(I know….grotesque…source)

(or is it this one? source)

And then I tried to repress the memory of the cheating, and I tried to commit to him fully, and I tried so friggin’ hard all the time to love him.

Which is ridiculous, in retrospect. Why did I think I had to love him? Who told me that I needed to completely commit, at twenty-two?

I guess I received some different messages from the world than the beautiful, clever twenty-somethings Gottlieb refers to so frequently. The women who know they have it all and expect to have it all in a man. The women who feel that they are on top of the world and that they deserve the best. I didn’t feel this way. And I’m not sure I know anyone else who does now. Yes, we tell each other again and again that we deserve awesome men. And we do! Awesome people deserve each other. But so often, we are also insecure at the same time. We are flailing around, trying to figure it out. And I was insecure in a way that made me feel I needed a guy to tell me I was worthwhile. Embarrassing, especially in a world where women are told that we can achieve anything (on our own).

The only thing that prevented me from staying forever with the very nice boyfriend I had in grad school was the quiet, half-repressed agony of indecision. The niggling, endless, infuriating sense that I didn’t love him. And the way, sometimes after we had sex, I would cry in the bathroom for no reason that I could unearth.

Now, when I think of what might have happened had I married him, I am blown away by gratitude. And it’s all for that sense that I had that it wasn’t right.

That is just one story, of course. It doesn’t mean that that Gottlieb is fundamentally wrong about being more open-minded about potential partners. I believe in second dates, in giving people a chance. In love developing over time, sometimes. Especially if you want to find a partner. Not everyone wants that at every moment, of course. Not everyone wants it in their twenties, and forcing yourself to commit is not a good idea either.

It’s complicated, I guess. But those uncertainties and nagging doubts—sometimes they are there for a reason. And sometimes the reason is that you are squeezing yourself into a narrow space that your body doesn’t want to be in. It wants to run around. It wants to go somewhere else. And the gentle pressure that you feel, the slow crush of discomfort, those are natural responses to being compressed.

I am too romantic, I think, for Gottlieb, in the end.

When I met Bear, I fell in love unhesitatingly. Not on the first date. But soon. And if I hadn’t gotten to that—well, it’s terrifying to me now. Actually terrifying.

Long-term relationships are absolutely about security and convenience and reassurance and companionate support that will endure because you make it endure. But they can also be about the sheer relief of finding someone you truly desire and respect at the same time.

I don’t want anyone to miss out on that, if they want it. And they might miss out, if they don’t listen to themselves when it doesn’t feel right.

*   *   *

Did anyone else read the book? Thoughts? Thoughts on the idea of “settling”?

Unroast: Today I love how being sick makes me not give a shit about how I look.

P.S. I realize that I’m writing about this book/topic YEARS after everyone has covered it. But I’m OK with that, because sometimes I think the internet moves way, way too fast, and I like being able to talk about things as they actually emerge in my life, instead of on the same day that Slate is covering them :-)

P.P.S. A GREAT book I just read about marriage/relationships is Marriage, a History, by Stephanie Coontz. It puts a lot of the conversations we have now about these things in context. Highly recommend.


Kate on December 19th 2012 in life, marriage, perfection, relationships

59 Responses to “don’t marry him”

  1. morgaine responded on 19 Dec 2012 at 12:10 pm #

    I’m a bit too young (19) for the marriage part to be relevant to me, but the advice, as it applies to dating, is brilliant. I think that the fine line between giving someone a chance and actually settling is whether you’re leaving them for your own reasons or for other people’s. As in, leaving a guy not because his habits bother *you*, but because you’re afraid they might bother others and embarrass you in front of your friends, or because he doesn’t fit the template your sister/mother/best friend always thought you’d end up with.

  2. teegan responded on 19 Dec 2012 at 12:25 pm #

    I had seriously dated two guys – one was gay and one was a he-man gun-toting libertarian who announced his most impressive bowel movements – before I met… let’s call him D. D was sweet, a poet, a nice guy, awkward, adorable, and drove three hours to see me when I broke up with the he-man just in case I needed a friend. But there was no spark.
    I dated another guy, who turned out to be kind of psycho, and swore off relationships for a while. Or so I thought.
    And then I met M. He didn’t have a strong scent (which I thought was odd, because everyone else I’d ever considered/dated did), and I wasn’t THAT into the way he kissed. He wasn’t cute in the way I always thought my One would be. He had the beginnings of a bald spot. He was divorced. If I was one of those ruthless women, that would have been that. But something told me to hold onto him, to wait and see.
    And now? Well, he proposed three years ago on Christmas, and today we have the life I’ve always dreamed of.
    But I spent a lot of weeks in the beginning wondering if I was settling, thinking of all of the other guys I’d known/kissed/wanted. But it wasn’t settling. It was realizing what was important. It was realizing that my “ideal” guy wasn’t really what was best for me. I guess I’m in favor not of settling, but of taking a good long hard look at what you really want, and marrying HIM, not what you thought you wanted when you were 16.

  3. Call Me Jo responded on 19 Dec 2012 at 12:28 pm #

    When I met my husband, there was an instant attraction…that neither of us wanted. It was bad timing. I was in a (crappy) relationship and he was wary of getting into another relationship after having had a horrible experience. But the attraction was there.
    We denied it. We loudly insisted we were just friends, even when everyone else, including our college professors, made comments about the two of us.
    We were friends. But there was a sexual attraction that was hard to deny, and on more than one occasion we didn’t deny it…and then we would avoid each other for a while and I would try harder to commit to my crappy boyfriend.
    It all seems to silly now. Because we both KNEW. And then one day I had to make a choice because otherwise my now-husband was going to disappear from my life forever. I broke up with my crappy boyfriend, admitted my feelings to my husband, and we’ve been together for almost 12 years. The BEST 12 years. We are perfect together.
    I wish everyone could have the level of happiness, completeness, that I have. I think it’s true that women might pass up an opportunity; I almost did. But I definitely don’t think anyone should settle and risk missing out! It’s cliche, but when you know you know.

  4. Kate responded on 19 Dec 2012 at 12:34 pm #

    Interesting. I love hearing people’s love stories.
    And I think what’s so clear here is that sometimes the person you ended up doesn’t fit your ideal, or what you imagined, and maybe you’re even thrown off at first, but something kept you in it in a good way. And I’m so glad you are where you are now!!

  5. Kate responded on 19 Dec 2012 at 12:36 pm #

    Good point! Gottlieb touches on this gap between what we want and what we think we “should” want in the book, and I really appreciate that. Of course, sometimes it gets a little messier…relationships are social and communal, after all. Which is not to say that you need to live your life in a way that you think will always please the people around you, but that it makes sense to take into consideration how your partner fits into the fabric of your community.

  6. DianneSA responded on 19 Dec 2012 at 12:47 pm #

    Kate, you have not updated your photo on HP, again!

  7. Kate responded on 19 Dec 2012 at 12:52 pm #


    I know!! I tried!! I can’t figure out how.

  8. Emily responded on 19 Dec 2012 at 1:11 pm #

    I hate the idea that these kinds of advice pieces (Gottlieb’s, not yours) rest on, which is that women are somehow incomplete without a partner, and that if you don’t have one you should be at least looking. I understand that many women want partners, want to settle down, want to have kids, but how much of that is genuine want, versus feeling the need to conform to social pressures? Why is a woman somehow less than perfect if she’s single, not worried about finding a man etc.? It’s also a problem that this whole framework is super heteronormative. Queer women are just totally shut out, made invisible, unimportant. I wish we could work toward a world where women were not subject to this kind of pressure at all. Where we could just be fully human as we are (like people see men), not somehow deficient because we don’t have a male partner to legitimize our value as women.

  9. lik_11 responded on 19 Dec 2012 at 1:16 pm #

    @ Teegan-
    I LOVE your story. It’s much how I feel.

    I wondered if I “settled” for a while, because I wasn’t in a crazy passionate love. But- my husband had all the traits I was looking for in a man, though not necessarily in the package I was expecting. There was always compromise (on my part) in my passionate loves (due to their destructiveness towards me)- but I didn’t find myself having to convince my friends (or myself) about my husband.

  10. Kate responded on 19 Dec 2012 at 1:20 pm #

    I wonder why we have to wonder if we’ve settled? Maybe the idea of settling is confusing and poorly defined, and we’re all just vaguely concerned that it’s happening to us on some level, because we know we’re not supposed to ever do it?

  11. Chris responded on 19 Dec 2012 at 1:20 pm #

    Kate, you are one amazing writer. I just have to say that, at the risk of being boring. You write better when you are sick than most people do at the top of their game.

    Anyway, I just wanted to agree that the small voice of agonizing doubt really is important to heed. I just finished getting out of a 24-year marriage to a man that I like and respect, but who just never was the right one. I could have stayed, for the companionship, the security, and all the rest, but I was MISERABLE, despite all I could do to make the relationship better, try to prize his good qualities, etc. I spent years being subtly disappointed, and I think he did too. So I’m taking a chance on being on my own. I may never get into another long-term relationship. I’m not kidding myself about the chances, but I think I’ll be happier single than I would have been for another 20+ years with him. Life is too LONG to settle.

  12. Emily responded on 19 Dec 2012 at 1:21 pm #

    yes. so true. I dated so many guys before I got married and whenever things ended with another sweet, smart, caring guy, I was like… wow… if I couldn’t be happy with him, I won’t be happy with anyone. But I was wrong! Because when I did find the right one I didn’t want to run away, and there wasn’t any doubt.

    In an interesting article I just read (can’t remember the link) they talked about a new study. While nervousness and doubts before the wedding does not predict divorce in men, it does in women. Apparently men just don’t care as much about their doubting. But, women who aren’t sure about getting married when they do, are much more likely to end up divorced. So maybe not the best advice from Gotlieb in my opinion.

  13. Erika responded on 19 Dec 2012 at 1:24 pm #

    @teegan – very similar situation here!

  14. Amy responded on 19 Dec 2012 at 1:25 pm #

    I dated a guy for 7 years. We met in college and were best friends for over a year before we began dating. His feelings for me were always stronger than mine for him but I wanted to be with him. He was so nice and smart and funny and came from a nice family. I had this idea in my head, at 20 years old, that I would never find anyone “better” than him.
    It was easy for a long time. Then life got real. We had to grow up. And I wasn’t IN LOVE with him. I wanted to be. SO badly. But I just couldn’t make it happen. I thought if we lived together, maybe I would. I didn’t. I thought it we bought a house ( I know…) it would happen. It didn’t. Thank goodness I didn’t go any further than that.
    Things ended really horribly. It makes me sad to have lost my friend but I am so glad I didn’t settle.

  15. Kate responded on 19 Dec 2012 at 1:26 pm #

    Thank you so much. I really needed that today. I feel like I can’t think straight, and I’m worried that I’m not choosing the right words or putting them in the right order and I have this sneaking suspicion that I used to be more clever and nuanced, before I felt like crap. So you are very reassuring and I appreciate it!

  16. Kate responded on 19 Dec 2012 at 1:27 pm #

    If you find that link, send it! I’m curious!

  17. Beatrice responded on 19 Dec 2012 at 1:51 pm #

    I think what is missing from this discussion is how cruel it is to the guy (or the other person in any form of relationship) to settle for him without heart-pounding love. Your story about cheating touches on that, in that we do feel bad for the cheated-upon. I mean, say you DO run into that ex that you just didn’t love, even though you tried, and he’s happily married now; should you really be thinking, “I wish I’d kept him by lying and settling, rather than seeing him happy with a woman who DOES love him”? What a horrible thing to think.

    In my marriage, I was the one who was settled for. It was incredibly damaging to my self-esteem and, though I believe he had the best of intentions at first, he ended up being resentful that he was tied to someone he didn’t love and, inevitably, cheating.

    I’m currently dating a man for whom I am absolutely perfect (and vice versa), but between the marriage ending and me meeting this guy I was completely, not-even-asked-on-one-date, single, for almost two years. And at no point during those two years did I ever think settling would be better than solitude. Not once.

  18. Kate responded on 19 Dec 2012 at 2:08 pm #

    Thanks for bringing this up. Important point.
    I’m so sorry you went through that. Reading one man’s description of his wife and relationship in “Marry Him” made me so incredibly sad, because he had obviously settled for her, after being in love with Gottlieb! He kept saying things like “She’s not the most interesting, but…” and it just sounded so mean and hurtful.

  19. katilda responded on 19 Dec 2012 at 3:01 pm #

    Very well timed. I just broke up with a guy who I experienced many of the same feelings you describe about your grad school boyfriend. And I broke up with the guy before that. They both had plenty of things going for them on paper. And I even had great chemistry with one of them in person. So what gives? It’s true….there was just always something. Something that fueled the nagging feeling of “not him” or “not now.” I don’t think it was one detail or another that necessarily made me want to end it….it was the realization that the “not him” feeling was there and that I was almost grateful/relieved/validated every time a small detail happened that reaffirmed my nagging feeling. And if I deep down wanted the “not him” feeling to be right……..well then that tells me everything I need to know. And I’ll keep waiting until I find my own version of the way you feel about Bear, because I do believe 100% that it does exist!

  20. Kristin responded on 19 Dec 2012 at 3:22 pm #

    Interesting! I think that when it comes to love, I think we’re all smarter than we realize about what we need. If there’s an inner voice we’re having to argue with all the time to convince ourselves this relationship is a good idea… well, I think we should all give our inner voices a little more credit that they may be on to something. I’ve been in relationships like the one you described, where the guy was awesome and so you felt like you should probably love him, and so you probably DID love him… but you had to keep having that conversation with yourself because you knew it was a bunch of crap. And then I’ve been in relationships where I was crazy about the guy, but knew deep down that they weren’t good for me – I was crazy about them, but spending time with them made me not so crazy about myself. And then I met my now-husband, and I have no nagging voices – I just love him. He’s the complete package for me, and I’m so glad that I didn’t settle for a “good guy that I really probably should love” or a lousy guy that I felt passionate about but that left me feeling kind of awful about myself. I mean, if you’re going to be with someone, shouldn’t you be with someone you WANT to be with? That ALL of you wants to be with?

  21. DeDee responded on 19 Dec 2012 at 4:46 pm #

    Kate – I’ve been reading your site for a few months now, and at the risk of sounding like so many of your other adoring fans, I am constantly amazed that you are able to articulate almost exactly my thoughts on almost every subject. Its very comforting to know that there are awesome people who see the world and face the world in a way similar to mine.

    Disclaimer: I haven’t read the book. But I remember reading that article.

    I’m a single 34-year old. Recently (very), a man who I think is Incredible ended our relationship, because he thinks I’m pretty awesome, too. Which is a weird thing to say. But, he just didn’t feel “it”. And I get that. I’ve done the same thing to men who were equally awesome. (But, I’m not gonna lie… I have spent more than my fair share of time in tears since he ended it.)

    But that’s not my point.

    All of us look at Love differently. We all define Love differently. And that’s okay. But I also think that the way that we look at and define Love changes over our lives.

    I broke up with my high school boyfriend (who was and still is a very decent, kind, desirable guy) because I thought his mom didn’t like me. In my mid-twenties, I broke up with a fantastic guy because I was embarrassed by how much he liked me and wasn’t afraid to show it, and thought it made him look weak. I broke up with a guy a couple of years ago because he sort of slouched and moseyed while he walked. Or those were the reasons I told myself, and all of those reasons were really shallow and awful.

    But, truthfully, I just didn’t feel “it” with them. I thought because they were such good, decent, kind, funny, men, then clearly I should fall in love with them. I didn’t think that “I just don’t feel it” was a good reason to call it off, so I made up these other reasons.

    Honestly, Love doesn’t look like I thought it would when I was 16 or 24 or 30. The Incredible Guy that just broke a little piece of my heart doesn’t look/act/sound/smell anything like who my 16-year old self wanted to Love. She would probably think I was settling. The me at 24 and 30 probably would too.

    But they don’t know all of the things that life has taught me about Love and about what’s really important in the years since I was them. So its not settling. For me, it’s about appreciating and valuing new things that life has taught me are important – and those are the things that make people Lovely to me.

    So, I’m okay with settling for someone who doesn’t meet my 16-year old self’s expectations of Love, as long as he is is someone that 34-year old me Loves.

    No doubt, Love will look different to me at 40, too.

  22. Rae responded on 19 Dec 2012 at 4:53 pm #

    I haven’t read the book, but I can say with confidence that I flat out rejected all the guys that I dated in my 20s because of things that were dumb and petty. BUT the real problem was that I was dating men that I thought I *should* date and marry – the kind of guys that I was raised to date. When I finally started dating a man that actually fit me, it was magical and I knew why I had rejected the other men… then I had my heart ripped out. I licked my wounds for two years and when I met M. it was easy, it was right, I loved the way he smelled (for some strange reason it reminds me of the bay area). He is *exactly* what I want, I didn’t shift my priorities at all, I just had to learn WHAT they were. Now we are engaged and I don’t feel like I settled on one tiny, itty, bitty, thing. He even has qualities that I thought could not possibly be rolled up in just one human. I am totally romantic, and I am glad I waited for him.

  23. Rose responded on 19 Dec 2012 at 4:55 pm #

    Oh this is quite painful for me right now. A few days ago the love of my life walked away from our seven year relationship. We had been dating since high school, with a break in his first year of university. I really thought we were the exception to the rule, we fit together perfectly and (seemingly) were both equally devoted to each other. We travelled, laughed and loved each other fully. Now I find myself in the position of being the one left behind, as he has decided that he can’t sell himself on the idea of marrying me. I know he has to do what is right for him, but it hurts so damn much knowing that I picked him, and he no longer picks me. I will never know if he had the nagging doubts or disconnect described in the comments here, or if he just one day didn’t love me the way he should.

  24. Janet T responded on 19 Dec 2012 at 5:19 pm #

    Kate- beautifully written as always- and a “thank you” to your amazing followers with their incredible comments. The stories they share are wonderful.

  25. Marie responded on 19 Dec 2012 at 5:20 pm #

    To start, I haven’t read the book. That said, I feel like it’s hard to make generalizations about relationships because everyone’s experience is different. My experience, for instance, goes against a lot of the conventional wisdom you tend to hear. When I became friends with my now-husband, he wasn’t what I was looking for. He developed feelings for me before I did for him. We had a lot of awkward relationships and a lot of traumatic break-ups. Finally, I decided I loved him but wasn’t “in love” with him. A lot of people told me that if it didn’t feel right, I shouldn’t be with him. We broke up again, but stayed friends. Close friends. Several months later, we got back together. This time our relationship was more normal. We dated for two years before deciding to get married.
    The problem with basing everything on feelings is that feelings change and that a lot of feelings don’t have anything to do with the guy, but everything to do with you. I had a lot of anxiety at the time, and a lot of it ended up being transferred to the relationship and my continual quest to define how I felt for him. Because of my experience, I believe that love doesn’t always come the way we expect, and that it doesn’t have to be instant. I do think we young women tend to have idealistic visions in our minds of what amazing things we should feel when we meet the “right” guy. But life isn’t a Disney movie, and as much as we might wish it, our men will never be princes.

  26. Stacey responded on 19 Dec 2012 at 5:21 pm #

    I have a group of close friends who have all been friends since high school, and almost all of us married the first or second person we ever dated. A lot of us waited until our mid-twenties to have our first boyfriend/girlfriend. But I had one friend who started dating in high school, and she bounced from boyfriend to boyfriend, always eventually breaking up with them after a year or so. And I’m embarrassed to admit this now, but I judged her for it. I always wondered what was wrong with her, and why she couldn’t just be happy with the really nice guy she was currently dating. But now I understand, and I’m proud of her for not settling. She’s happily married now, and I’m so glad she listened to the little voice in her head telling her all those other relationships weren’t right, because she’s married to a wonderful man now who makes her truly happy.

  27. Ann responded on 19 Dec 2012 at 5:24 pm #

    I agree that no one should settle, and I think if more people listened to their own doubts and nagging feelings that something wasn’t right from the beginning, there would be far less divorce. HOWEVER, I do think that our society suffers from the belief that everyone has a “soul mate.” In dating, this can cause women to reject really good guys in favor of a vague concept of a perfect guy with whom they will live “happily ever after.” Later on, as soon as a marriage starts struggling, people assume that it must be because they married the wrong person, and their soul mate must still be out there somewhere. I think that is a lot easier to believe than looking closely at their own actions and the actions of their spouse and realizing that if they put as much effort into their marriage as they did dating, things might be completely different. (I realize that this is definitely not the case in all, or even a majority of divorces, but I think it can often be a factor). I often hear that marriage takes work, and I don’t know that I think of it like that, but I do think that in order to stay healthy, marriage takes attention and effort.

  28. Kate responded on 19 Dec 2012 at 5:26 pm #

    Yes, I agree.

  29. Caitlin responded on 19 Dec 2012 at 5:48 pm #

    I agree that people should not be so quick to write off potential partners who don’t match up with their idea of what their partner should be like. If I had, for instance, stuck to men who were close to my age, I would have missed out on the opportunity to be with an incredible person who has made my life better in just about every way possible. But if you had told me that I was going to marry him when we first met I probably wouldn’t have believed you.

    That said, I don’t believe in settling. A relationship can be tough enough as it is, even with two partners who are 100% committed to one another, but if you haven’t gone all in with the other person, things are going to be so much harder. And you know, maybe there are good reasons why you have reservations? What if those reservations are based in some kind of fundamental lack of compatibility? That’s important stuff!

    I don’t know, I think I feel strongly about this because I married the wrong guy once and it was so awful – I use the words “waking death” to describe it – that I would rather be single than ever marry badly like that ever again. I’m pretty sure anyone who has ever been in a bad marriage before would say the same thing.

  30. Abby responded on 19 Dec 2012 at 8:45 pm #

    I’m 19, and have never been in any kind of romantic relationship…but I’ve been asked out three times. One of them was my best male friend from high school. So many people had joked about us ending up together that I felt like I “should” say yes, just to give it a try. Because I owed him that, or because maybe I could convince myself that I liked him.

    I think in the end, that would have been settling. Well-intentioned settling, but it would have hurt our friendship and his feelings. We agreed to be friends. He has a girlfriend now and he’s happy and I’m happy for him.

    Would being in a romantic relationship be nice? Sure. But am I going to agree to go out with someone I don’t feel anything for, or even someone I don’t really know or like? No. Maybe my answer will change as I get older. Maybe I’ll get a better idea of what settling means, what settling is. Maybe I’ll just remain awesome and get some cats, who knows.

  31. laura responded on 19 Dec 2012 at 10:03 pm #

    Abby: Awesome comment.

  32. Maya responded on 19 Dec 2012 at 10:26 pm #

    I thought, for a while, in my early/mid twenties that “settling” was what I should be doing, basically (admittedly, I was only sometimes aware of it, at the time)- and the guy I was dating didn’t want to commit. And I stayed and stayed, and kept pushing for him to commit, until trying to get him to commit was basically trying to get him to dump me, because I’d poured all this energy into the thing and couldn’t bear to break it off. Well, eventually, I couldn’t pour in any more energy, and I broke it off.

    And then I met my husband, and lo and behold- I didn’t have to settle, And he was ready to commit. Best of both worlds.

    I guess this Gottlieb lady doesn’t believe that we exist. I got married at 27. A little late, I guess, but still definitely in my 20s.

  33. Maya responded on 19 Dec 2012 at 10:29 pm #

    And P.S. The other person not smelling right is totally, totally a good reason not to trust a relationship. There’s something about smell.

  34. Tina responded on 19 Dec 2012 at 11:27 pm #

    Great post! I was married for over 20 years to someone I wasn’t really in love with. But I lied to myself for a long time. Eventually I couldn’t live that way anymore. It wasn’t fair to either of us. He still hasn’t forgiven me for leaving. I hope one day he finds real love. I don’t know if he realizes it, but he wasn’t really in love with me either. When I fell in love with my new husband, I didn’t even know what being in love felt like. When I figured out what I was feeling it hit me like a ton of bricks. And our first kiss was magic. Our every kiss is magic. And he smells awesome. ;)

  35. Jane responded on 20 Dec 2012 at 12:11 am #

    Before I met my husband I dated two guys for two years each, and I don’t really know how I feel about either of the relationships now. The first one was a university thing, and at the time I thought he was the bees knees, and I was devastated when he broke up with me, but by the same token it was kind of my fault, because he wanted to get married, and I very definitely did not want to get married at 21. Not because of him, but because in my head it wasn’t a very ‘feminist’ or ‘modern’ thing to do. He married the next girl he dated, and they broke up badly some five or so years later, when it turned out he was cheating on her with one of his students (yeuch… I know it’s true, because I heard it from both of them, but it so doesn’t square with the guy I thought I knew when we were together). The second guy was a couple of years later, though there wasn’t really anything to speak of in between, I mean I really was a mess after my uni boyfriend dumped me. I fell for this one really hard, and fairly quickly decided that he was THE ONE, but he just wouldn’t commit… at the time I didn’t even know it was a cliche. We even got engaged briefly (strange but true) but this just brought on his cold feet even harder. Again, I still think he was a (flawed, but on the whole) great guy, and I would have happily married him; I kept pursuing him for more than a year after he finally broke up with me, but in the end he did manage to commit… to the woman he started dating after me, who got pregnant. So I was pushing 30, deeply heartbroken, and very very alone.

    And then I met my now husband.

    I had fancied both of my other boyfriends, had even been attracted to them from pretty much day one. (This is not really saying much, as I had fancied any number of people over the years, these were just the only two who had kinda-sorta fancied me back.) But with David it was a whole other thing. He just blew me away. He was funny. He was kind. He was a grown up. He had done interesting things and thought about them in interesting ways. And I knew that he looked at me and saw someone he respected, liked and wanted to spend time with. Sure, there were sparks, but it was so much more than that. I really _liked_ him. It was easy. We were married less than a year after we first met.

    I think I agree with you that there is wisdom both in what Lori Gottlieb is saying, and in the opposite. People can get used to thinking there is something better around the corner, and as a result act disrespectfully towards what is available to them right now. But I don’t think the solution lies in lowering one’s standards. If anything, people should be raising their standards; however this might express itself in abandoning certain expectations. I further think that we make everything so much harder by investing more than is really warranted in the prospect of a ‘soul mate’. My husband is great. He really is one of the good ones, and I am thankful (probably not thankful enough) every day that he married me. But he does not complete me. He is not my everything. In seeking to make him so I would do him an injustice and make our marriage less rather than more. There are many social, spiritual and emotional needs that I have that he cannot and should not be expected to fulfil. Some of that lifting I have to do myself. Some other friends (mostly female friends, though not exclusively so) provide. Some things only God can do for me. If someone is waiting for Prince Charming to rescue them from life (which is a not too uncommon hollywood trope, even today…thanks a bunch, hollywood) she is bound to be disappointed in anyone she meets, even one of the good ones.

    And that is all the rant that I have time for today.

  36. Dan responded on 20 Dec 2012 at 1:36 am #

    You know, go with your first instinct. This is totally sexist. There are no self-help books out there aimed at men telling them that they shouldn’t be rejecting people for silly reasons in their 20s. Apparently we should all just accept that men can choose to be as fickle as they want in their relationships in their 20s and then as soon as they decide that they are ready to commit, they should just turn around and find the perfect woman. That is bullshit.

    It feeds into a notion that women should be unhappy if they don’t find a guy that they feel is right for them and that it is *their fault*. Who are all these single women in their 30s and 40s who are regretting not settling? The women I know who are still single might engage in a bit of wondering what might have been, but I sometimes do that about my marriage. None of them are wishing their lives away waiting for the right man to fall in their lap.

  37. Aezy responded on 20 Dec 2012 at 8:28 am #

    I’ve not read the book either but at 23 I’m really really strongly in favour of not settling. I do think, as some of the other comments have as well, that women are sold this fairy tale Prince Charming dude, with whom everything will be easy and magical and full of sexy times forever and nobody will ever have a grouchy day or have any habits which drive the other person wild. I think it’s good to give people second chances and not to write them off immediately unless they do something horrendous (such as ask you how many child you want on the second date…) BUT at the same time if the feelings aren’t there, then they aren’t there. If you kiss someone for the first time you should feel something, other than “wow this is awkward”. I have no intention of “settling” for someone, I’d rather do a Queen Elizabeth and be a bloody awesome female all on my own.

  38. Kate responded on 20 Dec 2012 at 8:41 am #

    Something about the way you wrote this was just totally, totally charming and made me smile a lot.

  39. Kate responded on 20 Dec 2012 at 8:42 am #

    That was not a rant. That was an extremely well-articulated case. I should just hand this post over to you.

  40. Alex responded on 20 Dec 2012 at 10:41 am #

    I think that there are many American women who still feel pressure to settle and get married in their early-to-mid twenties. Then there is a entirely different group of people (including me and presumably most readers of the Atlantic) who feel pressure NOT to settle, or even to not desire marriage at all. I am 28 and I only have 1 close friend who is married. She got married this year to her boyfriend of 8 years–in part because he was tired of calling her his girlfriend. In my world, getting married any younger than 25 is considered kind of crazy.

    Out of everyone I know, I think I am closest to agreeing with some of what Gottlieb is saying. I met my current boyfriend on OkCupid, and a good friend of mine was using the site at the same time. She thought it was SO WEIRD that I specified (in the match question section) that I only wanted to date someone who someday wanted a family. She thought it was weird even though she knew that I had just broken up with my boyfriend of four years because a family with him was not an option. My ex was the type of person who points out that having a baby is the absolute worst thing a 1st world person can do for the environment. His devotion to egalitarianism in our relationship was exasperating. After him, a whole new set of qualities has become important, including seemingly silly/shallow things like a willingness to go pick up some milk for my morning coffee. My friend thinks I am being too logical (practical?) about dating. My thinking is, if I am 28 and know I want children, I cannot waste anymore time with someone who doesn’t want them. I can’t imagine having a baby with someone unless I’ve been with them for, I don’t know, let’s say, five years. So, if my current boyfriend is the father, I could be 32. If not, then I’ll be 34, 35… you get the idea. It didn’t take much deep thinking to figure this out: it’s staring me in the face.

    So, while Gottlieb may sound a little extreme, I understand where she is coming from. She is trying to be realistic. She admits that the figuring out what to settle for is difficult… but is encouraging us to think about it a little more and to think about who will be a good partner in the long run.

  41. sb09 responded on 20 Dec 2012 at 10:49 am #

    I really like Dan’s comment above.

    I struggle with this because I’ve never even gotten to the relationship stage with anyone, and I’m in my mid-twenties. But that doesn’t necessarily bother me, and I don’t think I was ready for that till now (maybe). I’d go on dates (occasionally) but I think I rejected them quickly because I had nothing to share with anyone at that time. While I’m now beginning to feel frustrated by being single, I really think my friends are right by saying timing is everything.

  42. Ann responded on 20 Dec 2012 at 1:31 pm #

    Love your last paragraph! I couldn’t agree more!

  43. Marnie responded on 20 Dec 2012 at 1:44 pm #

    I want to agree with the commenters that haven’t had mad sparks when they met their guys. About 10 years ago I met L and I was wild for him and he was wild for me. I remember telling a friend that I was ‘supremely happy’. I couldn’t think of a thing that I would want changed about him. Not his smell/his looks/his sense of humor/anything. And he said that I was the most beautiful thing that had ever happened to him…in fact he still says that. But 3 years ago he cheated on me and got someone pregnant. Turns out that maybe the reason we were so hot for each other was biochemical/psychological more than that we were perfect for each other. He totally tapped into how I viewed love… super romantic, soul mates, always a little bit out of reach while seeming to be there for me.

    Then I met B after getting divorced. He is kind/funny/quirky/weird/stable and totally in love with me. I liked him and kept wanting to be around him but I didn’t feel “it” with him. I liked him and we had great sex but as I told him, there was no ‘bridge’ joining those two things – no romantic “it” feeling.

    Luckily I stumbled upon Sheryl Paul’s Conscious Weddings site and realized that some of my worry about not loving him ‘enough’ or thinking maybe we weren’t right was more about my innate anxiety and personality type. I think that I didn’t recognize what B and I had as love because of my somewhat broken childhood. It didn’t feel like love because all of the experiences of my past meant wild hormone shifts and semi dysfunctional relationships. I wanted to feel that crazy longing and I didn’t.

    All I can do now is thank God that B kept after me and that none of the times that I tried to break up with him stuck. We were married this last summer and this very morning I spent an hour and a half at home with him laughing and playing and lamenting the fact that I had to leave hanging out with him for work.

    I guess my point is that sometimes doubt and not feeling “it” isn’t what it looks like. Sometimes it is informed by our pasts and by the fairytale image that the media has told us means love. Sometimes that “it” is just lust or something and then you find yourself divorced and confused because you were never “surer” about anything than marrying that man.

    blah blah blah. sorry for the rant, got longer than I had hoped. I just wanted to point people to Sheryl’s work if they are feeling that way. I feel like it saved my marriage (even though it didn’t exist yet!)

  44. Kate L responded on 20 Dec 2012 at 11:43 pm #

    I love your blog, always. This is no exception, and although I’m not a romantic in my own life, I love reading about you and Bear as it makes me happy to read about couples who are respectful and darling towards each other. (okay, done gushing)

    My issue with her premise is that she tries to shove the idea that there’s some looming timeline for a woman to be happy in. It’s ageist and I’m only twenty-four so I’m well under any “too old” title. Maybe it’s coming from a family of women who, often, really have been happier without men. Or maybe it’s watching my mom be kind of miserable in her relationship with my dad until they divorced.
    I’ve watched friends get married, or stay in dismal relationships, because they were so sure that it was what they were supposed to be doing. I’ve done it to. I very much ruined my senior year of undergrad staying with a guy who felt wrong, who made me feel poorly about myself, because he wanted to be with me and I thought I was supposed to feel some need for a guy.
    I don’t think twenty somethings (or thirty year olds, or hell, eight year olds) are being selfish or childish or delusional. I think many women who repeatedly refuse settling or settling down have perfectly valid reasons.

    Marriage isn’t a necessity for women anymore in the U.S. at least. It garners you no more rights, you’re not guaranteed better financial circumstances, and if you’re worried about protection take a self-defense class, buy some mace, and take care of yourself.

    So why do we still have writers out there shoving this deeply misogynistic and outdated idea down our throats that marriage is the end all, be all commitment for a woman to make?

    Rather than yet another book about how YOU MUST GET MARRIED OR ELSE YOU ARE DOOMED TO UNHAPPINESS AND FAILURE AND blah blah blah blah, I’d love to just have the discussion switch to how, so long as you are being true to your own desires and intentions in life, it’s perfectly realistic to be single for your whole life and happy, to be married for your whole life and be happy, to be somewhere in between and be happy.

  45. Piper Alexander responded on 20 Dec 2012 at 11:53 pm #

    So, I had all these things to say, and then it took me 2 days to read all the comments, because I didn’t want to repeat something someone else had said, and now my thoughts are not as clear. (Does this happen to anyone else?)

    1st, I agree a lot with what Jane said.

    I have read the book, and I found I agreed with most of it. However, now that I think about it, I did feel it was a little sexist, as Dan pointed out. I know a lot of women, and I mean a lot, that have a ridiculous criteria for someone they wish to find. And I know a lot of women that either dump people for dumb reasons or won’t even go out with people once for dumb reasons. Some of them are physical, which I think if there was a similar book written for men, that would be most of it. And those same women complain about being single and wonder why they can’t find the right guy. If someone is fine being single, then go ahead with your rejections, but don’t complain.

    The idea behind the book, from what I can remember, isn’t about settling with just any dude, but more like take your standards down to a reasonable level. Like Jane said, and I think this is good relationship advice for anyone – men’s, women, straight, gay, bi, etc., your SO doesn’t need to complete you (you should be complete on your own) and they don’t need to be your everything. That’s why you have other people in your life. I think a lot of women think that they are going to find someone that fits their ideals without any compromise, but relationships are all about compromise.

    Also, I think it’s important to remember what you bring to the table, and be realistic about who is going to be interested in that. For instance, I’m not holding out for Brad Pitt, cause what would he want with me when he’s got all of Hollywood to choose from?

  46. Lucy responded on 21 Dec 2012 at 12:06 am #

    This is fascinating. And as you’re sick I’ll recommend another ‘sexist’ terrible book, it’s called The Rules and it too has suffered the same kind of backlash as this one. I’m only mentioning this Kate, because you said you were a romantic…and I’m a dreadful romantic and was a bit of a right on feminist 10 years ago…until I read this book.

    What can I say about it? Women really believe in The One and being hopelessly in love, etc, etc, etc and simply find themselves being the cow that gets milked but never married.

    Well, I met, truly, my soul mate and he’s 10 years older than me and I could see the trail of relationship disasters behind him (he was a commitment phobe despite the fact he loved being with women who looooved him, he refused to marry them). Anyhow, when I met him I knew I had to marry this man but also knew that I didn’t want to become one of his ex girlfriends.

    Soooo I did something totally out of character for me (because I defo wanted to move in when he asked me, shag his brains out and live happily ever after)…but I didn’t. I followed The Rules down to the last letter. Shit it hurt. I mean, hurt baaad. And anyhow, we were married 11 months later and I had that moment Gottlieb decribes (but in reverse) when I met his ex girlfriend of 6 years who’s done everything to nail him down, including geting pregnant accidentally on purpose. Anyway, he proposed to me within 6 months of ‘dating’ me and I can’t help but truly believe that the reason I got him, hell I KNOW the reason she and I are not in the same boat is because I did The Rules. There, I said it. That book got me married, End Of.

    I love The Rules. And I’m very happily married (8 years now). It’s a book than can change women’s lives. I really mean that. It changes the power play of dating and forces you to realise that if a man WANTS to do something, he will …and you should never force or nag that. Simply steer the WANT and desire that is already there for your own advantage instead of making up fantasies in your head about what he may or may not be thinking. Shit, it saved me from my romantacism and got me hitched (which is what I wanted) MANY women would benefit from reading The Rules, they should re-call it the Woman’s Guide to Self Respect and Boundaries.

    Get Better Soon!

  47. Ann responded on 21 Dec 2012 at 11:19 am #

    @Kate L

    I think the original article was not targeted towards women who are truly happy by themselves and love their independent lives. I think it is more targeted towards women who realize that they want to get married and have a family, but are under the impression that they can put it off as long as they want with no consequences. As the article pointed out, women are only capable of having biological children until a certain age. If they want a partner to be there for them while they raise their children, then they should not wait until they are nearing the upper age limit of child-bearing to start considering marriage. I do not think the article is arguing that no one can be happy and fulfilled as a single woman, only that younger women who know they want marriage at some point in their future should start looking more seriously at their current options.

  48. Alpana Trivedi responded on 22 Dec 2012 at 3:04 am #

    @ Lucy

    Are you aware that one of the authors of The Rules is now divorced?

  49. Surabhi @ Womanatics responded on 23 Dec 2012 at 12:09 pm #


    What a fantastic piece.. as I read it, I went through many of past memories about these great guys who just wouldn’t appeal to me!

    I am an Indian and I had an arranged marriage (an Indian system where parents find a suitable match for their children). It has worked fine in our case, thankfully!

    I remember this guy who was a really great guy.. settled in US, engineer, sweet, kind and very caring but I somehow couldnt bring myself to like him ‘that’ way as he was too short and since I am short myself, I thought if I marry him I would have short height kids, something I least wanted! :|

  50. Kendra responded on 23 Dec 2012 at 12:47 pm #

    The is “settling” and then there is not marrying someone because of stereotypes and ideals. I joke that I only married my husband because I first met him sitting down. We were talking at a party and I found him very cute and interesting, but when we stood up to get beers, I was dismayed he was only 5’6″. I always dated tall guys (altough I’m only 5’3″). in America, we are always told tall is better, and there are many statistics about politicians and CEOs supporting this stereotype. One day I was complaining to my 6ft plus male roomate about this guy being short, and my roommate told me “That’s stupid. Either get over it or dump him”. After five years of marriage, my husband’s height has never been a problem. Now I find it kind of cute we are always the short couple at any party.

  51. Lucy responded on 26 Dec 2012 at 6:12 am #

    @ Alpana Trivedi

    No, I didn’t, but now that I do, I think it’s a riot (and possibly another opportunity to write a book about divorce….)

    But seriously, I can only say what I know to be true for me…and I do actually believe some people belong together…and I also believe some men truly need help putting a ring on a future reality, and The Rules gets you there.

  52. Melanie responded on 26 Dec 2012 at 2:00 pm #

    I went on the first date with one of my current boyfriends, absolutely convinced that I would not like him. I had heard many things that led me to think the first date would be the last. Now I’m madly in love with him and he’s my sweety. I am glad I gave him a chance and that he proved me SO wrong.

  53. Beth responded on 28 Dec 2012 at 6:08 pm #

    I agree with you Kate. Things are so complicated, I think that’s why I avoid self-help books. So many assume that things are just so simple (and because so many of the authors seem only interested in making money by making us feel terrible). For every, ‘I wish I would have stayed/married him/her’ there are just as many ‘I’m so glad I left’ stories (and possibly more). I figure if someone is super picky, that just means they aren’t ready for a long term relationship. Also, who would want to be in a relationship with someone who is so particular? I would think that would suck the joy out of life. I also find the sexism in the book funny, as it not only implies that women ‘need’ a man, but also in the ‘I wish I would have’ stories the guy sounds happy, why doesn’t his happiness matter? The guy who is happy with his wife, kids, and life, shouldn’t we be happy that he found someone who made him happy? Maybe he’s glad he left or she broke up with him, maybe he is horrified to think of his life married to his ex? Maybe part of the issue isn’t that she regrets giving that specific guy up but because of her own choices, or that she’s upset that he is happy and living the life she wants, or that she wants the relationship he has right now?

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  55. sharly responded on 01 Jan 2013 at 12:58 am #

    I totally agree that some people have arbitrary and unreasonable excuses for not pursuing a relationship. But I have a question for you relating to attraction, Kate. I recently went on a date with a guy who I’d been communicating with online. His emails revealed him to be a funny, intelligent and caring individual – pretty much what I’m looking for. But when we met, I realised I just wasn’t attracted to him. I couldn’t contemplate kissing him, let alone anything else. Do you think I should have agreed to go on a second date with him, despite this? I think it’s cruel to lead someone on when you’re not attracted to them. And I don’t think attraction can develop when you can’t see the positive physical characteristics in someone.

    Am I being unnecessarily dismissive?

  56. Kate responded on 01 Jan 2013 at 8:29 pm #

    I think if you really don’t want to kiss someone, then you’re probably not going to want to get involved with them. It’s true that sometimes people get attracted over time, but it’s also true that if you feel turned off by someone physically in a strong, immediate way, and can’t see the potential, it might just make sense to meet some more people. I think you should trust yourself, and it sounds like you do! Don’t feel guilty for that.

  57. Elizabeth responded on 10 Jan 2013 at 1:15 pm #

    I think there’s a lot of money in telling women that they are responsible for their own unhappiness. That’s what I thought of the Gottlieb piece at the time, and that’s what I think of it now.

    Your personal story is so lovely, and so right on. Thanks for sharing it.

    I just binged on the first season of Girls, finally available on Netflix (, and believe that our 20s are often just too early to make a commitment like marriage. If you do and it lasts, awesome. But I certainly wasn’t. Sheesh. It’s not my fault, either. I think it’s fantastic that women are delaying marriage. All the cultural anxiety about it reflects misogyny more than anything else.

  58. Mary responded on 21 Jan 2013 at 5:53 pm #

    If you’re late in reading the book, I’m late in commenting. And for once, I haven’t read all the way through everyone else’s comments beforehand.
    I loved Gottlieb’s book, but the fact that I don’t believe myself to suffer from the (self-?) ignorance that she says most 20-somethings suffer from had a lot to do with this. I felt pretty self-congratulatory for most of it.
    But I think you, Kate, are also far too self-aware to be one of those 20-somethings who had doubts in their earlier relationships, and made bad choices by cutting things off. I’m glad you gave those guys a chance even though things weren’t “right enough”. And I’m very very glad you met Bear and not only agreed to a second date but also a third date, etc.
    Gottlieb’s advice applies to some of us more than others. I definitely know too many women entering their 30s, looking for the right man, who don’t know the difference between a) their gut instincts about compatibility, and b) annoyance at this guy’s bad habits or bad hairstyle or over-the-top romanticism. Granted, it’s often a fine line. But not always.
    Self-knowledge and realism are needed before a healthy relationship can get anywhere.
    Also — Marriage, A History, was super eye-opening for me, I loved it. Gottlieb also recommends Barry Schwartz’s The Choice Paradox, which was also very very good and should be required reading for young people, especially perfectionists like myself.

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