Another Valentine’s day has passed and we are left sifting through the debris of a blitz of romantic advice for something to help us grapple with the concept of love. This year Hollywood marked the occasion with a movie taking the auspicious day as its title. Personally, I don’t think I could sit through another Hollywood film attempting to make sense of love. Its interpretations always manage to delineate into a predicable meta-narrative: boy meets girl, boy falls in “love” with girl, they battle with some minor tragedy, eventually love triumphs and they live happily even after.

Curiosity overcame scepticism, however, and I could not help taking a peek at the “Valentine” trailer. Though remaining as sceptical as ever, I have to admit that I was fascinated by a certain phrase used by the character played by Ashton Kutcher: “love is the only shocking act left on the earth”.

And do you know what? He is right; love is shocking. So much so that through the ages, we humans have been unceasingly bewildered by love: philosophy, literature, theology, history and popular culture (to name a few) have not been able to resist remarking on this fact. Why? Because love elicits a reaction unmatched by any other human emotion. It can make us bold enough to commit ourselves to another for life — in sickness and in health, till death do us part — and bring whole new beings into the world. It can lead us into marriage.

So when a woman who is looking for marriage paints a picture that not only departs from the Hollywood fairytale but seems to discount love, I am automatically intrigued. Such a lady is American journalist Lori Gottlieb, whose new book, Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr Good Enough, featured prominently in the Valentine-lit deluge last week.

Developing an idea she floated in The Atlantic two years ago, the now 43-year-old Ms Gottlieb has penned a detailed warning to young “picky” women on the hunt for a soul mate. Her advice: “Settle! That’s right. Don’t worry about passion or intense connection. Don’t nix a guy based on his annoying habit of yelling ‘Bravo!’ in movie theatres. Overlook his halitosis or abysmal sense of aesthetics. Because if you want to have the infrastructure in place to have a family, settling is the way to go.”

Infrastructure?

Such a pragmatic, straight-talking piece of advice was always destined to polarize readers, particularly when feminism has done its best to pontificate that women should always put themselves first, never settle for second best, and that there is absolutely nothing wrong with being permanently single. In an age when biological deficiencies can be bypassed quite easily with reproductive technologies, no woman should have to settle for Mr Good Enough, even if she decides that children are a part of her self-determined path. At least, according to the feminist narrative.

YOUTUBE_VIDEO_MIDDLEThe fascinating thing about Gottlieb is that while she seems to be reviled by feminists, she could almost be a pin-up girl for the movement. She has earned a first-class degree from Stanford Medical School and Yale, and boasts a successful career as a journalist, having written for some of the top papers and magazines in America. She defied nature, as well as her biological clock, conceiving her only child using IVF treatments.

But, with the passing of years — and even decades — she has realized that the mantra “sisters doing it for themselves” is a more difficult and lonely task to put into practice when you are a middle-aged solo mum. A husband, she argues, even for merely pragmatic reasons, would come in handy. As she turned to the dating scene for consolation, instead of finding a companion she discovered that the pickings were rather slim. Mr. 8 (who is looking rather attractive right now — “forget about the perfect 10 and look for the perfect 8” ), with his annoying habits, has either married or is more interested in younger, more fertile women. No wonder she is warning women in their early thirties to settle!

Is settling really the solution, though? My feeling is that the problem is has its roots elsewhere. Recently married — right on the average age for New Zealand women of 27 (my husband is younger) — I don’t mind admitting that I too had a long list of requirements for my future spouse. Embarrassingly, many of the items on my list were superficial. Some years ago, however, I came to the conclusion that the list was actually doing me and my prospective suitors a disservice. I realized that I was never going to find a man who matched my naïve (not to mention, frivolous) set of criteria. I had to abandon the idea that a spouse was another commodity that I acquired for life’s curriculum vitae.

I did, however, find a loving, loyal and selfless individual who is a wonderful husband and will, I am sure, be a great father. Yes, he has defects. But — news flash — I do too. Yet he is not something that I acquired to make my life easier (to do the lawns, babysit, or even prevent loneliness) he is someone I have chosen to be with for better or worse.

If we young women do not stamp out the idea that a spouse is just another commodity we acquire, I fear that many of us will tread the meandering and lonely path of Lori Gottlieb. However, if we make the radical choice to abandon a model of acquisition and spousal utility we may, in fact, discover what is really so shocking about love: that our own marital happiness is based on self-giving and forgetting about oneself.

This does not mean we have to abandon romance or even a bit of Hollywood-style excitement; it just means thinking a little less about ourselves and a little more about others. And I can assure you, if you are successful at that you will discover the truly radical nature of love.

Pauline Cooper-Ioelu is a graduate of the University of Auckland with an interest in radical histories and works in the field of tertiary education. She writes from Auckland, New Zealand.