How long should you hold out for Mr Right?
Single women up and down the country had good reason to spit out their cornflakes as they read the papers yesterday morning. Nestling among tales of bankers' greed and Brangelina's have-they-or-haven't-they split was arguably one of the most incendiary stories of 2010.
It goes like this: American author Lori Gottlieb has written a book in which she declares that singletons who are still searching for Mr Right by the age of 30 should give up and settle for Mr Second Best.
The book, Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr Good Enough, blames literature, film and TV for leading us to believe erroneously that The One is out there. Hence, she says, in our doomed search for true love, we overlook countless relationships that could have made for "viable" marriages.
How many self-respecting women do you know who dream of a "viable" marriage? We are grown-up enough to know that while the perfect relationship does not exist, we can expect a lot more of marriage than just viability.
Women want love and warmth and emotional connection, and they want it to last for a lifetime. The good news, contrary to the gospel according to Gottlieb, is that those things exist, and they can last a lifetime.
Not to believe that is to resign oneself to lifelong mediocrity and to the notion that it is all you deserve. We don't accept mediocrity from our government; we don't accept mediocrity in our careers; and we don't accept it in our friendships. Why should we accept it in marriage? I sure didn't when I said "I do" almost two years ago.
This is not the viewpoint of a spoiled, demanding 21st-century woman. It is the way women have felt since their love lives were first recorded. In Jane Eyre, the worthy, reserved St. John Rivers proposes marriage to Jane because he believes she'd make a good missionary's wife. In a move that Gottlieb would consider foolish, Jane turns him down flat, saying, "I scorn your idea of love … I scorn the counterfeit sentiment you offer … and I scorn you when you offer it."
Gottlieb's suggestion is absurd, says Maureen Waller, author of The English Marriage: Tales of Love, Money and Adultery. "I didn't meet Mr Right until my forties, and now I realise that he was definitely worth waiting for".
Time and again, Sex and the City's Carrie Bradshaw could have walked off into the sunset with kind, wholesome Aidan. But she didn't. Instead, she valiantly endured years of pain while she listened to her instincts and waited for Mr Big. She was right: just look at them now (as far as we know they are living happily ever after, which is where we left them at the end of the first movie).
Like Jane Eyre and Carrie Bradshaw, most women would rather wait for Mr Right, and risk ending up alone, than settle for dependable, passionless Mr Second Best. A single friend of mine who recently hit 30 insists: "You know what, maybe Mr Right won't ever come along, and maybe some of us will live out our years as spinsters. For some people, it doesn't happen at all. Is that thought so awful?"
Gottlieb, a single mother in her forties, clearly thinks so. "Ask any soul-baring 40-year-old single heterosexual woman what she most longs for in life, and she probably won't tell you it's a better career or a smaller waistline or a bigger apartment. Most likely, she'll say that what she really wants is a husband (and, by extension, a child)," she says.
Ideologically, marriage is still the holy grail for many women. Like a big house and a good car, a husband is a status symbol. And if you are lucky enough to have a big house, a good car, a husband and some children, the consensus view remains that you've hit the jackpot.
So it's easy to see how the temptation to skip down the aisle with Mr He'll Have To Do Because He Is The Only Impregnator Available To Me is a strong one. But, even so, Gottlieb's watershed age of 30 is fantastically mean. First of all, each woman's needs and maturity differs from the next. There can be no single age at which Everywoman is ready to marry. That depends on a catalogue of factors, including an individual's goals, lifestyle, experiences and previous relationships.
Second, it is normal for middle-class women these days not to feel that they have achieved anything much by the age of 30. They leave school at 18, and perhaps take a year out before starting a degree at, say, 19. That degree takes a minimum of three years. With university out of the way, they may undertake further education, or realise they've been on the wrong track and deliberate over a major rethink.
By the time they have got themselves a job worth writing home about, they are in their mid-twenties. Then they have to put in a few years of hard graft in said job (not least to prove that the previous five or so years have been worthwhile). Along the way, they will probably have experienced a healthy, character-forming roller-coaster ride of good and bad relationships – without praying night and day that each one will lead them to the altar.
In any case, according to Kate Figes, author of Couples: The Truth, "the whole notion of Mr Right is wrong. If that is what you are looking for, you are bound always to be disappointed. Our expectations of what a relationship can offer are too big. You can't be looking for somebody to solve your problems, to provide for you. You must be able to fulfil your needs yourself, and come to a marriage as a fully formed grown-up."
Fay Weldon agrees that there is a case for a tweaking of our expectations: "Women are traditionally more picky than men, who wait until they think it is time to get married, look around the field of their female acquaintance, and make a choice. If that doesn't work, they choose the next one down. Women, no longer having virginity to offer as part of the trade, may well have to train themselves to be more like men."
On the contrary, says another wise, happy, single, almost-30-year-old friend of mine: "Things are different for women now. Our parents were of a generation in which a woman was expected to sit and wait for Mr Anyone Who'll Propose to come along, accept him and then just get on with things.
"Yes, we expect more of our relationships but at the same time, we are happy being single and waiting because we have successful careers, a good lifestyle and a strong social network. We are hardly sitting at home, knitting and weeping."
But in an age when divorce is so alarmingly common, it can't possibly be right to settle down with one of Gottlieb's "reliable life companions" when you know the relationship is not underpinned by genuine love. What on earth will bind you when things go wrong if there isn't any love, with all its powerful tentacles, in evidence?
With mind-blowing cynicism, Gottlieb insists that marriage "isn't a passion-fest; it's a partnership formed to run a very small, mundane and often boring non-profit business".
I think she is plain wrong. Marriage should not be about bagging the type of man you always thought you'd end up with. Neither should it be based on a checklist of suitable credentials. It should be born of a good, old-fashioned feeling, deep inside, which tells you both that you simply cannot be without each other.