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Is the Atlantic Magazine Making Its Readers More Stupid?

The magazine is obsessed with the “you won’t believe this!” angle.

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I see some of the same tendencies in Lori Gottlieb’s work. Like her Atlantic colleagues, Gottlieb is engaging and very readable. The original magazine piece “Marry Him” was, unobjectionably, highly personal and anecdotal. It also generalized rather wildly, suggesting that women in their mid- to late thirties often dump men for reasons such as “He wants me to move downtown, but I love my home at the beach” and “Can I really spend my life with someone who’s allergic to dogs?” Furthermore, according to Gottlieb, never-married women suffer from a compulsive tendency to “hold out for someone better.” It’s pretty clear from the article that it is Gottlieb herself who has severed relationships over fairly superficial considerations and that it is she who is always secretly hoping for “someone better.” Isn’t it possible that other women end up single for very different reasons: demographics, temperament, or a lack of interest in having children?

The book-length version of “Marry Him” falls even deeper into what I might call the Flanagan Fallacy of seeing one’s own face in the face of every woman in the crowd. Here, Gottlieb has added a scaffolding of “experts” (professional matchmakers, dating coaches, psychologists, and researchers), which sometimes makes her forget that a never-married woman in her thirties is the exception, not the rule (she herself tells us that only a quarter of women younger than 34 have never tied the knot). Gottlieb again and again describes women as too picky, over-critical, and romance-obsessed to land a mate: “Too often in dating we expect to be given a lot of things from men — constant compliments, vacations, meals, 24/7 emotional support, romantic gestures.” We do? Admittedly, unlike Flanagan, Gottlieb never uses pesky terms like “all women” or “every woman,” but the implication is often there.

In her cover story “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy,” Gottlieb projects certain acknowledged personal worries, in this case about mothering (she has one child), onto a wider screen. Here is a case in which the use of “experts” shades into the pernicious. Gottlieb, who has a degree in clinical psychology, writes that numbers of her patients in their twenties and early thirties “reported that they. . .suffered from depression and anxiety, had difficulty choosing or committing to a satisfying career path, struggled with relationships, and just generally felt a sense of emptiness or lack of purpose.” In graduate school Gottlieb was taught that patients with such symptoms generally had abusive or neglectful parents, and yet this did not seem to be the case with her clients — far from it. She came to the conclusion that her clients’ parents were, if anything, too attentive, too sensitive; they tried to anticipate every want and buffer their children's every hurt, eventually making them incapable of handling life’s ordinary imperfections.

To bolster this hypothesis, Gottlieb quotes a variety of authors who have written books about youth and child rearing with titles like The Narcissism Epidemic, The Price of Privilege, Generation Me, and Too Much of a Good Thing. These authors have become authorities, in the public’s mind and in Gottlieb’s, by having a clinical practice or an academic post, or both. I am highly suspicious of the idea that either seeing patients or teaching at a university gives one a vatic wisdom when it comes to the famously complex topics of love, sex, and children, and my skepticism increased when I read some of the quotes in Gottlieb’s article. Dan Kindlon, the author of Too Much of a Good Thing, tells Gottlieb that by the time children of indulgent parents are teenagers, “they have no experience with hardship.” A professor of social theory, Barry Schwartz, claims, “Most parents tell kids, `You can do anything you want, you can quit any time, you can try this other thing if you’re not 100 percent satisfied with the other.’” Jean Twenge, who wrote The Narcissism Epidemic, chimes in that today’s parents are creating young adults who “don’t know how to work on teams or deal with limits. They get into the workplace and expect to be stimulated all the time.”