I spurned Susan Patton’s advice: Race, Religion and “Marrying Smart”

The author and her husband on their wedding day.

The author and her husband on their wedding day.


I am a white, atheist Protestant from Upstate New York.

Albert is a Cuban Catholic.

And if I had heard the advice of fellow Upper East Sider Susan Patton before meeting him, I may have looked right past him, in search of a non-Hispanic nonbeliever like me, and never walked down the aisle of St. Francis Xavier and married him.

Ms. Patton, the so-called “Princeton Mom,” gained notoriety after writing a letter to the editor of The Daily Princetonian encouraging female students to snag an Ivy League husband before slumming it in the real world with the averagely-educated. A year later she released her infamous new book, Marry Smart, with a fresh batch of controversial advice for “finding the one.”

After the book’s release last month, Ms. Patton became a regular face on morning television. Mika Brzezinski questioned Ms. Patton’s suggested ratio of husband hunting (75%) to career development (25%); Savannah Guthrie discussed on Ms. Patton’s view that date rape (which she later characterized as “mistake sex”) is “all on you,” the woman. No one seemed to focus on my favorite advice: “Learn to knit,” because “Mr. Rogers’s mother crafted every sweater he wore on his popular children’s television program,” and because you too “could crochet a doily.”

While I disagree with almost all of Ms. Patton’s advice, one short chapter, which received little media attention, nearly made me choke on a fried plantain. It’s called “Birds of a Feather,” and it condemns interracial and interfaith marriages, like mine.  I realize there’s some debate over whether Albert and I share a race; most Hispanics are presumed to be “white,” although 47.4 million of them disagreed during the 2010 Census and chose the “some other race” category instead. But regardless of what the government boxes say, my husband is part of the largest minority group in America, I am not, and I feel the sting of Ms. Patton’s words all the same.

Notably, Ms. Patton believes relationships between men and women with “radically different” political views “can be exhilarating,” and provide “the greatest opportunities for learning and growth.” Yet my husband, who lived in Cuba until age nine, learned English at an inner-city bilingual school, and still became an attorney at a prestigious AmLaw 100 firm, merely offers “the added complications of different cultural orientation,” resulting in the “destructive” disapproval of others. Her message is clear: different politics, okay – different bibles or skin tones, no way.

Setting aside the fact that these two viewpoints are hard to reconcile — unless Ms. Patton is an intolerant racist rather than a good-natured meddler — her sentiment is ignorant, and very bad advice.

The Princeton alumna explains that you should “hope” to marry someone of your own race and religion because it’s “just easier.” She isn’t entirely wrong – being married to Albert isn’t always easy. But whose marriage is?  Certainly not hers, as evidenced by the fact that it recently ended.

Despite our different backgrounds and religions, Albert the rum to my Coke, and together we make a perfect Cuba Libre.

Despite our different backgrounds and religions, Albert is the rum to my Coke, and together we make a perfect Cuba Libre.

More importantly, should women only do what’s easy? This may be Ms. Patton’s style (she also suggests that overweight teens get plastic surgery, rather than work hard on the treadmill) but for the intelligent women Ms. Patton is targeting – Princetonian and otherwise – the easier option is rarely the most rewarding.

Patton also cautions of “disgruntled in-laws who were never comfortable with the mixed marriage in the first place.” “If you’re lucky,” she scolds, they “will keep their disapproval to themselves.”  The flawed premise is that parents will either disapprove out loud – or disapprove quietly. “Extended families aren’t always accepting of a spouse who is different,” she says. “Good luck with that.”

I’m glad Albert and I are different because, honestly, I’m not all that interesting. I work for an insurance company; a fun night involves a stack of books; a wild night involves an Upper-East-Side wine bar. A little Cuban flavor is not the worst thing to happen to my vanilla cake of a life.

Nor does Albert need “luck” with my family.  My father, nearly 75, radiates love for his Hispanic son-in-law. “You sure found a good one,” he stage-whispers to me on Thanksgiving. Then, with three generations of Cubans crowded around our table, my dad raises his glass and toasts – not me, but Albert.

As for Albert’s family, I may never know how they feel about the marriage. We are, undeniably, different.  They wear gold sequins and glitter; I wear black suits with a touch of white dog hair. They show Al love with a vat of paella; I show him love with a scholarly legal debate. They prefer to amass generations of Cubans under one roof; I prefer my solitude in Manhattan and semi-annual visits for rice, beans, and goat stew. We have little in common, but we try – and occasionally we find the elusive common ground at the bottom of his mom’s magnum-sized bottles of sparkling wine from Costco.

Finally, with logic failing her, Ms. Patton turns to science. “The concept of ‘opposites attract’ maybe works with electromagnetic theory,” she ventures, “but this opposition may not work so well day after day in a lifelong relationship.”

Despite our different backgrounds and religions, Albert is far from my opposite. He is, like me, a successful attorney, a fan of “The Hunger Games” and Ben & Jerry’s Americone Dream. In so many ways, we are the same. And where we differ, we complement each other: he roasts a delicious turkey; I make great stuffing. I have an eye for a lovely chandelier; he has the tools and know-how to hang it from our ceiling. He wakes up early and holds espresso under my nose; I stop oversleeping. He is the rum to my Coke, and together we make a perfect Cuba Libre.

I hope smart single women, like Al’s 18-year-old sister Nathalie, ignore Ms. Patton’s archaic advice. I hope Nathalie allows herself to date a white man in a yarmulke, or a black man in a Hugo Boss suit, or a blue man in a group. I hope for this because marrying Albert is the most difficult thing I have ever had the privilege of doing. Perhaps Ms. Patton should spend less time worrying about future mixed-marriages, and more time reflecting on why she encourages women to avoid them. And if she truly believes that easier is better, then maybe she should question whether she’s gotten her money’s worth from her prized Princeton education.

Ms. Patton’s book did, however, provide a few nuggets of sound advice. “Know what you know, and don’t claim authority on subjects and in areas about which you know nothing.”

For once, wise old Princeton Mom, I couldn’t agree with you more.

 

Jules Barrueco is an attorney in New York City currently working in the insurance industry. Her writing has been published by the Avalon Literary Review