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The Rules of Attraction | The Nation

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The Rules of Attraction

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"I am never getting married." I drove my mother crazy with this proclamation in my early 20s. Although my parents have never nagged me to get hitched, or been anything but supportive of my serial and often short-lived relationships (at least while they were happening), my mom would shake her head and sigh, "Oh, you don't want to say that." She seemed to think that I was lamenting rather than declaring, that I had determined myself to be unsuitable for the institution, that I assumed no man would ever have me.

About the Author

Hillary Frey
Hillary Frey, a former Nation editor, is the Books editor at Salon.com.

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But it wasn't that. At the time, I equated singlehood with adventure. I remember watching a documentary about the "Mama of Dada," artist Beatrice Wood, who liked to say she loved seven men she didn't marry and married two men she never loved. (Wood lived to be 105; asked about the secret to her longevity, she purred, "I owe it all to chocolate and young men.") She threw dinner parties for young artists and served pasta on plates that she'd glazed herself. She lived in California, with an incredible view. I wanted to do that--to have my family made up of friends. To be adored by many, rather than just one. To be responsible, ultimately, for only me.

Somewhere in my mid-20s, however, as New York City morphed from the backdrop to my artistic and romantic exploits to, simply, the place where I live, my dream of absolute freedom started to feel like the dream of some other young woman. Without meaning to, I ceased being the quirky girl who wore glitter eye makeup; I got my financial situation under control; I navigated a serious relationship; I was hired to work at this (my favorite) magazine. Stability, regularity, security reigned. I started to think about marriage, not like I did a few years earlier--as an antiquated institution that would inhibit my beloved libertinism--but as a desirable, even sexy declaration of my togetherness.

Of course, my relationship didn't work out, my finances got all twisted up again, my "togetherness" unraveled. But even as these things happened, marriage persisted, in the words of numerous marriage-oriented self-help books, as an abstract "goal" in my mind, something I hoped to "achieve." But why? It's not because I'm a romantic. Although 94 percent of single men and women between the ages of 20 and 29 believe that you should marry your "soul mate," whatever that is, I'm not one of them. I'm obviously not a social conservative, who thinks the health of our great nation rests on the shoulders of two-parent families. I don't even know that I'd want to have a wedding, or that I think I can be eternally monogamous, let alone expect someone else to be.

The single thing I can point to that has incited my crisis, if that's the right word to use, is not in itself a concrete thing at all: pressure. Not directly from family or friends but from the entire world I move in--a predominantly white, straight, middle-class and educated world that perpetuates its own marriage myths and produces an insular literature to support them. This is a world that encourages young women to plan like crazy, to take full advantage of the benefits of our privileged class standing and get ourselves into the workplace and up that corporate ladder as soon as we finish our liberal arts degrees. This is a world that then turns on the young, successful women it has spawned and tells us, at nearly every turn, that our "clocks are ticking," that "good men" are practically impossible to find and that we'd better focus some of those planning skills on our love lives or we are going to miss out on the secret to true happiness: the husband, the kids, the house, not to mention "the most important day of our lives"--the wedding day.

Although the marriage rate has been in slow but steady decline since 1970, and although there has been a dramatic rise in the percentage of single women in their 20s and 30s, a 2003 study from the National Marriage Project (NMP) at Rutgers suggests that most of my fellow Generation Xers--the female members of which are the most educated and career-oriented ever--are actually itching to get hitched. Having grown up in a culture of divorce, we think: "I can do better than my parents did." Another survey indicates that most young people see marriage as an essential part of "the good life" that everyone wants (this is also known, in survey-speak and self-help literature, as "having it all"). These romantic ideals fly in the face of reality. The NMP study also points out that about 40 percent of married Americans are not in very happy unions, and the chance for marriage failure hovers around 50 percent. Indeed, although a majority of Americans join its ranks for at least part of their lives, marriage is, in many ways, a risky institution to support.

But popular culture aimed at women like me--from Friends to 13 Going on 30 to The Bachelorette--has long glamorized marriage as the pinnacle event marking the beginning of mature womanhood. Even shows that seemingly celebrate singledom, like Sex and the City, do so in anticipation of marriage, chronicling the long, painful search for "the one." Supporting these plot lines is a slew of literature that claims to help young professional women make sense of their choices, but really succeeds only in making us all more paranoid. Books like Barbara Dafoe Whitehead's Why There Are No Good Men Left and Sylvia Ann Hewlett's Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children, to name two prominent titles, tell me, not so subtly, that I have irreparably messed up my life by not having married yet, or at least by not having found the man I intend to be with by now (I'm 28). Stories about women balancing work and family appearing in women's magazines, Newsweek and the New York Times Magazine all contain a similar subplot: There's a timetable to follow, missy. If you don't get with it soon, you're doomed.

Here's what they suggest: Say I want to have a kid or two sometime in my mid-30s (though I should probably try earlier since my fertility is already in decline). Well then, ideally, I'd be married by 31, so that I could enjoy some time with my partner before the total insanity of childrearing (which I'll likely be doing most of) takes over my relationship and threatens to ruin my marriage and career (if I still have one). To be married by 31, I really should have met my partner by now; I have to know him, fall in love and live with him to see if he's tolerable before getting engaged.

If I haven't yet, I'm pretty much screwed, according to this literature, since my stock will plummet by my mid-30s, and the men my age who are still single will want to date young chippies who don't ask for much more than a free martini and a meal. With my attractiveness in decline, I will have no one to date, and suddenly, of course, I'll realize that "there are no good men left"--which also means, of course, no chance of kids, unless I end up being one of the rare women with enough resources and guts to go it alone.

I want to ignore these narratives, but they've been so well beaten into my head that I can't. This causes me discomfort, shame and considerable self-loathing. I'm a feminist--a working, independent woman. Why have I bought into this idea of meticulously planning out my love life like it's work? Why, when I have been so happy on my own, do I worry my life will be miserable if I don't get married soon?

Maybe I shouldn't be so hard on myself. In one way or another, all facets of our culture reinforce the idea that marriage is part of maturity, an affirmation of femininity, a mark of success, a saving grace. And if one is inundated with this line of thinking basically since birth, it's a hard notion to shake, no matter how rational and self-conscious you are.

A big part of the message, too, is that marriage, and its half-sister, childrearing, are noble, necessary goals that bring a unique, unparalleled satisfaction to women's lives, a sense of worth and accomplishment that is different from, easier to come by and more dynamic than that achieved in the workplace. Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels wrote wittily on this recently in their book The Mommy Myth, in which they explode media messages sent via celebrity moms that motherhood is a romantic, blissful calling filled with love, bunnies and gurgling infants. They don't deny that motherhood is a great thing to experience and participate in. But it's clear: Marriage and the domestic sphere should not be used as a fast-track to improving one's self-esteem.

Yet, given what their workplace is like, it makes sense that young women begin to consider homemaking and childrearing as desirable alternatives to their earlier career choices. Beyond starter and entry-level jobs, where women and men are on more equal footing, glass ceilings and wage inequalities still routinely appear. According to the Institute for Women's Policy Research, women employed full-time, year-round, earn only about 76 percent of what their male counterparts do. And--a factor as important as persistent economic disparities--women face greater obstacles than men in terms of being recognized for work well done in school or the office. As Anna Fels shows in her new book, Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women's Changing Lives, after being passed over for promotion, denied credit for a well-executed project or being talked over by boys' and men's voices since preschool, young women are increasingly finding themselves running out of steam in their late 20s.

Fels expertly details both how young girls are denied recognition regularly awarded to boys as well as how this failure of recognition dampens drive and ambition in young women over time, forcing us to consider marriage as a way out of professional disappointment. As someone in the midst of a "fraught period," as Fels describes it, I felt relieved to find that this state is practically requisite for a woman around my age. I rely on my personal life to validate me in a way that work doesn't always manage to. Doing nice things and being generous to my boyfriend--who is grateful and generous right back--provides me with immediate confirmation that I'm doing something right and well. Each kiss is a reassurance; each dinner invitation an affirmation of me. With this kind of mindset, could anything possibly make me feel as good as finding a partner who wants me for life?

However, it's important to point out that, for my boyfriend, a kiss is just a kiss, a dinner invitation a chance to spend some time together. He'll probably get married, he says, with an air of detachment; it's not really something he thinks about. Of course! Men aren't encouraged to fantasize about their "soul mate" or their wedding day, independent of an actual "soul mate" or wedding day. Just as no male character on Friends declared, like Monica did, that she'd been dreaming about her wedding since she was a child, there are no $24.95 hardcovers out there telling men that they'd better hurry up and grab what they can because their careers are going to be more and more in competition with their personal relationships the older they get. The reason isn't that men don't want to get married; some don't, but most still do. And once married, there are plenty of books for men explaining how to keep their marriages healthy and happy (and sexed up, of course). But since the nexus of work and family isn't as complicated and contradictory for young men as it is for young women, the boys don't worry. Although great headway has been made toward bringing equality back home, everyone knows that the burden of housekeeping and childrearing still rests mainly on the shoulders of women. Plus, men have biology on their side.

Indeed, there's a long way to go for women like me. We need more books like Anna Fels's--a robust literature that confronts the reality of women's changing roles instead of trying to stabilize and reinforce the old ones. We need to educate women about their bodies but steer clear of worrisome terms like "biological clock." We need more testimonials--like the excellent essay collection The Bitch in the House: 26 Women Tell the Truth About Sex, Solitude, Work, Motherhood, and Marriage--that discuss the real challenges faced by women who work and/or mother.

To be sure, it's not the media's "fault" if I get married--or have a civil union, if that option ever becomes available to straight people. But the more I've thought about why having a lifelong partnership is something I want to do (this, despite the fact that it may very well fail), the more I see that culture has gotten under my skin. I've always accepted, as Diana Ross sang in 1966, that you can't hurry love. But it's hard to remember sometimes that you really can't put it on a timetable, either.

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