The Rules of Attraction
"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.
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.