I gave him exactly a year, and if I decide it’s not working I’ll leave,” said the young woman walking behind me, naming the date she would leave and indicating that she would just walk out without explaining. Talking loudly enough to be heard on a crowded sidewalk, speaking in a brisk hard voice, she listed her demands, which included feeling completely satisfied with the arrangement and a high degree of personal autonomy to pursue her own goals.
She’d clearly conducted an impressively hard-nosed slash-and-burn job negotiation. She gave no details of her demands but made clear that she would get everything she wanted and to the degree of perfection she required or she would bail out and not look back. (I think that’s a mixed metaphor, but let it go.) Her friend made “way to go” type noises.
As we got to the corner, she and her friend walked in front of me, and the friend said, nodding her head slowly, “Living together is a good way to test a relationship.” I hope the poor sap being tested is not forking out for a dozen long-stemmed roses for his new roommate on Valentine’s Day, thinking they had begun a romance, but being a male, he probably is.
This young woman, who looked to be about thirty, knew what she wanted, though maybe she was just trying to act as if she did. In either case, her coldly contractual approach to romantic relationships does not seem to be the dominant one, even among people who are not restrained by a traditional sense of morality. Most people expect, if the popular magazines and the highest grossing Hollywood “rom-coms” present their hopes and dreams accurately, that they may do what they want with anyone they like, until—still at an age to have children—they find the One for them.
But it usually doesn’t happen like that in real life, which is one reason so many single women complain that all the good men are taken, judging from the cover story for the Valentine Day’s week issue of The Village Voice. The Voice is one of the propaganda organs for the world the sexual revolution created—nine of its 68 pages consist of ads for “escorts,” for example, and half a page in this article is given to an ad for a store selling sex toys—and yet even it now questions the way that revolution has worked out.
But they don’t question it fundamentally. “There was (and still is), something wrong with me,” and with women like her, writes Jen Doll, one of the weekly’s staff writers, in “The Plight of the Single Lady” (an interesting editorial choice, the title “lady”). “We don’t know what we want. And so we want a little bit of everything, over and over again. . . . We’re free and ‘grown up’ and independent; we can do what we want, sexually and otherwise. Which is part of the problem, if you’re going to call it that.” She continues:
If you’re like me (and I think a lot of us are), you might say you can’t stand drama and that all you want is a nice, stable relationship with someone who loves and treats you well, but “nice” and “stable” have hardly the appeal of words like “exciting” or “passionate” or, well, “drama.” Our status as single, independent, financially solvent New York City women in the year 2011 has us sitting on a mountain of unprecedented options.
Options: Those are exciting. So we want all the options, bigger and better and faster and shinier, or taller or sexier or stronger or smarter, and yet somewhere also different and completely our own. We want the tippy-top of what we can get—why shouldn’t we?
Not surprisingly, as she notes, “Somewhere along the way, ‘settling’ became a dirty word.” Admitting that you married not for “love” but for a practical reason, like wanting to have children, will make people look at you “with a horror akin to what you might bestow upon a person admitting to murder.”
There is a cost to wanting the tippy-top, even Doll admits—beyond the decreasing likelihood of having children, which so many women of her sort still want. The problem “is about having all of these options, and not knowing how to choose from among them, or whether we even want to. It’s about the years of being told we can have it all, and suddenly being deeply afraid to admit that that house of cards has been a sham all along because no one really gets to have it all.”
Doll's answer is to keep going the way she’s been going, because she still (she seems to be in her late thirties or early forties) can’t decide what she wants, and though she’s written as if she and her peers had been going in the wrong direction. “There is nothing wrong with taking your time and sampling liberally from the buffet.” Every man “has a place in your dating life. Don’t regret them.” And most of all,
Once you know what you want, narrow the options, make your choices, and go for it. But until you do, embrace not knowing. Make new York your playground and stop complaining about how single ladies have it so hard in this city.
She sounds so common-sensical, so realistic, so hopeful. And I suppose she is, within her way of looking at the world, in which marriage is closer to something you acquire than something you do. It is a life-style option, not a vocation. It is not the channel for sexual intimacy but one among many applications of such intimacy, and not one you would choose for any reason but personal desire.
If you think of marriage this way, you might as well stay outside playing games on the playground rather than go inside for the dull casserole and the dreary homework and the oppressive chores, since you have no parents to make you come inside and set to work. You might as well wait till you decide what you really want to do—keep open those exciting options—because you can always decide tomorrow, or the day after, or next week, or next month, or next year, or just keep going till you decide without actually deciding.
But of course those who stay on the playground don’t learn what they would have learned had they gone inside. They remain essentially alone, no matter how many “relationships” they have, because they have chosen a very bad imitation of marriage over both marriage and the fruitful life of celibacy. They do not do the great thing they could have done.
This life does not build. That’s the problem with the imitation marriage made up of serial and short-lived commitments. You start one house and after putting up a few bricks, or maybe even a wall or two, maybe even a few walls and a roof, abandon it to go start another.
Marriage is a gift of addition, of multiplication, of construction. You begin with a couple who make the wild and dangerous commitment to each other till death do them part, and on that commitment build a family, a small community, the village it takes to raise a child. In marriage you create something permanent, something eternal, because you give up the exciting options, which aren’t nearly so exciting as the bet you make when you say “I do.”
David Mills was formerly Deputy Editor of First Things. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.