Sunday, October 16, 2011

Forget the nunnery. Get thee to a commune.

Every year or so, some highly influential media outlet runs a cover story about how single women over the age of 35 or so would be wise to stop hoping to find a long term relationship. I'm not sure when this started, but the story that really put the genre on the map ran in Newsweek in 1986, and famously declared that a single, college-educated 40-year-old woman was more likely to die in a terrorist attack than ever walk down the aisle.

I'm too lazy to research other examples, but that's the kind of prognostication these articles are built upon. Really uplifting stuff. And also full of hyperbolic shit. Newsweek actually ran an apology for that article 20 years later. And yet the genre persists, and the articles are invariably written by the kind of women they seem hell bent on terrifying.

I didn't start noticing them until my late 20s, at which point I developed an intense fear that this would be my fate too. Nevermind the fact that marriage wasn't something I wasn't especially interested in in the short term, let alone ready for. The fear of becoming one of these single harridans led me to all sorts of insane romantic choices. Specifically, choices to date guys I wasn't attracted to but who I thought might make a good mate in one way or another.

And you know what happens when you date guys you aren't really attracted to? I do. You basically inadvertantly play hard to get because you're genuinely not that interested, which in turn makes them pursue you harder, which makes you continue to entertain them because they're there for the taking and then there are those redeeming qualities that made you consider them in the first place, and then suddenly it's quasi-serious because you're this rare creature that they must win at all costs and it's hard to resist that kind of flattery, and then finally you're in a position of having to break some perfectly nice guy's heart because he was someone you never had any business dating in the first place because you knew from the beginning that it would never work in the long run. (Zooey Deschanel annoys the shit out of me, but 500 Days of Summer actually illustrates this phenomenon pretty well.) (And no, I was not an especially honest, healthy or nice person in those days.)

Anyway, the latest installment of the great "Let's Remind our Fellow Single Women Over 30 That Their Days of Being Considered as Desirable Mates are Laughably Numbered" genre is in this month's Atlantic. It's long and it's depressing, particularly if you're a black woman, and I pretty much knew this would be the case going into it, but I read it anyway. Once you get past all the disheartening statistics and examples of women who've tried and tried and can't find or make a marriage work, it makes some interesting points.

The one I liked best was culled from the work of Bella DePaulo, a social psychologist who studies the single experience. In her view, we're at a point in history where "the cultural fixation on the couple blinds us to the full web of relationships that sustain us on a daily basis." That makes a lot of sense to me. One thing that's always seemed nuts about marriage was how you're expecting this one person to be everything to you. I guess maybe some people get lucky and find someone who does actually do this for them, but it's the exception, not the rule. And the pressure on such a relationship seems like way too much.

In my own life, although I don't have a boyfriend, I do have some very close bonds with friends and siblings that more or less give me what I need in terms of emotional support. That's been the real silver lining to staying single for so long - if I hadn't, I might not have forged these bonds, which would only have put more pressure on the marriage.

I'd still prefer to find a relationship, but I've also realized that given the social support structure I've built - and the hundreds of hours in therapy - I'll be OK without one. So no more stringing the wrong guys along in the hopes that they'll transform into someone I can live with. My bigger worry these days is that I'm so used to being alone that I'm starting to prefer it that way. There are far worse fates than to prefer your own company to that of others, but it is kind of depressing. - I wish I wasn't so good at being alone.

The fly in this proverbial honey (R.E.M.-related pun very much intended) is that I do want to have a kid some day, and not only does being a single mother seem like sheer misery, but I also can't afford it. Which means that I either find someone to do it with, or I'll be childless. And that's an experience I don't want to go through life without having. I guess that, as the article suggests, I could team up with some other single people and form some kind of commune-style living quarters, but I don't know, that doesn't seem very appealing either. And that's the problem. I know you have to compromise somewhere, but I have no clue where that might be for me.

I just have to hope I'll know it when I see it.

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