Singles: A Conversation about Conversations about Marriage (Reposted from Canonball)

Look, I’m on my fourth episode of Bridezillas tonight.  Whatever. Also, I might have posted this conversation about single ladies from Canonball before, but in case I haven’t, it tackles most of the things that have annoyed me about how aggressive and weird people get about asserting that it’s okay to be single, and that there’s nothing wrong with being married.  (The piece is a reaction to the spate of trend pieces about single folks, and it’s from last January.)



JANUARY 5, 2012

Annie Rebekah Gardner and Mia Steinle talk about singledom, per usual.

Annie: Well, well, well! Let the slew of single-people-exist-and-are-in-fact-okay-with-it trend pieces begin!

Mia:  Annie, can you believe that attractive youngish women are single by choice? Because I saw the photos accompanying this Boston Magazine article (not to mention The Atlantic‘s prominent use of Kate Bolick’s visage in her piece) and was just about floored!

Annie: I can scarcely believe it, in fact. I don’t know any attractive youngish single women. At all. But anyway, shall I summarize? Is it worth summarizing? This piece tries to do what Kate Bolick’s piece did, basically, but – how do I say this diplomatically? – it falls flat? I don’t know. I think this sounds the knell of a series of irksome pieces that will be around for the next three years or so until polyamory goes  mainstream, OR SOMETHING.

Mia:  Oh we’re in for an irksome time already! A taste: “They come in all shapes and sizes. They’re young men, who are the fastest-growing percentage of those living on their own. They’re well-educated women, who are refusing to “marry down” to their less-credentialed prospects. They’re gays and lesbians watching their friends in same-sex couples ensconce themselves behind white picket fences.” Funny that young men are the fastest-growing demographic of singles, because this article was mostly about women. And the history of the word “spinster.” And women who knit and say things like, “I’ll be able to bring my new spinning wheel.”

Annie:  Yeah, for heaven’s sake, why’d they have to put knitting in there? Also? Just once I’d like to read a piece that doesn’t mention cats. Which, haha at the little factoid they insert that’s all “actually, most pet-owners are marrieds or families! Singles love being alone so much that they even hate animals!”

Mia: I hear single people are selfish? But really, the article brought up one decent point about how the US tax code favors married people, which, like, we all already KNEW, but it serves a good reminder that people not only face social pressure to get married but also institutional and economic pressure.

Annie: Yes, and I shan’t negate the value of relaying that to a lay-audience (Although I’m not sure whatBoston Magazine‘s demographic is, to be honest, and I’m FROM Boston). It is refreshing that finally mainstream, non theory-oriented conversations are happening about marriage being actually this large industrial complex, and I am of course pleased to see references to communities of support other than the nuclear family, which of course the mainstream discourse neglects so often.

Mia:  Yes! Friends and family can be super wonderful support systems, and many people have very fulfilling non-romantic relationships with such folks (shout-out to my friends and family!), but they’re often seem as a stop-gap before you find a romantic partner. So I’m all in favor of mainstream discussions about singledom. (But, oh MAN, the comments on this article! One recently married person feels “a little uncomfortable” about all these “pro-single” articles and assures us that they’re still cool!)

Annie:  Oh my gosh. Thank you for bringing that up. This is a big pet peeve of mine. There have been lots of decent marriage critiques– nay, discussions– in the past six months. This one on The Awl, for example, which just gives an honest rundown of how hard wedding planning is, or this one on GOOD by the wonderful Nona Willis Aronowitz, and what strikes me about these pieces, which are both thoughtful, non-judgmental critiques of marriage, is how defensive the married commenters get! As though their partnered privilege is coming under siege because of some acknowledgement that a) it’s really hard b) it’s rife with inequality. And that, to me, is a sort of problematic emblem of how a lot of people are thinking right now. Also, I feel obliged now to mention that I have a lot of married friends and family members whose decision I am content and, wow, even happy about! And that’s silly that I have to even type that.

Mia:  Right? I feel like marriage can be wonderful and/or is wonderful for some people, and maybe I’ll get married one day? (Power couple fantasies!) I don’t know! But the point is that I’m not TRYING to get married or be coupled right now and that shouldn’t be a decision I have to defend. I shouldn’t HAVE to be all “Rah rah single ladies!” But I am! Because single ladies face so much pressure and, frankly, disgust, so I think I get into the habit of reactionary cheer leading.

Annie:  Right. I periodically have to step back and remind myself that I’m all of 26 years old, which is way too young to be deciding to get spinster knuckle tattoos, but I feel like the Single has truly become politicized in such a way that I have to be very loud and opinionated about something that in fact I personally have very private, secret feelings about.

I don’t know if this ever comes up for you at large extended family gatherings or other such events, but for me a matter that is largely relegated to “duh I’m not married” becomes this really big defense point. Shrugging off questions of boyfriends and whatnot. It’s sort of exhausting, and also sort of begs the question of, “Well, Various Relative Figure, I’ve come this far on my own, so if it ain’t broke??”  Also, sorry for being somewhat tangential, but the fact that I am a single lady is treated so much more egregiously than a single man of my age, which implies this patronizing opinion that my independent self is not enough. Which, um, yes it is? It makes my present lifestyle a lot easier, for one? And as if my expansive community isn’t supportive enough, which it is, above and beyond?  I don’t know. Sheesh! Wounds have been re-opened. Thanks a lot, Boston Mag!

Mia:  I feel this, and I also feel like, “My independent self is enough” is something people should recite in front of a mirror every morning. I think we’re both getting to the age where the “Do you have a boyfriend?” question is morphing from polite inquiry and a willingness to chat about cute boys’ hair, to real puzzlement and concern that we will soon be past our blooms and then we’ll regret not being more serious about Love.

Not to invoke Jane Austen now of all times, but my favorite of her novels, Persuasion, is about a 27-year-old who is maybe destined to be a spinster forever (spoiler: don’t worry, she gets married) and there are SO MANY MENTIONS of how her “bloom” has faded, which is weird and terrifying. I mean, I think now that cougars are a “thing” (oh god, sorry to invoke THAT), for better or for worse, people recognize that women past the age of 30 are still real people and not, like, craggy-faced bloomless spinsters. (But, of course, their humanness is still based on their sexuality.) I guess what I’m saying is that society’s feelings about single women OF A CERTAIN AGE are still pretty old-fashioned and, yeah, patronizing.

Annie: WHICH IS WHY THAT KNITTING THING WAS SO OUT OF LINE. Though also, being a Bostonian, I guess I should make the disclaimer that Boston doesn’t, which is that it is such a Jamaica Plain thing to be in a knitting group. All due respect to JP, of course, it being my third favorite ‘hood and all.

If I may, though, I’d like to segue to the fact that neither sex nor dating is really mentioned in this piece. Like, are these so-called spinsters doin’ it? Are they getting wined and dined? Where’s that facet of the conversation? And if they are dining out and doing it, why aren’t we talking about it? Does it warrant talking about? I guess I’m just grappling with why it’s not mentioned. Is it because we’re prudish, or is it because it is in fact private and nobody’s goddamn business. Mia, will 2012 be the year that people finally mind their own beeswax?

Mia:  If “people” includes you and I, then no, definitely not.

That’s a good point about dining out and doin’ it. Because even if “nearly half of all American adults – 100 million – are now single,” does that mean they’re also celibate? Or not dating? Because my impression is that the 100-million figure is from the Census, which keeps track of marriage, sure, but not who’s doin’ it in sin. And that’s a huge thing to leave out. I think the big story isn’t that people aren’t getting married, but that a ton of people aren’t getting married because they’ve found other sexual or romantic relationships that work for them. Or not even relationships, necessarily, just arrangements.

Annie:  Hahahaha at “arrangements.”

We should probably wrap up? But if I may just bring up one more thing? This discussion around “selfishness”. This need for these sorts of trend pieces to assert that selfishness is a motivating factor in singledom, and the backlash that ensues. I just think it sort of erases this whole history of the rise of marriage, which is, as we and many other folk have noted, a capitalist institution, especially the ways in which it exists now. The whole backlash against singles’ selfishness completely masks the nuclear family, this establishment of modernity that completely obliterates other ties, economically speaking. If we get down to it, it is maybe more selfish to exist as a nuclear unit rather than a single person in a broad network? I don’t know; these are rudimentary thoughts and certainly not directed towards those in partnerships, but I would like the zeitgeist-y conversation about marriage that’s happening right now to address this in greater depth.

Mia: There were mentions in both this article and Kate Bolick’s article about “greedy” couples, and how people sometimes retreat into their marriages and become less involved in their communities, in a way that single people often cannot or choose not to, for any number of practical and emotional reasons. I wonder if these conversations about marriage would be taking place if we didn’t have a broad network like the internet, bringing to the light the fact that there are tons of unmarried people trying to connect with other people in a lot of different ways. Does that make sense? I think, with the internet, it’s easier to be single because it’s easier to connect with friends and family and find events to attend and things to do, even if your default social circle may have otherwise been composed primarily of couples doing couples’ things.

Annie: All roads lead to the internet!! Or, the internet leads to all roads?

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