Thursday, January 27, 2011

Miss Pickies, Waity Katies

There are two competing and seemingly contradictory explanations for the contemporary spinster. ("Spinster" because those discussing the unmarried woman of a certain age tend not to portray this situation in a positive light, to put it mildly, even when they themselves are part of the demographic.) In one - call it the Lori Gottlieb model - the spinster is single because she turned down the men she might have married when she was younger, and the options have dwindled since. Had she just given boyfriends 1-10 a chance, she wouldn't be all sad and lonesome when #11 never materializes. In the other - the Emily Yoffe or Dear Prudence one - the spinster gave the boyfriend a chance, all right, but too much of a chance, eschewing opportunities to date other men in favor of a commitment that is not in fact marriage.

In other words, Yoffe's spinster should have been dating around, while Gottieb's wasted the best years of her life doing just that. Yet somehow, the two theoretical spinsters end up in the same place. What gives?

One would expect these two outlooks to be consistent. They at least come from the same general view of male-female relations, namely that women need more from men than vice versa. Both Gottlieb and Yoffe argue that women should care less about how interested they are in the men they're with, and more about whether these men will marry them. Both are asking that women, while still young enough to "get" men they're attracted to (disclaimer, yes, I'm aware that women of all ages have options, although not so much so that options don't dwindle... except in Paris, where a woman of 80 can, I suppose, get catcalls and have torrid affairs and shop at the market at 11 on a weekday morning and... I digress), should forget about attraction and put social convention - or, as Gottlieb or Yoffe would put it, what will make them happy when they're 40 - first. Kind of depressing, when you consider that as it stands, it's not socially acceptable for women to pursue men, or to pick among their options on the basis of physical attraction.

My immediate thought was that this is a window-of-opportunity issue - they're just addressing different age groups. Young women are running after Jordan Catalano when they should be settling for Brian Krakow. Window-of-opportunity women, however, obviously failed to settle for their Brians, and are now cohabiting with Jordans, who, though pretty, don't offer much else.

Or maybe it's not an age thing, but that the boyfriends Yoffe's women (sorry, can't keep typing "spinster") move in with are not the same boyfriends as Gottlieb's rejected. Yoffe's live-in boyfriends are cads, bad boys, which is why they won't commit, while Gottlieb's paunchy accountants made it only a few dates until Miss Picky decided she could do better, choosing life on the edge as the girlfriend of some guy Hugh Grant would play in the movie over a sure thing as Mrs. Paunchy Accountant.

This I find not so plausible. In Prudie's scenario, where the woman finds that the long-term boyfriend she thought was a Brian 2.0 learns that he is in fact a Jordan, I (to borrow a phrase that seems apt) can't help but wonder: how did Angela come to live with Jordan to begin with? Or on real-life terms, who are these boyfriends, and what fabulous, Berlusconiesque alternatives do we - or they - assume they have to the conventional, of-their-social-milieu woman they've been voluntarily, monogamously, cohabiting with? (Prudie, to be clear, is not making a socially-conservative argument about how libertinism regarding premarital relations and birth control has worked for the educated classes but failed the lower-middle, but is in fact addressing "strong, independent, successful, accomplished women who are desperately waiting for their boyfriends to pop the question.") The great big battle-of-the-sexes difference between what he wants and what she wants is at most that he'd only worry about this at 30, once everyone else was marrying, while she's getting antsy at 29, largely because people have been asking her since she had her second date with the guy if they've set a date. The man - or woman, for that matter - who's "not that into" a partner will neither marry nor pseudo-marry that person.

And, in the milieu Prudie's ostensibly addressing, in my at-least-milieu-specific-but-I-will-admit-completely-anecdotal evidence, marriages are virtually always preceded by pre-engagement cohabitation, and these "indefinite" cohabitations virtually always culminate in marriage, even if on an individual level, the man-must-propose rule keeps some women wondering for approximately five minutes, during which time they, I suppose, pen letters to Dear Prudence. I mean, I'm sure there are some 35-year-old women whose same-age boyfriends of a decade imagine that Jessica Alba awaits and throw away an otherwise perfect relationship, but this is hardly the epidemic Prudie suggests. As always with advice columns, only the people with problems are writing in, and one suspects the problems that fit a notion the columnist is already fixated on stand a better chance of getting picked.

With the just-settle/Gottlieb argument, meanwhile, I'm always suspicious of whether 'he was too nice' was really the reason dude never got a second chance. Might it be that single women who think along these lines are doing a bit of revisionist history of their romantic experiences? That what's remembered years after the fact as 'nice' was that he seemed too interested in having a girlfriend or wife in general, as opposed to in you, the particular woman he was on a date with? That he seemed not merely paunchy and accountant-ish enough to make you confident in his continued devotion, but rather a possessive boyfriend-turned-stalker in the making, and you rightfully stepped back? (Brian always kind of had that quality - or consider the Jason Segel character on "Undeclared" - but it's a quality that's indescribably worse when not sanitized for a teen drama, even an "edgy" one.)

To wrap this up in some fashion... if in this day and age, there's no particular singles crisis for well-educated women, the idea that structural forces are keeping women who wish to be married from getting to that point becomes untenable.


Anonymous said...

Now, I'm 60, and married 20+ years. So this is not your age cohort. But the comment I left at FLG, when he talked about your post, was very dubious about your views. My wife had a great line: "Men are like streetcars. Wait ten minutes, and another one comes along"

and then all of a sudden, it's midnight, and they stop.

My sister spurned various plausible suitors, and now is a spinster aunt at 57 - beloved by her nieces and nephews, but she always thinks about what might have been.

It's very hard to know. You're young and toothsome, the guys cluster around like maggots to rotting meat, and then all of a sudden, like there's a signal, they are gone. You can never be ready for that, or know when it's going to hit!

You see some women who have settled too soon, what a dweeb, she coulda done better. Some women are 36 and guys still respond, some, the phone doesn't ring for months. dave.s.

Britta said...

My problem with all of this is that marriage is the end in itself, not marriage to an actual person x. I still firmly believe that being married to someone who drives you slowly crazy, or someone who you resent for everything thing they do, or someone you are bored by, etc. is worse than being alone. I once read something written by a woman on this topic and she said, "there is nothing lonelier than a bad marriage." Life is too short to spend it with someone you does not make you happy.

Phoebe said...


Responded to you at FLG. But I'll also repeat here what I responded to FLG, which is that this post, here, is not about "spinsters," but rather about the conversation advice-columnists have about the idea of the unmarried woman. I'll point out, as I did there, that at the end of my post, I mention that I think the women of the demographic being discussed, at least, get married if they wish to do so.


"I still firmly believe that being married to someone who drives you slowly crazy, or someone who you resent for everything thing they do, or someone you are bored by, etc. is worse than being alone."

This, this is why Gottlieb's remark about how Madame Bovary could have been worse off was so... off.

What I find most irritating in these discussions is the idea that the regrets of the single woman are inherently more worthy of respect and concern than those of a woman who's married and wishing she'd stayed single. In the latest Prudence column, she advises a woman in the latter situation that she's basically a fool, a ditz, an admirer of "Sex and the City" (!), because she feels trapped in her marriage. Not wanting to be married is a legitimate problem, not a fantasy about a television show, even if the letter-writer mentions wanting to live in a city if single. (Emma Bovary's presented as kind of ridiculous for basing her fantasies on romantic literature - the SATC of her day, so maybe this is where Prudie got the idea?) My point is, by and large, people tend to do what they want, to make these choices for a reason. The mild what-ifs experienced by a single woman shouldn't be elevated to the height of seriousness, nor should the serious what-ifs of a married woman be presented as the woman not knowing what's good for her.

Britta said...

wow, did you read Modern Love? It's another one of those "Settle, Ladies!" articles. Here's the final 2 paragraphs:

"In the months that followed, I was determined to become a better version of myself — prettier, smarter, more ambitious — and looked for the same in new boyfriends. As it turned out, though, they were looking for someone better, too. In New York, and especially in the movie business, it’s hard to dispel the fantasy that there’s always someone better just around the corner.

Yet by embracing this notion, I had allowed my life to become an ongoing cycle of shallow disappointments that left me longing for someone like my Tim Donohue, who could be satisfied with exactly what he had and who he was. Even more, I longed to be that kind of person again, too."

Phoebe said...

Just did. Somehow I don't think if there hadn't been the same-name gimmick (entirely plausible, but uninteresting) this wouldn't have gotten published. But as for the message... let this woman wait five minutes, get another serious boyfriend, and then she won't be regretting dumping Tim #1. That, or she has a pattern of dating men she's not wild about just to be in a relationship, then dumping them/urging them to dump her, then imagining in retrospect that she was more interested than she had been. There are people like that of both sexes, but what they need is self-awareness, not lower standards.

Flavia said...

Like you, I'm inclined to think that this is a non-problem. Men have regrets in the wake of break-ups or during long periods of singledom, too--we're just less convinced as a society that it's a problem, or that the men will be single forever.

My former long-term partner has been pretty consistently single since he broke up with me almost four years ago. I hear through the grapevine (we're in touch, but not about this particular subject!) that he's regretful, thinks he made a huge mistake, etc.

But that's just the prolonged singledom talking. It's neither objectively true that he made a bad or unreasonable decision, nor does anyone else seem to believe that he'll never! get! married! now that he's pushing 36.

Flavia said...

Oh, and:

One of my friends used to tell her down-in-the-mouth single girlfriends that over 90% of Americans [I forget the exact figure] get married at some point in their lives--and that, honestly? They probably weren't special enough to be in that tiny minority.

Much better advice than Prudie's, et al.

Phoebe said...


First comment:

"But that's just the prolonged singledom talking."

Well put. This is pretty much gender-neutral, with the fertility caveat - a woman might regret missing out on companionship and the chance to raise her biological children with a husband, while the man can at least hope this will happen someday until he has reason to learn he's infertile. But the old boyfriend misremembered as having been just wonderful would not necessarily have been such a smashing father, which might well have consciously or otherwise entered into why he was dumped. Women whose priority is biological motherhood, not reuniting with iffy exes, do have options these days that, if more challenging than raising a child within a couple, are arguably better than raising one in the midst of a divorce from Iffy Ex, their father.

Re: your second comment - your friend's advice works for young girls as well. I remember that my parents pointed out to me that most people get married when I expressed some kind of early-adolescent angst about would I ever be a girl boys liked (not that I really knew many boys, going to all-girls school and all, but the three I knew probably preferred my conventionally stunning best friend, or I assumed this, who knows). Which I think is truly important, and something some people learn too late - it's good to shower and everything, to do what you need to do looks-wise (within reason) to feel confident, but it's not necessary to be the one all the boys or men like to have romance in your life. Reassuring for the self-conscious kid, or for the 30-something woman feeling especially single that day.

Andrew Stevens said...

Actually, I definitely do believe of many of my male friends who are single (and have been single for years) and who are in their mid to late 30s that they'll never get married. For one or two of them, I'm actually a little sad about this for them (since they clearly would like to). What I do not do is tell them this or talk to them in any way about this. (By the way, it's not just men who think these things and never talk about them. My wife knows these men I'm talking about as well and also doesn't think they're ever going to get married and also doesn't talk about this with them.)

Phoebe said...

Andrew Stevens,

Some people never marry. But as Flavia points out, this is highly unusual, and late 30s is far too early to say "never," especially for a man. (It's a bit like the 18-year-old convinced he'll never lose his virginity, and whose friends can't see it happening any time soon. It'll happen in time.) Do you think your friends will never have any romantic relationships with any women ever again, ever? If you think they will indeed have some, why be so sure one of these wouldn't turn into a marriage, except if on some level you think these men prefer being single?

I don't think it's particular to you or your wife that you don't discuss these men's singledom with them. Men aren't under the same pressure to define themselves in terms of a partner. Which, in the end, means that women's interest in being married is overestimated, men's underestimated.

Andrew Stevens said...

I don't believe the people I am thinking of will ever have a romantic relationship with a woman ever again, ever. Both are introverted to an extreme with women and not the type who are likely to attract some aggressive woman's interest.

And we don't discuss it with them because we don't want to make them feel uncomfortable or inadequate.

Phoebe said...

Andrew Stevens,

I can answer this again by pointing out that some people indeed don't get married, but that such individuals - and maybe your friends are among them - are the rare exceptions. I've met men and women of all ages who I suspect will never marry, but this is not something one comes across frequently. As a rule, it's probably not safe to assume 30-something single men, even introverted ones who don't resemble Brad Pitt, will never ever ever marry. Even, again, if this happens to be a safe assumption regarding these particular men.