Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The window's jammed

Among the many wish-I'd-thought-of-it words of wisdom Dan Savage has had to offer is, when someone calls or writes in to tell of a string of failed relationships that all failed for the same reason, he'll explain that the problem isn't "young Southern women" or "gay men in cities," but that each of us is the common factor in all our relationships.

I take it, given the venue, the links from Slate and Jezebel, and the addition of History and Statistics to what is otherwise a mix of tired cliché (women don't much care what men look like! men like their women young!) and Gottlieb-lite anecdotal experience, that Kate Bolick's Atlantic essay, "All the Single Ladies," is the new cover story we're all to ponder at our dinner parties, Tiger Mom-style.

And... not really? The author, though a woman, alas, experienced (and appears still to experience) re: some now long since ex-boyfriend what George Costanza did re: Susan - bored and a wandering eye while with the person, selective memory for good times only once broken up.  This... happens? Not sure what else the message is, but of course it happens. To men and to women. Revisionist history of seriously flawed relationships (and the flaw could be, you didn't want to be in a relationship, yet there you were - it doesn't have to be, s/he was bad news). Once you identify the problem, the revisionist history may cease. Otherwise? Maybe try pitching it to the Atlantic?

Meanwhile, Bolick's "spotty anecdotal findings have revealed that, yes, in many cases, the more successful a man is (or thinks he is), the less interested he is in commitment." This... sounds spotty and anecdotal? Like another way of saying that people who think they can do better often end relationships? Because it's not as though super-successful professionals don't have spouses. The men, at least, seem to have wives. Generally just one wife each, though.

The takeaway is ostensibly that The Family has evolved, and that it should be OK for women to be single, and even to be single and ambivalent. So, not exactly a super-revolutionary, change-the-way-we-think-about-this-issue argument. But from a window-of-opportunity perspective the piece is a gold mine.

Bolick went from being told (by her mother) not to settle down, to hearing from friends, at 28, that the clock's a'ticking. In college, she and her female friends "took for granted that we’d spend our 20s finding ourselves, whatever that meant, and save marriage for after we’d finished graduate school and launched our careers, which of course would happen at the magical age of 30. That we would marry, and that there would always be men we wanted to marry, we took on faith."

That, right there, is the window of opportunity problem. Girls and young women are discouraged (from a feminist perspective) from even having boyfriends, then all of a sudden, at some juncture determined by one's (allegedly still feminist) set, one is determined on the cusp of too-old, and then, if no engagement is announced within two minutes of that juncture, a too-old can be declared. If you're 16-21 (say), it's, don't make your mother's/grandmother's mistakes! If you're 21-25, maybe think about finding a husband, but you're also too young, so maybe not? 25-30, where's that husband? 30 and up? Missed that boat.

Meanwhile, of course people meet at 15, at 45 (although hopefully not at 15 and 45 respectively!) and things work out. The window of opportunity merely governs expectations. Right, right, no one intelligent cares what others think, but this isn't even on such an explicit/conscious level. Women really do go, and quickly, from feeling "too young" to feeling "too old." Part of me wishes this had been her point, but then what would be my great tirade about Women and Relationships Today to start pitching around if I ever finish the tremendous mountain of tour d'ivoire before me?


PG said...

This Atlantic article sounds far less interesting than Tiger Mom, so I'm going to take your word for it and not bother actually reading it. Though the fact that these keep coming out every few years and have been for so long (I think just within the pages of The Atlantic, James Bennet traced it back to 1859!) really makes me think "My Life As a Whale" should become a movie. The novel's events all spin out of that 1986 Newsweek piece about how a single, college-educated woman over 35 was more likely to be killed by a terrorist than to get married. I think we're now at the point where 1986 is retro yet relevant.

Britta said...


Exactly--Susan Faludi's "Backlash" is as relevant today as it was then (and she points out that 'statistic' about women over 35 was completely fabricated). I tried to read it, but it wasn't so much the retrograde message as the absolute butchering of social science that made me annoyed.

I think the issue is: some people want a perfect fantasy partner, and those rarely come along. If you're single and older, you imagine all your married friends have perfect mates and, as Phoebe points out, you romanticize your previous relationships that were shitty enough you wanted out. If you're married, you think "could I have done better?' or "Is this all there is?" and then you fantasize about being single or having an affair with Don Draper, or whatever. The point is, if you're unsatisfied with your love life while single, you'll probably be unsatisfied with your love life while partnered.

Phoebe said...


I'd forgive the tiredness of the genre if this installment had been from a new angle. Lori Gottlieb, at least, with the "settle" thing, had her own take. This, meanwhile, is basically tacking on a lot of Important Article-style research (suggested by an editor?) to a fairly uninspiring personal essay, with no point to it all other than that it's OK to be a single woman, but also OK to still be mildly hung-up on an ex from a decade ago now serious with someone else.


"I think the issue is: some people want a perfect fantasy partner, and those rarely come along."

That's certainly an issue, but the window-of-opportunity mess impacts even those with more realistic expectations. By this I mean that some relationships that are otherwise great, but that occur at the tender age of, say, 20, 22, etc., end up ending because there's so much pressure on (certain, obvs) young women not to 'throw it all away' professionally by 'settling down' with a man, as though having a boyfriend automatically means he's a husband and you have three kids to look after, and maybe fetch his slippers while you're at it. Meanwhile, 40-ish single women who don't so much want Don Draper as they don't actually want to be in a relationship with a man, or with anyone end up feeling as though they ought to express regrets about the Allans of their pasts. Older (well, "older" - not all that old!) women end up feeling a) that men all want 23, which isn't quite right, and b) that even if they themselves don't want a husband, they need to lament the theoretical unavailability of men, because that's just what 40-ish single women who are not known to be lesbians do.

Anonymous said...

Amen! She repeatedly refers to men and women as either married or single, as if no gradations existed between these two experiences. Yet another Atlantic article purporting to give us a glimpse of the future but sounding as if it was recycled from an issue circa 1964, when the word "cohabitation" was still uttered in whispers.
Bolick has also been criticized for speaking only for her cohort of upper middle class, educated and successful women - but I think she's skewing even that sample. Not all of these women choose "autonomy" over "intimacy". In fact it's a false choice, if one that Bolick herself seems to make often.

mark Jabbour said...

Hi Phoebe, Here's my take on Kate Bolick's article, from the POV of an older man. I've spent several hours this AM reading your blog - impressive. My post: