Sunday, January 19, 2014

"'Some people take ‘no’ personally'"

I don't get the Vows. The NYT wedding announcements, yes. You're photogenic and successful, so is your spouse, so are your families (well, they don't need to be photogenic), and if you're lucky, David Brooks will use you to demonstrate a cultural shift. That much I can wrap my head around. I didn't apply for it when I got married, and thus don't resent my non-presence in it. It's good, clean, barely-awake-on-a-Sunday-morning fun - progressive, even, now that same-sex couples are included.

But the Vows - the part where there's a whole column devoted to the love story itself - I can't imagine signing up for. For there to be a story, there needs to have been an obstacle. And that obstacle is very often one-sided or mutual indifference. Sometimes he sees her, finds her beautiful, and needs to spend ages convincing her to go for a shlub like him. Other times there's an on-again, off-again trajectory so much heavier on the 'off' that the reader is left less than confident about the marriage to come. Past a certain obstacle threshold - again, when the obstacles aren't external (war, natural disaster, etc.), but are about how the two people feel about each other - readers are going to be wondering how long that marriage will last. That, or we end up hearing far too much about the convenient bystanders to the relationship - jilted exes (including ex-spouses who are the parents of their kids), and in one notorious case, a child killed in a hit-and-run by the bride.

But mostly it's the scenarios where an extended lack of interest, especially on the part of the bride, and this is meant to represent romance. "'Some people take ‘no’ personally,' [this week's groom] said. 'I don’t.'" Luckily it seems like in this case, "no" meant 'not yet,' but it would be better, as a rule, to assume "no" means 'not interested, leave me alone.'

Try this: Reverse the roles. Imagine a man and woman dated in college, broke up after college, and then she spent years pursuing him, and getting rejected. Is that romantic? No - he's not into her anymore, and each passing year isn't going to render her more interesting to a man not interested in her in the first place. Even though the truly scary exes are almost certainly more often men, the persistent female ex is readily labeled nuts, delusional, etc. Which is true, but why doesn't it apply to men and women alike? A woman who won't leave a man alone is involved in a quest everyone recognizes as futile. A man who won't leave a woman alone, well, either the cops need to be summoned (and any college women reading this, be sure to call the actual cops, not the campus police), or it's love.

So where does this come from? Romantic comedies, which tell us that a woman's repulsion and a man's persistence are the formula for happily ever after? Or is it the default belief that all women over 25 are desperate to marry any man they'd be willing to call a boyfriend, so a refreshing romantic story has to involve a twist where it's the man who's ready to settle down, whereas the woman is (the inevitable phrasing, if sometimes unstated) a free spirit?

But to return to the matter at hand, I don't get why anyone would want to be in the Vows. Anyone who understands it - or who was featured and enjoyed that! - comment away.


Flavia said...

I used to LOVE "Vows" (used to = in my early/mid-20s). I still read it weekly, but either the writing has fallen off--which I think it has; they all used to be written by Lois Smith Brady--or I'm no longer as entranced by the more conventional stories.

When it's good, it's still good, but as with "Modern Love" the story needs to involve genuinely interesting people with some real self-knowledge (the relationship itself doesn't have to be that original, though it's nice the relationship somehow fits into the self-knowledge/growth narrative). And. . . that doesn't happen more than maybe 15-20% of the time.

I thought this one, from a few weeks ago, was pretty good, although it also falls into the man-is-sure, woman-isn't pattern (which, I agree, is totally tiresome). And I still think about this one and this one, the latter of which proves that the story doesn't require high drama or a prolonged courtship to be interesting.

eamonnmcdonagh said...

Agreed, overall. But I would guess that a lot of successful relationships have begun with one or other partner, most often the man, turning a deaf ear to an initial "no" or evasion regarding the possibility of a date. I would guess that womenn have it hammered into them that a too quick "yes", even if they are mad for the guy, will make them seem like a slut/cheap or whatever. So a little persistence is often required at the start. The trick, of course, lies in recognizing when the "at the start" period is over and it would be best to pack it in in.

Phoebe said...


You may be right re: the writing slipping. But I definitely agree, they can be good - like the ones you link to here. I certainly understand the appeal of reading them, just not of being featured in it, given the likelihood of coming across as... well, not just as insufferable, as is always the risk being featured in any lifestyle article, but also as about to enter a shaky marriage.

My sense is that the people featured are probably much more reasonable than they seem, but that there's something about an article centering on one ordinary couple's journey to the altar ends up making the couple seem narcissistic, convinced that the world revolves around their romance.


I guess I'm having trouble picturing the situations you're talking about. When would a woman fear that she'd "seem like a slut" for agreeing to a date? Some playing hard to get is generally desirable for men and women - people are always more appealing if they don't come across as desperate or without other options.

But there are ways for a woman to indicate "yes" to going out with a guy without seeming desperate. A woman who's asked out and says no - not some kind of flirtatious or ambiguous evasiveness - is simply not interested. Getting asked out several more times by the same guy isn't going to make the answer yes.

eamonnmcdonagh said...

I should have put "seem like a slut! in quotes as it's not what I think, it's what I think some women might think would be thought of them. These kinds of thoughts don't require a logical basis/empirical evidence etc.

Phoebe said...


I got that. But I just couldn't - and can't - picture the situation. Why would this come up if the issue is whether a woman will, say, meet a guy for coffee? I could imagine a woman thinking this if the issue is whether or not she'll sleep with him.

Flavia said...

Ah. The "featured oneself" part--that I can't help you with!

To get back to your point about how frequently the narratives in these columns get entangled with the lives of "convenient bystanders": I actually have a friend whose niche-famous ex was featured in Vows a number of years ago. Taken on its own, it's an interesting, rather endearing column, about two cool people. . . unless you read it as the ex & her friends would.

The column picks up the groom's story when, despite being on some "most eligible bachelor" list, he's homeless, couch-surfing, and depressed after the unexpected end of a long-term relationship--for which he'd followed his girlfriend to some random college town; the groom says, of meeting his wacky bride for the first time, that he was used to dating funny, smart women--but not funny, smart, GORGEOUS ones!--and so on.

I doubt he meant to dump on her, but you're right that the narrative demands of the genre often require some kind of contrast with previous relationships--and produce some pretty uncool results.

Phoebe said...

Gah, what a weird way that would be to be insulted! It's the kind of thing everyone would want said about them by the person they're marrying - that they're the most attractive person their spouse-to-be has ever dated - but no, the relevant exes shouldn't have to read that.

I wonder how much consent is involved in these cases. I remember that the woman who wrote the Modern Love about her own spanking fetish also wrote about the NYT requiring her partner's consent for the piece to be published. But I suspect the Vows columnist/team doesn't go tracking down the marginally-identifiable exes of the featured parties. It's a journalist writing Vows, not one or both spouses, which would change things.

But what about the cases where the exes are *very* identifiable - I'll assume you remember the one where the bride and groom had each ditched their previous family for each other, and this was written up as the height of true love. Should anyone - at least anyone who isn't a celebrity - have their dumped-ness written about in a newspaper?

Kaleberg said...

My sister was in Vows, or its 1980s equivalent. She has no idea of how they even found out she was getting married. It might have been because the rabbi was Meyer Kahane's (Never Again - JDL) brother or perhaps because she was marrying into a prominent Columbus, OH family. It's still a mystery.

I always got the impression that the typical Vows story was: I met him/her while on my way to/from visiting my intended and we really hit it off on the LIRR/subway/goat cart in Jackson Heights. I always found it charming, ready to commit, but realizing they were going for the wrong Mr/Ms Right. Where is Ronald Colman when you need him?

As for my own romantic life, it was sorry no, then some years later: Would you like to go out to Ken's (a late night eatery in Boston) for some gingerbread, and then a wonderful 36+ years.

Phoebe said...

Huh! I'd always thought the Vows were chosen from among the people sending in announcements, unless they're famous people.

The story you've described as typical - a detour on the way to an appropriate spouse - was one I saw in 19th century French-Jewish newspapers, but can't remember seeing in the Vows.