Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Clash of the micro-generations

There is a phenomenon I've noticed over the years, among a small but significant minority of my slightly older acquaintances (but thankfully none of my friends, and thankfully not recently, perhaps because I'm now old), that goes as follows:

Forgetting that they too, at 18 or 23 or whatever were single, unmarried, or childless, they act as though people they meet who are a few years younger are somehow behind in things, or making some kind of counterculture statement, by not having already settled down, "settled down" as defined by whichever criteria they happen to have met themselves. (As in, if they're cohabiting, you're odd for being single. If they're married, you're odd for just monogamously dating. And so on.) As though you, the younger person, don't have it together enough to have three kids and a house in the suburbs, when the relevant fact is that you're, for example, a junior in high school.

Why this happens, I think, is that when interacting socially, people 16 to 30 (give or take) can feel, in many ways, like about the same age. You connect over whatever you have in common, which makes you assume you're basically coming from the same place, which makes whatever differences you do discover seem like they stem from personal quirks, rather than from life stage. Life stage can be especially tough to assess in the recent-college-grad years, when technically one can be married with kids without this being scandalous, but not too many are. Another possibility is that 18 looks awfully appealing (to some) at 30, so pretending as though an acquaintance's failure to be settled down at 18 is a character flaw and not evidence of youthful freedom is some kind of compensation. Really, who knows why it happens, but it does.

I was reminded of this phenomenon by Daniel Engberger's Slate piece saying one must allow plus-ones at weddings, whether or not those plus-ones are known long-term partners. I agree with him, but for a slightly different reason. Reason being, to a couple about to wed, the relationships that slightly younger friends (or, and I should have made this clear above, friends the same age but for educational or personal reasons at a slightly different life stage) are in seem, by definition, casual. The more serious a person is with a partner, the more fleeting and hook-up-like others' non-marital relationships appear. And it seems trashy and wasteful to invite a fling to a wedding. Meanwhile, "fling" is in the eyes of the beholder. If brides-and-grooms-to-be remembered that their own situations did not, except among the very traditional, begin as "serious relationships," they might realize that the youngsters who they can't believe want to bring a date are nothing more rebellious than younger versions of themselves.


PG said...

I'm with Miss Manners regarding wedding invitations: only invite people with names. That is, if you know whom your friend is dating, or can ask and s/he will feel confident in saying that today's sig other will still hold that status by the wedding date (which really shouldn't be much more than a few months from the issuance of the formal invite, as opposed to the save-the-date), then by all means invite your friend's presumed date, by putting his/her name on the envelope along with your friend's.

The situation Engber describes in which a girlfriend who had been present for discussions of the wedding was excluded was bad manners by the couple. But demanding that one be allowed to bring some random person, TBD by the wedding date, is bad manners by a guest. I emailed or called every one of my friends who was not married or long-term partnered, asking if there were anyone special who should be invited along with my friend. Two people said yes but were cagey about names, so they got an "And Guest" invite and pressing emails closer to the date asking for the name. It feels really awkward to be doing table arrangements and printing placecards that have "Karen Smith's Guest" on them.

Besides, not knowing the names of some of the people who will be showing up for your wedding could be extremely embarrassing for various parties. Suppose my best friend from law school decided to bring as his +1 a girl who'd recently moved from El Paso -- "affable and appropriate, graceful and enthusiastic... who loves hot hors d'oeuvres, '80s music and old people." At the wedding, we discover that this is one of the two women on whom my brother-in-law (the best man) has a restraining order that forbids her to be within 100 yards of him.

So difficult to re-arrange seating in a way that puts one couple on a different floor of the hotel.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I think the names policy you mention makes sense. Aside from preventing major awkwardness, it gets around what I fear - from the comments and from anecdotal evidence - can happen, which is that someone's known (or easy-to-find-out-about) significant other is deemed a fling from the vantage point of a couple who, on account of they're about to get married, probably are more serious, and is, as such, unwelcome at or altogether excluded from the wedding.

The Slate piece did veer off in a couple directions, slipping from the reasonable demand that hosts not take it upon themselves to judge the worth of existing couples to the guest-as-wild-card. The only advantage I could see to a plus-one-no-questions-asked policy is, again, that it's a way around the hosts deciding that maybe guest X's S.O. of five months doesn't really count as a partner. Saying that anything goes is a way to make guests feel more comfortable, and not as though they have to put their relationships - which, again, probably are more precarious than that of the marrying couple - up for inspection.

But even then, I agree with you that it's reasonable to know the names, even if they turn out to be the names of roommates with incompatible sexual orientation or other platonic plus-ones.

PG said...

Judging the seriousness of others' relationships is a fool's game. One of my friends came with her husband of a year, and apparently was counseled by another of my friends, whom she was meeting for the first time, to leave her husband. Their divorce was finalized just after my first anniversary. I look at my wedding photos and do the pretend-her-bastard-ex-wasn't-there squint.