Is it socially unacceptable to be single?
Like everyone else I know who has been stuck in a supermarket checkout queue by the magazines, I feel great sympathy for poor, pitiful Jennifer Aniston: husbandless, childless, over 40, lonely, alone— good heavens, even her famous blond locks look lacklustre given this life of uninterrupted sorrow. In all this barebones misery, it’s almost impossible to consider the possible upside: Miss Aniston is radiantly beautiful, in
fantastic physical shape and still cuter than all the buttons in the world, is serial dating very desirable men, has just moved into a fabulous mansion featured in Architectural Digest and makes millions from her movie roles.
But all of Aniston’s achievements pale when compared to her singleness. In 2010, there is no fate worse and no curse more satanic than that of the single girl. The footloose and fancy-free image of the unmarried woman on her daring adventures—in the form of Carrie Bradshaw or Bridget Jones—has been displaced in favour of the stories of desperate housewives and yummy mummies. Faster than you can spell out UNICEF,
Angelina Jolie went from having no kids to being a mother of six and the ambassador of goodwill to suffering children around the world.What on earth happened to her bi-curious relationships and the vial of blood she used to wear around her neck? I guess we’re meant to understand that it was all just greasy kid stuff, that we all have our crazy days or years or even decades but anyone with any sense grows up and grows out of it—and becomes a mom.
Please understand that I have no problem with the Jolie narrative—good for her if she’s happy—but I just can’t comprehend why she is glorified while Aniston is pitied. Truly, we don’t know who has the better life or the better deal—it’s just a matter of personal taste—so there is no natural reason to collectively presume that the woman with the man and six kids is happier than the one who can do whatever she wants with whomever and whenever she wishes, is there?
As a single woman, I know that the nice thing about being unattached is that the story is still being written—the tale is unfinished or, more to the point, in so many ways it hasn’t even started. Every day is potent with surprise.
Not that motherhood isn’t downright astonishing as well, but you’re kind of tied down. With a family comes responsibility, and some of us just aren’t ready for that, even when we’re in our 40s. Some of us have a great deal to give the world— think of Kathryn Bigelow, single at 58 and directing The Hurt Locker, or Condoleezza Rice, single at 55 and a former U.S. secretary of state—just not in the form of offspring. Some of us might marry late—Gloria Steinem finally got around to it at 66. The idea of feminism, which I kind of thought had caught on, is that women have choices.
The point of assorted options is that different things make different people happy. I have married friends without babies and single friends with babies—and the reverse as well. I have miserably married friends and ecstatically single friends—and the reverse as well. Look, the truth is, we are meant to be in pairs, and anyone who is not in a relationship who tells you that she would not prefer to be in love is lying. Human beings are dyadic by nature, which is why after Adam had been on his own for a bit, the Lord fashioned Eve from his rib: He needed company, a life companion. Most of us need this, and most of us will eventually find some version of this. In fact, in the United States, the vast majority of people will marry at some point— this despite the despair of knowing that close to half of those weddings end in divorce, which means that they have the highest rate of marriage failure in the Western world.
With life expectancy so much longer than it was when the notion of one love forever was invented, married couples often say that they stay together for reasons that are completely devoid of romance or any emotion at all (for instance, because it is nearly impossible to afford a house on one’s own). And, incidentally, as a single person with a real discomfort about marriage, I’m not so sure that the corporate reasons for commitment are incorrect— actually, I think they’re precisely right: Marriage is as much a lifelong business arrangement as it is a romantic bond, with love underlying all of the contractual obligations. Anyone undertaking the kind of commitment that marriage entails ought to realize that it is quite a multi-faceted partnership and that, frequently, as the years wear on, love—as most of us mean it—won’t have very much to do with it.
Marriage is a particular kind of bargain, and it’s either a pact with the devil or an excellent deal, depending on what you want. It gives a person stability, family and enduring love—and, if it survives, at the end of life a couple can look back with satisfaction at the castle of purpose they built together. What you give up for this prize package is hotness, excitement and novelty, which one eventually gets bored with as time goes on. But how soon—how early in life—is anyone willing to surrender the possibility of possibility? At 42, I don’t feel ready. Warren Beatty didn’t settle down with Annette Bening until he was 54. I don’t see why I should have to operate on a different schedule.
As one gets older, dating and courtship become more complicated and less fun, particularly for women. Even if you are Jennifer Aniston, with a choice array of men to choose from, over time the pickings get leaner. For women, staying single too long can be a fraught situation because biology and society are in cahoots against our aging alone, and it is unwise to proceed as if this isn’t the case. In a sense, Aniston has become a celebrity synecdoche for our anxiety about unattached women of a certain age. The message: Proceed with caution.
This is kind of the point of Lori Gottlieb’s controversial book Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough, which argues that women should use a different decision mechanism in dating because the idea is to find a high-quality husband. She believes that what a woman wants from a man in the long run is so different from fireworks and butterflies that we ought not to be looking for such stratospheric sensations in the first place. Gottlieb isn’t saying that women should settle for less than perfection but rather that perfection in a partner is quite a different thing from awesomeness in a boyfriend. And, of course, she is correct. Gottlieb gives decent advice for the marriage-minded. I read Marry Him and felt like everything she says i s true enough—I have even recommended it to friends. But it also made me want to abandon dating forever and move into the nearest monastery— and I’m Jewish. It made me sad and broke my heart. I’m still enjoying my freedom. I still like the feeling of hot blood and cold chills. It’s not that Gottlieb’s advice about dating isn’t useful; it’s more that I don’t want to be that careful and analytical about something as mysterious as love. I still want to be surprised by what comes next. Which, I think, is quite immature. And for which I might pay a high price. But I’ll take my chances: Someone has to keep Jennifer Aniston company.