Dear Mixed Feelings,
I am the type of woman who never enters a relationship unless she can clearly see the EXIT sign. In the past, this has meant having relationships with men who clearly couldn’t, for one reason or another, make a commitment to me. Often this was because we lived in entirely different cities (or even countries) and often because he had other obligations. And those arrangements have worked well for me in the past.
Now, however, I am having a relationship with a man who both lives in my city and has no other obligations. He wants to have a causal relationship too, so this works well most of the time. The problem I am having is that it is really difficult to convince him that I am not secretly wanting more; he lives in fear that at some point he is going to wake up to find that I am desperately in love with him and wanting to be his wife. When he starts getting nervous, usually because I am being affectionate (which is my nature), he emotionally pushes me away and that hurts my feelings.
I just don’t understand why it is so hard for men to accept that a woman can both love them and not want a long-term commitment. Is too much to ask to have a loving relationship that doesn’t have to have a fairy tale ending? If there is a solution to this problem I would love to know.
Here for a good time, not a long time
Dear Here for a Good Time, Not a Long Time,
If, in nineteenth century England, it was a universally acknowledged truth that “a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife,” then here, in 2017, it is also true that a single woman of a certain age must be in want of a husband.
Of course Austen’s “truth” was a social truth, not a factual one, but she points out something important in that first line of Pride and Prejudice, which is that how we understand and practice love and marriage (two overlapping but distinct concepts) largely depends on the world around us—that is where we live and when. And Austin was acutely aware of how social forces influence our lives.
Though marriage rates seem to be declining in the US, getting married is still a big part of how we structure our lives. Most people marry at least once. And our culture celebrates marriage—especially for women. Think, for example, of the difference in connotation between the words “bachelor” and “spinster.” I know plenty of unmarried women who are neither spinster nor cat lady, who have interesting adventures and good sex, but we don’t have a good name for these women. We don’t see them in movies, and we don’t imagine their lives could ever be as full and complete as Leonardo DiCaprio’s.
Many women do want to get married, and that’s a perfectly reasonable choice. The problem, then, is that when a woman says she doesn’t want to marry, many people find this hard to believe.
I almost didn’t answer your letter, Good Time, because I was worried that there was no good answer. But the issues you raise are so big and so important to the state of modern romance that they deserve our attention. I want it to be possible for you to casually date a man in your city. This is such a reasonable request! But love comes with a lot of cultural baggage and women, in particular, have been hauling these bags around for a long time.
In her book The Glass Slipper, critic and literary theorist Susan Ostrov Weisser points out that even in the Victorian era, magazines framed the pursuit of love and marriage as the domain of women: “Our modern focus on the female as the icon of love became an unquestioned presumption to a new degree in the nineteenth century.” Since then, the idea that finding and securing love is women’s work has only become more prevalent.
A glance at any magazine stand will quickly confirm this. Weisser points out the difference between magazines aimed at men (Maxim: “Cheat and Don’t Get Caught,” March 2010) and those for women (Cosmopolitan: “YOUR ORGASM FACE: What He’s Thinking When He Sees It,” December 2008). Just try imagining a world where these audiences are reversed. Imagine it! Are you laughing? Almost crying? Then we are on the same page, Good Time; let me buy you a drink.
In the end I knew I had to respond to your question when I had a similar experience. A couple months ago we were on vacation when, after a few drinks, my partner admitted that he often worried about whether or not he should buy me a ring and propose.
“I think about it every day,” he said.
“You do?” I was incredulous.
“No. Not every day. More like every other day.”
“But you’ve never mentioned it!”
We have worked hard to create an intentional relationship, so I couldn’t understand why he’d think I’d want to be left out of such a big decision. Also, because I read and write about this stuff, I talk to him about marriage all the time. I was shocked to hear that he’d been worrying about it without ever saying anything to me. I mean there were no shortage of opportunities.
We had one of those long, impassioned-yet-rambling conversations that you can only have late at night after two drinks too many. I told him that I had assumed that marriage—like everything else in our relationship—would be something we talked about openly and decided on together. And that when I’d said I was ambivalent about the institution, I meant it.
“I’d probably do it if it was important to you,” I told him. “But you’ve never said that.”
“I feel the same way,” he said, then hesitated. “But don’t you want to be proposed to? Doesn’t every woman want that?”
The thing about my partner—which I hope is also true about the man you’re seeing—is that he’s a good guy. He’s thoughtful. He’s a feminist. He listens when I talk. He never interrupts me and he is never dismissive. I’ve never actually dated someone who was so competent at making me feel like a person, full stop (as opposed to “a person who is a woman and therefore moody and mysterious”). So it was weird that in this one particular arena, he was treating me like someone who either didn’t know or couldn’t say what she really wanted.
I guess this is the part of my response where I point out what you obviously already know, Good Time: love comes prepackaged with social scripts that are so powerful even the most thoughtful among us find them difficult to dismiss. I understand why the men we love assume, by default, that we want to get married. I don’t think they’re wrong for doing this, but it’s easy to see how these scripts place a significant burden on both men and women.
Philosopher Carrie Jenkins writes, “the idea that love is supposed to lead to marriage is still a central feature of contemporary social life, as will be familiar to anyone who has seen a few rom coms.” Jenkins calls this idea “wallpaper”—meaning it is so ubiquitous that we forget to notice it.
Sinatra tells us that love and marriage “go together like a horse and carriage” and we sing along mindlessly: “This I tell you, brother/ you can’t have one without the other.” But you can! You can have a horse without carriage!
These ideas are hard to let go of, even when they obviously limit us. As Jenkins points out in her fantastic book What Love Is and What It Could Be:
The assumption that love and marriage are basically the same thing—or would be if you were doing life right—is damaging to the people who are in love and still unable to marry, who are in love and have no wish to marry, and who are married but receive only abuse from their spouses.
If I am honest with my partner, some small part of me likes the idea of a proposal—simply because I spent so long (since I could talk in full sentences, probably) believing that this moment, if it ever came, would be the happiest, most validating moment of my life. It’s taken years to reject that script, but ultimately I had to—it felt too disempowering. I didn’t like waiting for validation.
So, Good Time, the short answer to your question is also the long answer. How do you have a loving relationship without a fairy tale ending: tear down the wallpaper; dismantle the patriarchy.
For her part, Jenkins thinks this is possible. “It takes time and effort—not to mention luck and good timing—to change anything about the social role of romantic love,” she says. “Persuading people to part with their cherished ideas about it is hard, but any progress is exciting, and we have witnessed some relatively rapid change of late.” These changes include the acceptance of queer love and interracial marriage.
I’m sorry that your partner pushes you away. And I’m sorry that so many people (men, women, queer, straight, married, single, poly, aromantic) don’t get to practice love in the way that suits them best. So often we act like love is a benign force capable of bringing anyone together, but the truth is much more complicated. The social script of romantic love creates as much division as it does connection.
If your partner is struggling to take you at your word, maybe he’ll find data persuasive. There’s plenty of research to suggest that women don’t enjoy or benefit from marriage the same way men do. Women are more likely to file for divorce (researchers estimate that about 70% of divorce papers are filed by women) and then they tend to prefer their single lives; they’re also half as likely as men to remarry.
A study of older adults in America found that senior women often benefit from living alone in ways men do not. In fact, senior men benefit more from living with someone else—usually a wife. Single women are more likely to make time for hobbies and to be satisfied with the number of friendships they have.
On her blog, Single at Heart—which I think you might really like—Harvard psychologist Bella DePaulo regularly reports on the benefits of the single life. In one of my favorite posts she explains how people who stayed single over time experience more personal growth and greater autonomy and self-determination than those who stayed married.
The simple fact is this: If you like being single, you don’t have much to gain, statistically-speaking, from changing that.
Maybe the best thing to do right now is deeply indulge the pleasures of singlehood: go on vacation alone, take up kickboxing, get on Tinder, start a podcast, visit all the national parks in Canada. Take a page from Leonardo DiCaprio and invite some friends out on your yacht (for the record, “friends” can be swimsuit models or puppies or a Kindle full of books and “yacht” can be a boat or a barstool or a blanket in the back yard). The point is to revel in your autonomy and self-determination. Tell the man you’re seeing that it hurts when he pushes you away, because he deserves to know if he doesn’t, and then get on with the beautiful busyness of being single.
Mixed Feelings is a new advice column that will draw on science, economics, philosophy, and psychology to tackle relationship issues. If you have a question for Mandy, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org or submit it here.
Rumpus original logo and art by Max Winter.