In Uncategorized on October 25, 2011 at 8:49 pm

I’ve just read most of an Atlantic Monthly article by Kate Bolick describing her ambivalence toward marriage. Bolick is in her late thirties, still single, and hesitant to make the tradeoffs that marriage would entail—particularly now that (she says) the pool of good men has dried up and she’s less physically attractive than previously. She recounts breaking up with a wonderful man at 29 (they remained close friends; she later helped him pick out his wedding tuxedo) because of a vague sense of doubt, combined with unalloyed confidence that she’d find someone else. She now wonders whether she should have stayed with him, although she doesn’t feel strongly that she made a mistake.

I find it difficult to write about Bolick’s piece without anger. In part, I’m offended and threatened by the capriciousness of her decision to break up with her boyfriend. I also feel strongly that the tuxedo anecdote is sick: “As he and I toured through Manhattan’s men’s-wear ateliers, we enjoyed explaining to the confused tailors and salesclerks that no, no, we weren’t getting married. Isn’t life funny that way?” This points to problems with the ex-boyfriend. A real man (yes) would never confuse his friends with his lovers like this. Bolick’s piece is pervaded with a woolly uncertainty—“What should I do?”—and her ex has made himself part of the problem: by indulging her desire for commitment-free companionship, with all the rituals of intimacy, all the conspiratorial laughter at the outside world, and none of the real sacrifice, he has allowed her to avoid figuring out what she truly needs and what she’s willing to give up to get it. He could have done her a big favor with a firm, manly No; but that would be immodern.

Beneath the anger and insecurity, there’s sadness. I regret how difficult it is to choose anything (a school, a job, a mate); to be chosen in return; and to stick with your choice. I also feel deeply sorry for American women, who by middle age are the most stressed-out people in the country. If they’re married mothers with elderly parents, they’re likely caring for three generations, all while working full-time jobs. Meanwhile, the messages they’re getting from the culture are largely about what they ought to be—more independent, more assertive, more spontaneous, more fun, thinner, younger—and how they might be making a big mistake by working or not working, having kids or not having kids, divorcing or not divorcing. You can see why Bolick wants out: how much easier, and how much less brutal, simply to live for oneself. But living for oneself is what a child does. If we never commit, do we become the children we never had?

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