I have been reading, and enjoying, Rebecca Traister’s comprehensive new book, All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation, as well as all the various articles about it and interviews with her. It’s a smart, engaging look at the numerous women in recent decades who are living happily independently and making conscious decisions to marry — or not — in their own time.
Assuming that’s an option; for some women, marriage remains elusive in their 30s even if they hoped for or expected it. Others feel they need to settle in order to marry by the time they’d hoped to be married.
Traister was one of those independent women in her 20s, but at 40 has been married for about five years and has two young children. (Whether she would end up married or not, Traister says she was planning to have a child on her own at 35.) So it was interesting to read, in an interview with Roxanne Gay in this month’s Elle, how marriage changed her:
I’d spent my whole adult life considering myself an independent entity, my life filled by work and friends and family. Suddenly I had a male partner, someone I woke up with and went to sleep with every night. It didn’t change how I saw myself professionally, but it did alter my social life and my friendships: It’s not that I loved my friends any less, but I couldn’t maintain that level of daily commitment to them if I was also going to make room for my boyfriend. tweet
A ‘greedy institution’
Which is why marriage has been called a greedy institution. As Traister writes in her book, “When I met my husband, we turned in toward each other and our worlds got smaller.” It reduces people’s interactions with friends, family and community, although in all honesty once I had kids, I met many other moms, most who are now divorced as I am and who remain great friends today. And through volunteer work at their schools and the Boy Scouts, I was actually more engaged with community than I had been as a single woman.
What marriage and, more importantly, becoming a mother do, is prevent many women from doing essential self-care; there just isn’t time.
Psychoanalyst Beverly Engel, author of Loving Him Without Losing Yourself, calls it the Disappearing Woman:
No matter how successful, assertive, or powerful some women are, the moment they become involved with a man they begin to give up part of themselves — their social life, their time alone, their spiritual practice, their beliefs and values. In time, these women find they have merged their lives with their partners’ to the point where they have no life to go back to when and if the relationship ends. tweet
The marital expectations of my mother’s generation (I’m a 50-something boomer) were different because they often didn’t have much of an independent life before they wed. They had husbands with whom they built a life together and their identity became “wife” and “mother” (as The Feminine Mystique and numerous other books revealed, that was hardly ideal!). But for today’s young women, that’s no longer so — many have careers, property and rich, full lives before they couple, and yet they still give up parts of what they loved about single life and who they were for the sake of marriage. (Which is why Oprah hasn’t married her longtime partner.) I wonder if the loss of independence and friendships actually hits today’s longtime single women harder once they tie the knot.
Loss of friendships
People often give up, or at least drastically cut back contact with, good friends once they marry and have kids, especially if those friends remain single or are childfree. But as I mentioned above, new friends are often made, especially when your kids start school and make friends, and you cross your fingers that their friends’ parents are cool and can be your friends, too.
But there’s a danger in putting all your friendships in one parenting friends egg basket, however; some will inevitably divorce, and then there’s the awkwardness that occurs when couples feel they have to pick sides or worry about mate poaching (yes, a real thing) or that they’ll be next in divorce roulette. Not to say that every couple will divorce, but some 40 percent do; you can’t divorce-proof a marriage but you most certainly can set up your marriage so it doesn’t foster the kinds of situations that often lead to divorce.
All of which is why I encourage couples to live as if they were divorced and perhaps even have a live apart together (LAT) relationship (which can occur in the same house with separate bedrooms). You can still maintain your independence, you can still nourish your friendships, you can still do essential self care and you can still have a loving (and, if you believe the studies, more sexual) relationship with your spouse and raise your kids (if you have them) together.
Beyonce may sing, “If you liked it then you should’ve put a ring on it,” but from my experience all the single ladies who value their freedom and friendships while also valuing a romantic relationship might want to be singing a different tune.
Want to have a successful marriage by your definition of success? Order The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels on Amazon, and, while you’re at it, follow TNID on Twitter and Facebook.