Why Don’t Men Settle Down?
Last week, Jennifer Doll offered a familiar lament in the pages of the Village Voice: “Dear Single Women of NYC: It’s Not Them, It’s You.” Though her focus is on New York, Doll could have been describing almost any large American city in which the number of single, straight, employed, and emotionally competent men is apparently dwarfed by the number of women who want to meet them.
The “man shortage” is a perennial go-to for articles aimed at women readers; these pieces differ mainly in the degree to which they blame the crisis on women’s ambition, pickiness, or sexual aggressiveness.Refreshingly, Doll gets that men also desire relationships. She interviews one guy who claims to be looking for marriage:
“I don’t want to be 34 and doing that thing that sketchy New York guys do where they go out and act as though they’re 24. I’ve seen too much of it … It’s a real cautionary tale.” When I told him that was refreshing, he said, “I think most guys feel that way.”
I think we can all agree that guys in their 30s, 40s, and even 50s who behave like overgrown teenagers is not a phenomenon limited to the 212 area code. Middle-class male adolescence is a countrywide phenomenon that can last a quarter-century or more.
Women’s sexual availability often takes the rap for men’s increasingly famous ambivalence about marriage. Pundits offer endless variations on the why buy the cow if you can get the milk for free aphorism. If women would commit to being less sexually available, the argument goes, men would be more willing to commit to marriage.
But that reasoning misses the mark on two counts. First, plenty of women like sex, and not just because it’s so irresistible to men. Second, it doesn’t take into account just how hungry many men are for an enduring relationship. Like the guy whom Doll found so “refreshing,” a lot of men—far more than the stories like hers let on—want more than an endless supply of free milk from new cows.
Doll’s interviewee is right: most guys do want to grow up. Most of us have winced as we’ve watched men humiliate themselves chasing women who are too young and not interested. What seems cool at 25 is embarrassing at 50. But how do we figure out when the moment is right to “settle down”? Do it too early, and we might be tortured by regret about all the new skin we’re missing. Wait too long, and we’re in danger of becoming the creepy bachelor uncle, the one about whom a niece warns all her girlfriends.
Of course, marriage isn’t for everyone, nor should it be. And being married—or being willing to be married—shouldn’t be the only benchmark for growing up. The marriage rate is falling, and one reason is that more people are finding alternatives that work better for them. But another reason is that too many young people—men especially—have such lofty expectations for marriage (and such fears of divorce) that they set themselves up to never be “ready.”
My dad once told me that the biggest mistake men make is “waiting to be struck by certainty.” Men expect signs. They want a “burning bush” or a billboard on the interstate; they want to hear the voice of God booming, “Marry her!”
Most guys see certainty as the total absence of doubt, and so they keep imagining that settling down is what you do when you’re 100 percent sure about someone. Problem is, it’s damn near impossible to be 100 percent sure about anything. In most ventures in life, we’re 70 percent sure at best. But then again, we don’t expect most ventures to last forever. And so we hedge our bets, we play the field, we wait for the one to come along who will strike us with certainty. And with no biological clock ticking (just the fear of turning into an aging “creeper”), we can spin out that waiting for a very long time.
A friend once told me, “I’ll know I’ve met the one when I don’t want to screw any of her friends, no matter how hot they are.” He would know he’d met his future wife when monogamy would seem effortless. For him, being “struck by certainty” would mean the complete absence of interest in ever having sex with anyone other than his “one.”
Growing up means letting go of the need for a “burning bush” moment. It means not holding other people hostage to your own indecisiveness and understanding that certainty comes after you make a commitment to something. It’s the result of an action taken, not a prerequisite for taking it.
Again, marriage isn’t for everyone. The willingness to make a commitment is hardly the only proof of maturity. But I’m not concerned here with the men who are certain they never want to marry. The problem is with the ones who very much want to get married but are waiting to be struck by (and keeping everybody else waiting for) that thunderbolt of certainty.
As men grow older, the poet Donald Justice wrote, men should “learn to close softly the doors to rooms they will not be coming back to.” What’s left behind in those rooms? The unlimited options and possibilities we love to contemplate.
The certainty you’re looking for comes only after that door is shut.
This piece was originally published at The Good Men Project Magazine, an online publication which claims: “Unlike so many other men’s magazines, we don’t patronize or caricaturize our audience. We try to bring out the best in men, and we do that by producing content that challenges men to think deeply—and to talk about the things they don’t usually talk about.”
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