Girl Talk: We’re All In This Sand Box Together

My boyfriend and I lay in his childhood bedroom, surrounded by all of his favorite stuff from high school. We were almost 30.

“I don’t feel the same way about you as you do about me,” he said.

I rolled over and started to cry silently while staring at his trophy collection. This was our third disagreement in six months as a couple.

I only feel confident in what I’m not supposed to say or do when it comes to relationships. I know how to behave in the competitive job market, but not a clue how to proceed when faced with emotional intimacy.

Our first argument was a few months earlier when I told him we should stop dating if he was unsure about what he wanted. He was sure he wanted to continue dating, he swore. The second disagreement came when I discovered that he was hiding his pot habit from me. I didn’t care that he smoked, I cared that he felt the need to keep it a secret from me like a teenager hiding it from his mom.

He had invited me to his parents house for the holidays and now he was unsure? I didn’t get it.  I called my dad for some advice. My dad never really weighed in on any of my boyfriends. I only knew if he liked them based on whether or not he gave them a nickname. He hadn’t met this boyfriend yet, but he had some thoughts.

“Tell him what to do,” my dad said.

“What?” I asked confused.

“Men get all mixed up and don’t know what to do. You have to help him,” my dad explained.

This made no sense to me. How could I tell him what to do if I had no idea what I was doing myself? Weren’t we supposed to figure it out together?

I figured my dad must know something after being married to my mom for 35 years. Determined to respect the only piece of dating advice my dad had ever given me, I decided to apply it when my boyfriend and I met a cafe to talk a few days later.

“Let’s ride this out,” I said determinedly. “Someone special doesn’t come along every day.”

It totally didn’t work. He hightailed it out the door of the cafe and home, probably to smoke massive amounts of weed. Left alone at the cafe, I felt no closer to marriage than I did when I was graduating high school. Yet, I was about to turn 30.

Kay Hymowitz author of Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men Into Boys, tackles the phenomenon of a new developmental stage known as pre-adulthood. An excerpt of her book in the Wall Street Journal describes a generation of men and women stuck in the Cliff Poncier/Janet Livermore script from the movie “Singles.” Cliff, a grunge rocker with a heart of gold and Janet, the ambitious cool girl aimlessly working at a coffee shop, are perfect archetypes for the pre-adulthood life script. Come to think of it, my ex-boyfriend and I weren’t a far cry from Cliff and Janet. He had shorter hair — actually he was balding — and I had quit my coffee shop job years ago, but I still hadn’t found a career I liked. Hymowitz writes:

Pre-adults don’t know what is supposed to come next. For them, marriage and parenthood come in many forms, or can be skipped altogether. In 1970, just 16 percent of Americans ages 25 to 29 had never been married; today that’s true of an astonishing 55 percent of the age group.

So why do pre-adults suck so much at relationships? Hymowtiz points to various theories. The availability of college educations, the competitive job market, and the focus on self-identity. There’s been a lot of pontificating in the blogosphere as of late on the plight of single women and men, clearly in the pre-adult category. Is it women’s fault for not taking any responsibility in the emasculation of men? Is it men’s fault for not stepping up to the plate, for being seduced by the availability of casual sex? Is marriage becoming an obsolete institution? Is monogamy passe? While both men and women are are afflicted with pre-adolesence syndrome, Hymowitz posits that American men are worse for the ware in this cultural identity crisis.

Today, however, with women moving ahead in our advanced economy, husbands and fathers are now optional, and the qualities of character men once needed to play their roles—fortitude, stoicism, courage, fidelity—are obsolete, even a little embarrassing. Today’s pre-adult male is like an actor in a drama in which he only knows what he shouldn’t say. He has to compete in a fierce job market, but he can’t act too bossy or self-confident. He should be sensitive but not paternalistic, smart but not cocky. To deepen his predicament, because he is single, his advisers and confidants are generally undomesticated guys just like him.

Hymowitz names the affliction with precision. While men are struggling, the stats show that women are benefitting. More women are graduating from college than men, we hold more graduate degrees, we are even out-earning our male counterparts in many cities. We are benefitting on all counts, except one. Hymowitz claims that women are left wondering where all the good men are.
I couldn’t disagree with her more. As a 30-something woman, I spend more time wondering about my role. Without a boyfriend, husband, or family on the horizon,

I only feel confident in what I’m not supposed to say or do when it comes to relationships. I know how to behave in the competitive job market, but not a clue how to proceed when faced with emotional intimacy.

My advisers and confidants are undomesticated gals just like me, save the occasional piece of sage advice from mom or dad. I’m not all that different than my fellow pre-adults. I was just as confused about what to do in that coffee shop as my ex was. We were purely equals in our pre-adolescent relationship confusion. Is there a solution to this cultural phenomenon? Hymowitz has a cringe-worthy suggestion.

Women put up with him for a while, but then in fear and disgust either give up on any idea of a husband and kids or just go to a sperm bank and get the DNA without the troublesome man.  But these rational choices on the part of women only serve to legitimize men’s attachment to the sand box. Why should they grow up? No one needs them anyway. There’s nothing they have to do. They might as well just have another beer.

This is not a solution I accept. I refuse to leave my male peers sitting in the sand box — our sand box — alone. Who needs men? We do! I don’t want to be single forever. I don’t want to go to a sperm bank to start a family, if I choose to have one.  Now that I’ve had a few years to think about my dad’s advice, it’s starting to make perfect sense. Maybe we do need to help men. Not by telling them what to do, but by telling how much we need them. We need their help too, so we can all grow up together.

Photo: iStockphoto