Hitched: The Myth Of The Happily Married Woman

Wouldn’t you feel like shit, and wouldn’t I look like a jerk, if I sat around with this huge pile of adorable kittens and was all, “Oh man, my pile of adorable kittens is so great, I can’t get over how wonderful this pile of adorable kittens is, how can you not have a pile of adorable kittens like my awesome pile of adorable kittens and think you will ever be happy the way that I am with this pile of adorable kittens!?”

Because sure, kittens seem great and all, but maybe your landlord won’t let you have a cat, or you can’t afford one right now, or you are allergic and have to find a special hypoallergenic one or you don’t really want to scoop cat shit every day or maybe you are just more of a dog person. There are all kinds of reasons to not have a pile of adorable kittens, adorable as they may be.

Now, pretend we’re talking about marriage and single women instead of piles of adorable kittens. (But if you want, you can still check out some piles of kittens.)

People gush and gah over the question of “whether” or “if” single women — a group of humans who all think and dream and live alike, apparently — are doomed to a lifetime of emotional anguish and soul-splitting loneliness. They wring their hands in ostensible angst on behalf of the Poor, Benighted Single Lady and offer aid and succor to the ignorant, selfish lambs who don’t know any better than to not get married.

Y’all, don’t be fooled by this kind of concern trollery.

Authors of this kind of workand they are many, and take many forms — blithely ignore the obvious fact that marriage doesn’t automatically make people happy any more than singledom dooms them to an early grave dug by preternaturally talented but mourning cats.

Take, for example, writer Tracy McMillan, in the Huffington Post (which in particular really loves to drag out this question whenever pageviews are looking bleak) who thinks her case for unhappy singledom is so strong, she puts it in capital letters: “EVENTUALLY, MOST WOMEN I KNOW WANT TO BE PARTNERED.”

It’s a terrible argument on so many levels — not only does McMillan not know All The Single Ladies, who are not All The Same, she’s equating the expressed desire to be partnered with unhappiness at not being partnered, unabashedly self-selecting a female sample group from which to draw the conclusion that women who aren’t in relationships aren’t happy. But “being happy” and “wanting to be in a relationship” aren’t any more mutually exclusive than “being happy” and “wanting to own a boat.”

In my experience, what made me unhappy as a single woman were hand-wringing articles that wondered if women (and it’s always if women) can REALLY ACTUALLY SERIOUSLY I MEAN COME ON GUYS SIDE EYE be happily single. If I read an article every day — and in this media landscape, you pretty much can find a Poor, Benighted Single Ladies article every day — asking, “Can anyone be happy without a boat?” I would eventually start to wonder if I needed a boat to be happy, and I’d figure that people who have boats are happy people.

But boats — let’s belabor this metaphor, shall we? — take maintenance and upkeep. They take a certain level of privilege. They take money and time and agreeable geography. Boats might be fun at first, and then become a terrible hassle. Or they might be awesome forever and you’ll always be so glad you got a boat. Who the fuck knows? Boat ownership be complicated.

But maybe single women want to find partners because they’d like to escape the endless nagging of a culture that says that to be fulfilled, a woman has to be in a long-term monogamous relationship, preferably filed under the category “marriage.” Maybe they realize that all those people who wonder “Can single women be happy?” are answering in the asking: nope.

Essentially, people with this attitude are guilting women for not doing something they have very little control over: meeting someone with whom they have enough mutual affection to feel like marriage is a positive and productive step. As if the actual problem with single women is that they’re a bunch of shallow, slutty bitches, as if everyone who ever got married was a saint with no baggage. Single women don’t have a problem. Society has a problem with them. It’s not the same thing.

I don’t want to rag on McMillan too much, because her work is but one example of a long and storied tradition of concern trolling that’s been used to keep women in line for hundreds, maybe thousands, of years. It’s just that now the question is a light and breezy “Can single women really be happy?” instead of “Will you probably die of poverty, be forced into prostitution and/or be derided within your family and social circle if you are single?” Just because things are better for single women — and they are — doesn’t mean things are great. But in my experience, what’s bad about being single isn’t so much the being single part as the constantly having to explain yourself as if you are broken part.

As if really all the concern trolls want is for the wittle laydeez to be full of rainbow smiles and to quit being so sadface all the time. That is not what the concern trolls care about. Concern trolls don’t give a fuck if single women are happy; what they do care about is maintaining the status quo so that they don’t have to think too hard about what a progressive, gender-equal society would look like, ‘cause that’d be rilly scawy.

Poor, Benighted Single Lady concern trolls want to believe that any problem a woman could have as a partnered person could never possibly be as bad as any problem she could have as a single person. (Somehow I think some of these people might kinda disagree.)

These concern trolls want to act as if a husband, any husband at all, is a fix-all solution to all any problem a woman might have. (And look, you can turn this around: I don’t think men should be pressured to get married either; wives aren’t automatic man-problem solutions, either. It’s just that the existing conversation is so terribly skewed in favor of shitting on single women.) When women don’t get married, but they do become grown-ass people who have careers and human wants and needs and stories that happen independent of life-long monogamous relationships with men, it gets a lot harder to guilt them into staying in the kitchen — or “opting out” into the home — while dudes do the Real Important Things. Who will be the (largely) unthanked backbone of society if women don’t feel pressured to settle for Mr. Good Enough? Poor, Benighted Single Lady concern trolls aren’t actually worried about women; they’re worried about prolonging the long, slow death rattle of patriarchy.

The question “Can single women be happy?” creates a false dichotomy: be single, or be happy, but you gotta pick and you better pick soon before the good ones are all gone, ladies. Concern trolls don’t care if men stay single because nobody believes they’re incapable of taking care of themselves like the adults they are — single, and thereby incomplete, women, on the other hand, are either seen as infantile or hysterical or both, the cure for which: marriage.

What concern trolls ignore is the very real fact that a lot of marriages go to shit and that there are a lot of happy, relieved divorced people out there. They ignore that some people only stay together for the kids. That it’s not always a beautiful lifelong dance of love and partnership, but a thing people are too tired not to do. That the moments of happiness only barely outweigh the unhappy ones, or if they don’t, it’s too close to bother with. Concern trolls bait guilt-ridden, exhausted single people into believing that their! next! relationship! could! be! made! of! rainbows! if! only! they! follow! these! easy! steps!

That’s horseshit. There’s maybe not a forever partner out there for all of us, and that doesn’t mean we’re broken or doing something wrong or too ignorant to know what’s good for us. It just means we didn’t find the damn thing. Making people feel sad about it might convince them to get married, but it sure doesn’t guarantee that they’re going to be happily married.

And I am not so interested in trying to make myself feel better about my own choices, or to make other people feel bad about theirs, that I have any interest in trying to out-happy anyone else. The Happy Olympics is a dumb, pointless game for sad people. Nobody wins the Happy Olympics.

So in addition to offering criticism and cat pictures, I’d like to offer a solution. Every time someone feels the need to wonder whether single women can be happy, let’s have them instead ask: “Can humans be happy in life-long monogamous partnerships?”

I know, I know, it’s a total downer question. You don’t get to essentialize anyone’s gender, or judge anyone because they’re kind of slutty, or call someone a bitch, or rely on easy stereotypes or get your judgy-assed opinion in the Daily Mail. Instead of engaging in a debate that leads nowhere and only serves to pit women against each other, let’s start more discussions about what makes marriage work, and identify some proactive steps people can make to build happier marriages and partnerships. And when we want to talk about singledom, let’s give people practical steps to making that life happen and first and foremost, tell people that it’s totally cool to be uncoupled instead of automatically assuming that it’s everyone’s second choice. Let’s ask: how can you build strong platonic relationships? How do you buy a house on your own? What are some good ways to raise kids as a single parent, or a communal parent?

All of these are more interesting, exciting and progressive than worry-warting the women of the world into buying another crappy self-help book. Call these questions round one of the Go On With Your Bad Self Olympics. We can have them in my back yard. Bring the kids and dogs and piles of adorable kittens. I’ll get a keg.

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