The Married-Or-Lonely Echo Chamber

Modern hetero relationships appear to be in a period of flux. This is potentially interesting — so why does the conversation about it feel so circular?

The Atlantic appears to have become the unofficial voice of white, middle-class relationship woes in recent years. First there was Caitlin Flanagan's defense of "wifely duty," then there was Lori Gottlieb's "settling for Mr. Good Enough" flamebait, then there was Hanna Rosin's "The End of Men", and now there's Kate Bolick's "All the Single Ladies," which purports to offer a new take on contemporary women's marriage choices. It does provide some new insights (more on that later) but it also hits on the same tired tropes. A few examples:

The cautionary tale

Bolick begins her piece with the line, "In 2001, when I was 28, I broke up with my boyfriend." Soon we learn that at 39, she is still not married. She asks some younger women, "Take a look at me. I've never been married, and I have no idea if I ever will be. There's a good chance that this will be your reality, too. Does that freak you out?" If it does, it won't be for lack of exposure. Women under thirty have been veritably bombarded in recent years with the narrative of the never-married woman, and except for a few notable exceptions, it is explicitly meant to freak us out. If there are young, middle-class women out there who haven't heard that they might not get married (especially if they ever break up with someone, or value career or independence over relationships at any point), it's because they haven't been listening.

The sexonomics

Gottlieb's initial Atlantic piece bemoans her failure to settle while "my marital value was at its peak," and the analysis of dating as a market has since become de rigueur. Bolick's version is to discuss how management consultant Susan Walsh "applied what economists call the Pareto principle — the idea that for many events, roughly 20 percent of the causes create 80 percent of the effects — to the college dating market, and concluded that only 20 percent of the men (those considered to have the highest status) are having 80 percent of the sex, with only 20 percent of the women (those with the greatest sexual willingness); the remaining 80 percent, male and female, sit out the hookup dance altogether." Translation: "most of the leftover men are 'have nots' in terms of access to sex, and most of the women — both those who are hooking up and those who are not — are 'have nots' in terms of access to male attention that leads to commitment." She also spoke with economist Robert Frank, who says that when women outnumber men, as on college campuses, "courtship behavior changes in the direction of what men want." The result, according to Bolick, is disaster:

The likelihood increases "that even a highly sought-after woman will engage in casual sex, even though she would have sufficient market power to defy prevailing norms." If a woman with the "market power" of a Penélope Cruz is affected by this, what are the rest of us to do?

The depressing interviews with young women

Gottlieb's book Marry Him included discussions with young women who had foolishly left stable relationships and were sure (as, apparently, was Gottlieb) that they'd be alone forever. Bolick has no such lady-shaming axe to grind, but she does talk to a group of "five recent college graduates, all of them white and upper middle class, some employed and some still looking for work, all unmarried," from whome she learns this:

Most of them said that though they'd had a lot of sex, none of it was particularly sensual or exciting. It appears that the erotic promises of the 1960s sexual revolution have run aground on the shoals of changing sex ratios, where young women and men come together in fumbling, drunken couplings fueled less by lust than by a vague sense of social conformity.

And this:

Of these attractive and vivacious females, only two had ever had a "real" boyfriend — as in, a mutually exclusive and satisfying relationship rather than a series of hookups — and for all their technical know-how, they didn't seem to be any wiser than I'd been at their age.

But they all want to get married by their late 20s, and they don't seem to like dating much. Confronted with the specter of decades of singlehood, one says, "I don't think I can bear doing this for that long!"

Bolick isn't concerned solely with white people problems — she does visit Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania to talk to a black family about marriage and single parenthood. But the way the article is packaged — her face on the cover, her picture on the inside, sipping champagne no less, the emphasis on her own personal story — make it seem that to the Atlantic, the white, middle-class experience of dating is primary. This isn't Bolick's fault — she didn't pick those photos, and the media's hunger for stories about white women's sex lives at the expense of those of non-white women has been well-documented (we've made our own share of mistakes in this area as well). But despite some smart points and new reporting, Bolick's piece feels like part of an echo chamber, wherein the same people discuss the same problems and come up with zero answers.

Except: Bolick's piece starts to break new ground at the very end, when she visits a women-only residence in Amsterdam. She concludes thus,

When an American woman gives you a tour of her house, she leads you through all the rooms. Instead, this expat showed me her favorite window views: from her desk, from her (single) bed, from her reading chair. As I perched for a moment in each spot, trying her life on for size, I thought about the years I'd spent struggling against the four walls of my apartment, and I wondered what my mother's life would have been like had she lived and divorced my father. A room of one's own, for each of us. A place where single women can live and thrive as themselves.

It's not just the whiteness of so many dating narratives that's the problem, it's their insistence on the same old false choice: get married (even if it's to someone you're "settling" for), or live a miserable, lonely life with your cats. As Edith Zimmerman points out in a Hairpin interview with Bolick, the Amsterdam residence offers another option. Bolick's piece is at its best when she talks about ways society could break out of the married-or-lonely binary, ways we could make people's emotional and practical wellbeing less dependent on romantic coupledom. This is a necessary conversation for singles and marrieds alike, and the more we have it, the more we can break out of the echo chamber, stop freaking out, and start making real progress.

All The Single Ladies [Atlantic]
Kate Bolick On Refusing To Settle (Part One) [Hairpin]

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