As many women between the ages of birth and death can attest, there is a constant sort of buzzing around your head that, if you stop and listen to it, can actually be identified as the repeated question “How is your love life?” Well-wishers — everyone from the internet, to your overbearing mother, to your girlfriends over brunch — can be found lamenting and celebrating the various ups and downs of your relationship status. In many ways, whether or not you have “found someone” becomes the defining arc of your life. There is your pre-marriage phase, the marriage phase, and then possibly the divorce phase — which is always expected to be followed by the re-marriage phase. If you find yourself alone in old age with nothing but pets, even if you can look back proudly on a life very well-lived, you have failed.
There are few people who love love more than I do, I think. I find myself enamored with the concept of togetherness, monogamy, and teamwork throughout an entire life. If one can attain it happily and naturally, I think a life spent with a partner who loves and supports you unconditionally is a wonderful gift. If such a partnership results in tiny versions of yourselves, all the better. But I am also aware that my admiration for the coupled life is far from universal, and even to me, it is far from being the be-all end-all of life itself. I would much rather end up single, say, than gravely disappointed and regretful of the choices I made for my own life. And while I am currently in a long-term relationship (full disclosure), I find that the love we share in no way alleviates the struggle I have with myself — I am working on my own life, successes, and education just as much as when I was single for equally long periods of time.
And that is perhaps the most insidious part of the whole “Do you have a boyfriend?” culture, this idea that having one is going to magically replace all of the deficiencies in your being that you were unable to patch up yourself. We as women are considered perpetually on the route to finding someone, lest we find ourselves one day at the irretrievably unattractive door of middle-age, with no one around us to hold us during our “undesirable years” through some sort of binding obligation to stay with us. Apparently there are only a limited number of years in our twenties in which to lock someone in, and after that, we are doomed to a life of scraping the bottom of the barrel and being cripplingly jealous of our friends and sisters who were smarter than us and settled down. The marriage relationship is almost conveyed like a shoot-and-cage scenario in our society, women hiding behind trees with blow darts, waiting for a suitable man to walk by so she can shoot it into his neck, tranquilize him, and drag him back to her cave to be chained to her forever — a fate that he begrudgingly accepts as he resigns to a life already over in doughy middle-age.
Yet no matter how unenthusiastic and obligatory your relationship may be, it is fixing that part of you as a woman which must, must be longing for a man, and which fears, beyond all else, being alone. I can’t imagine a single woman in her early-to-mid twenties — an age at which we should be running around completely untethered by the concept of passing time, making mistakes and finding ourselves around every corner — not sometimes feeling that we are already reaching the prime years for finding someone, and that if we don’t do it now, our prospects will become unbelievably grim. We’ll find ourselves at 30, ready to settle down with anything that can write its own name and provide us children, we fearfully imagine. Even those of us who aren’t sure of our desire to settle down or have a family have the cold wind of societal pressure nipping at their heels, telling them that this is a decision that, once made, can never be reversed. No one will want you after your 20s.
There are few things more consistently depressing than watching interviews with established, blindingly intelligent and successful women, whose questions are often reduced to a mix of who they’re dating and where they see it going, if they’re not married. Being married is seen as a hurdle we all must pass in order to be taken seriously in the rest of our lives, something that, as soon as we get it over with, we can maybe become a whole person on our own. Until that point, we’re going to be in a perpetual state of explaining our relationship status and plans for the future. Who among us wasn’t endlessly frustrated with Sex and the City, a show in which four of the most objectively successful and diverse women in a city as cosmopolitan as Manhattan were only interested in discussing love lives, and didn’t consider themselves complete unless they achieved some version of it. We came of age watching this, and it seems perfectly natural and appropriate. “Yeah, sure, you run one of the most prominent art galleries in New York, but tell us about that guy who didn’t call you back!”
I find that, in so many of the things I read and watch that aim to “speak to me” as a woman or represent me in some way, the base assumption is that the thing I am most interested in hearing about or centering at the discussion of life is love and sex. That is what is supposed to titillate, excite, and drive me. Every interesting story has to have a romantic plot line, and every “lifestyle” blogger worth her salt has to weave salacious and passionate stories into her “boring” talk of culture, travel, and cuisine. There is this idea that, if the book isn’t pink with curlicue font and a cartoon woman riding off on the back of a scooter with a handsome, dashing man, I’m not going to pick it up from the shelf. I need a happy ending, I need there to be an element of escapist romance. And of course it’s nice to have those things sometimes, everyone loves a good love story. But is that really how I decide to consume my media? Is that really the ultimate expression of my person as a human being? Is Brad Pitt sweeping a woman off her feet going to save an otherwise terrible film?
The thing is, we all love love. In some form or another, it’s something we need to have in our lives to feel comforted, to share experiences, and to explore new perspectives. The love of friends, family, and even kind strangers may rarely be so exalted, but they are all important in our lives. And yes, we all have broken hearts and new infatuations and things we can describe and relate about; talking about these things is cathartic and makes us feel not so different and alienated from each other. But the problem is that we are often drowning in these stories, these expectations, these weddings which everyone else imagines make us envious and desirous of the exact same thing. Our happiness, our excitement, our wholeness as a person is often placed in the context of whether or not we’re with someone — and even when we are, “the next step” becomes the central item of interest. We are always reaching for something, moving up a ladder, climbing higher and higher to attain a perfect kind of matrimonial happiness that, regardless of whether or not we even want it, is the only thing that will make us real.