It’s Monday. I’ve taken a break from researching and writing. Dragging a heavy grocery bag behind me, I bump into one of my neighbors I’ve spoken to once. We exchange greetings at the door, and I stop to chat. He’s a middle-aged guy, usually very quiet, and I don’t see him around that often.
“How’s your boyfriend?” he asks.
“Very well, thank you,” I answer, immensely surprised that I didn’t hear a question about my wellbeing in the first place.
“How long have you known him for?”
“Well, slightly more than two years now,” I say, totally baffled by his urgent need to comprehend my love life, and the strangest sequence of questions I’ve been subjected to in a while.
“That’s long enough! Why don’t you marry him?” he investigates, and I’m confused by being put on the spot. How did we suddenly get here? Why ask me about it?
I stop for a beat, an awkward silence fills the corridor. I decide to retaliate. I’ve got career plans, I like to be financially independent, people need to be responsible in the current economy, housing crisis, you know, I’m living in a shared flat, I’m only 23, it’s a huge commitment, yes, I love him, yes, I graduated, yes, I’ve got a job, wait, what babies, no, it’s not the right time.
“If he’s a good guy, you’ve got to catch him. He’ll buy you a house and you won’t have to work anymore,” he says, cheerfully.
I look for signs that he’s joking. His face, however, is sternly serious; he’s just backhandedly accused me of being a gold digger and assumed modest ambitions, and he means what he says.
He reiterates: most girls marry at 18, 20 at the latest. Also, it’s not good if my boyfriend and I shack up with each other eventually if we don’t put a ring on it beforehand. In my head, a Eureka! moment occurs: He must’ve seen us together sometime. My eyes roll to the back of my skull dramatically; regardless, he doesn’t stop and confesses he married his wife after three months of dating.
“Is that why she left you in the end?” I spit without thinking. I immediately hit backspace and say sorry. We exchange some pleasantries and part quickly, he returns to his wife (for Zeus, I hope she’s a strong woman!), and I make myself an extra strong coffee to de-what-the-fuck myself.
If you recorded this strange exchange, you could make an instructional video on how not to ask women whether they plan to marry someone. Despite him being curious about the behavior that he considered unusual (and I hope I’ve done my best explaining it even if I didn’t owe him that), I felt that these questions were out of place when it comes to chatting to somebody you only ever pass in a corridor.
An outdated notion of marriage is a transaction: a woman moves from the care of her father under the care of the other man; she doesn’t have any rights or much choice in the situation. It sounds like conversations of gossipy grandmas from my small town, who measure the worth of women by the ring on their finger or the lack of it.
Very often, people assume if someone isn’t married by a certain age, they’re not fulfilled. By implying that, my neighbor made me feel like my worth is tied to someone else.
He ignored common courtesies to ask about my partner and dove into the explanations of the “glorious life” I’d have if I was married. It’s the 21st century, why do I have to constantly repeat myself and say that I’m a capable, independent person on my own? It’s so absurd to have to restate it again and again.
I didn’t escape indirect slut-shaming, either. My neighbor attached value to my body. He implied I lose it if I do something that he (I’d say society, but I honestly think his beliefs on this belong to the 50’s) doesn’t deem appropriate, which is rooted in the purity demanded from women in the patriarchy, and decided to ignore the fact that as a human being I get to decide about myself.
In my neighbor’s world, girls marry at 18 and become dedicated housewives. Now, I don’t have anything against women who decided that’s right for them. If it’s their decision and they feel fulfilled in the situation, I’m happy for them. But if I tell you that I’ve got different ambitions, that I want to pursue my passions, travel the world and take things at my own pace, and I’ve taken my time to share my point of view, it’s simply rude to dismiss it without acknowledging that you hear what I’m saying.
I’ve debated against many people criticizing women for putting themselves first; it’s commonplace. If your outdated opinion states that every woman’s primary goal is to have a family, you’re perpetuating this harmful stereotype. You fuel toxic masculinity, assuming that a man has to take the sole responsibility for providing for the family. By diminishing partnership, you put certain unhealthy expectations on both sides. That’s how people perpetuate sexist gender roles.
In an ideal world, feelings are enough to get your dreamy happy ever after, but the mess we all live in isn’t a Disney fairy tale. By shoving your ideas about my marital status in my face, you make certain assumptions about my lifestyle. And for me, it’s another level of adulthood which, according to my informed judgement, is far above mine.
You need to have financial means to share with the other person and take care of them if things go wrong. You need a career that grows steadily and pays the bills, and you must feel stable in the place you’re in. When this moment comes and things feel right, I’ll know. If you attack me for it, you tell me that I have no idea how to make decisions about myself. And if that’s how you feel about my maturity, you shouldn’t suggest I sign up for such a huge commitment, don’t you think?
To sum up, here’s some #BonusContent: a handy list of prompts when it comes to small talk with 20-something women:
Films, music, books, abstract ideas, what Netflix added to their offering, how you felt about the last episode of the series you watched, how your weekend was, what new cool food places popped up on the high street, heck, you get my permission to tell me how you feel about the weather.
But please don’t insist to tell me why my marital status needs to change. When it feels right, it will, but whether now or later, it’s simply not anyone else’s business.