I realized that I needed to back away slowly from the thread when a man asked me if I was married yet; if I was not, he argued, my point was invalid.
A beloved Catholic singles blogger had written what I think was meant to be a common-sense don’t-be-an-ass-to-people post: to wit, don’t go around trying to prove you’re smarter than everyone. Due to some perhaps unfortunately gendered phrasing, however, the post read like the familiar injunction to be smart, smart is fine, just don’t let men know it and send them running. I chimed in with my own experience of lacking neither mouthy opinions nor pleasant suitors since the age of thirteen. But aha! This man had found the hole in my argument.
Whether or not I was ready for a serious romantic interest, whether I even liked any of my suitors bore no import, because my own desires, agency, and prudential calculus were not important to this conversation–only whether I had locked a man down yet. I hadn’t, and so was on some level a failure.
Wherever the conversation had begun, it was now about putting a certain kind of woman in her place, and so I walked away.
Why does so much dating advice end up this way? The phenomenon isn’t at all limited to the religious world–quite the opposite. On sympathetic and sincere blogs like the aforementioned, it’s fairly rare. In manipulative women’s magazines and Atlantic trend pieces, it’s the stuff of subscriptions and pageviews.
Anxiety seems to be the warping force that turns sensible counsel into a series of prescriptions laughable and insulting by turns. Social graces, good habits, even virtues–none of them can bear the burden placed on them–the question will this get me me married?
Under the weight of that pressure, it’s not surprising they become formulas and moral fad diets. The modest rewards of measured advice cannot compete with the promise that perhaps you need not sleep alone, that if you fixed this one thing that’s holding you back, you could be romantically successful.
The idea that something is wrong with you is perversely and deeply comforting; if you’re doing something wrong, you can do it right as soon as you’re ready.*
Alas, I am here to break the news: there is nothing wrong with you. There really isn’t. There are many ways you might be a better woman; there are many ways to improve your life, including your social life. But there is no one thing you’re doing wrong, no perfect way to be that would qualify you for erotic engagement.
Erotic love is not a competition wherein masculine attention and commitment confers value on women.** You love to hash out your ideas by arguing, you have a gift for the academic life, you nurse a political cause is near and dear to your breast, you are deeply sensitive and contemplative–these are not embarrassing irregularities to be smoothed over, these are important pieces of information about who you will attract and who will attract you. The goal of courtship is not to be found desirable by as many men as possible, but to find someone who can share in and appreciate the rhythms of your life as a partner and an equal.
There are plenty nice, eligible men in whom the idea of dating me would produce a minor stroke. This is a feature, not a bug, because what I want, and who I want to be, and the kind of life I want to share with someone are much more important than whether or not I can conform myself well to some statistical maximum of men.
There is nothing wrong with you. There is also no guarantee that you will find a spouse, and no guarantee that were marriage offered to you, you would want it on the terms offered; because the goal is not to be married, the goal is to live a heroic and happy life. Marriage will not even solve the anxiety so many sources inculcate while purporting to soothe. There’s a small cottage industry dedicated to telling women, and men, but overwhelmingly women, to just be this way, fix these few little things so that he won’t stop loving you.
So, if you can, at least a little, try to ditch the anxiety now? Not because it will make you less attractive–some believe that nothing adds to female allure like a dash of good old fashioned panic–but because it makes life miserable, and this is your life, your real life, your only one.
Go drink beer. Go to parties and talk to whomever you want. Move into a Catholic Worker house. Learn new social graces and new languages; use them both travelling alone and sleeping in airports. Become a third-order Franciscan. Move close to your natal family; throw yourself into the life of your parish. Make commitments that will shape the kind of commitments you will be open to in the future. Ask a good-looking guy to a drink without worrying whether he’ll call you tomorrow or what that says about you. Become a daily communicant. Found a beguinage.
Please, do anything but expend serious amounts of time and mental energy on men in order to convince them you spend very little. Adventure is out there! Now go forth and seize it by the cojones.***
*There is a similar comfort in deciding that the entire opposite sex is getting it wrong.
**This all applies to men, too, of course, I have just paid much less attention to the pressures placed on them.
***actual Cosmo sex tip.