Friday, 5 April 2013

College as Marriage Market

Andrew Cusack sent me this, as it was written by a friend of his at the New Criterion:

 In 2008, when I was a college junior, I went home to New Jersey one weekend to visit my family—and almost immediately regretted it. My mother seemed more interested in my romantic life than my academic life: "Have you found a boyfriend yet?"

I dated a lot in college, which really means that I usually had a boyfriend. I was fun and at least outwardly cheerful, got involved with a few groups and causes on campus, spoke up in class, had zany hair, got noticed. 

I was also intensely thoughtless, and had an idea at the time that the more boyfriends or admirers you had, the more successful you were as a woman. This is a really stupid idea, but that's the message I had taken on board, so I went out with guys way longer than I should have, for the sake of having fun, attentive boyfriends, and then broke up with them, sometimes rather abruptly. I looked Betty, but I acted Veronica.
Not being entirely heartless, I felt rather bad about my "fickleness." I was frustrated both with myself and with the guys I went out with. How come I got bored so easily? How come I never met a guy I wanted to permanently commit to? And even though I took an extra year to complete, graduation was looming, and my mother had said it was easier to meet men in college than afterwards. She, of course, had married a brilliant PhD student she met as an undergrad. 
I think I'll lightly skip over what happened next, for once. And--guess what? I discovered that there were still single men around after graduation. There were single men in grad school. There were single men at work. There were single men in parishes. There were single men all over the place. There was absolutely no reason for me to have dreaded my college graduation as the cut-off point after which there would be no more single men. (And for the record, I was better-looking at thirty than I was at twenty-four.)
What did make meeting good men more difficult, after college graduation, was being married (naturally) and then divorced because the experience of an unhappy marriage was the worst thing that had ever happened to me in my sheltered life, and it seriously messed with my head. The annulment procedure, though necessary, was for me traumatic. 
I know a woman, a beautiful woman, who married a college boyfriend who was awful to her, and even before she got divorced or her annulment, met a wonderful man. They were friends, nothing more, because, of course, she was married. However, when she got her divorce and then her annulment, they were free to marry, and did. Now they have children.

When she told me her story I was grateful because until she did I was the only annulled woman of my generation I knew, and until then I didn't know anyone who knew firsthand what I had gone through. But at the same time I was hit with a wave of despair because it had worked out okay for her in the end. Even before she had escaped her agony, she had met the right man. Did God love her more than me? I feared so.
This was foolish, and although it looks like I remarried too late to have children (the elephant in the Seraphic Singles room), I don't think God loves me any less than a woman who has children. Indeed, I think He may love me just as teensy-weensy bit more, for He sides with the poor, the ill, the widow, the orphan, the refugee and the barren, and He's just got a different job for me. 
And part of that job is to tell the truth about Single Life, and the truth is that your college graduation is NOT NOT NOT your marital expiry date. God has a plan for you, and it may involve you marrying a college sweetheart, but it just as easily may not. 
Sure, if you are inclined to early marriage, then you should be open to meeting guys at college and having "just a coffee" when asked, and giving a marriage-potential guy two more dates/chances before deciding if there's a spark. As soon as you know you just couldn't marry him, then let him know you don't see a future for the two of you. As Catholics or other Christians, we should be above having boyfriends just for the sake of having boyfriends.  But please, for the sake of your future happiness, don't force yourself into commitments because you think there's something wrong with you if you don't feel committed by fourth year.  Everyone is on a different schedule. As hard as it would have been, I was supposed to wait it out.


Jackie said...

Seraphic, bless you for writing this post!!!

I had a similar situation, except that it ended during engagement... after another woman called me to tell me he was sleeping with her and "waiting" with me. He had convinced me to give up my scholarship, assistantship, job and apartment, so it was very much a double whammy.

Looking back now, I was petrified of turning the ancient age of 25 and not being married. If I hadn't been so worried about my supposed "expiration date" I believe I would have saved myself so much heartache.

So thanks for putting the word out, Seraphic. I think you're doing a tremendous service. :-)

MaryJane said...

Amen, amen, Seraphic. This advice applies *especially* if you are at one of a handful of "very Catholic" colleges in the US where at least a dozen couples get married right after graduation every year.

woodbine said...

It's strange seeing all the recent talk in the mainstream media about whether college girls should be looking for husbands. This is the kind of discussion that seems to happen mostly in religious, not secular communities, and it is interesting to see how women are responding. It seems like many are upset by the suggestion - I think you may have a lot of allies on this one Seraphic.

What bothers me is that most of the discussions about young marriage focus on what girls should do, and ignore the other half of the equation: men. Most undergrad guys are so far from being ready for marriage, even some of the ones who think they are. It isn't fair to make girls anxious about getting married young when it's not very realistic - and as you say, often unhealthy. Ugh, parents need to relax!

Maria said...

That's a very important point, Woodbine, and often overlooked. It isn't just by wishing that women are going to get married - there is another party involved! And as far as I can see, young men aren't exactly clamouring to get married. Especially the irreligous ones - they don't tend to moan and sigh that one night stands are ok, but what they really want is someone they can depend on.
Not that I want to throw all the blame on the men either. Perhaps this is a next St. Joseph's Day question. Don't men actually have any generalized ambition to get married or does the idea only pop into their heads when they meet a nice girl? Is it a purely girly thing to worry about whether you'll end up alone?

Bernadette said...

@woodbine - You know, I think a lot of the pressure isn't so much coming from parents as from peers. There seems to be a lot of pressure, real or perceived, from your peer group to get married by a certain age, or passing around the idea that if you don't meet someone while you're in college, then you never will. Most of my single friends are post-college, so we don't get so much of the must-meet-someone-before-I-graduate stuff. But I've seen that panicked look come into various friends eyes when they're approaching certain milestone birthdays.

And then, various friend groups can reinforce the idea for each other that they need to do whatever is necessary to land a man. Sometimes I think it can be a kind of competition, or a way of determining status within the group. And sometimes this leads to amazing women making themselves miserable sticking with guys who just aren't right for them because he meets the minimum requirements of having a pulse & going to Mass on occasion.

This kind of mindset is hard to fight, and it seems to get a signal boost whenever someone from that group gets engaged or married. I know there's one girl in our group who's always been a little too desperate to find a man. Her roommate and good friend just got engaged, and it's put her into complete hyperdrive. I don't know what to do with her. I've tried talking gently to her about this, but the Singleness Panic Klaxons going off in her head are all she can hear. So, you know, I pray for her, and hope it ends well.

Bernadette said...

@Maria It seems like when some guys hit about 30, they start to really want to get married. Usually this is signaled by doing things like buying a house. I find that when a single woman buys a house, it's often because she's become more seraphically single, and isn't waiting for some guy to propose before she goes ahead with her dreams. If a single man buys a house, however, often it means that he is beyond ready to get married, and would like to settle down Right Now I Mean Yesterday. So I've known a few guys who were quite as desperate to get married as some girls. Some of them ended up getting hitched pretty quickly, but I've known a few who lingered around for a while until they finally met the right girl.

Jam said...

The trouble is there are two dominant ways of thinking about marriage and college. One is the "old-fashioned" idea that you don't want to leave college without your "MRS"; that graduation is the best and easiest time to be getting married; that people who aren't thinking "marriage" are prolonging adolescence or putting career first to the harm of themselves and society; that once you've left college you've missed your big chance. On the other is the idea that marriage is not a legitimate life-goal, especially for women; that youth is no time to limit oneself; that a string of more or less casual relationships is healthy and horizon-expanding; that it would be a mistake to give opportunities/your dreams up for someone else when you're just starting out in life. Obviously the (mysterious) truth of providence and vocation lies in neither camp.

There were only a handful of couples who got married after graduation and they were viewed as complete weirdos. The prevailing view seemed to be that the "correct" way to get married was to marry someone you'd known for 5+ years and lived with for at least 2 or 3 (and certainly not until you'd got your terminal degree and/or were established in your career). Then you'd be "sure". So from my own experience I can sympathize with people who want to promote young marriage as a way of taking down these kind of barriers and encouraging people (presumably practicing Christians) to make the commitment as the beginning rather than culmination of their relationship.

Personally I've never ever been pressured about getting married. If I were feeling down on myself I'd say people seem to view me as some asexual bluestocking, because no one (male, female, friend, family member) ever ever asks. Nevertheless, at every life milestone I start freaking out that this too will be experienced Alone. So I guess what I'm saying is, absolutely I think it would be cruel to feed young women's fears about "expiring". I genuinely appreciate that at least the pressure I get is just from myself and I don't have anyone else on my case.

[I can't think of a way to end this comment...]

magdalen hobbs said...

Her article is a response to the whole "Princeton Mom" thing that has been the recipient of so much vitriol in the feminist blogosphere of late (weirdly, despite being très traditionnelle, I read tonnes of secular feminist blogs), and read as such, is actually a useful contribution.

You have mentioned before that shared core values are very important. It sounds like one of "Princeton Mom"'s core values was educational attainment, and she married someone who did not share that. Having lived so near Harvard, you must have noticed Americans' tendency to venerate people who "went to School in Cambridge" or New Haven. While the education at the University of Wisconsin or North Carolina might be of a similar calibre, the prestige aspect isn't one that many American Elites can put aside.

This whole thing reminds me of the Chinese attitude about women: "There is an opinion that A-quality guys will find B-quality women, B-quality guys will find C-quality women, and C-quality men will find D-quality women," says Huang Yuanyuan. "The people left are A-quality women and D-quality men. So if you are a leftover woman, you are A-quality." (BBC article "China's 'leftover women', unmarried at 27").

"A" quality women in the article, are deemed those that are highly educated and successful. "A" quality men (e.g. Princetonians) are interested in "A" quality women, but what makes an "A" for either sex is different. As much as western society claims to have let go of gender roles, one need look no further than the women that millionares and CEOs choose to marry. They are bright, yes, they are successful, yes, but they are rarely as successful or as driven as their spouse. Women at Princeton and other schools in the Ivy League have competed with men on all levels, and are highly career driven (like Princeton Mom). Women have traditionally desired to marry "up". A lot of these women realized that there is no "up" when you're on par with the best educated and most successful. "Princeton Mom" married a man whose educational level and success was less than her own, but that marriage ended unhappily, and it seems that her success was a source of conflict. .

Seraphic, while early marriage was not the right choice for you, there are many women I know who married at 23, 22, even 21, who married because they were ready. I know that I am not ready, and have been very grateful for your blog these past few years as I have puzzled out who I am and what it is I believe in, and am grateful for your "reality checks", but most people I know (I'm turning 24 this year), are not married or engaged, or even really very stressed out about it. They're beginning careers and finishing school, putting off marriage and children indefinitely, which is the more common trend.

This was on the fly and not particularly well-argued, I may need to clarify subsequently.

Woodbine said...

Good point Bernadette. I think I'm still a few years away from seeing my university friends getting en. gaged and married (I hope so anyway), but I know the twinge of realizing that you're the only single girl in the room. Peer pressure, even if it's just perceived, can be a big influence. I can only imagine that it intensifies when people start to really settle down.

It sounds like your friend has some reliable single friends around, even though she's shaken up by her roommate's engagement. It sounds like a rough situation, but at least she isn't as alone as she thinks.

Mustard Seed said...

Thanks Seraphic! As much as I would have liked to be married by now, within the last couple years God has given me the opportunity to work through a few issues, earn a graduate degree, deepen my relationship with Him, and get to know myself sooo much better than I did before. And having done (and continuing to do) those things, I feel like I'm getting more seraphic and more prepared for whatever comes next in life, husband or not. So I think in my case at least, the idea of "you don't even know what you don't know" has been pretty accurate (even hilariously so).

It's not that I never have moments of worry or despair, especially as I get older, but I can recognize that for me anyway, marriage-level commitment in my twenties wasn't something I was truly ready for. I'm not even sure I'm ready for it yet now. However, like you, I'm better-looking as a 30-something than I was at 24. ;)

Meaghen said...

I kind of think the Princeton article has more to do with how this woman feels about Princeton than how she feels about marriage. (Her son was a Princetonian and married a classmate but "he could have married anyone.") Princeton is the preferred dating pool.

I think it is Emily Esfahani Smith who makes the pertinent point that "There is far more to happiness than career success." But "finding a partner in college is easier" is a bit of a blanket statement. It's easier for everyone in these articles, who actually did find a partner. But, as you said, Seraphic, it isn't for everyone.

(I also wanted to add the point that aside from reasons of maturity or readiness, there are often practical reasons—like having no income—that undergrads should probably consider before tying the knot.)

Seraphic, I've got a question about the idea of marrying someone who is your "intellectual equal." (The Princeton article, written by Susan Patton, says "Smart women can’t (shouldn’t) marry men who aren’t at least their intellectual will frustrate you to be with a man who just isn’t as smart as you.")

I think there is a difference between someone who understands you and someone who is as smart as you. Plus, you're never as smart as you think you are. But those are my only hazy thoughts on the subject...what do you think?