-By Amber Lapp
A few days after I moderated a recent event at the Center for Public Conversation with Kay Hymowitz, author of Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men into Boys, and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, author of Why There are No Good Men Left: The Romantic Plight of the Single Woman, I received this email:
"As hard as I try, I can't figure out why I'm single. And the older I get, the more I realize I want to be a wife and mom more than I want to have a career in journalism. I feel so alone. Sometimes it's all I can do to make it back to my apartment, curl into a ball on the floor, and just cry.
Sometimes, I listen to Canon in D on my iPod, on repeat. And I imagine my wedding day. I have this beautiful white dress, simple but elegant. And I look radiant, and happy, and the church is decorated, and the flower girls dance down the aisle…. And the groom… well, he is missing. But the song is so beautiful, I can't stop listening to it."
Girl Power Representative
Far from being an anomaly, this woman represents the modern young college-educated woman. She is climbing the career ladder at the headquarters of a large, New York City corporation. She has an apartment in Manhattan with IKEA shelves, framed posters of novelty wines, and vibrant red-orange curtains framing the view. She meets friends for brunch and mimosas at Sarabeth's on the weekends. She values education and frequently tosses around the idea of grad school. (As Hymowitz points out, women are more likely than men to take AP courses in high school, graduate from college, and aspire to continue their education. And in large cities, single, childless women now outearn their male counterparts.)
Even her singleness is representative of most young adult women. According to Census data, 52 percent of American women ages 20-34 have never been married. And in cities, that proportion is even higher: for instance, in Boston 82 percent of all young adults ages 25-34 have never been married.
Where's Mr. Right?
But most young women—even successful, career-driven ones—want to marry. And though the stats show that most eventually will, in the meantime, the search is frustrating, and often heart-wrenching. Just last night at a cocktail party, I heard a medical professional in black gown and heels label herself "a hopeless cause."
As Whitehead explains, when women hit their late twenties, they find themselves asking, "‘How do I find a man who shares my ambition to marry?....They had worked so hard in school, hit every bench mark. They'd done AP classes, and there was no AP in getting married."
Whitehead, a social historian who grew up during the 1950s, notes that this is the reverse of what young women of her generation faced: "Marriage just sort of happened. College was a great place to meet a guy. You tended to pair off during those college years. It was work, finding professional work, that seemed to be the challenge." Today, young women have mastered "the world of professional internships, elite schools, and all the rest" but find themselves asking, "How in the world do you meet the right man to marry?" For the women that Whitehead interviewed in her book, "This was a great puzzle."
Courtship Script Upheaval
And it's no wonder, when one thinks of the social and economic changes since Whitehead met her husband: women's rights, the sexual revolution, globalization, the shift from an industrial to an information economy, the subsequent prolonging of adulthood and delayed age of first marriage. Both Hymowitz and Whitehead are quick to say that they do not want to "turn back the clock" to days bygone. But they also note that the changing young adult life script, particularly the changing courtship script, has left young adults with little direction and a panoply of choices. This is what Whitehead describes as the shift from the "marrying system" to the "relationships system." Whereas there used to be a clearly defined "ladder of commitment," today one can date or hook-up; get engaged, move in together, or both; and cohabit as a compatibility test for marriage or as an alternative to marriage. Most anything goes in this celebration of relationship diversity.
But because we are social creatures, for most of history we have not made up meaningful life scripts from scratch. Rather, humans look to social cues and norms that have been handed down to them. We take the best practices and build upon those traditions, refining those practices that don't work so well, or that violate human dignity.
As a friend of mine once pointed out, a social script is a technology: an invention is rarely entirely new, but is an adaptation on something that existed previously. It's a process of growth, of evolution, really. The telephone improved the telegraph, and the cell phone is an improvement on the landline. Similarly, our social institutions are improvements on past wisdom: marriage is built, among other things, to correct the chaos that occurs when children have no institution binding them to both biological parents, and a courtship script is created to help streamline the process of finding the right person to marry.
But today young adults are encouraged to ignore the institutional memory of history, and instead splash brightly-colored blotches of self-expression on blank canvases. While it sounds freeing, many grow weary with the burden of figuring relationships out on their own. In the interviews that I did with young women for the Love and Marriage in Middle America Project, I was surprised to hear several participants say—usually in the context of describing a series of broken relationships or engagements—that they wished for arranged marriages. Others waxed nostalgic for the 1950s, when dating and marriage seemed so much more straightforward.
A New Courtship Script
Not that these women would want to be June Cleaver exactly—they want to go to college and to find meaningful work both in and out of the home. And while vintage fashion may be in, it's not for the pearls and belted day dresses that many young women are drawn to that era—it's more that they long for order to their love lives and a clear path of progressive commitment from singleness to matrimony.
So how can we do this? A new courtship script that outlines these clear steps of commitment cannot be ordered overnight or enacted through legislation, but this does not mean that it's impossible. While Whitehead and Hymowitz's books are more descriptive than prescriptive, they do suggest that it may be the task of this generation—the one living with the confusion spawned by a script's unraveling—to forge a new script that draws from time-tested traditions and values marital commitment, and yet is suited to current economic and social realities.