Sisterhood Blog

Who the Hell Am I Supposed to Marry?

By Johnna Kaplan

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The rebuttals to Julia Shaw’s Slate article titled “Marry Young: I got married at 23. What are the rest of you waiting for?” began almost immediately. There was Amanda Marcotte, also writing in Slate, who slyly pointed out that young marriage often leads to young divorce. There was Tracy Moore in Jezebel, who deftly dismantled several aspects of Shaw’s advice, most notably that marriage alone will not magically confer maturity, and that it is “obviously ludicrous to tell people what to do” regarding an institution that is so different for each individual. There was Ta-Nahesi Coates in the Atlantic, a rare, nuanced male entry into the sport of women judging other women’s lives, who generally related to Shaw’s position but couldn’t support her “certainty and determinism.” (Coates’s post is called “If You Want to Be Married Young, You Should Marry While Young.”)

All along, I was waiting for someone to say what I was thinking.

I read the many responses as my single 36-year-old self — and simultaneously as the single 23-year-old I used to be. Thirty-six-year-old me had many conflicted thoughts, but 23-year-old me simply wanted to hunt down Julia Shaw and scream in her face, “Tell me who the hell I’m supposed to marry!”

Shaw assumes — bizarrely — that a young woman’s choice is between saying “yes” or “no” to a proposal. Marcotte acknowledges that “most young women haven’t found the right guy yet,” but she also says that “women marry later because it makes sense given their own career aspirations,” not because they might not have a willing potential spouse. Moore touches on the dreaded reality, writing “Do we not know how to deal with new generations of women who might never…find ‘Mr. Right?’” Coates sees not happenstance, but tough choices:

That women — with all they have to lose in this world, having to struggle to secure the kind of things the other half of the world takes for granted (the body, for instance) — would be particularly discerning about such a decision, that they would wait until accumulating some amount of power, financial and otherwise, seems logical.

At 36, I agree with those who cite high divorce rates and those who wonder if 23 is too young, emotionally, to really know what or who you will want for the rest of your life. I appreciate the feminist arguments for self-sufficiency and the adult arguments for individual independence. But 23-year-old me just wants to cry. At 23, I was perhaps unusually mature. (I was not, like Moore, “literally doing bong hits before original-run Melrose Place came on.”) I knew exactly what I wanted. But I wasn’t logical, and I certainly wasn’t deciding anything when it came to men or marriage.

I was a 23-year-old growing up in 1990s Manhattan who truly wanted to get married young. But I couldn’t find a man willing to take me out for coffee, let alone marry me. Obviously it was different for the Texas-bred “millennial” Shaw, who met her husband-to-be at a Christian college. But even taking cultural and generational differences into account, since when has simply wanting something (a job, a man, a winning lotto ticket) enabled you to actually get it, right then and there?

Advising a women to marry young is advising her to be lucky. If you say, “I got married at 23 and you should too,” you might as well say, “I inherited great wealth and you should too.” It is the smuggest kind of blind privilege. Found lifelong happiness at 23? Awesome. Suggest everyone else can do it too? Obnoxious.

And speaking of obnoxious. If you’ve heard of Julia Shaw, you’ve probably also heard of Susan Patton. An alumna of Princeton and parent of two Princeton students, Patton wrote a letter — published recently in Princeton’s student newspaper — advising female Princeton students to marry male Princeton students (no one else is smart enough!) and to marry them now.

The letter drips with snobbery, both personal and intellectual. It contains logical flaws so huge that even I, with my inferior degree from New York University, can see them. It would be brilliant if it had been intended as supreme cynicism, advising girls to marry young so when their husband trades them in for a newer, stupider, less Princeton-y model at 40, they’ll still be young enough to travel the world with half his money. But sadly, it is in earnest. It is, as Debra Nussbaum Cohen wrote here at the Sisterhood, replete with “elitism and tone-deafness.” (Patton comes off even worse in the interview Nussbaum Cohen conducted with her.) I do agree with Patton in one respect: that personal relationships are as crucial to happiness as professional success, and that they won’t necessarily fall into a woman’s lap, especially as she gets older.

I do wish that someone had told me at 17 and 21 and 25 how quickly time passes, and how much harder finding a husband becomes. But in truth I’m not sure it would have helped. I had already — against the grain of culture and in opposition to the progressive attitude towards relationships and the sense of independence and feminism my parents had instilled in me — made marriage and children a priority for myself. Everyone knows that young people are more likely to follow their own whims than the dictates of their elders, and if I couldn’t will myself into a marriage, I’m not sure that my parents could have done it for me. Perhaps if they’d come from Texas, or attended Princeton, it would have worked. But I doubt it.

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