September 11, 2003
Have you ever noticed how people who buy a newspaper from a coin-operated rack tend to ignore the top paper, and dig down for the second or third copy?
It's basically an attempt to get a more pristine copy, for fear that the top copy may be damaged or missing something. Many folks grab their fruit from the supermarket pile in the same way.
Such habits can often appear in the dating world, too. Of course, people want someone unmarried and therefore available. But if the person has been unmarried for too long, the doubts creep in: What's wrong that person?
It's not an unreasonable question. After all, the usual course of action is to get married in one's 20s or 30s. And while it's become more common for people to stay unmarried well into their 40s and beyond (and, of course, some never marry), many people find that hard to deal with.
"I can't believe you've never been married!" is something I've heard a number of times lately. The comment does not seem to reflect "You're such a prize, why haven't you been snapped up already?" but rather, "That's so abnormal. What's wrong with you, anyway?" The unspoken suspicion: Damaged Goods.
There's no real easy answer. I never expected to be in my late 40s in this way, and am certainly not against being married. In fact, the idea is more appealing now than when I was younger. I've had some lengthy relationships, and was even engaged briefly. But the situations weren't right, with some key differences that weren't able to resolve to both parties' satisfaction -- in other words, not Happily Ever After -- and the various dates along the way were, simply put, not the right people to marry.
I've known and dated some fine women, as well as some that were way wrong. It's the usual slow process of kissing all those frogs (or frogettes) and trying to find the right person -- it's just that more time has elapsed in the process than the norm. It's easy to begin to feel freakish. My consolation is that in my age bracket there are lots of others in the same boat, and we don't feel so freakish among ourselves. Usually.
Those of us in our upper 40s to mid-50s came of age at a time of changes in social patterns and expectations, questioning of established habits and confused personal explorations. For example, in my high school class, "The Prom" was looked upon with far more disdain than generations before or after -- it was too uncool for the Woodstock era. Dorky, even. Getting married and having babies was even somewhat alarming for those who matured as Earth Day started up and global overpopulation reached consciousness.
About half the women I've dated in the last few years are "Never-marrieds." Almost all of them had the chance -- they were either engaged or involved long-term relationships.
Sometimes they regret that they didn't marry so-and-so. And most of them still like the idea of getting married. But there is comfort in knowing that someone else is also a Never-married, that the insinuations of abnormality from friends and relatives are cushioned by the numbers of other singles in similar circumstances.
All this isn't to say that the thought, "What's wrong with you?" doesn't come up even within Never-marrieds, or that it doesn't sometimes have merit. There are plenty of mama's boys, spoiled princesses, neurotics, obsessive-compulsives and so forth. Of course, there are plenty of those types who did get married, too. (Just ask their spouses!)
But there are also many decent singles who simply haven't found the right person. Maybe their job was unstable, or their career was building. Or their looks won't get them into any Abercrombie & Fitch ads. Or there was a dependent family member needing caretaking. Or they lived in Palmdale and nobody would date them. Or they saw marriages that ended badly and became gun-shy.
Plus, it's just so difficult to meet decent people, especially in the West, with so much individuality and car-bound isolation. Many speak of Jewish singles events with dread, full of people either too withdrawn, or too phony and aggressive. JDate? Many people aren't honest in their online profiles. Synagogues? Not very encouraging to singles. Special-interest groups such as for hiking? Good to meet another hiker, but there's so much more to finding a soulmate.
Grabbing the wrong person just to say you've gotten married might've been a course of action a generation ago. But most singles today would rather retain a bit more hope, more money and fewer lawyers -- and wait for a better situation. Or a dog.
And so the search goes on. And on. And time goes by.
Steve Greenberg is an editorial cartoonist and artist in Ventura County who contributes cartoons and illustrations to the Jewish Journal. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org .