Sunday, February 14, 2010

Ah, yes - Valentine's Day

And then there's Valentine's Day. I'm a sucker for a celebration and if it includes sweets, so much the better. In the true American spirit, I mainly view it as another reason to eat stuff that's bad for you. But as a woman who was single into her 40's, I also understand the emotional heaviness of February 14th. The worst for me was Valentine's Day 2003. It fell on a Friday, and besides being 37 and never-married, I was also struggling with clinical depression. I spent the day sitting at my isolated desk at my isolated job, crying. Seriously, I had so little to do at this job, I could just sit there, facing a wall, weeping. So I know how that goes, too.

Actually, there might be no harm in Valentine's Day, except that romantic love is hard to come by and many of us measure ourselves by how much of it we have in our lives. We have turned this minor holiday that really only concerns a part of the population into a reason to beat on ourselves for how inadequately we're participating in it. It has become part of the tradition of unrealistic expectations, especially for women who have never been married.

Unrealistic expectations can be deadly. There's a book out that I plan to read soon called Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough. Apparently Lori Gottlieb, the author, presented a controversial argument a year ago on The Today Show. She said that if you're a woman who's around 30 years old and you really want to be married, it's time to stop waiting for that perfect Mr. Right and settle down with Mr. Good Enough, who's right here in front of you.

Who the heck is Lori Gottlieb and why is she telling us what to do? According to an article in the February 2010 Oprah Magazine, Gottlieb is a 42-year-old, single woman who went to Stanford Medical School and has written several successful books. She's witty, beautiful and independent. She wanted a husband and family and now has a four-year-old son by a sperm donor. She knows what she's talking about. According to the article, she had a few chances to marry, but missed them by focusing on the guy's flaws and expecting too much. Gottlieb is still dating and hoping for marriage, but has undergone a change in expectations. Her new book backs up the argument she asserted a year ago with evidence from sociologists, behavioral economists, social psychologists and statisticians.

I plan to read this book, especially since it sounds like a main argument is one I'd support: that women have been taught that we deserve the best and we should never settle for less, but this creates unrealistic expectations that often sink our dreams. I believe we do expect the best of everything, but I also believe we have confused the best with perfection. I'm saying that we might be able to identify the best guy to date in any given group of men, but if he's human, he's going to have flaws and disappoint us some of the time. Sadly, I think a lot of us are waiting in vain for the man who will fulfill our every expectation .

When I was single, I got the advice to make a list of characteristics I wanted in my ideal partner. Now I realize that I was confusing "ideal for me" with "ideal human being in general." I made that list and held it dear for years, but it got me nowhere because it eliminated too many viable partners. In fact, it eliminated all of them. I thought I was seeking the perfect mate, forgetting the rest of the phrase "perfect mate for me." There is no such thing as a person who will meet every criteria and desire with no disappointments, but I believed for years that the Universe or God or the angels or whatever had some ideal, incredible human being who would lift me out of all my misery and we would just be happy.

Where did I get that idea?

Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Sixteen Candles, When Harry Met Sally, most romance novels and Hollywood films, plus the general cultural myth that marriage makes women happy and if you're single and unhappy, getting married will solve everything. I got the idea from everywhere.

But deep down I was terrified of marriage and intimacy, so as much as I wanted it, I was also more than willing to use unrealistic expectations to keep it all away from me. And I did. I think many women do.

Whether a woman is avoiding marriage or is seriously ready for it, they myth of Mr. Right is a deadly one and it gets worse as we get older. Okay, here's where I get controversial. I think it's easier to believe we've found Mr. Right when we're in our early to mid-twenties because of youth and hormones. Young men have more energy, muscle mass, hair, radiance of youth and virility. They believe they're going to change the world and haven't had their idealism beaten out of them yet. They're hot for us and willing to do a lot to secure our sexual fidelity. As much baggage as young men might carry from childhood, it hasn't yet calcified into decades of destructive behavior. Although they might have addictions, their bodies aren't yet ruined by years of substance abuse. They don't have ex-wives and alimony. They haven't reached some career pinnacle that keeps them stressed from too much work and responsibility. They aren't yet jaded.

The same is true for us as young women. Our bodies' desire for sex goes a long way in propelling us to believe we are In Love and this guy is The One. We're young and sex-focused, they're young and sex-focused, everybody's flaws and destructive tendencies are in their early stages and the sex is often great. I'm not saying every twenty-five-year-old finds her man. Obviously not or we wouldn't be discussing this at all. I'm saying that the myth of Mr. Right is easier to fulfill when we're young and horny than it is later in life.

Unfortunately, the myth of Mr. Right never dies, so we have all these never-married women in their 30's, 40's, 50's and so on, staunchly determined to achieve that hormonal, head-over-heels feeling we know we're entitled to, looking and looking and looking with ever increasing disappointment. Yes, we are entitled to that incredible feeling like we're all entitled to great parents and unconditional love. But that doesn't mean it's going to happen. Also, that hormonal, head-over-heels feeling doesn't mean you've met a guy who'll make a good husband, just like the absence of it doesn't mean a guy won't make a good husband.

My experience of falling in love in my early twenties was very different from my experience of falling in love in my early thirties. I remember being absolutely unable to focus on anything for days when I was 22 and in the throes of a new, sexual romance. It was very drug-like. My body needed him. I was content to just sit and stare at a wall and think about him. You might say those were indicators that that guy was Mr. Right and I should have married him twenty years ago. But the daily dynamics that we developed were not good and after two years I realized that the relationship was more destructive than supportive and we ended it.

In my early thirties, falling in love still brought giddiness and sexual fixation, but not as much. The men I dated then would have made much better partners for me than the first guy, but because that full flush feeling wasn't there, plus my destructive relationship behaviors had fully ripened, those relationships fell apart even faster. Of course, I thought the problem was that I hadn't met Mr. Right, who would both evoke all the mania and fantasy of that first romance and tame all my insecurity and fears.

Uh, yeah, no one was going to do that. The insecurity and fears were up to me.

The adjustment of my attitude took a while and part of that story is told in another post "How I got married." At the same time that I worked on my fear of marriage, I also read a book called There Is No Prince by Marilyn Graman and Maureen Walsh. Parts of it are annoying (I don't need cartoon-like fables to help me understand arguments), but the general message is that we need to destroy that Prince Charming myth and start looking at real, flawed men as the diamonds-in-the-rough that they are. Reading this book, I began to accept that no man is a "perfect mate," everyone has their baggage and if I sure as heck know I have flaws, why would I deny a guy the right to have his?

Now that I'm married (less than two years), I'm facing another challenging reality: my husband and I are going to have our problems and we are going to work through them. Just as I must jettison my expectation that this is happily ever after, so must I not think that the first sign of trouble means he wasn't a good choice and I'd better get back out there and keep looking for a husband. I'm almost 44 and I might spend the rest of my life recovering from that damn marriage/Prince Charming myth.

But for me, messages like Gottlieb's and Graman/Walsh's help. Day-to-day happiness has a much broader and subtler palate than the sexual fireworks and shot-through-the-heart romance we're set up to believe in. Those clichés hurt us and make us think there's something wrong with us if we don't get the incredible romance we believe everyone else is getting. I remember sharply the pain of protracted spinsterhood and am now beginning my struggle with the reality of marriage. I'm learning that sometimes contentment requires a stretch for me to recognize it.

Turn Valentine's Day into what you want it to be, or just ignore it, but let's stop participating in the myths.


TomL said...

"Just as I must jettison my expectation that this is happily ever after..."

You don't have to jettison that expectation. It's just that this is what happily ever after looks like.

Regina said...

Nice, Tom! Thanks.

Rudy Giuliani said...

I'm enjoying my Godiva chocolates for Valentine's Day. Hope you had some sweets too.

Regina said...

Rudy, Bob got me Godiva chocolate, but my middle-aged stomach has stopped digesting things like candy and cake well. I indulged on Valentine's Day, got a big stomach ache and now I just look at them. But they still make me happy. I'm glad you enjoyed yours.