When Tracy McMillan published her blog post "Why You're Not Married" on The Huffington Post in February 2011, she received ample criticism for telling single women that they were flying solo because they were "shallow," "selfish" and "not good enough." Though she couldn't have known it at the time, the post was also an early contribution to the national conversation that has evolved in the last year and a half around the increasing number of women who are staying single and why.
In December the Pew Research Center released data showing that American women are marrying later and less than ever. The numbers came hot on the heels of Kate Bolick's November cover story in the Atlantic, "All The Single Ladies," which asked whether traditional marriage holds any value for women anymore. Boston Magazine's January 2012 cover story profiled women (and men) who chose single life -- and are happy with that choice. In January and February, a car company and a bank ran national TV commercials targeting single women as discerning, financially independent consumers with ambitions other than marriage. Rebecca Traister, author of "Big Girls Don't Cry," is writing her next book on unhitched women and how we respond to them as a culture.
But amid all this discussion of the benefits of single life for women, one question that doesn't arise often is one of the more obvious: Don't women (and men, for that matter) still want to be in relationships? Given the choice, wouldn't most women want to find love? Can anyone -- specifically, any woman -- really be happy without that?
We asked Tracy McMillan, who just published a book based on that provocative blog post, and Anna David, author of "Falling for Me: How I Hung Curtains, Learned to Cook, Traveled to Seville, and Fell in Love" to debate that question. Below, vote on the issue, then read their arguments, then vote again to tell us which argument you found more persuasive and see what other readers thought.
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Women can be happy single.
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Who makes the better argument?
Of course we can. Or let me rephrase: There are women who need relationships to be happy and women that don't, and the most I can determine about the members of each group is that they spend a hell of a lot of time judging the other. Women who need relationships in order to be happy seem to have a thought process that tells them, on a good day, that life is less meaningful when not shared with another -- that successes are more enjoyable and tragedies more bearable if they have someone to love who also loves them. On a bad day, it seems to tell them that life is meaningless without that.
I know these women -- I've been one of these women. You know them, too: They're the ones whose first question to a single friend is always, "Are you dating anyone?" A lot of their sentences include the word "we." If she's single and the guy she's focused on isn't doing what she wants him to do, everything this woman has done in the history of her communication with him -- and her life -- is up for debate as a possible deal-breaker. Break-ups and blow-offs are seen as catastrophic events.
As a general theory, sure, partnerships make both good and bad things better. But what about those women that are in relationships with men or women who don't celebrate their successes or comfort them during their tragedies? What about the women who put everything into trying to make their partners love and cherish and sometimes even just see or not torment them and get nowhere? And how about the less extreme cases -- those women who are in once-lovely relationships that have started to deviate from their formerly glorious states?
We're all, of course, radically influenced by what we see -- by what our parents did and expect us to do, by what our Facebook friends are documenting through their photos, by what the entertainment we consume shows us people "out there" believe. And, of course, society -- for all that it delivers studies about declining female happiness and stories about increasing numbers of single people -- tells us that women need to be a part of a couple to be happy. Politicians preach family values (often, as it turns out, ironically). It's the plot of every romantic comedy and reality show. Even tabloids are in on the action: A single male celebrity (think George Clooney) is considered a charming rogue while a single female 0ne (think Jennifer Aniston) is characterized as pitiful.
It didn't always used to be like this, of course. According to "Sex at Dawn," the 2010 tome that claims that pre-civilized humans were primarily non-monogamous, it was only when agriculture came along that men put their collective feet down about raising children that weren't their own, in turn shaming women who had sex with more than one man and launching our cultural shift toward monogamy. But I don't think we really need a book to tell us that not everyone succeeds at monogamy.
But the more I learn about happiness, the more I believe that is has nothing to do with being a part of or having anything. Certainly companionship is an important aspect of building a blissful life. But the "I'm happy because I have this" justification (what's known as Object Referral Happiness) is, for me, increasingly ineffective the more I realize that nothing is going to make me happy unless I can find contentment regardless of what's going on in my life (otherwise known as Self Referral Happiness). Believe me, I've definitely felt happy because I've been in a fabulous relationship or engaged in a fabulous career pursuit, but if I'm going to be honest, at the root of that happiness was the slightest tinge of hysteria -- a quiet panic that would threaten me with the thought that any minute, it could all be taken away, and what was I going to do then?
From what I can tell, happiness comes from listening to what my meditation teacher calls that "fine level of feeling" we all have. And my fine level of feeling tells me I'm perfectly happy without a long-term relationship (for now, anyway). Of course, I couldn't always locate my fine level of feeling and it still takes occasional vacations -- typically when I'm on Facebook and my fear kicks in, causing me to narcissistically and illogically conclude that news about someone else's relationship somehow means I'll never have that myself.
For my money, the people who go around talking about how unhappy single people are aren't the single people but the married ones. In "Stumbling on Happiness," Daniel Gilbert writes about how terrible we all are at judging our own happiness as well as anyone else's -- referencing research which shows, for example, that losing a limb only decreases people's happiness temporarily while those of us with all our limbs assume it makes them miserable for the rest of their lives. I think coupled-off people often look at single people as disabled -- missing not just a limb but in fact an entire other body. And if that's the case, it's no wonder they're concerned.
But it's just not true. All single means is not attached to one person. It doesn't mean we can't (and don't) have delightful, gratifying ephemeral unions that more than fill the space before we commit to something longer term. And I'd have to imagine that any single woman who disagrees is going to need a lot more than a relationship to make her happy.
Huh. Well, this is sort of a trick question, isn't it? Because the easy answer is, Don't be stupid, of course we can. Women are people and people "can" be happy no matter what -- if they choose to be. So that's a no-brainer.
However -- and this is why I say this is a trick question -- that's not really what is being asked here. No one needs to know what one individual woman could be happy doing. (Anything, or nothing, at all.) What we really want to know is: Can MOST women be truly happy single? And, though I know it's going to make some people think I'm a crazed conservative -- which I'm very definitely not -- I'm just going to come right out and say it. The answer to that question is: No.
Yes, yes, I know. This sounds terribly unfeminist. But in my experience -- and that's what I'm going on here, my experience -- it's true. I've been standing at water coolers for the past thirty years talking to women about their love lives, and here's what I've learned: Eventually, most women I know want to be partnered. This has been true of women I've known in the 80s, 90s, 00s and 10s, and it's been true of women living in Minneapolis, San Francisco, Portland, New York and Los Angeles. It has been so consistently true, in fact, that I even considered writing it in all caps, like this: EVENTUALLY, MOST WOMEN I KNOW WANT TO BE PARTNERED.
And now that I'm looking at it, I actually don't think that's overstating it a bit.
Okay, so maybe most women aren't trying to be permanently partnered when they're 23, or 26, or 29, or 34. But even in those years, they're not exactly trying to be alone, either. Most women I know spend a decade (or two) enjoying the company of a man or a woman (or several) when they want to, for as long as they want to, in the way that they want to. But if you get really honest, that's not actually single-single, it's just being partnered in specific ways you want to be partnered at certain stages in your life.
In any case, somewhere along the line -- usually not long after you're burned out on your cool job -- it becomes super clear there's more to life than the possibility of some exciting new partner every few weeks or months or years. This is when MOST women take a good look around and say to themselves: I have great friends, some cute outfits, and a job everyone but me is impressed by, but you know what would make my life even more meaningful? A family. And by family they don't just mean a tribe of female and male friends who are awesome and have great orphan Thanksgiving dinners. Nope, sooner or later, most women I know come to define that family as 1) a partner, and 2) a baby.
For more proof, just look at mass media. There are at least a half-dozen shows with either 'wives' or 'housewives' in the title, and "The Bachelor" is in, what, its 16th cycle? Obviously there's something about the partnership narrative that speaks to women in a way that goes beyond anything socially or culturally constructed. Because though it's safe to say there are a whole lotta American gals who agree with the core ideals of feminism, they are somehow nevertheless watching "Say Yes to the Dress" by the millions.
Not that this should really come as a surprise. After all, for umpty-zillion years women have "wanted" men and men have "wanted" women. Without this urge to partner -- go ahead, call it a need -- none of us would even be here. Couplehood may no longer be necessary for survival, but just tell that to our brains -- which may be a few thousand years behind late-breaking developments in the evolution game like commercial farming, birth control pills, and democracy.
So is our desire for partnership just an evolutionary remainder, a Togetherness Delusion, where millions of women only think they need a relationship to be truly happy? Maybe. But you know what? That's fine with me. Because I believe relationships are the most important thing there is in life. How can I say such a thing in a world where there's Belgian chocolate and white truffle popcorn? I'll tell you how. Because relationships are actually a powerful technology that develops human beings, and by extension, humanity. When a person consistently practices loving another person (as in a good partnership), it creates understanding, peace and compassion -- which in turn builds a human emotional infrastructure that is as key to a flourishing life as airports, bridges and a 4G wireless network.
And women, through our focus on relationships, are the primary architects of this infrastructure. So rather than diminishing the idea of "truly needing" a relationship -- and trying to deny it, shame it, or talk ourselves out of it -- why not just celebrate it? It's exactly what the world needs.
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Women can be happy single.
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Anna DavidTracy McMillanNeither argumenthas changed the most minds