The year after college, an inescapable and unexpected shift occurred as I watched women with whom I'd just spent four years dressing up for parties -- which bared such liberating themes like "Golf Pros and Tennis Hos" -- suddenly covering up their exposed midriffs to become brides.
I wish I could say that I was genuinely happy for these (mostly religious) friends who got engaged soon after graduation. Or even that I questioned their decisions to move almost directly from our sorority house into married life. Instead, their excited Facebook updates only reinforced my place in relationship purgatory with James, my college boyfriend of two years. Each fresh engagement photo didn't just inflict jealously -- when would it be my turn to swap vows in front of 500 close friends, family members, and people I'd invite just to make jealous? -- it prompted a voice I never knew existed to whisper, "That will never be you." (What can I say, I was a self-centered 23-year-old).
For reasons that remain unclear, I believed that marriage, or at the very least, engagement, would cure my quarterlife crisis-induced feelings of failure. After moving to New York post-college to pursue a dream that I wasn't sure I still had, I'd about-faced back home just nine months later, relieved but feeling idiotic nonetheless. With no clear direction in sight (except finishing my Master's in writing, a sure ticket to wealth and success), I latched onto James.
Now, I didn't go to college to get my M-R-S. I didn't exactly believe that "being single at 29 would be horrid" as a friend of mine once remarked. But, rather than scoffing at real or imagined suggestions that my naked ring finger meant my relationship was -- well, I was -- going nowhere, I blamed James for my feelings of inadequacy. Wasn't I worth three-months' salary? I wasn't going to wait around forever, you know.
Rather than focusing on why I felt entitled to an engagement ring, yet somehow not deserving of one at the same time, I normalized my sudden affliction by naming it "post-college marriage mania." (At least I could intellectualize feeling fated for spinsterhood, right?) Hoping to confirm through research that urban-dwelling, educated young women (like me!) were overwhelmingly marriage-minded, I discovered a New York Times article reporting that 60 percent of female Ivy League grads planned to become wives-slash-moms and not "use" their degrees. (I clung to this statistic, yet failed to see its correlation to my already dust-covered B.A. in Theatre.)
While I wasn't 100 percent sure I wanted to get married -- in that I don't know if I've ever been 100 percent sure about anything -- "getting engaged" was a concrete, acceptable answer to what I was doing with my life. (Besides, it's much more fun than telling people that you've been fighting with your boyfriend because you can't forgive him for making out with another girl the week you left for New York, living with your parents because you spent your entire savings moving back and forth across the country, and crying because you'll never amount to anything.)
Four years later, I've got an apartment, my Master's, a job, a book published and another boyfriend. Yet, I still feel behind. Not because I've hit 27, the average marrying age for women. Not because everyone else is getting hitched, simply because they aren't -- less than 20 percent of my Facebook friends are engaged or married.
My mania strikes when I feel unsure about my personal trajectory (pretty much every time I face a blank page) and, in these moments, I instinctively settle on the one thing I don't have. I question if my current relationship is actually "going somewhere" despite the fact that my (kind, devoted, and endlessly patient) boyfriend has flat out told me -- many times -- that he intends to marry me. I remain caught between the fallacy that a ring will fix everything, even writer's block, and the familiar murmur that a ring will never be slipped onto my finger.
I know, rationally, that I -- or, at least my down-trodden, New York-dwelling younger self -- should be satisfied with where I'm at both in life and in love. I'm not. I wish I could blame drill-sergeant-esque parents (or, better yet, something juicier), but I've only got the fact that I'm an overachieving only child to explain why I can't (won't) just give myself a break already.
However, I do know this: If I continue refusing to acknowledge what I have managed to accomplish, how will I some day appreciate a diamond ring--not to mention the accompanying congratulatory Facebook comments?
While I may I reach that "horrid" age of 29 still unwed, the delay might just allow me to transcend the issues my marriage mania masked, giving me time to realize that I've indeed "gotten somewhere," all on my own.
Natasha Burton is the co-author of The Little Black Book of Big Red Flags: Relationship Warning Signs You Totally Spotted ... But Chose to Ignore
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