Women are always writing about what it's like to be single in a world of changing expectations about what it means to be a single woman. (I'm no exception to this "rule.") But I've long wondered where the great, modern "Plight of the Single Guy" story is, feeling certain, from tales of my guy friends and others, that men are just as conflicted, confused, bewildered, and wanting-to-be-happy-in-love-and-life as women are. We're not two disparate forces at war; we're all people, with a lot of the same wants and needs, even if our genders are different. That's part of why I very much enjoyed Tim Gihring's piece in Salon, "I was a male spinster," even though, if the word spinster itself could be eradicated from the English language, that would be just fine with me.
Gihring speaks to a feeling common among the growing numbers of men and women of a certain age who haven't yet seen fit to do the proposal-and-ring thing in the time frame expected of them, beginning with this highly relatable anecdote: "At the wedding of my younger brother, in 2000, someone mistook me for the groom. And my father, with a laugh I’ve always wondered about, jerked his thumb at me and said, 'Him? He’s never getting married.'” Unsure of what his dad meant, exactly—compliment or insult; awkwardness to a situation that everyone felt a bit strange about?—Gihring stewed on it "for a dozen years," becoming a man nearing 40 who was "no closer to matrimony than the day I was born." Why wasn't he married? He explains,
"I used to have animals in my apartment. Not pets, unwanted wildlife: bats, rats, squirrels."
"The only vacuum I ever owned was a Shop-Vac: wet/dry, with a long wide hose and a tank like R2D2, because if you wait long enough to clean there are no small messes."
And, of course, some deeper things, too. Like that he hadn't decided he was ready to marry.
There's a frequent sentiment (often used against people who live alone into their 30s and 40s by people who think that "bad habit" is somehow unnatural or culture-destroying) that does have some truth to it, and it's not always a bad thing. When you live by yourself in adulthood, you become used to living in a certain way. You become, worst case, intractable, but the plus side is that you're given an opportunity to figure out what you like, what you want, and also work toward achieving it on your own—educations, careers, self-actualized lives. That's wonderful. It's a real luxury that we can, here in the 21st century, spend more time than ever figuring ourselves out—a luxury we should use for good and not evil. Ideally, it gets us to a place in which, if and when we decide we want to marry, our marriages are healthier, more sustainable, and happier (and a lot of research seems to indicate this is the case).
Gihring is right, though, that sometimes living alone can make you a little ... weird. "When bachelorhood stretches beyond the wide-open days of video games and peanut bars toward the narrowing maw of mid-life, you lose a little perspective. You do some things that would not have crossed the mind of a married man, sometimes with a backpack alone in some sketchy corner of the world, sometimes with your clothes off, not so alone ... By 40, you’ve dodged a few bullets, and all that bobbing and weaving has made you wiry, wild, a little feral."
But the ultimate, and most revelatory, confession of this male spinster (who is now married, to a woman named Lucy), is this: When he decided he wanted to "settle down," he found the woman who would end up his wife. Not in that magical, mythical, rom-com-depicted way that happens in the movies or on TV—by accident, at the last minute (ending in a flat-out run to the airport to prevent your suddenly beloved from getting on the plane to Dubai and leaving you forever), despite hating one another for full hour and a half of screen time preceding the moment. By just ... deciding. "Because, make no mistake, it is a decision," writes Gihring. "My father had died the year before and whether it was the withering of his infamous pronouncement or the notion of stepping up, I’d prioritized a relationship. I would tell myself, while Lucy and I were driving or cooking or staring up at the ceiling half-asleep, 'This is my wife' — to conjure that kind of closeness, to see how it felt — and three years later it’s true."
Whatever age you are, you have to want it first. Yet marrying at an older age does come with a unique set of challenges, compromises, basic accoutrement; it's "a lateral move," he explains: "Unlike people who marry at 22 or even 32, with some part of their adult experience still unformed, I have never thought that Lucy completes me. Or even that I’m happier than before. With no one to do it for me, I had already jury-rigged a life: a career, a circle of friends, a library card that I had every reason to believe would sustain me to the end — and happily so." As an adult person with plenty of experience behind you, you've done nearly everything doable on your own already and could continue to do so. But you've decided otherwise, not because you had to, but because you wanted to—not milling around witlessly waiting to be struck with a thunderclap of love or some false cupid's arrow, rescued by some odious "knight in shining armor" and wafted away into a cloudless effervescence—but deciding simply this is what I want, and then seeking to fulfill that. It's what high-performing people do in nearly every other part of life, so why not marriage, too? Gihring writes, "I didn’t need marriage, to settle down; I wanted it, to be unsettled ... To say that marriage at 40 is a lateral move is not to say that I’ve risked nothing and there’s no romance in it, only that I’m no longer naive. I’m not risking what I don’t know, I’m risking what I do know, which is arguably more romantic."
While a lot of the traditional conversations continue (people continue to weigh in, for instance, on the "right" age to marry; I'd argue there's no right age, only the age and circumstances right for the person who does or does not decide to marry), it's heartening to see the emergence of these new ones, too, to know that men (more than playboys and Peter Pans) and women (more than marriage-obsessed "put a ring on it" proselytizers) share a lot of the exact same feelings and struggles when it comes to traversing that emotional crossroads of what's assumed for us, what we actually want, and what we'll ultimately do—whether we "do" or not.