I fill out most of the form on autopilot with a pen that has been Scotch taped to the string tied to this clipboard. Name. Birth date. Address. Phone number. Email address (optional). Social Security Number. Then I hit a hiccup:
Marital Status: Single Married Divorced Separated Widowed
Wait… I run my pen over the options and have to go back to the beginning. None of these is me! Haven’t they forgotten one? It always takes a second for me to remember what I’m supposed to circle.
I am “Single” in the eyes of the government, of the law, of the creepy guys at the bar who say, “No ring, fair game!”− and in the eyes of this doctor’s office. That I live with my boyfriend of over two years is completely irrelevant. (To them. Not to me… Hi, babe!) So I go to circle “Single” and actually feel a little bit guilty about it, as if my boyfriend would be offended. As a compromise (with my conscience), I make a wobbly circle around “Single” that includes the first half of the “Married” option, as if that somehow indicates how seriously I take my relationship, or that I’m even in a relationship at all. Like the doctor is going to look at that little, oblong, errant circle and go, “Ah. Someone actually loves her. Maybe I’ll try to doctor her better so she doesn’t die.”
The demographic label for my situation is “Single, Cohabitating,” which I think makes me sound like a test subject that lives in an apartment with all glass walls and a couple other confused people who all have to wear soft hospital-gown onesies and no shoes as we’re watched by scientists 24/7. “These specimens? They’re single, cohabitating 20-somethings. Don’t tap on the glass.” I admit that “Single, but in a Mutually Beneficial, Rewarding, Long-Term Relationship with a Promising Future” is a little wordy to put on the forms I apparently have to fill out every fucking time I go to the gynecologist. (Seriously, what is up with that?)
Lately, I’ve been reading everything I can about this demographic. Call it research or navel-gazing, but whatever it is, it hasn’t yielded all that much information, to be honest. Or rather, the information about those of us who are single and cohabitating (or “single, committed”) in our 20’s seems to be more defined by what we are not. We are not unattached and looking for love, online or otherwise. We are not married. We are not getting married. We are not single parents. We are an in between, transitional entity, on our way to permanence or dissolution…aren’t we?
Perhaps our seemingly temporary status is why we’re glossed over in media portrayals. Long-term and/or cohabitating relationships are not inherently dramatic. No one is coming together or bouncing back apart. No one is making any life changing decisions for the better or worse. Things are stable, sustained. It’s not too interesting to watch a couple eat popcorn and pay the electric bill. (I suppose you rarely see a happily married couple, or a happily single person either, to be fair.)
Additionally, how many blogs and websites and magazines and books out there center on meeting people and dating? How many are about getting married? How many are about improving and maintaining a happy marriage? How many are about parenting? All of these different life stages have specific cultures built around them. There is literature. There are resources. There are processes and expectations and outlets to turn to when you fail, or to help you succeed, or− at the very least− there are accounts of the experiences of others to make you feel like you’re part of a community. But there’s a gap in the knowledge: “This is how you pick the right person. This is how you get him/her to like you. This is how you make him/her your boy/girlfriend. (NEBULOUS TIME LAPSE.) This is how you plan a wedding…” Whoa! Back up, please. Life is not a Broadway musical; we can’t get married at the end of the show after meeting in some adorable, fated manner just 2 hours ago.
So what about the long-term relationship? What about that in between time? What about those who, like me, live with (or are otherwise seriously committed to) their significant other and either cannot or will not take the “next step” in the foreseeable future, but also are happy and have no desire to end the relationship? I feel like the only prominent advice out there is about keeping things interesting in bed (Um, pretty sure I shouldn’t put ice in there, but thanks, Cosmo!), and the only narratives we see are from people who are ending said nebulous time between committing to another person and marrying that person. Is this a new life stage, or is it just a necessary, temporary rung on the ladder that’s been getting, increasingly, further from the next rung, as many Americans are now delaying marriage longer than ever before? And regardless of the answer, how do we navigate− and enjoy and prosper in!− this new and expanding landscape?
Basically, where are the books that tell you how to not get married yet?
For millennials, it’s beginning to make sense to get married later in life, across economic and educational spectrums. This fantastic report from the National Marriage Project, as well as this article and this one from The Atlantic, give a pretty good snapshot of what is happening and why. With the emphasis, especially in trying economic times, on financial and career stability, more highly educated men and women are delaying marriage and child-bearing until they’re “settled” and independently successful. I really identified with the assertion that, as elegantly stated in the National Marriage Project Report, my generation thinks of marriage as a “capstone” rather than “cornerstone” of adulthood. Instead of getting married as a step to becoming a successful adult as in generations past, we think of it as the icing on the cake.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, women with less education and in lower income brackets are having children earlier, without necessarily bothering to get married, because they perceive diminishing returns. As the article above by Derek Thompson, “The Decline of Marriage and the Rise of Unwed Mothers: An Economic Mystery” points out that marriage is declining or maintaining across demographics but that, “Marriage has declined the most among men whose wages have declined the most.” This means that women in a similar economic position don’t see the benefit of permanently tying themselves to someone who might end up a financial drain. Thomas explains:
“The development of time-saving technologies — cheap prepared foods, cheap clothes, machines to wash, dry, and vacuum — has not only encouraged more women to seek work, but also made it relatively easier for single parents to raise a child. Put starkly, technology makes it cheaper and easier than ever to be single. It makes marrying a financially unstable man even more risky.”
And again, if we’re waiting longer to get married− or just not getting married at all− then what are we doing? Faffing around? Serial dating? Crying and masturbating a lot more? The answer, I think, is that many of us are sliding into being “single, cohabitating” or “single, committed” for years, without the ability or intention of changing our relationship statuses– on Facebook or otherwise.
To say that our culture is wedding obsessed is an understatement. The wedding industry, which accounts for $40 billion (billion with a B!) per year in the U.S. alone has leaked into mainstream entertainment and created, I think, a gluttonous feedback loop: Watch brides pick out their dresses! (I have to buy a dress just as nice!) Watch brides change their minds! (It’s ok to buy a second dress…everybody does it!) Watch brides compete to see who has the “best” wedding! (I have to have the best wedding! Get me more white tigers and cupcake trees!) Watch brides finally get the chance to be the “princess” or “diva”! (I’m allowed to treat my bridesmaids, mother, mother-in-law, florist, and unfortunate future husband like they are meaningless pieces of dog shit because IT’S MY DAY, GODDAMNIT.) We produce what we consume, and we’re consuming expensive, ridiculous, theatrical weddings.
We see every plane that crashes on the news, so we tend to think that planes crash more often than they do. There is not a news day slow enough for an anchor to report, “American Airlines flight 453 touched down safely in Tampa today, 14 minutes ahead of schedule. Good job, everybody. Enjoy Tampa, I guess.” But thousands of flights do exactly that every day. Similarly, seeing weddings everywhere can give you (or maybe just me) the impression that everyone is getting married. Everyone but you. (I even work as a social media consultant for a wedding photographer, so I am steeped in this stuff.)
Compounding that problem is Facebook. Literally everyone you know from high school is getting married. Even that dude that you thought, “Man, no one will ever touch that guy’s penis.”− he’s getting married. Again. Every time I see another blurry phone picture of someone’s engagement ring, or think, “Who the hell is…” and then click on the name of a girl who has changed her last name, I feel a slow, quiet, creeping panic: I’m falling behind.
It’s not that I even have a particular desire to get married at this point in my life; I just don’t want to lose. It’s that capstone vs. cornerstone thing again. My peers are capping off their adulthood; I am eating ramen in my pajamas and scraping mold off hamburger buns so I can eat those, too. My peers are buying cars and houses; my next dream purchase is an automatic cat toilet.
But of course, as the data I just cited explain, it’s not actually everyone− it’s just that all the people that are going to get married now are getting married now. And I have to see all of them on my newsfeed.
Which brings me back to one of my questions earlier: Am I “on deck”, or am I carving out a space with Joshua that’s separate from the marriage pipeline? Is cohabitation and/or long-term commitment still just a rung, or it’s own destination?
And I think, regardless of the answer, I need to embrace this period of my life and not treat it as a pit stop. And, like I said, I’m not sure that I have a model to do that. How do I not get married yet, but have a fulfilling and robust relationship? And do I care whether or not my relationship is in the pipeline or on the sideline? What does the answer to that change about how I live my life and love my boyfriend?
I’m trying to find out.