Regret

by W.F. Price on June 26, 2012

Jessica Bennett, writing for the NY Times, reminisces about a marriage that could have been. Not willing to sacrifice her career, she postponed engagement while in her mid-20s, turning down her boyfriend’s proposal, only to change her mind around the age of 30.

We had talked about marriage. I knew we would get engaged eventually. He had asked about my ring size. Still, I was oblivious. I never thought this would happen so soon.

So, as he knelt beside me and reached into the bedside table, my heart pounded and my hands became sweaty. “Will you marry me?” he asked, taking out a ring that had been his grandmother’s.

I didn’t know what to do. Was this a momentary panic?

“Yes,” I said, terrified I had paused too long. I stuck out the wrong hand.

We were engaged for 20 minutes, until I mustered the courage to choke out, “What if I’m not ready?”

I loved him desperately. I knew, as much as I would ever know, that he was the one I wanted to be with. We balanced each other. I wanted to frame his dimples.

And yet the moment I saw that ring, I was terrified. I saw dirty dishes and suburbia, not lace-covered wedding gowns. Rather than thinking about the family we’d someday have, I saw the career I had hardly started as suddenly out of reach. The independence I had barely gained felt stifled. I couldn’t breathe.

Her boyfriend, still being a young, lovestruck man, overlooked the rejection… for a time. Ms. Bennett justified her decision to postpone nuptials by writing articles about how young, single women didn’t need it.

In 2010 she wrote an article downplaying the importance of the institution, and it seems she finally convinced her boyfriend:

I was working as a writer at Newsweek by then. One afternoon, a colleague and I sat at her desk and added up the number of weddings we had been to that summer (at least a dozen), the dollars we had spent on each (thousands) and how many we believed would last (maybe half).

A few data searches, some interviews and a pitch to an editor later, we were issuing a manifesto of our own. “I Don’t,” we would proclaim a few months later in a 2010 cover line in Newsweek: “The Case Against Marriage.”

Our argument took romance out of the equation. As we explained it, Americans were already waiting longer to marry, and fewer than ever believed in the “sanctity” of marriage. As urban working women in our 20s, we no longer needed marriage to survive — at least not financially. We weren’t religious, so we didn’t believe that unmarried cohabitation or even child-rearing was an issue.

But we were also cynical. As children of the divorce generation, we had watched cheating scandals proliferate in the news. We had given up on fairy tales, and we didn’t know how anybody could see the institution of marriage as anything but a farce. It was “broken,” one sociologist told me. So, what was the point?

“Happily ever after,” we proclaimed proudly, “doesn’t have to include ‘I do.’ ”

I told my boyfriend about the article, and he rolled his eyes. I assured him it wasn’t about us, but he said it didn’t matter. Over the years, he explained, I had convinced him that he didn’t believe in marriage, either. And so we carried on, partnered but not married, in love but not legally bound.

Finally, Bennett changed her mind. It seems to happen right at about this age for career women: around 30. What happens is that the balance changes. The male attention starts to fade a bit, the working lifestyle is no longer so glamorous and filled with potential. Suddenly, it kind of sucks to be single.

However, much to her dismay, Bennett’s boyfriend lost his enthusiasm. She counted on him to stick around for her, treating him as a sort of plan-B in case she didn’t meet someone better, and he finally figured that out. No man wants to be a woman’s plan-B — it’s humiliating.

When she saw the writing on the wall and started asking him about marriage, he blew it off:

THEN one day, in the most tired of clichés, I, too, started daydreaming about a wedding. I covered a gay wedding at City Hall, the day that same-sex marriage became legal in New York, and I cried as the couple read their vows. I began to wonder what he and I might wear, who would be there, and whether we’d write our own vows.

I brought the issue up tepidly, to feel him out. Lying in bed one night, I asked: “Do you still want to do it? Do you really not believe in it?”

“I’d marry you at City Hall,” he replied, then dropped it.

Another time, he threw my argument back at me: “Why do we need marriage? It’s only a piece of paper.”

And then I brought it up again as we were planning a summer vacation with his family. His was half Greek, and they had gone to the same Greek island since he was a boy. There was a little love boat there that people would take to sea to marry.

“Why don’t we get married there, on the love boat?” I asked.

He laughed. “We’d have to talk about it seriously.”

The boyfriend had finally started to stand up for himself. Perhaps he realized that he, too, had options. He felt he’d been strung along, and it was an insult to see her change her tune when she’d disparaged the idea of marriage. Maybe he thought her sudden interest in marriage smacked of desperation, and was at its heart just another self-centered move on Bennett’s part.

Nevertheless, he let her down easy, like most men do:

we re-signed our lease and decided to paint the apartment. We threw out our suitcases because they were taking up too much room. And then, in a moment of sweet insecurity, he told me he was worried he would always love me more than I loved him.

I assured him it wasn’t true.

A month later, he broke up with me, a half-hour before midnight, on New Year’s Eve. We were in Seattle for the holidays, just as we had been when he proposed six years before. There was no warning, no conversation. He simply told me he didn’t want to marry. He had never forgiven me for turning him down.

When we got back to New York, he packed up his stuff, quit his job, paid a final month’s rent and moved back to his hometown, 2,000 miles away.

In the end, we had no shared bank account or property. We didn’t have to go through a trial separation or mandatory counseling. We had spent seven years living in a 600-square-foot New York City apartment, inseparable and intertwined. Yet in the end, the relationship ended in one night. No discussion required.

Although it’s probably true that he loved her more than she loved him, as it’s pretty clear that Bennett loved herself above all others, what had really changed is that he had started to care about himself as well. Women have a way of teaching men how to do that. Use a man enough, and eventually his self-preservation instinct kicks in.

When I wrote an article telling women that they ought to start thinking seriously about marriage by at least 25 if they want to have a family, it provoked the ire of a lot of 20-something women. I thought it was pretty good advice, but the denial is so strong these days that a lot of women – like Jessica Bennett – are bound to find themselves staring right into the face of regret.

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