"Yeah, I'm miserable in my relationship, but I can't bear the thought of being 29 and single."
If I had a dollar for every time I've heard some variation of this phrase, I could take you out for dinner. A nice one. With several courses.
I'm a therapist: I speak to a lot of 20- and 30-somethings about their depression, anxiety, and relationship troubles. Their issues are complex and diverse, yet I've noticed a couple of common themes. One of them is marriage.
So, whether you're married or not, give me your ear (eyes?) for a few minutes. I'm not here to shame marriage, but I'd love to start a conversation around how it can coexist alongside a culture of female empowerment.
So many of the women I speak to are overwhelmed with anxiety if they're single beyond the age of 25, and they're so fixated on finding a husband that they neglect their professional dreams and personal growth.
Take Lauren, for example. She came to me reporting depression and anxiety. At 31, she was a semester shy of getting her nursing degree. She was doing very well in her classes, had a strong social network, and worked part-time as a personal trainer.
Yet, despite her obvious intelligence, drive, and charisma, Lauren perceived herself to be a failure only because she was unmarried. She often referenced her "biological clock" and her fear of being “an old maid." Lauren saw each passing day as another day she'd failed as a woman.
Unknowingly, we all perpetuate this cycle. We continue to create (and watch) rom coms in which the "happy ending" is a wedding. We ask couples when they're going to the altar. We consider cohabitation relationships to be less legitimate than married ones.
Relationships are natural and we are programmed to desire connection. Marriage, on the other hand, is a cultural norm. It's not biological.
I believe if we can change marriage from a norm to a choice, we can liberate and empower those who perceive themselves to be lesser because they're not a "Mrs."
In order for us to understand how to make this shift, let me briefly explain social role theory (SRT): SRT suggests we follow norms because we believe they're part of our role — in this case, the role of a woman.
So how do we change the norms we perceive to be integral to our gender? We break the cycle. We tell different stories, we have different conversations, and we act differently. We shift the norm of marriage being an expectation to marriage being a benign matter of preference.
What are some ways we can do this? Of course not getting married is one way, but there are more nuanced ways as well. We can have female protagonists for whom the story doesn't end in marriage. We can have kids before marriage or hold unconventional ceremonies. We can keep our last names. We can wear different colored wedding dresses.
We can post different stories on social media. We can ask our coupled friends and family members, with sincere curiosity, "What are your thoughts on marriage — is it important to you two?" rather than "When are you two popping the question?"
We can encourage our kids to think critically about marriage, and remind them that their worth is not dependent on their marital status.
Let me clarify that I'm by no means anti-marriage. I believe strongly that valuing marriage and being feminist can happily coexist. There are many reasons people get married, and I absolutely respect everyone's decisions about it. Personally, I vacillate between indifference and conflict on the subject.
At 29, I'm deeply in love with my partner and see myself being with him for a long time. I've cried tears of joy at all my friends' weddings. Some days, when I'm feeling romantic or influenced my engagement-heavy social media feeds, I look up rings at #cushioncut on Instagram and send my partner pictures. Those are times when I subconsciously believe marriage is a measure of success or a necessary "step further" in a relationship.
But other days, when I'm feeling more socially aware or secure, both in our relationship and in myself, I think not getting married is a way I can help change the cultural narrative and perhaps help someone feel less broken or alone.
Let's create a culture of empowerment and self-acceptance — one in which we see marriage as a matter of preference rather than a matter of success or legitimacy. I would love the day to come when I hear fewer 20 and 30-something women let their marital status influence their happiness and self-worth.
By changing the marital norm together, we can make this happen.
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