Christina is 31, slim, pretty, a younger and darker-haired Annette Bening. The daughter of a professor and an artist, she grew up in a family where books, politics, and international sabbaticals filled her early life. After attending an elite boarding school in New England, she went off to college where she got interested in women’s political issues and began to work in campaigns. In the years following college, she moved into progressively more respon-sible jobs as a fund raiser for Democratic women candidates and causes. At the time we meet, she is working as the director of an international relations consulting group with an income in the high five figures. Yet there’s one nagging source of discontent in her otherwise contented and accomplished life. As we chat over plates of mushroom ragout in a trendy Washington restaurant, she says ruefully: “I’m always getting involved with Mr. Not Ready.”
Christina’s last Mr. Not Ready was someone she thought she might end up marrying. They were in a relationship for three years. She followed him from the West Coast to Washington so that they could be together, and soon after they moved in together. But only a short time later, she regretted the decision. It turned out that her boyfriend needed extensive house training. Their story was Pygmalion in reverse. Instead of My Fair Lady, it was My Fair Laddie. She had to teach him, improve him, get him up to speed. It was exhausting.
Plus, he wasn’t a very fast learner. When they first moved in together, they agreed to divide the housework equally. In the kitchen, they decided, she would cook and he would clean up. But he didn’t live up to his part of the deal. “He pretended to do dishes,” she says, bristling with fresh indignation. “I would come into the kitchen the next morning and find dishes still sitting there in cold, greasy water.” After three months, she had had enough of his helplessness, feigned or otherwise. She dumped him. He still called from time to time to ask for her advice. But she was sick of being his mother and
Then, to her annoyance and dismay, she found out that her Mr. Not Ready had turned into Mr. Ready. With someone else! He was ready to make commitments to his new girlfriend. Ready to follow her to another state where she had a job. Ready to give her an engagement ring. She had spent three years of her life in a relationship that she thought would lead to marriage or at least to a long-term relationship. She had trained the guy. And now her investment was paying off for someone else.
Even more depressingly, Christina’s women friends were vanishing into marriages. Her social life seemed to be dedicated to going to parties for soon-to-be-married girlfriends. Each year passed with another round of bridal showers, bachelor girl bashes, weddings, and receptions, until finally Christina realized that she was being seated at the cousins’ table at weddings. If that weren’t reminder enough of her lack of romantic success, her mother kept asking why she wasn’t married yet. Christina panicked. She decided to take a break from relationships to give herself time to de-stress, to get therapy, and to think about what she really wanted to do with her life. She gave up dating for a year.
All this happened just as Christina turned 30. By that age, she had expected to be married herself. Instead, she had already been in and out of relationships with seven different Mr. Not Readys. Her heart had been broken four times. It didn’t make sense. Here she was, a woman who set goals for herself, met deadlines, accomplished all the things on her professional “To Do” list, and yet she had missed a major “To Do” in her life.
What made Christina’s situation even more perplexing was that she seemed to have all the qualifications for romantic success. She was pretty, smart, and accomplished. She worked out and stayed in shape. She was independent. It wasn’t as if she were looking for someone to take care of her. Maybe she came across as a little intimidating, but the right kind of guy should be attracted to her confidence and competence, shouldn’t he? Yet, clearly, something was wrong. At 30, her job resumé looked a lot more impressive than her romantic resumé. Time after time, it seemed, she’d been promoted in work and pink-slipped in love.
Christina is one of those perfectionist, pulled-together, Type A young women who can make other women, even those like me who are nearly twice her age, feel slightly discombobulated and disarrayed, as if we might have lipstick on our teeth or sleep in our eyes. She exudes confidence and control. Yet despite her crisp look and executive manner, she becomes younger and softer as she talks about her romantic desires. She is a woman who can do practically anything she wants on her own, but she doesn’t want to be alone for her entire life. Though she’s dedicated herself to feminist causes, she isn’t hostile to men or marriage, like some professional feminists of the ’60s. She isn’t looking for a man to take care of her, but she wants to find a man who will care about her and share her life.
When Christina was in her early 20s, she didn’t think much about how to find someone to marry. She knew that she wanted to be married someday but she wasn’t ready to jump into such a big commitment at that point in her life. She needed to accomplish some things for herself and gain some life experience before settling down. Her parents had married at a young age, and their marriage didn’t last. So she wanted to be mature enough to make a wise choice.
At 31, after taking a year’s sabbatical from relationships, she decided to focus on the search for a husband. By now, she knows what she is looking for. Her standards are high but certainly not impossible: she wants to find a man who is physically attractive and takes good care of his body, enjoys his career but isn’t career-obsessed, pursues interests outside of his work life and isn’t boring, and dedicates himself to being faithful, loving, and kind. But finding such a man is turning out to be more difficult than she once imagined. For one thing, true love doesn’t happen as naturally or inevitably as she once thought. Up until the time she turned 30, Christina believed that finding someone to marry was the one thing in her life that she didn’t have to work at or plan for. She thought that Mr. Right would come along in the natural course of events. But that hasn’t happened, and she isn’t sure how to make it happen.
A New Life Stage
Women like Christina barely existed just a few decades ago. In 1960, a college-educated woman who was in her late 20s or early 30s, and “still single” as she would have been described back then, was a rarity. She represented a miniscule 1.6 percent of all women ages 25 to 34. In the entire country at the time, there were only 185,000 such women, a population roughly the size of the current population of Fort Wayne, Indiana. Today, however, she’s become a far more prominent figure on the social map. College-educated singles now make up 28 percent of all women ages 25 to 34. Their numbers have risen to 2.3 million, equal to the population of four Bostons. 1
This new single woman has emerged in greater numbers as the result of a confluence of two social trends. One is later age of entry into first marriage. Young women today are marrying at older ages than at any time in the past century. Moreover, the most dramatic changes in the age of first marriage have occurred in recent decades. Thus, over the past 30 years, the proportion of women who are single during the traditional “marrying years” has risen dramatically. Between 1970 and 2000, the proportion of unmarried women ages 20 to 24 has doubled, and among those 30 to 34, the proportion has tripled. 2
The second demographic trend is the dramatic increase in college attainment among young women. Historically, men have vastly outnumbered women in institutions of higher learning. (The sole exception, of course, is women’s colleges.) Even as recently as 1960, women made up a modest 35 percent of that year’s college graduating class. Today, however, women make up 56 percent of the most recent college graduating class. With these two trends, a growing population of young, college-educated women are spending a prolonged period of their early adult lives as working singles, out on their own.
It is a convention among social scientists to refer to this trend as a “postponement” of marriage. Their use of the term is accurate as a description of changes in the timing of entry into first marriage. But it can be misleading to the lay person. For it seems to suggest that the change is occurring wholly at the discretion of the young women themselves. To speak of the rise in the proportion of never-married young women as the “postponement” of marriage creates the impression that nothing has changed for them but the date of the wedding. It suggests that women are simply penciling in a later date for the cake and the caterer. If that were so, then the answer to the romantic frustrations of today’s young women would be for them simply to pencil in an earlier date—that is, to return to the earlier pattern of marrying at younger ages and to count on men to return to it as well. But this is not the conclusion to be drawn from reports of the “postponement” of marriage.
The changing timetable for first marriage reflects larger changes in the early life course of educated young women. New patterns of schooling and work, as well as the changes in sexual and living-together partnerships, have created a new stage of life that comes between school and marriage for this generation of young women. This new stage of life reorganizes the traditional sequence of love and work in early adulthood. Whereas the baby boom generation of college-educated women married and then tried to find satisfying work, this generation of college-educated women is seeking satisfying work before trying to find someone to marry.
Following college graduation, young women’s early adult life course follows a distinctive pattern. During their early 20s, they work very hard at getting established in careers. They vie for places with creative agencies, innovative companies, or prestige institutions, or they pursue a professional degree. They look for apartments in neighborhoods with a core cluster of upscale shops, including whole food markets, a Peet’s or Starbucks, an independent bookstore, ethnic restaurants, and a health club. The competition for such places in many cities is intense. Some women have to audition for slots in an established house of young singles, leaving their names and cell phone numbers on sign-up sheets and hoping to be called back for a final interview. They strive for the image of “pulled-together” professionals, throwing out their Old Navy stuff and adopting an Ann Taylor uniform. Dark pantsuit. Small gold earrings. Black pumps. They pursue physical perfection. They join a gym and treadmill after work. And somewhere along this strenuous path to success, in between work and working out, they hope to find someone to “be in a relationship with.”
In the years following college graduation, their first priority is individual financial independence. Both men and women seek to establish themselves as economically self-sufficient and stable at this stage in life. Eighty-six percent of never-married men and women ages 20 to 29 agree that it is extremely important to them to be “economically set” before they marry, according to the Gallup survey for the National Marriage Project. For many young adults, being “economically set” means paying off college loans, getting a professional job, and even buying a house. In addition, they have a strong desire for personal freedom and experience. As one woman told me, “I want to experience everything twice, once for myself and then again, with my future husband.”
And finally, among young adults, there is the pervasive fear of divorce. The generation that has come of age during the divorce revolution has now reached early adulthood, and its members are all too aware of the fragile stage of marriage. A large majority (82 percent) agree that it is unwise for a woman to trust marriage as a reliable economic partnership. The high divorce rate is another reason for women’s determination to invest in portable assets, like education and career, rather than to place their trust in the economic security of a long-lasting marriage. And young adults rightly believe that it is better to marry somewhat later if you want the marriage to last. One of the most reliable predictors of divorce is age at first marriage. People who marry in their teens have a dramatically higher risk of divorce than people who marry in their 20s. One recent study by a prominent demographer finds the single most important factor accounting for the recent leveling off of divorce rates is the rise in the median age of first marriage.3
In response to all these factors, women say that they are seeking “a life” before they look for a life partner. In the years immediately following college, they are no more ready than their male peers to make serious commitments. They have personal and career goals they want to accomplish before they begin to think about marriage. “If my knight in shining armor came along right now,” one 23-year-old engineer told me, “it would really screw up my life plan.” When I repeat her observation to a 30-something single woman, she gives it a slightly different spin: “For all I know, my knight in shining armor could have come along when I was in my early 20s. But if he had, I wouldn’t have recognized him.”
This does not mean that women are without sexual or romantic partners during these years, however. Some women continue to follow a “hook up” pattern that was established in college. They go out to clubs and bars and have casual sex “for fun.” Some of the 30-something women I interviewed describe the years right after college as their “wild” time. More commonly, however, they report two or three relationships of varying duration and seriousness in the immediate post-college years. Some form living-together partnerships. As noted previously, the majority of young women today will live with a boyfriend, either the man they eventually marry or another intimate partner, before they marry.
Cohabiting partnerships represent a distinctive new feature of the early adult life course. For many young adults, cohabitation provides a transitional kind of union, somewhere between casual dating relationships and marriage. Women enter cohabiting partnerships for a variety of reasons, including the economies of time and money, the desire for sex, intimacy, and partnership rolled into one, and the need to get to know more about the habits, character, and compatibility of a romantic partner. Indeed, cohabitation fulfills some of the same purposes as traditional courtship. Women often have sex with their boyfriend before they get to know him well as a human being. Consequently, for them, cohabitation provides a way to observe and learn about their partner by sharing a roof as well as a bed.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Why There Are No Good Men Left by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead. Copyright © 2002 by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.