She begins by telling the story of how she fell into a deep depression after dumping her boyfriend when she was 25.
I thought we were going to get married, and the break-up sent me into a deep emotional crisis, probably clinical depression in retrospect, that started right before my twenty-sixth birthday and lasted until right before I started dating the man I would eventually marry.
The depression Alsup describes is not unique. She writes about others who experience it.
Another friend told me about her struggle to figure out her future. She thought she’d be at a different place in her timeline at this point. She told me of all the things she would have done differently if she’d realized she’d still be single into her late forties.
After describing the problem, Alsup goes on to give reasonable, if abstract, advice about how to tolerate the loneliness of having no family.
The problems Alsup describes are more than individual. They are cultural. Ignoring the cultural aspects of why people long for families and yet are unable to form them is going to get us nowhere.
Painful singleness happens in the context of a cultural narrative that teaches people to doubt three related and crucial truths and thus inhibits the formation of strong families.
These three truths are:
1) Men and women are different
2) Men and women were made for each other
3) Family is good
A culture that rejects these, as ours does, engenders tremendous suffering. The deleterious effects are everywhere. But that’s only part of the story.
Most people have a deep-seated intuition that the above claims are true; yet find no support for that inner knowledge in society. Instead, they live under a constant barrage of messages telling them that even considering whether such claims might be correct is a kind of crimethink.
Eventually, they buckle and join the masses walking around saying they don’t believe these ideas. Secretly, though they live with the constant shame of knowing that deep down they do believe things all the cool people say are retrograde and ridiculous.
They bring that shame to their hunt for a spouse. This shame manifests itself is as feigned indifference. For most of us, the desire to find someone with whom we can start a family is central to our understanding of the good life, and yet we are conditioned to act as if this question has never crossed our minds.
Young women whose main goal in life is to be a wife and mother conceal these wishes for fear of being shamed. In school and in the popular culture, the career woman is elevated as a role model. Ambition, drive and ruthlessness are all held up as qualities superior to submission, gentleness and a nurturing spirit.
The flip side of the hard-charging career woman is the sexual adventurer. No woman, we are all constantly told, can live a fulfilling life without first sampling the delights of many strange men’s beds. Young women get the message early that the best way to a future of sexual faithfulness is a present of sexual recklessness.
Cultural authorities make it clear that the best women, the most interesting women, are those who sacrifice their deep desire for family to use their sexuality to advance materialistic and career goals. Messages like this shame women for wanting to find a man with whom to establish a traditional family built on tradition sex roles. That shame makes it even more difficult to seek out a husband.
At the same time, shaming young men about wanting to find a wife is only a part of the larger program designed to shame men generally. Young men have imbibed the idea that pursuing goals and girls is wrong. The result is an ocean of feckless young men trying to remodel themselves into something acceptable to our cultural overlords. Once they achieve a high enough level of reform, they believe, rewards will come rolling in. The violent anger that sometimes swallows these guys whole is what happens when they finally see that no reward is coming.
Any young man with even minimal awareness will also have entirely rational fears about marrying in an age when they have few cultural or legal protections from the whims of their future Mrs. A guy can easily think he’s bagged an Elizabeth Bennett only to find out years later he’s stuck with and Elizabeth Gilbert. When his new bride’s “Eat, Pray, Love” spirit emerges, what’s in it for him? Poverty, loss and exclusion from his children’s lives. That’s enough to give a young man pause.
It’s not surprising in this context then, that we have lots of people wondering around lonely and longing for a family. Article’s like Alsup’s are fine to the degree they help people manage their pain, but they do not go far enough.
We must go beyond managing people’s pain to showing them what it would take to reach satisfaction. To satisfy such longings well would require reforming our society from the ground up, changing the culturally approved prescription for the good life. To satisfy the longing for family in a sustainable, reasonable, wholesome way would require ripping up the foundation of the current system. It would require a revolution all for the sake of a little companionship in our dotage and a safe place for children to grow up.
It would totally be worth it.
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