Transcript for Smiling Singles?

Jim Fleming: You might recognize Kate Bolick. She was on the cover of The Atlantic magazine in late 2011 with a banner in bold white lettering that read: What, Me Marry? Her article about all the single ladies, herself included, spread like web wild fire, sparking discussions about the demise of the desirable male, the rise of the happily single woman, gray divorces and a whole lot more. Well since then, Bolick's continued to research, write, and talk about the state of romantic unions. She told Anne that despite a growing number of women putting off marriage, most university-age women still think they'll be married by 27. She's got to break the news to them.

 

Kate Bolick: The news is: You will most likely get married, but probably not when you're 27. You'll probably do it in your early 30s. The age keeps trending upward and it's not because of a dearth of men. It's because your sense of drive and ambition is going to take you further than you can imagine it doing right now. So back when I was in college saying, "Of course I'll get married by 30. First I want to go to graduate school and start my career and then I'll fall in love and do that." Well actually, going to graduate school and starting my career was really exciting and really absorbing and it's what I wanted to keep doing. I wasn't ready to settle down with a mate and I did not anticipate that. That's what I think is different in that it's surprising to me that that kind of news hasn't yet caught on and can it? Will it? Or is that desire for family and mating so deeply ingrained and that expectation so deeply ingrained that your 20s are going to be a surprise no matter what?

 

Anne Strainchamps: Well I mean, let's talk somewhat about your own personal experience. You were deeply invested in career and graduate school and all until 30 and then was there a moment when you suddenly looked around and thought, "Okay. I'm ready to get married and settle down now."?

 

Bolick: Well that happened for me last year at 39, but up until then I kept thinking I would find someone and get married. It just didn't occur to me that I wouldn't. I'd been in love before. I had had long term relationships. It just did surprise me in my early 30s that I hadn't done that yet and then the big surprise was at 35 realizing, "I'm not unmarried because something's wrong with me or because I'm making selfish decisions or I'm immature and can't settle down or because there are no men; I'm single at 35 because I haven't wanted to be married yet and I've kept making that decision to not be married. I just have not had that desire."

 

Strainchamps: So it wasn't that all the guys you were dating were jerks?

 

Bolick: No. I was dating wonderful guys. I was involved with several very commitment-minded men who it was clear that, should we go in that direction, that's where we would be going together and once it started going closer to that direction, I felt like, "Wait. Wait. Wait a minute. I'm not- I don't want to go in that direction with anybody right now. I don't know why."

 

Strainchamps: So it sounds like what you're saying is: we grow up with this cultural idea that happily ever after means getting married and settled down and you just kind of had that as a construct in your head, but in fact what your life and your real choices was telling you all along is that that really wasn't your dream.

 

Bolick: Exactly.

 

Strainchamps: So is it still not your dream or do you want to get married?

 

Bolick: Well as I said last year, I had this kind of premonition moment. I was out at a restaurant with a guy I was dating at the time. I did, this is em- I can't believe I'm admitting this in public, but I did have this kind of mystical moment where I thought, "Oh, my gosh. I want to be married and not to this person, but I'm ready for something," and what it meant- What that meant for what marriage has meant to me all along is that it's an extreme commitment and it requires a lot of engagement and agency and generosity and being present and responsible to another human being in a way that I wasn't- I just didn't think I was capable of it yet and it's also meant to me a kind of narrowing of my world and I wasn't ready for my world to narrow. I loved being alone in the world and accumulating my experiences and what I felt in this strange, mystical premonitory moment was: I've had enough experiences now. I'm ready to slow down a little bit and reorient myself.

 

Strainchamps: That's just such an interesting thing to hear you say. You're the woman who wrote a very famous article or essentially the virtues of being single. Sort of positing this new kind of world in which we might be able to embrace a happily ever after in which you'd stay single forever.

 

Bolick: Well if you notice in the article, I never say that I'm actually against marriage and I never say that I actually don't want to get married myself. What I am saying is that being single is a completely legitimate way to exist and, for me, a very absorbing and interesting one. Once I made that realization, I was much happier inside of my life and when I look back at the last 15-20 years, I have been very satisfied with it. The only thing that was making me unhappy was the idea that I should be doing something else that I wasn't doing.

 

Strainchamps: Right. Right and what are you finding amongst other women? Because you're doing a lot of research, a lot of talking to women or many different ages. Have you met many women who in fact are deciding to stay single and are happy with that state?

 

Bolick: Yeah. I am meeting women who are deciding to stay single. They're not overwhelming numbers. They tend to be older. Usually, if a women is 40 and unmarried, that's when she comes to this conclusion that like-

 

Strainchamps: Almost that famous factoid or whatever. After 40, a woman has as much chance of being hit by lighting as getting married.

 

Bolick: That's that horrible Newsweek article, I think, from the 80s.

 

Strainchamps: I hope that's not true.

 

Bolick: It's not true and in fact, I forget what the statistic is, but numbers show that most people get married eventually and the more educated you are, you push off marriage is another statistic but you still get married and the older you are when you get married, the more likely it is that your marriage will not end in divorce. What I tend to find is that women in their 40s who have never been married are saying, "Yeah. I went through a phase where I wanted it and I thought I was going to have it and I was upset that I didn't and then I turned some corner at some point where I realized that I was actually incredibly happy with my life and my work and the way that I am living right now." And so if I've wanted anything to come out of this article conversation, it's that I've wanted there to be a more positive conversation around what it means to be single. Single people aren't the lonely, pity-able souls that we have historically considered them to be and my message is not, "Stay single forever. Down with marriage." It's, "If you are single, there is so much potential in a life that's unfettered by another. Enjoy that time while you have it."

 

Strainchamps: Is there a process of mourning? Do you think that people have to go through in order to let go of that happily ever after, married, fantasy?

 

Bolick: That's a wonderful question. I think yes. I think I did.

 

Strainchamps: Really?

 

Bolick: Yeah and I mean I write about it in the article and it's true, that when I was 35 I was breaking up with yet another boyfriend. It had been a year we'd been together. I had felt very seriously committed to it, but had come to realize that we really weren't suited for one another. Once I'd realized that we had to break up, I went to sleep that night and had a dream in which my mother, who died in 1996 and very occasionally emerges in dreams never to give me advice and this is the first time, and I said in the dream, "Mom, I'm breaking up with him tomorrow. I'm really sad." And she said, "Honey, I know. We were really feeling good about this one, weren't we?" And I said, "Yeah." She said, "Well you know, if it doesn't work, it doesn't work, and so it's just time to move on." And I said, "But mom, I'm getting old." And she said, "God, you've got 6 more years." And I really did. I woke up and I was like, "Right. What am I so freaked out about? I have a little more time. Like I don't have to go just marry someone because I'm supposed to. What is going on? What kind of craziness have I absorbed?" And the kind of mourning of that idea was what ending that relationship was about. Maybe this is my last chance at the kind of traditional way of doing things and it made me really sad to think that I wouldn't have that, but oh my god. I have been so much happier ever since. Just once you reach the other side of a kind of mourning, that there's a clarity there and a liberation that you couldn’t have anticipated.

 

Strainchamps: You said that you'd recently gotten to the point where you thought, "Yeah. I do want to get married." What if you hadn't gotten to that point? If you were still the Kate who's decided, "No. I really like my single life." Can you kind of paint a picture of what your life would be like?

 

Bolick: Yeah.

 

Strainchamps: Moving on into the future.

 

Bolick: It's funny. This is a complicated thing to describe, but the fantasy of always being alone is a really appealing one to me. In my own fantasy of my own eternally single life, I just see myself doing exactly what I'm doing now. I guess just more and more years of it that I'm very excited by my work, traveling, continuing to share my life with my close friends who have been with me all along, and making new friends and yeah. I guess I just see a life of eternally being single as being exactly as it is right now. So.

 

Strainchamps: And that's not lonely?

 

Bolick: It's not lonely. That's not to say I don't experience loneliness at times. Of course, I do, but I think we all experience loneliness even when we're married and also keep in mind that this kind of marriage revolution that we are witnessing, in which people are getting married later and less frequently, we're also in the midst of this gray divorce revolution they're calling it. Where divorce rates for those 50 and over have doubled over the last 20 years. So we are spending more time alone at every chapter of our life and again it's why it's so important to understand what being alone and being single means and really recognizing that it can be a very positive experience if you make it that way.

 

Strainchamps: Right. We really need to stop seeing it as a form of failure.

 

Bolick: Exactly and again, our other kind of way of thinking about single people is that they're selfish. This wasn't about selfishness. It was about not seeing myself simply as a romantic appendage to somebody else.

 

Fleming: That's Kate Bolick. Her Atlantic cover article is called All the Single Ladies. If you want to hear about her research at a Dutch community built just for single women, check out the extended version of this interview at ttbook.org.

Comments for this interview