Over the holiday weekend, my 18-year-old niece (think my doppelganger with a brain) and I decided to drive up to the Catskills for a long-overdue one-on-one with nature. Trudging along one of the trails, accompanied by nothing more than fresh air and a palpable sense of Fourth of July spirit, we started talking about the meaning of personal independence.
“You shouldn’t need to be with somebody to be happy,” I preached, attempting to wipe out any remnants of rite-of-passage Russian family brainwashing that encourages one to settle down at earliest convenience.
“Yes, but it’s so nice to be with someone.” was the response of a teen who had recently gotten her first taste of true romance. I had been there myself and didn’t want to argue, and so I didn’t.
In the car on the way home, I picked up the New York Times. (FYI, teen chauffeurs are the best.) There, waiting for me with some sort of symbolic resonance in the Modern Love section, was an essay by Karen Renaldi entitled “What is a Man for?” I read it out loud. Renaldi wrote about being married and divorced twice in her twenties, after which she had felt the need to address her pattern of serial monogamy and reassess the need for a man in her life. After she had succeeded at establishing both financial and emotional independence, she had fallen in love yet again. “Twenty years and two children later, I am still with that same man. I don’t need him, but I want him in my life,” she wrote.
My niece and I paused. It felt like a referee had jumped into our conflict. Solomon had intervened. The answer was staring us in the face.
Over the past few months, in a feverish effort to figure out the answers to all of life’s questions before turning 30, I had been rampantly questioning not only the institution of marriage, but society’s fixation with coupling. Despite all the progress and strides that we had made as a society (think females in the workplace, same-sex marriage, acceptance of gender fluidity), we were still continuously told that we had to find somebody, had get married, had to unite in a duo in order to avoid, God forbid, going through the trajectory of adulthood solo. Why were we still stuck on this cowardly, outdated concept that implies that the majority of us couldn’t be happy as independent units? And the main question was, why were we still listening?
As I started exploring this further, evidence quickly emerged that I wasn’t the only one perturbed by this mentality. A film I saw at the Angelica, entitled Lobster, mocked the absurdity of it by showing a dystopian society where marriage is a social obligation and loners are penalized by getting turned into animals. (Not kidding. See for yourself here.) A Harvard graduate whom I met at a bar in San Francisco suggested that the concept of marriage itself does not take into consideration a person’s need for change over time, suggesting that marriage would, in fact, best be represented through a contract that gets revised every five years to ensure that both parties are still “up for it” so to speak (i.e. good bye “happily ever after” and hello “happily until the next contract renegotiation”!) While some ideas border on the extreme, it was enough to send me running with the notion that I had no need for a man in my life.
And run I did. I loudly declared that I never wanted to get married, reiterating this decision to everybody in my near vicinity, friends, family and dates included. (The scary parts? All the dates were into it.) To my credit, I made a good case for eternal celibacy: I was a person who enjoyed flying solo, my happiness did not hinge on finding somebody to help me through life, I explained, I wanted children and could make that happen on my own terms if necessary. And yet, no matter how much I believed – and still believe – all these things to be true, I couldn’t help but be bothered by a lingering sensation that I wasn’t being completely honest with myself. Something about it felt like rebellion with no cause other than stubbornness, and maybe even self-sabotage, comparable to the time I had adamantly refused to take the SAT exam upon arrival to America, blocking my chances to apply to respected, Ivy-level universities. Sure, I had paved my own way via SUNY education, and yet, chances are that I would have benefited greatly from the alternative. In any case, something about my theory simply didn’t measure up, but it wasn’t until I read that sentence of Renaldi’s essay that I realized exactly what it was.
“Twenty years and two children later, I am still with that same man. I don’t need him, but I want him in my life,” she wrote, finally opening up the path to a conclusion to months of reflections. Maybe I didn’t need a partner, but this didn’t mean that I didn’t want one. Sure, I am (somewhat) independent, but this is not a heroic life stance as much as it is a life prerequisite. Nothing is guaranteed in this world and the ability to stand (or, in my case, wobble) on your own two feet is a coup in itself. But does this mean that I should deny myself the opportunity of one day having a partner?
That’s right – not a clinger, not a burden, not a babysitter or a maid or a parental replacement or an ATM machine, but a partner. Because that is what a good union should be – a partnership of two independent people who are together for no other reason than they both want to be, who commit to something and build a life together through equal work and equal contribution. Sure, you don’t need somebody to carry the weight of the world for you, but there is no fault in wanting to find somebody to carry it with you, occasionally making it a little lighter, and a little more fun. As my niece said, it should be nice to be with somebody.
A good partnership – like any good relationship in your life – does not take away from your independence, but instead allows you to grow, to think differently, to reach heights you never would have otherwise, taking the other person along for the ride. My father’s entire career was based on my mother’s late-night kitchen guidance, making whatever success he has their collaborative achievement. I once dated a guy who enjoyed solitude to an unhealthy extreme, and yet even he always insisted that he wanted a partner. “Two heads are better than one,” he would repeat, and I see now that he was right. It’s just a matter of finding a compatible head. (And a cute one, too.)
I still don’t think it’s necessary to get married, and maybe, for the sake of my anti-Russian rebellion, I won’t. Or, maybe, nobody will ever even ask. Or maybe I will change my mind and have a big fluffy princess wedding, Vera Wang cupcake dress and all. (Actually, Valentino will do.) In which case, I truly hope that our contract won’t need to be “reassessed” five years down the line, or even ten. I hope that I am still with the same man – the same partner – twenty years later, not because I need him, but because I want him in my life.