Earlier this year, as I was casually throwing some pottery in a nearly empty ceramics studio, a young woman struck up a conversation with me. After some small-talk banter, she brought up the matter of my age, and as someone who regards no topic taboo, I didn’t hesitate to provide her with it. She furrowed her eyebrows slightly before asking me for my full name. Naturally, I responded. The brows constricted now in clear confusion: “Yes, yes,” she said, “but what’s your maiden name?”
This time, I did hesitate, despite the answer being so obvious —- I didn’t have one. The woman, who confessed she was 22 and had been married for several years, looked at me uncomprehendingly, as though she had genuinely never heard of someone in my situation. During our conversation up to this point, she had held herself as a down-to-earth, aware, progressive individual. So, logically, when someone who depicted herself in this way was so startled by my position, she rattled even me.
Her question had completely bypassed the awkwardly unacceptable question of “When are you going to get married?” or “Are you married yet?” and went full-steam ahead to assuming, based on my age and perhaps location, that I had reached that “benchmark” in my life.
Despite being slightly unsettled by the situation, I didn’t blame her. Some people talk about that stage in their lives when all their other friends are getting married. Yeah, I passed that. In fact, the bulk of my friends went on a marriage spree four years ago and are now working on child two or three.
Moreover, only three short weeks ago, I stood beside my brother in my home parish in the midwest as he looked intimately into his fiancée’s eyes and said those two famous words. Mind you, this is my little brother, so the day — already chock-full of particularly personally confusing emotions, initially heightened and eventually calmed by a series of Manhattans — could only be aggravated by the look and questions of the other wedding-goers.
Granted, up to this point I’ve silently averted many of these questions simply by being a black sheep — the only one in my immediate family and one of very few in the extended family to move out of my home state of Michigan. Their attitudes of “She’ll figure it out once she calms down and stops being such a wild child” come across in comments such as, “Still living the free life, I see,” as though my life is overly selfish because I haven’t dedicated myself to another individual, as though marriage “will sort me out.”
The funny thing is that I want to get married. So when I hear someone ask me, “When are you getting married?” I don’t get offended, nor am I bitterly reminded of past failed relationships. According to research and personal experience, these questions of “When are you getting married?” and “Why aren’t you married yet?” more often crop up in regards to couples already together for a series of years.
Though I am not one of these long-termers — or even a short-termer — I still know asking the question perpetuates the idea that, without marriage, these individuals are missing out or incomplete. And yet, despite good intentions, the askers may not realize that some couples may be facing financial hardship; others may simply not be ready. Some individuals may be on a different page than their partners or not believe in the institution of marriage at all. Some may be happily or unhappily single but suddenly feel the pressure from society, friends, and family. Still more may be in toxic relationships that have lasted for years but now feel stuck to continue on to marriage because they hear, “Well, it’s been four years now, so what are you waiting for — are you going to get married yet?”
Despite being happy on my life path and despite how much I can tell myself to disregard the thoughts of others and the unquestioning expectations of society, there’s only so much one person can handle — the comments, the looks, the pictures, the social media, the numbers — before feeling the overwhelming sense of being “left behind,” of missing out on something.
Purposefully or accidentally, propagating the idea of “being left behind” because someone has the answer “no” to the question of “Are you married yet?” instills the idea that they should or must or will ultimately get married in order to enjoy the full benefits life has to offer.
Not only this, but research shows that views on marriage have shifted drastically over the past 50 years — illustrating that we need to shift our views so that we aren’t assuming everyone must adhere to our personal standards of what classifies as a traditional or expected life path.
According to Pew Center research, in 1960, 72 percent of adults (ages 18 and older) were married. Most recently in 2010, these numbers were at 51 percent. More relevant, though, are the statistics regarding young adults (ages 18–29). In 2010, only a fifth of young adults were married, which is down from 59 percent in 1960.
In addition, according to 2011 research, the average age for men to marry for the first time is 29, whereas 27 is the average age for women. This is a drastic shift from the 1960s when the average ages were 23 and 20 (male and female, respectively). This is more interesting when realizing how many individuals marry way earlier than the average age, especially in Southern Utah, which means many individuals outside of this desert community are getting married far later than the averages represented above.
This is not to say marriage at a young age is negative or a poor choice — not at all. Everyone’s situation is different, and for many, marrying young is a beautiful, healthy choice. This is simply to say that those who have not married (or will never marry) should not be handled differently or with the expectation of wedding bells in their (near) future.
Chances are that if a couple is going to get married, they are going to let their close friends and family know. So rather than asking, “Are you married yet?” or “When are you getting married?” let them come to you with their news on their own time and in their own way.