Our culture understands commitment in a rather simplistic way: Women want it, men resist it.
We all know the stereotypes of desperate husband-seekers rushing against ticking biological clocks. Similarly, we are all familiar with the lovable, good-guy-who-just-can’t-commit character popularized in romantic comedies. It is a cultural narrative that's appealing in its neatness and simplicity.
The implication, of course, is that we women are practically jumping out of our skins for a chance at commitment—and marriage. Indeed, we are marketed everything from Friday Brideday to how-to articles on “getting him to propose” (Step 5 of Method 4: Don’t be desperate). It almost goes without saying that comparable programming does not exist in man-focused media. The assumption is that this is what we want, unquestionably, and that this is what will make us happy more than anything else.
These tropes don’t come out of nowhere—we women are working with a biological reality that fertility is at its peak in a time of our lives when we've been programmed to "get ahead." And if you do want to settle with someone in a similar life situation, the numbers can be discouraging: eligible, college-educated, professional women outnumber eligible, college-educated, professional men. Combined with other factors (hook-up culture, I’m looking at you), the social atmosphere does seem to produce a commitment imbalance, where men feel free to play the field as they please, and women are expected to either play along and hope for the best, or be condemned to cat-lady land. So it's easy to see how “women insist, men resist” becomes the social norm, and to imagine that instant happiness is available to us at the single pop of a ring box.
But the reality is not this simple. Major relationship commitment like engagement and marriage is not as easy and uncomplicated for women as the stories imply, and it would help women to hear that more often.
In my own case, I have come to appreciate the nuances of commitment because of my recent engagement. Like many women, I dreamed of getting married since I was a little girl: the engagement, the ring, the dress, the walk down the aisle. And then, suddenly, there it was: the engagement! The ring! And soon: the wedding! The moment I spent so much time envisioning had finally arrived.
What I had not envisioned were the complicated emotions.
Of course, I was overjoyed. But then other things occurred to me that I had not thought of before. For example, I recently realized that I will probably be chilly the rest of my life, since my future husband likes to keep his home at a cooler temperature. I know, given his persistence on this point, that the air conditioning battle is one I’m likely to lose. It is not a bad thing, really. It is just one of the many formerly small things that are now huge in their permanence. It requires adjustment and compromise.
Say Yes to the Dress did not prepare me for this.
Similarly, our prevailing cultural narrative and its many manifestations excludes the stories of my several friends who have gotten married or engaged and have since divorced or separated, recognizing too late that their enthusiasm for a life with their spouse was less than their enthusiasm for having a wedding.
I should clarify that I never doubted my choice in life partner, and that my enthusiasm for marrying him has never flagged. My nervousness was on another plane: We were talking about forever. It’s the only promise I will ever make that explicitly invokes the eternal. The rest of my life; the rest of his. It is huge, and it is scary.
The myth of the instant happily-ever-after obscures the essential, real, hard work that needs to go into making major commitments, and it is essential to be aware of the trap. When we tell women that they're supposed to just naturally be ready to commit, we can feel like some failed science experience when our hearts start freaking out.
It is only through honest discussion among ourselves and our support networks that we can learn the crucial difference between harmless “cold feet” and serious doubts. The honesty must be ruthless: as any good couples therapist will tell you, sometimes the best result of this kind of examination is the end of the relationship. Overall, it is important to recognize the limitations of this story that we’ve been told all our lives, and that we teach ourselves how to navigate the terrain not mapped out by fairy tales.
In my own case, my future husband and I are still learning to master the art of the marital compromise. To help, we are moving consciously, we are talking (a lot), and we are not being shy. We’re drawing in help from our support network, and we’re planning on attending pre-marital counseling. Of course, only time will tell if we’ve been successful in preparing ourselves for the true test of time, but I am hopeful that we will get to enjoy our own, real-life, hard-earned happily ever after.