My years of New York City dating—if you’re counting, there have been 12—have involved a lot of guys, short- and long- and mid-term. My longest relationship lasted two years. My shortest—minus the one-off hookups that we all know aren’t “dates” at all—was somewhere in the range of two weeks. There have been certifiable crazies, like the Eastern European fellow who broke my bedroom window in a fit of rage and told me not to complain that he’d broken my “fucking window.” There was the Jersey boy who worked in women’s handbags; fond memories involve him drunk-puking at the Hilton, then giggling hysterically, running, and “hiding” our soiled comforter in front of someone else’s door down the hall. There was the super-successful corporate honcho with a cardboard box for a nightstand. The best friend with whom I had zero sexual attraction. The self-described “bi-coastal but not in a gay way” guy who didn’t come home one night because he’d passed out in a planter underneath the Manhattan Bridge. (We continued to date for at least a month after that.)
Their ages have ranged from nearly 15 years younger than me to going on 15 years older. There were Peter Pan Syndrome–afflicted man-children, full-fledged adult males with zero desire to grow up, maybe ever. There were drunks and drug addicts and maybe once a teetotaler. There were Christians and atheists and Jews. There was a clammer from Cape Cod—a real, live clammer, with his very own waders. There was a man who shaved everything . . . down there . . . every single day. There was the dashing Argentinean only in town for a week; the Ronkonkoma deli worker barely old enough to drink; the beleaguered i-banker who came over regularly just to pass out on my couch. And I can’t forget the “totally eligible” magazine editor who moved to the suburbs while we were dating, convinced me to take a bus to visit him, showed off his two-story brick house with granite kitchen counters and an actual backyard, as if knowing it was exactly what I aspired to—and then promptly married someone else. There were men who have dropped me on my head, literally and figuratively. I could show you bruises.
At some point, I yelled at almost all of these men for not being “what I wanted,” and, as we all do, turned to my female friends for consolation and support. “He doesn’t deserve you,” they would say, my own Greek chorus. “You’re so much better than him.” Then, inevitably: “Why are New York men such assholes?”
If you’re a single, heterosexual woman of a certain age living in New York City, you’ve surely heard some version of the lament more times than you can count: “There are no good single men living in New York City! They’re all gay or taken!” It’s followed by various tales of woe regarding “typical NYC jerks” and the evils they have inflicted upon amazing, upstanding, attractive, intelligent, high-powered New York City women who are so much better than the men they date.
You’ve probably met more than a few aesthetically, shall we say, “uneven” couples, in which the man is short, pudgy, bald—or distractingly hirsute—with one of those pudding faces only a mother (or gold-digger) could love. He’s impossibly rich, and his lady-friend could model for a living, and possibly does. Also, he cheats on her. Only in New York!
And you’ve probably heard, and maybe retold, the modern-day relationship folk tale of that friend of a friend who, after “unsuccessfully” dating in New York for years, met her amazing husband while living or vacationing in Austin, or Boston, or Paris, or Rio, and then brought him back—or moved there herself. Because, you know, you just can’t find a decent dude in this city. It’s impossible. Those who do it are the exception, not the rule. Ask anyone.
Maybe saying and hearing this makes single women feel better. It enforces the belief that there is such a thing as a “plight” of the single lady, and that women can’t be blamed for our lack of success in the New York City relationship game. It’s them, not us.
The problem is, it’s patently untrue. Worse, it’s a cop-out.
New York City, to be fair, suffers its share of problems for the female dater. There are more women than men, which everyone loves to bemoan as the cold, hard cornerstone of this city’s relationship difficulties. According to statistics collected by Richard Florida, author of The Great Reset and director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto, single women currently outnumber single men in New York by 149,219. This is based on data from the U.S. Census, which, it bears mentioning, does not ask to identify sexual orientation. The good news: This number has actually decreased from 2008’s woman-surplus of 210,000, a gap that caused Lysandra Ohrstrom, writing for the Observer, to unleash the ominous decree that “savvy, well-educated women hoping to find a mate and settle down are out of luck.”
Meanwhile, our fine city was recently ranked the top spot for single men to find a willing lady to smooch, and whatever else, on New Year’s Eve, according to more numbers from Mr. Florida. We were named number one of 2010’s top 29 cities for dudes to live in: a/k/a “paradise for men,” according to gratuitous macho website AskMen.com. Luisita Lopez Torregrosa, writing in Politics Daily, called the ratio of men to women “scarily in favor of men,” and advised ladies to “go West—San Diego, Dallas, and Seattle. It’s where the boys are.”
As Tamsen Fadal, relationship expert and the female member of “America’s only husband-wife matchmaking team” told us, “New York is like a candy store to men. If they think, ‘This girl’s not giving me what I want, or pushing things too quickly,’ they find someone else. It’s an unlevel playing field.”
Of course, love is inherently not a level playing field—its terrain is rocky, uncharted, completely unfair. The beautiful, the smart, the successful, and the young will attract more than their allotment of admirers, while the ugly, the desperate, the “too old,” and the socially unfit for whatever reason are just not going to have the same dating opportunities. If you’re a die-hard optimist, maybe you believe that there’s someone for everyone, but there are far more somebodies for some, male or female.
If you’re a single man who has moved to New York City, chances are it has to do with being good—even the best—at something. Hence the workaholics, status-aholics, power-aholics, and whatever else ambition breeds. Meanwhile, the streets are plentiful with ever more attractive women. Amid all that, there is a sense of perpetual youth, a staving off of the trappings of adulthood—like “settling down and getting married”—far into our 30s and even 40s because, frankly, we can get away with it. And there’s so much to do! Why get married when you’re having so much fun? As one man admitted, “Guys in New York have unrealistic standards for what their lives should be.”
But it’s hardly fair to say that New York City women haven’t come here for much the same reasons that men have, or that they don’t have similarly unrealistic expectations. “I think there are a couple of different problems in New York,” says Fadal. “People who live in New York are successful in their field or want to be. We’re not someplace where so much of our time is devoted to relationships. We then realize our years sort of went by.”
This is true of all of us, men and women. Yet somehow, helped along by rom-coms and self-help books and chick lit, at some point we learn to ignore the simple fact that there are two people in every relationship, and that they both have a hand in whether it succeeds or fails. And something else: that the success or failure of most relationships can, if we look at them with open eyes, probably be predicted from the very beginning based on some simple indicators.
Take a “concept” like “He’s Just Not That Into You,” which puts blame squarely on the man’s shoulders. How freeing: He is just not that into you! But at what point did we lose the capacity to be as “Just Not That Into You” as the men? If we’re to expect a society in which men and women are truly considered equals, women have to accept their portion of the responsibility, and the blame.
Here’s the deal, women of New York City: The so-called plight of the single lady? It’s not about him. It’s about you.
Some years ago, having lived in New York City since graduating from college, I was visiting my parents for Thanksgiving. An older male neighbor who had been invited to dinner took one look at me across the table and said to my mother, “She’s single? She’s pretty. What’s wrong with her?”
You can probably imagine the indignant response that ensued, in which I (and my mom) defended my choice not to be married and not even be dating anyone at the ripe old age of, say, 26, because it’s New York and that’s how the kids do things there, and plus I’d just broken up with someone, and who are you to tell me I should already be paired off and shuffled down the aisle for a life of tedium and domesticity anyway, old neighbor man?
But, really, the question hit home because there was truth to it. There was (and still is) something wrong with me. And it’s the same thing that’s “wrong” with pretty much every single woman in New York complaining she can’t find a decent man, or who has perhaps even given up in pursuit of her own continued drama and mini-amusements with the kind of guys she’d never want to settle down with anyway (safer that way): We don’t know what we want. And so we want a little bit of everything, over and over again.
Auntie Mame said famously that “Life is a banquet, and most poor bastards are starving to death!” But those poor bastards don’t live in New York City, where the banquet is 24 hours a day and everybody wants a piece of everybody else, if just for a little amuse-bouche. We’re free and “grown up” and independent; we can do what we want, sexually and otherwise. Which is part of the problem, if you’re going to call it that.
When asked what he thought about the “plight of the single lady”—and women who blame men for the state of dating in the city, a single New Yorker in his twenties admitted, “I see where they’re coming from, but, in a lot of ways, they bring it upon themselves. I think if girls were more withholding, boys would be more likely to commit, but because boys can get most of what they want without having to commit, they do. That implies that all boys want is to hook up, which I don’t think is true, but I think that is a lot of it. That’s why when a girl says, ‘Oh, sure, we can hook up and I won’t be weird about it,’ they end up yelling at you a week later.”
For every loser I’ve screamed at, there have been nice, normal single guys with perfectly acceptable ZIP codes and ages and jobs and habits who never did a thing wrong but for some reason were chucked after the first or second, or maybe even third, date for being boring, predictable, too nice, too normal, not successful enough, or . . . admitted to no one, perhaps not even myself: too available. The scariest of scary words.
If you’re like me (and I think a lot of us are), you might say you can’t stand drama and that all you want is a nice, stable relationship with someone who loves and treats you well, but “nice” and “stable” have hardly the appeal of words like “exciting” or “passionate” or, well, “drama.” Our status as single, independent, financially solvent New York City women in the year 2011 has us sitting on a mountain of unprecedented options. Options: Those are exciting. So we want all the options, bigger and better and faster and shinier, or taller or sexier or stronger or smarter, and yet somehow also different and completely our own. We want the tippy-top of what we can get—why shouldn’t we? And we want to push those boundaries.
That, to a large extent, is why we live here. It’s not because we wanted to settle down with the patient and reliable plod-along schmo, and have babies and live in a three-bedroom house with a two-car garage where we peaceably grill in the summer and make casseroles in winter until we die. It’s not because we wanted our lives charted out before we lived them.
My high school boyfriend was probably the best man I’ve ever dated. One time, for no reason whatsoever, he printed out a dictionary definition of “beautiful,” circled the word, drew an arrow to it, and wrote “THIS IS YOU.” He left it for me somewhere I would find it, as a surprise. He told me he loved me. But at the end of high school, when I knew I was going away to bigger, brighter things while he stayed in town and continued at the local community college, I tried to dump him over and over again, eventually making out with a random guy in a band on high school graduation night and telling the would-be ex about it the next day. The ex has a little boy, a dog, and a wife now; I don’t even own a cat. But I have options! I wanted them then; I still want them now.
Yet these never-ending options wreak havoc with us, as does the idea that we can dally with each of them without ever deciding on any and just hope it will all fall where it may—that someday our prince will come, and he better be fucking good. As a married friend mused, “Holding out for everything we want—maybe it’s a delusional expectation. Maybe it’s more about self-reflection, an exercise in goals. It’s more you-centered soul-searching than about the guy, necessarily. In most relationships, there’s a huge, huge focus on timing. A lot of it is just a matter of reaching the point where you’ve figured out what you want.”
Florida, the man behind those male-female NYC dating stats, writes on his website that “one reason ladies in the prime marriage years flock to big cities is to compete for the most eligible men,” and intelligent women who gravitate to “vibrant cities are more likely to stay single—for longer, at least—because they rightly refuse to settle for someone who can’t keep up with them intellectually or otherwise.”
“Rightly refusing to settle,” especially for someone who’s boring, otherwise uninspired, or just a bad choice, sounds pretty good—even empowering. Somewhere along the way, “settling” became a dirty word, evoking visceral reactions of distaste and even disgust, particularly for the strivers among us. Take the negative reactions to Lori Gottlieb’s book Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough, which suggests that women who are still single after 35 are just too damn picky.
But I’d argue that it’s not about being picky. It’s about having all of these options, and not knowing how to choose from among them, or whether we even want to. It’s about the years of being told we can have it all, and suddenly being deeply afraid to admit that that house of cards has been a sham all along because no one really gets to have it all. (And so, the self-professed adamantly anti-marriage Elizabeth Gilbert—who ate, prayed, and loved her options into a bestseller and a Julia Roberts movie—ultimately “caved” to marrying her foreign-born partner so that he could live in the U.S.)
Everyone has to make choices. This isn’t to say that if you want a successful career and to be a wife and a mom, you can’t do it. Nor that you can’t do it fairly well. But inevitably, you’ll have to give up one thing for something else. Why should you settle? Because that’s what all humans do when they make choices.
If Carrie Bradshaw were here and an actual person, she would say, “But what about the ‘za-za-zoo’?” And after berating her for that corny terminology, I’d grudgingly agree that, yes, there needs to be something—call it magic, or a spark, or a connection—with regard to our romantic relationships. But the magic pales in comparison to the simplest, and yet most difficult, of things. Knowing what you want. It’s timing, but it’s more than that, because you dictate your own timing. You hold the cards.
If Carrie had wanted marriage and kids back in Season 4, she would have stuck with Aidan. Instead, she got panicked and neurotic and self-destructive and Carrie Bradshaw–esque, and started to have an affair with Big, who was clearly (until the unbelievable ending of the series) never going to marry her. Why do that to yourself? Because you aren’t quite sure you want to get married, either. Because the grass is ever so mysteriously greener in the yard (does he even have a yard?) of the guy who doesn’t want to marry you. And because it makes for good drama, or, at the very least, tragicomedy.
Still, at the end of the movie, or the TV series, everything gets wrapped up neatly and tied with a Tiffany-box bow. In the film version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Holly Golightly is eventually tamed by the love of a good man who has been there all along. In Working Girl, the girl gets her career-with-corner-office and Harrison Ford to pack her lunchbox. In The Apartment, Shirley MacLaine’s character attempts suicide on account of Mr. Wrong, but in surviving finds her Mr. Right. Harry and Sally run through the relationship ropes course as enemies, friends, lovers, and enemies again, only to end up an old married couple. As do, of course, Carrie and Big. It all just seems to unfold, without anybody doing too much soul-searching or goal-plotting, much like a movie. A movie set in New York! This is what we’re supposed to want.
People who have been married will tell you that it’s not all butterflies and lying in the grass together clutching hands. It’s actually work—not magic, and not the movies. Which means the dream we expect for ourselves drastically needs to be tempered with a dash of reality, a dose of self-reflection. As a thirtysomething New York woman said, “Ultimately, marriage has more to do with knowing what you’re looking for. Sure, there are a lot of guys out there that suck, but I don’t think that’s a New York–specific issue. There are all of these successful, smart, workaholic women who have their shit together and strong views and senses of who they are. Their expectations are a bit higher. And in New York, there’s not this worry about being the only single person; we all have friends who are married, married with kids, divorced, single.”
Fewer people are getting married than ever. According to a Pew Research poll published at the end of last year, about half of all adults in the U.S. are married, down from 72 percent in 1960. Four in 10 people consider marriage obsolete. At the same time that fewer of us are getting married, more people are doing it for love—93 percent said it was the most important reason to tie the knot. Love is not something that used to factor into marriages; it’s a relatively modern concept. You might say we’re spoiled by even expecting it, and that it’s entirely unrelated to a social “institution” that was really about property and taxes and making sure you had enough kids to work the farm or protect the homestead way back when—not to mention one of the only socially acceptable ways for women to have sex.
But if you confessed to someone today that you’d married without “being in love,” because you’d simply wanted to get married or have the financial foundation to start a family (or buy more shoes), or maybe because you just didn’t want to spend Sundays alone anymore, they would look at you with a horror akin to what you might bestow upon a person admitting to murder.
If there is a real and current plight of the single lady in New York City, it’s not that New York men are so horrible. It’s figuring out how to balance what you want and what you can get—in terms of love, marriage, and what each guy has to offer—against all of the options, including the imminent biological reality of your decreasing fertility. It’s figuring out if you care about your fertility at all, and if you care about it in light of being—or not being—married. Because at some point, it will simply be too late to have kids.
At the same time, if you don’t want children, then maybe you don’t really want a husband, or as one happily unmarried New Yorker explained, “I’d never been really hung up on having kids. It certainly made dating easier, because I didn’t have the same timeline some of my friends did. No urgency. The same holds true now that I am dating someone. Whether we get married or not is almost immaterial since we don’t plan on having kids. Unless, of course, one of us gets hooked up with really good health insurance. Then we’d get married for sure.”
The fertility question is often a tipping point, and definitely “a challenge for women,” says Fadal. “Men here are very motivated, and their career comes first. They’re not under any age restriction, nor do they face the fertility reality. If that weren’t an issue, I think women would keep playing the field, too. I would. But all the technology in the world isn’t going to change that.” Another married New Yorker agreed: “If you could have babies easily into your 50s, I think you’d go on being single forever,” she said. But we can’t. This is just a biological fact.
It’s also a fact that, at least in the non-romantic portions of life, understanding and expressing what you want makes achieving it far easier, whatever the “it” is. Yet, by and large, New York City women fail to be specific with men about what they really want and instead just go along with things hoping for the best and getting angry when it doesn’t work out that way. Or they’re so specific, with such intricately wrought lists of requirements for what they will and won’t date, that they miss the point altogether—if the criteria is that complicated, maybe they don’t actually want to be with someone at all yet.
Perhaps this is changing. I’ve heard of at least two single New York women who have set their own wedding dates for themselves—minus even a potential boyfriend. Say what you will about the “method,” but I think they should be congratulated for having at least acknowledged what they want while so many of us wait aimlessly for a nebulous “Mr. Right” with whom we will fall deeply and madly in love in the kind of fantasy relationship promoted by romantic comedies. When that doesn’t happen, because it can’t happen—it never happens—we blame the men. But ladies, we are so much smarter than that!
There is nothing wrong with taking your time and sampling liberally from the buffet. As Fadal says, “I caution against trying to settle down before you’re ready. Every guy has his purpose. There’s the guy who takes you great places, the guy you’re sleeping with, etc. If you’re enjoying yourself, and if you do it in the right way, there’s nothing wrong with that.”
And so, the wild and crazy kisser who actually broke your front tooth, which then required dental work; the guy who taught you to always ask for Sriracha in your deviled eggs; the man who introduced you to Wolf Parade; the man who introduced you to really good bourbon; the guy with kids who helped you remember why you do, or don’t, want them for yourself; the bisexual co-worker; the “poonhound”; the one that got away; and the one you let get away on purpose—they all have a place in your dating life. Don’t regret them.
Once you know what you want, narrow the options, make your choices, and go for it. But until you do, embrace not knowing. Make New York your playground and stop complaining about how single ladies have it so hard in this city. Along the way, remember that men are not the enemy. Many of them are reasonable and good and not at all the brutes we’ve made them out to be, even if they don’t want to marry us (and some of them do). One recently confessed that he’d like to get married in the next few years because “I don’t want to be 34 and doing that thing that sketchy New York guys do where they go out and act as though they’re 24. I’ve seen too much of it. . . . It’s a real cautionary tale.” When I told him that was refreshing, he said, “I think most guys feel that way.”
The other night, I had drinks with the ex who’d passed out in that planter underneath the Manhattan Bridge. We hadn’t talked in about three months. He bought me two glasses of wine, touched me on the shoulder, and told me I looked “unbelievable.” I knew I could do it all again if I wanted to. Options. Drama. Will I? I’m not narrowing them yet.
By Jen Doll Wednesday, Feb 9 2011
(originally published in the Village Voice)