Presumptuousness: The Scourge of Those Who Dare to Live Life Their Own Way?

Public declarations of romantic love are presumptuous spectacles

Posted Jul 03, 2011

The political and social movement that resulted in same-sex marriage rights in New York inspired many opinion pieces, including an op-ed by Katherine Franke that appeared in the New York Times. Among her many insightful comments was this one:

"Our phone has been ringing off the hook with calls from well-meaning relatives and friends who want to 'save the date' for our wedding once it's legal. It's been hard to break it to them that we don't plan on marrying, though we are glad that many of our friends can and will.

"What's difficult to explain is that for some lesbians and gay men, having our relationships sanctioned and regulated by the state is hardly something to celebrate. It was only a few years ago that we were criminals in the eyes of the law simply because of whom we loved. As strangers to marriage for so long, we've created loving and committed forms of family, care and attachment that far exceed, and often improve on, the narrow legal definition of marriage. Many of us are not ready to abandon those nonmarital ways of loving once we can legally marry."

Here at Living Single, we have often talked about the importance in our lives of people other than a spouse - friends, relatives, mentors, and more. We've also addressed another theme - that not everyone benefits from same-sex marriage rights. That's the central point of Franke's piece, though she does not fully acknowledge all single people in her analysis.

What I want to mull over this time is something different - the presumptuousness of Franke's "well-meaning relatives and friends" and how that same presumptuousness can blight the experiences of single people, of adults with no children, and really, of anyone who chooses to live life in a way that is not socially expected way.

There was a lively discussion in the comments section of my post about whether even single people come to believe the myth that they are selfish. In pondering many of the points that were made, I realized that many of them spoke to the same theme: When you are single, other people presume to know what you want, what you should want, and what conversational topics would interest you. If they don't already know that you are single, then of course they assume that you are not - especially if your 20s are behind you.

It is true that anyone can be pre-judged, including those who live the most conventional lives. But there is, I think, a special force behind the presumptuousness about those who do not stay in their societally-approved places. That force is the weight of cultural consensus about the best way to live - even when that consensus is only a perceived one and even when there are no clear criteria for judging one way of life superior to another.

Some examples of presumptuousness are small ones, but they add up. Years ago, when I was just beginning to think through issues of singlism, a friend stopped by my office and described what had just happened in a lab meeting. The faculty member leading the lab meeting announced that one of the graduate students had gotten engaged. Everyone cheered, and the talk turned to the plans for the wedding. My friend's question was this: Why should one person's engagement be a cause for excitement and celebration? My friend did not find the news all that remarkable. Why, too, should a professional meeting be derailed for a personal announcement?

Now you might say, well they were just being nice; I understand that reaction and I don't totally disagree. What was new to me at the time that my friend posed her question was that such a question could be posed at all. I never found engagement announcements all that exciting either, but never thought to respond in any other way than the expected one. Now I think more critically. If we are going to cheer for one person's anticipation of wedlock, why not also applaud the person who just bought her first home, or the one who is caring for an aging parent while working on his research at the same time? The latter sounds strange, but isn't that actually a more noble commitment than the promise to marry?

The matrimania presumption is powerful and unchallenged. Think of all of the public declarations of romantic love - the suitor who makes his marriage proposal in skywriting, the one who announces on national TV or at a big-time sporting event, the high school student who invites his sweetie to the prom in big bold letters inscribed on the side of a building. These are all public spectacles based on the presumption that everyone else should be as excited and happy and agog as you are about your personal romantic life.  I don't begrudge any of these people their joyfulness, but I do begrudge the presumption that their values are also mine.

[Thanks to Cynthia for the heads-up about the New York Times op-ed and to Crimson for her great quip about values in the discussion of this previous post.]