Fredric Neuman M.D.

Fighting Fear

Why Some People Can't Find Anyone to Marry

"Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink."

Posted Apr 12, 2013

I was talking some time ago with a young, but not very young, friend of the family about why she had not married.

“There’s nobody around here that is eligible,” she said.

“In New York City? Last time I counted, there were eight million people in New York.”

“They’re all married, or gay. Or both,” she said (making a joke, I surmised).

Still, this attractive and talented person—who said she wanted to get married—was not dating anyone.

Other people seem to have no trouble finding someone to marry. Most people get married eventually. Some get married repeatedly—seven or eight times. After my mother died, my father, who was sixty-four at the time, told me morosely that he would never find anyone like my mother; he then married two more times in the space of the next three years. Over the years that I have been a practicing psychiatrist, I have known a number of people who married the same person twice, and, recently, someone who married the same person three times! I have never understood these repeat marriages to be in response to a dearth of other potential partners. It is just that getting away from a spouse for a while sometimes allows a couple to remember all the good times they had together back in the beginning of their marriage. They tend to forget those other matters that led to their divorce—until they remarry. Of course, other divorces lead to a deathless and unvarying enmity. Still more lead to indifference.

There are plenty of potential marriage partners. Usually, dating relationships spring up in four different settings. First, people meet other people in the same community and begin dating. But there are never very many potential partners living in the same neighborhood. And my young friend had a point: In New York City, it is not uncommon to consider the people who have lived down the hall for the last twenty years to be total strangers.

Secondly, couples sometimes develop dating relationships at work. These are usually discouraged by employers, but take place anyway. After a certain age, however, many of the other workers are already married.

Third, and perhaps most important, couples meet each other during shared activities, such as academic studies, or sports, or organized social activities, or at church. Having a particular interest makes someone interesting to someone who shares that interest.

Nowadays, of course, there is also the fourth way: internet dating. I carry around a list of about twenty dating sites which I can offer to patients who express an interest. Although there are well-known drawbacks to dating this way, I think, on balance, it is a good way of meeting a great number of people. It seems to me obvious that the more people you meet, the more likely it is that you will meet and marry someone appropriate (if what you want is to meet and marry someone).

But I have had three patients recently who made me think about this problem further. Each of them told me that they wanted very much to get married, yet none of them was successful in finding anyone.

The first was a woman who had just graduated from nursing school. Let’s call her Sally. Although young, Sally was already discouraged about not finding someone to date, let alone to marry. I thought she was very attractive, although she did not think so. Of course, I could not tell her my opinion because she would have dismissed it out of hand, as she would that of a parent or a close friend. I thought she would be convinced, though, by others. She had just taken a position at a hospital where I knew there were many young doctors who would be working alongside her. I expected that she was going to be pursued by a number of them. But it did not happen. It took me a while to figure out why,

Sally had become invisible. Usually, when people work in the same setting, they begin, after a time, to smile at each other when they pass in a hallway. Or they comment vaguely on some aspect of the weather while they are waiting together for an elevator to arrive. Sally did not. She wore a lock of hair over her eyes, and she looked away when someone looked at her in passing. She thought she was being neither welcoming nor rejecting, but rather sort of neutral. I tried to explain to her that being “neutral” would be perceived as being cold, but she seemed unable to change.

Finally, she told me that there was an intern that she was attracted to. He had examined her when she had had strep throat. I told her that was great—the next time she ran into him in the corridors of the hospital she should thank him and offer—as thanks—to buy him a cup of coffee.

“I can’t do that,” Sally told me hurriedly. “I can’t be forward that way.”

The only time Sally relaxed a little was when she was drinking. Consequently, the only men she met were in bars. Finally, she married an alcoholic.

Mary Ellen worked at IBM in a relatively senior post for a woman of thirty-four. She had a graduate degree. She came to see me when she realized that she had not left her apartment during the entire two weeks of her vacation. She was depressed, but not with the vegetative signs of a major depression and therefore not likely to respond to drugs. She reported that she had not dated anyone for over a year. She was isolated. Yet she told me that she wanted to date and to marry. Her story was familiar, and I've remembered it ever since.

“How can it be,” I asked her, “that you cannot find anyone to date?”

“The only men who come on to me are at work, and they are all married.”

It turned out Mary Ellen never did anything or went anywhere—except to work. When I suggested the usual ways of finding someone to date, she demurred.

“That’s just not me,” she said.

I was unable to help her. When she returned to work a few weeks later—and to her customary life—she stopped coming to see me.

The third woman was also an IBMer. She was a secretary. She said she wanted to get married and had been unsuccessfully looking for someone for years. She had no trouble dating, but seemed to sour on men for no particular reason. This happened repeatedly. Finally, she said to me:

“You know, there are some disadvantages to getting married. I work until six. Then I’m going to have to go home and cook dinner for someone else. I’m going to have to do his laundry and have sex when he wants to have sex. I’m going to have to worry about how he spends my money.”

No wonder she was balking at the prospect of marriage, No wonder she found some excuse to stop seeing anyone who might be a prospective husband. Although she had a cheery daydream about marriage in the back of her mind, she had, in the front of her mind, a much different picture.

These women (I could have just as easily chosen three men) illustrate the two principal reasons an individual cannot find an appropriate partner. The two reasons overlap.

1. In order to meet and date someone, it is necessary to go to places where such an encounter is possible.

More important, it is necessary to be open about wanting to meet someone. It is not an embarrassment and does not portray desperation. It is a normal way to feel; others will understand that feeling and, indeed, feel that way themselves. Someone who does not invite interest will seem not to want to meet anyone. It is not possible to be “neutral” and wait for someone, somehow, like in the movies, to meet and fall in love on a street corner. Like any other human endeavor, meeting and marrying becomes much more likely if someone is proactive—if that person plainly wants to meet someone and is willing to work at it. The feeling of “That’s just not me” evaporates, like any other old habit of mind. Doing something that is anxiety-provoking for any reason loses its ability to intimidate over time.

2. Most people regard marriage as liberating, although they may not articulate it in just that way. 

Once someone is married, he/she is free to be with an interesting person practically all the time. They are able to speak and laugh together at all hours. They can have sex without making elaborate preparations. They are free to manage in a world that is largely designed for couples, rather than for single people. They have more economic opportunities because their joint income is more than that of either of them alone. Marriage is, in a real way, liberating. But not everyone sees it that way. For some people, marriage seems as if it will be a constraint. A woman, for instance, secretly thinks that she will now be subject to the whims and demands of a husband. A man may say something similar:

“I don’t want to have to answer to someone all the time. I don’t want to ask for permission to buy the car I want or to stay out late with my friends. I don’t want someone making a claim on my hard-earned money. I don’t want someone taking up all of the bed!” If someone thinks of marriage as unpleasant, it will not be possible to find anyone desirable to marry.

In short, some people have trouble finding someone to marry because they find the process of looking uncomfortable, and even demeaning. And others really do not want to get married; they want to maintain a fiction of aspiring to marriage, but it is only a fiction.

Not everyone should be married (or wants to be), but for those that desire marriage, achieving the goal can bring stability and happiness. The two problems described above that prevent marriage are an outgrowth of certain inaccurate ideas some people have developed about themselves and about the world. Often, these misconceptions change in psychotherapy; and, luckily, people do not have to change very much to change their lives. If people can be persuaded not to be proud and not to be fearful, there are plenty of opportunities to find someone to share their lives.

(c) Fredric Neuman, 2013

Be sure to read the following responses to this post by our bloggers: