Why I’m Single: Then and Now

Joan DelFattore explains why even the most egalitarian marriage would fall short

Posted Nov 12, 2016

[Bella’s intro: As longtime readers of this blog know, I often have a lot to say when I introduce a guest post. Not this time. I have just one thing to say: I love this essay. Okay, two things: Thank you so much, Joan DelFattore, for sharing it with “Living Single” readers.]

Why I’m Single: Then and Now

Guest Post by Joan DelFattore

I didn't want to be my grandmother. I would have died rather than live as she did. 

In my grandparents’ big old house in New Jersey, dinner had to be on the table the minute Grandpa walked in the door. This was my father's father, Giovanni: big and bald, with a booming voice and a bristly moustache. 

My grandmother, Angelina, was both intelligent and unattractive—a double whammy in the pre-World War I marriage market. A tall, bony woman with a bulbous nose and crinkly hair, she'd reached the advanced age of twenty-four before Grandpa came along. According to family lore, her father paid him to marry her.

One evening, Grandpa came home earlier than usual, and dinner wasn't ready.  Enraged, he threw the undercooked spaghetti against the wall, followed by the sauce and meatballs. 

The next day, Grandma made spaghetti again, keeping it warm in a big pewter pot.  That pot is mine now. I keep it in the basement, not in the kitchen, because seeing it makes me want to cry.

When she heard Grandpa's car in the driveway, Grandma dumped the spaghetti and meatballs into a bowl and rushed to the door to thrust it, steaming, under his nose.  I wasn't there, but I heard the story many times. He loved telling it, because he thought it showed how completely he had his woman under control. I've never been sure, though, whether Grandma was being subservient or ironic. I doubt that she knew, either. I also wonder how she felt when he told that story, over and over and over.

That's the kind of marriage I saw as a kid—not so much a partnership as a socially sanctioned hostage situation. But that was decades ago, in an age of poodle skirts and saddle shoes, when cars had giant fins and the latest technology was the transistor radio. Since then, my understanding of marriage, and the reasons I prefer to be single, have changed as much as the world itself has.

Where I grew up, "Would your husband let you come to the movies on Saturday?" was a perfectly ordinary question for one woman to ask another. But in the college town where I moved after graduate school, it would have been not so much insulting as incomprehensible, as if I were speaking Latin. I got the point: Marriage in my new environment was indescribably more egalitarian than what I’d known before. Sooo . . . OK, I thought. I guess I can get married now.        

But time passed, and nothing was happening. Without realizing it, I was experiencing what Bella DePaulo describes as believing that you must want to find a partner, because supposedly everyone does: “Yet, somehow, taking specific steps to do so seems to rank somewhere between cleaning out your sock drawer and deleting old emails.” Email hadn’t been invented yet, but the rest was right on. Although I enjoyed the company of men, the whole go-out-there-and-look-for-a-husband thing just wasn't getting off the ground, and I didn’t seem to care.

All around me, well-educated, independent women were flourishing in their marriages.  That made me wonder: Suppose I was missing out on something? If childhood trauma was still driving my decisions, then I wasn’t really free.  

Clearly a job for a shrink—but one to be carefully chosen. This was the 1980s, when therapy was even more couples-oriented than it is today. If I weren't careful, I could find myself being skillfully redirected to focus on how, not whether, to find a husband. 

The psychologist I chose was a few years older than I, happily married with two teenage kids.

"If you do decide to get married," she asked one day, "what kind of man would you look for?"

"One with a challenging job and lots of outside interests. Does volunteer work. Plays sports. Like that."

"So you'd want someone who's well-rounded and intellectually stimulating?"

"No. I'd want someone who's never home."

And that was it, right there. It wasn't about financial independence or equality, which were once such a big deal for me. By then, I knew plenty of married women who have those in abundance. 

But I wasn't starting with a blank slate, seeking a partner with whom to build a life. My adult identity was already established, with friends, a rewarding career, a decent income, my own home, interests that deeply engaged me—and above all, a need for privacy, solitude, and autonomy too intense for a shared life. Even the most egalitarian marriage would mean trading what I had for something else. It would change not only how I spent my days, but who I was. 

By the time I seriously considered marriage, I was sophisticated enough to appreciate the warmth and beauty of a loving relationship, but mature enough to view it as a choice, not as a mandatory rite of passage or the only possible source of intimacy.  And, by then, I'd challenged so many social expectations that What will people think? had lost much of its terror.  

Paradoxically, because of the limitations of my early years, I ended up with something most women of my baby-boomer generation never had: the chance to establish a life of privacy and solitude as an independent adult, and then decide, in complete freedom, whether to keep it or look for a partner.  

As many as a quarter of millennials will never marry, the Pew Foundation predicts, and those coming up behind them may be even less likely to. Compared with women in earlier generations, those now of childbearing age face far less pressure to couple up right out of high school or college. Many, perhaps most, will still want partners at some point, but as more women get a taste of real adult life on their own, the choice to live single will, inevitably, become more common. Perhaps I'll even live to see the day when women don't have to explain why they prefer to live single, any more than they now have to explain why they choose to marry.

About the Author: Joan DelFattore is a professor emerita of English and legal studies at the University of Delaware. Her publications include three books with Yale University Press as well as dozens of articles, mostly about freedom of speech and religion. Her current project is a memoir/research hybrid about being a lifelong single-by-choice, including dealing with singlism in medical care.