As you no doubt know, I love Kate Harding and usually nod firmly at her blog posts. But I have to disagree with this one she wrote about a woman named Neenah Pickett, who gave herself a year to find a husband and kept a blog called 52 Weeks 2 Find Him Blog. I firmly agree with Kate that narratives that tell women they must be passive (or passive aggressive) to “catch” a man are sexist and not as effective as advertised, and that the portrayal of men as being composed of nothing but tender ego and skittishness—where any kind of expectation-setting from a woman is sure to scare them off—is also ridiculous. But I can’t help but disagree with her about whether or not it’s a good idea to make it a goal to find your spouse and give yourself a time limit to do so, and it’s really not a good idea to advertise it.
The passage from Kate I have to argue with:
Funny how that dovetails with long-standing gender roles and sexist expectations, although it’s now dressed up as the self-respecting, even vaguely feminist choice — only the most pathetic, unenlightened woman would openly act like she might be happier in a committed relationship, right? Even if she’s pretty sure she would. Saying you want a man because you happen to be straight and lonely is just too dangerously close to saying you need one and single-handedly sending women back to the dark ages! It’s much safer for your own heart and indeed the sisterhood if you squelch your desires and wait patiently for someone to come along and deem you dateworthy. Just as women have always been trained to do, but never mind that. (Perhaps the popularity of “The Rules” can be explained by the simple fact that it gives women something to do while furiously pretending we’re doing nothing.)
Call me an optimist, but I think there’s a way to find a happy medium between pursuing love in a way that’s laid back and pleasurable, and coming across as desperate. Sure, it’s an art form, striking that perfect balance of showing interest and investment in someone, but not letting your desire to have someone become so overwhelming that they run away because you’re desperate. And some of the choices you can make to avoid seeming desperate are pretty simple, such as not proposing marriage right away, not starting a website about how you’re going to get married this year dammit, not saying “I love you” in the first week, not talking about how many kids you want on the first date, not finding really obvious ways to broach the subject of marriage on the first couple of dates.
There’s no doubt that the stereotype of the needy, ring-hungry woman is used by men who, for whatever reason, prefer to date women who have their self-esteem lowered by emotional abuse. I’ve certainly had a couple of baffling encounters with men who try to flatter themselves by making me seem to be a harpy who is out for one gold thing because I did something that demonstrated self-esteem, such as getting pissed if he didn’t call when he said he would, or “forgot” we had a date. To a degree, this stuff was effective in my youth, less so when I grew up a little—so I’m sure it works on some women. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater, here. Both men and women are perfectly capable of getting so obsessed with checking marriage off their life goals or even simply being validated by having a partner that they start to exude desperation, and there’s nothing less sexy than that, for good reasons, as I’ll get into. God knows I’ve probably met more men that give off the stench of desperation than women, though perhaps my sample size is skewed because I’m a straight woman who therefore will attract these men’s attention. Some were kind of grabby, and some were just clearly eager to get married so their toilets were cleaned more often, and came across as impatient with this whole dating process (especially since I’m sure they absorbed the cultural message that a woman is flattered by having a perfect stranger want to get you in a white dress quickly). Not being desperate can and should be a gender neutral standard.
And the reason is quite simple: No one enjoys being objectified. Call us hopeless romantics, but most of us want to fall in love, and to have someone else adore us for our unique selves. Most of us find a way to square this desire away with the general understanding that most people we date—or want to date—should be on the market. We don’t pretend that the ultimate goal isn’t to find someone you’re compatible with and perhaps settle down. We aren’t so eager to be convinced that we’re personally so amazing and magnetic that we seek out people who are proving this by cheating on spouses with us, or some other transgression of basic norms. But nor do we want to feel like going on dates is like being interviewed for a job: “Okay, well your resume shows you have the skill set to fill this role. And you seem to smell okay. When can you start with fucking me and meeting my parents?” For women, and somewhat for men, there’s also the added concern that a person who is just spouse-shopping might be an abuser, who doesn’t really care about your personality because they plan to change you into a submissive, flinching victim.
Someone, male or female, who goes too far into the direction of treating dating like you’re hiring someone for a job isn’t necessarily being punished for being too forward or sure of themselves. It’s that they’re sending signals that they’re disinterested in really getting to know someone and letting love be the exciting ride that makes it all worthwhile. I think everyone realizes that it’s frustrating feeling like dating is going nowhere, but I do think that there is a zen to it, where it is easier to meet someone when you’re not trying too hard, because that’s when you have the mental space to be charming by enjoying other people for what they are, instead of what you can get out of them. It’s not that different from friendship; most of mine didn’t really come from being lonely and desperate, but just hanging out with someone and having so much fun I wanted to do it again.