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Slippery When Unwed
I just posted another Advice Goddess column, about the silly prejudice against men who hit 40 without being married. Here's the guy's question:

Several years ago, I lost every penny I had, along with my health. I eventually recovered my health and career, and, in the process, grew up. I’m now in my mid-30s. Previously, I had two three-year relationships, but I only started dating again recently. The last woman I dated had eight drinks (yes, eight) on our first date -- and sounded like no stranger to the bottle. She confessed to a recent affair with a married man (I’m still trying to figure out why an affair was cool, but she was “nervous” about dating again after her divorce). She also told me things about her friends and family that would make Caligula blush. Even so, the fact that I’d never married made her leery of me -- and other women I’ve met have also found it a bone of contention. I’m a good guy, have good relationships with my friends and family, and I’m moving up at work. How come my matrimony-free life seems to be a stain on my character?

--Single And Degenerate

Here's my response:

Nothing makes a guy persona non grata with the ladies like neglecting to marry and divorce two or three of them and scatter kids all over the place like birdseed. Or, as I like to call them, “Future carjackers of America.”

What, exactly, were you doing that you couldn’t find your way to an acrimonious divorce by 30? Oh yeah, crawling back from death’s door, rebuilding your career from scratch, and getting your self together instead of inflicting it, unformed, on some unsuspecting woman. And this is a stain on your character? Consider the source: a woman who drinks the bar dry on date one, whose affair points to a view of marriage vows as mere suggestions, and who doesn’t just hang with a bad seed or two, but more of a bad crop.

You’re a victim of the dating version of racial profiling. Like the Navajo handing down the oral tradition, generations of women have passed down the notion that any man who hasn’t wifed up by 40 must be an irredeemable bachelor -- interminably selfish, set in his ways, terrified of commitment, a major player, or just too busy with his boyfriend. In 1950, when pretty much everybody married, and usually in their early 20s, this assumption wasn’t such a stretch. Back then, U.S. Census data put the “median age for first marriage” at 20 for women and 22 for men. By 2003, it had risen to 25 for women and 27 for men, with more and more people marrying for the first time in their 30s, 40s, or 50s -- if at all.

So, are you a man who won’t commit, or a man who won’t commit to just anything? A woman who tells you what you are instead of asking you about yourself and getting to know you is telling you a lot about herself. This isn’t to say one snap judgment necessarily deserves another, but there are certain women prone to such leaps: those holding a stopwatch to their ovaries; the type who’d say to a guy, “I’m nothing without you,” and really mean it; and women who take an abstinence-only approach to critical thinking.

Women who do think understand that it isn’t a huge accomplishment to get married; just get drunk and impulsive in Vegas. That’s your chance to learn what’s worse than waking up clueless as to the name of the aging stripper snoring into your chest hair. Not to worry, “Darling” is just as good a save when the mystery lady also happens to be your wife.

Posted by aalkon at February 7, 2007 8:24 AM


Forty and never married? Either queer, or too smart to be caught. Oh, OK, there are exceptions, but they just prove the rule. I'm given to understand that one may marry while in prison these days, if the occasional visit from a largish corn-fed girl is your thing.

Posted by: Casca at February 7, 2007 7:21 AM

Amy, why am I having an incredible sense of deja vu? It seems like this letter was published a while back....

Posted by: eric at February 7, 2007 7:50 AM

I run the column after papers do, so as not to compete with them.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at February 7, 2007 8:20 AM


Posted by: eric at February 7, 2007 9:02 AM

Never-married = baggage-free. Plus he knows how to do his own laundry and cook. Don't suppose he lives anywhere near Iowa?

Posted by: Pirate Jo at February 7, 2007 11:57 AM

I think this "prejudice" is largely a myth. I've heard it just as easily swing the other way: "he's not married? Goody, that means he's not jaded or bitter." Call it the George Clooney Rule - if you're attractive and charming, you can stay a bachelor forever and never lack for company.

That aside, even to the judgmental out there, the OP's previous long-term relationships should qualify him as normal.

Posted by: snakeman99 at February 7, 2007 12:27 PM

I think this "prejudice" is largely a myth.

Actually, it's pretty common. They usually don't say it to a man's face, though.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at February 7, 2007 12:38 PM

When people say "You've never been married" followed by a big question mark/exclamation point, I always say, "I think of it as never having been divorced." I've had more than one relationship that lasted longer than the national average, but somehow they're still surprised/dismayed by the lack of a ring.

Posted by: UnwedBliss at February 7, 2007 12:56 PM

"Actually, it's pretty common. They usually don't say it to a man's face, though."

But who's the "they," Amy? Eligible, otherwise-interested single women, or their married yenta friends? I say the latter will make a larger issue of this than the former.

Posted by: snakeman99 at February 7, 2007 1:01 PM

Well, you can always backtrack and explain that you actually did get married, but then ended up decapitating your wife before it was consummated, so you don't know whether to count it or not.

Posted by: Paul Hrissikopoulos at February 7, 2007 1:44 PM

Not to mention your two common law marriages before that.

Posted by: Paul Hrissikopoulos at February 7, 2007 1:47 PM

Paul, how are we supposed to listen to the most beautiful song ever when the NPR site can't handle clicks?

Public broadcasting sux, in all respects.

Posted by: Crid at February 7, 2007 3:01 PM

Drop me a mailing address and I'll send you the whole album.

Posted by: Paul Hrissikopoulos at February 7, 2007 3:21 PM

It's a somewhat commonly held belief amongst women over 30, Snake. Whether women are in relationships or not, they've heard the talk, and many believe it.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at February 7, 2007 3:23 PM

I've been a heinously late starter in the dating game, and I constantly get asked "why?" Why did you lose your virginity so late, why haven't you had a long term girlfriend?

I want to tell them "Ask the people who said 'no' to me."

On the plus side, ladies, guys like me are a lot more likely to be free of STDs.

Posted by: LYT at February 7, 2007 4:03 PM

I get this same crap, but I am female. I must be desperate, because that's how some guys seem to treat a never-been-married woman over the age of 30.

Posted by: Jess at February 7, 2007 7:58 PM

How about a dating service for unmarried men and women over 30 and no kids?

Posted by: Joe at February 7, 2007 8:15 PM

You are very right, Amy, when you say that it's a somewhat commonly held belief - well, at least I found it to be true in my case. So for me, this is timely.

I've been dating a man in his late forties for about two months, and when he told me that he has never been married, I can only hope that I didn't lift my eyebrows as high as the surprise I felt.

And I was triply hypocritical too, because I'm 44, divorced after a 1 and a half year marriage, and I didn't get married until I was 40. (I had never hoped or planned to get married, was never desperate to find someone, didn't feel abnormal about it, no pressure from my family (and we're all atheists to boot, so no religious pressure either), I never wanted to have kids. And yet... but that's another story.)

And then, when I told my sister that I wondered about the fact that he had never been married, she replied, "Well, I'm 43, and I've never been married."

That brought me to my senses. With a huge shudder! Because I never ever thought that she was weird for never having married, never assumed any ulterior, dark motives - I know her, and it's simply that she's happily single and is self-aware enough to not get married just to get married. Anyway, it's sobering to see how I was mindlessly non-thinking. Needless to say, I realize that it's way past time for me to sharpen my critical thinking skills, and re-examine my beliefs, because who knows what else is lurking there.

Posted by: soleil at February 7, 2007 8:34 PM

I know, Jess. Been there. Still there, in fact. I love when people have just commented on how my "husband" and I "must be newlyweds." When I say we're not married, and we're not going to get married, they say, "Someday you'll meet the man for you." Um, I have, and we're very happy, thanks..."fornicating for the weekend," as a pastor in Orange County wrote me.

The idea that marriage is going to make somebody stay by your side is such crap. Remember Newt Gingrich, making his wife sign their divorce papers while she was in the hospital recovering from cancer surgery?

Posted by: Amy Alkon at February 7, 2007 8:34 PM

The idea that marriage is going to make somebody stay by your side is such crap.

Perhaps making somebody stay is not a good thing to do, but surely getting married increases the chance of it happening?

Posted by: Norman at February 8, 2007 12:09 AM

And if a wedding certificate cant hold two people together surley they can have a couple of unwanted children right norm? anything to make the mariage last longer??

Posted by: lujlp at February 8, 2007 1:38 AM

Perhaps making somebody stay is not a good thing to do, but surely getting married increases the chance of it happening?

Seen the divorce rate, lately?

And why is making somebody stay by your side necessarily a good thing? When a relationship peters out, wouldn't it be better if both parties moved on? Or, if the relationship gets acrimonious?

As lujlp points out, best if you break up before you bring kids into the deal.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at February 8, 2007 3:00 AM

"Perhaps making somebody stay is not a good thing to do, but surely getting married increases the chance of it happening?"

You are right in some situations. I've heard way too many people say (referring to their spouses) "If I wasn't married to him/her, I'd have left a long time ago." More reason NOT to get married, in my view.

Posted by: Pirate Jo at February 8, 2007 8:18 AM

OK, so there's talk amongst this supposed gestalt of over-30 women that an unwed man in his 40's is somehow damaged. I still say a woman will only use this as an excuse to dismiss a man with him she otherwise has no interest.

I've just seen too many successful over-40 men happily marry when they are ready (i.e. when financially stable and satisfied with their previous variety fucking) to believe this is a significant hindrance for an otherwise-desirable man.

Posted by: snakeman99 at February 8, 2007 8:41 AM

You're right, Pirate Jo...

and you're right, Snake, about many over-40 men being good partners.

That's why I wrote the column.

As for whether a particular person is not interested or simply gullible, it's hard to say. An interested person can be negatively influenced by this stereotype.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at February 8, 2007 10:46 AM

I think the prejudice Amy and the LW allude to says volumes about our culture's perceptions of marriage--that marriage is a litmus test for someone's qualification as a bonafide, functioning, fully actualized adult. That not having been married by age means that she/he has something "wrong."

At least, this has been my experience. Before I was engaged (which is well after 30), I felt sort of dismissed by my relatives and colleagues at work. Like, I'm still a kid, you know? Maybe my high-pitched, girlish voice and propensity for collecting anything Hello Kitty and Pokemon has something to do with that.

Anyway, I think a successful, thriving marriage may be a reflection of two healthy (not to say compatible) individuals, but as Brittany Spears has demonstrated, any schlub over 18 years old can get married and f*ck it up.

And I'm not really into Hello Kitty and Pokemon. I prefer that adorable little tuxedoed penguin anyday.

Posted by: Wendy at February 8, 2007 2:56 PM

For many people, becoming a parent is the point at whch they become fully adult, because they have responsibility for another person. Until then, they can relatively easily walk away from any situation they don't like.

No, lujlp, I'm not advocating marriage or suggesting having children to hold your marriage together. I'm describing it like it is, not how I think it should be.

Posted by: Norman at February 10, 2007 7:23 AM

With a 50% failiure rate and the consequences it can bring, I am not in a hurry to get married. Besides. what is the use of making a lifetime commitment if you can only hold it for a couple of years?

Posted by: Toubrouk at February 10, 2007 10:23 PM

OK, Norm, I'm calling it...

To say that people who choose not to become parents aren't "fully adult" is some 1950's throwback. In fact, putting any arbitrary milestone as the point at which someone becomes "fully adult" is absurd.

I understand you said "for many people," but for MOST people, it just doesn't apply.

A 16-year-old who's not mature enough to plan for his/her future by taking steps to prevent pregnancy is suddenly "fully adult," as opposed to a 40-year-old, single homeowner? Surely you see how crazy that is.

In the animal kingdom, most offspring are considered adult when they reach physical maturity and can support themselves without mommy puking up their dinner, not when they crank out their first litter. Wouldn't self-sufficiency and/or autonomy be a better hallmark of maturity than parenthood, which any mouthbreather with a functioning reproductive system can achieve?

Also, who says you can't walk out of a situation you don't like because you have kids? Unless, of course, the child is the situation this hypothetical "adult" doesn't like. Just because one pops out some pups by no means predicts that they'll do the right thing by them. Or maybe leaving a bad situation means taking the kids with you.

Any way you look at it, placing a cause-effect relationship on parenthood-"full" adulthood doesn't work .

Posted by: Kristen at February 13, 2007 10:43 AM

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