So, People magazine's two-time Sexiest Man Alive George Clooney is evidently engaged. It shouldn't be such a big deal -- just another celeb tying the knot, right (well, except for broken hearts everywhere)?
But Clooney isn't just a celeb; he has represented an old-fashioned myth that persists even today -- the perpetual bachelor. When I read about how long and how often Clooney has had to keep addressing his right to be unmarried and battling the anti-marriage bachelor image that has been thrust upon him, I actually felt bad for him. What is it with this incredible societal pressure that makes an unmarried person have to defend his or her decision to be unmarried? What is our obsession with marriage?
It's what Bella DePaulo, author of numerous books on the single life, calls matrimania.
In truth, Clooney is not a perpetual bachelor -- he was married for four years to actress Talia Balsam, as he has had to constantly remind people:
"People forget that I was married. I love that, 'Will he get married?' I don't talk about it because I don't think about it. I don't ever question other people's versions of how they live their lives or what they do. I understand that it's a subject of interest for people. But sometimes it exists only because it came up years ago. It becomes this conversation piece that constantly resurfaces."
It's such a resurfacing "conversation piece" that Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum in Las Vegas has a "Marrying George Clooney" photo opportunity in which visitors can put on a one-size-fits-all wedding gown (and where else will you find that?) to pose next to the reluctant hubby. Still, he's been single for decades -- he must be stopped!
Isn't it funny -- or perhaps odd or sad -- that in 2014, when people can live together, have children without being married (or even without having a partner), or be part of any romantic arrangement they want, people still feel uneasy with people who are unmarried for any length of time? The pressure to be not just coupled but married is bordering insanity.
Celebrity aside, there are some universal themes at play here:
- Like wondering why someone you cared for wasn't interested in committing to you but easily can commit to someone else. Who among us hasn't wondered, what does s/he have that I don't have, as perhaps some of Clooney's former girlfriends feel about his engagement to human rights lawyer Amal Alamuddin, 36. The decision, of course, might be more about timing than anything else, but many of us take it personally.
- Like feeling that you have to explain why you haven't been married, or why it's been decades since you were married. You're either a player, unable to commit, selfish and narcissistic, or damaged. Or some combo of the above.
- Like feeling that you belong. Studies show that if your friends are getting hitched, you're more likely to wed soon, too. This is not necessarily a conscious decision, although often, it is -- who wants to be different when everyone around you seems to be getting on with their lives and planning for a future as a couple?
- Marriage is just something you do, the engaged couples Susan Pease Gadoua and I interviewed for The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels told us. You go to college, you get a job, you get married -- it's a societal expectation that we internalize. Who among us hasn't sat uncomfortably at family get-togethers and been peppered by nosy relatives, "So, when are you getting married?" (which, if you do, eventually gets replaced with, "So, when are you going to have a baby?" You can't win with family!)
Except not everyone is good marriage material. Some, like DePaulo, have never had an interest in marrying. Not surprisingly, our family impacts our decision. A recent study indicates that our attitude about marriage "is highly dependent on the parental/family environment: Those whose parents were having conflicts, were divorced, and were having post-divorce interparental conflict expressed negative attitudes toward marriage."
But others thought and expected they'd be married with kids by a certain age but didn't find a good partner, as Melanie Nokin details in her new book Otherhood: Modern Women Finding A New Kind of Happiness.
And let's not forget that people who are divorced often do not want to marry again, especially women around Clooney's age, 52, who may be tired from care-taking kids and a hubby for all those years. It's our time now.
So the media frenzy over Clooney will continue -- Why is he marrying now? Who is Amal, the woman who "tamed" him? What about their age difference? Will it last? Will they have children? Etc. I can see the magazine covers: "Finally!"
I don't care about exploring those questions, but I am interested in exploring why we feel happier when everyone is hitched. Any ideas?