(Cheesy title, I know, but it’s my favorite Dickens novel and it fits the topic perfectly!)
As much as we all know we shouldn’t be held to anyone’s expectations in our pursuit of happiness, except perhaps those we impose on ourselves, the expectations exist nonetheless. I had a wonderful, impromptu conversation with a coworker the other day who shared with me some of the pressure she regularly gets from friends and family about the progression of her relationship. In anything new this usually happens: the people who care about us want to know every last detail and sometimes they do more harm than good in their relentless quest for details and updates. And in relationships, there’s even an expected timeline for relationship progression.
Don’t believe me? You must be under 18. Otherwise, you’ve lived long enough to notice that even if you don’t jump on this timeline personally, your friends will, and they’ll do it in waves. Between 18 and 25 you will attend more weddings than you knew you had friends and relatives. From 25-40 you’ll be invited to so many baby showers that you’ll take up knitting just to cut costs. And after 40? The divorce wave cometh.
My aforementioned coworker is married, and she and her husband have been together for nearly 8 years. However, they’ve only been formally married for a little over a year. Despite never having been married, I know what this means, at least in terms of expectations. The public likes hot romances and fast families. That is, we consider it fairly normal to marry someone if you’ve been dating for anywhere from 3 months to 2 years. Beyond that? “What are you waiting for?” “When are you getting married?” “When is he going to propose??” Personally, I have a much more conservative timeline. I wouldn’t marry anyone I hadn’t lived with, and I wouldn’t move in with someone who I haven’t been dating at least a year (I know, I’m shattering all your lesbian=Uhaul stereotypes!). Then after you get married, you have exactly ONE year to get yourself knocked-up or family and friends give themselves the liberty to comment on your reproductive choices and lack of reproductive promptness. Think of the children! Literally.
We laughed as she went through a sampling of the torrent of comments she receives: “When are you going to start your family?” “Are you hoping for a boy or a girl?” “Are you trying very hard? You know the longer you wait…” “Tick, tick, tick! That’s your biological clock!” “You should try [insert sexual position or type of medical intervention here, along with a personal anecdote]!”
Do you see it? How there’s also an assumption with the expectation? Never has my coworker been asked if she even wants to have children, that is just assumed, but people have no problem asking if she’d prefer a boy or a girl before she’s even pregnant! Audacious doesn’t begin to cover it. But the truth is, our friends and family absolutely think this is not just their business, but their sworn duty to ask. Without pressure from our social circles, I’d wager some of us would never get married or have children.
The other thing that strikes me about this is how incredibly sexist it is. My coworker noted that while she receives these kinds of burning inquiries on a weekly basis, her husband has received them… never. Some questions are absurdly offensive, like “When are you going to start a family?” as though two people who love each other do not make a family already! And some of the questions, like “When is he going to propose?” just make no sense. Who says he’s going to be the one to propose? If he is proposing, isn’t it likely a surprise? What if they haven’t discussed marriage yet? For some a lack of interest in getting married is viewed as an unwillingness to commit and a dealbreaker, but to others it’s just not that big of a deal. I could go on. Even still, these are the questions women receive and men do not. In the case of lesbians, I’ve found that when one partner is more masculine (like me!), they’re often treated like the man in the relationship (which, ironically, is rarely the case in my experience; butches are like Cadbury Eggs, we’re tough and chocolately on the outside, and soft and gooey on the inside!). Or, to quote a friend of mine, “There is no man in the relationship! That’s why we’re lesbians!” For gay men… I have no idea. (Twinks, Bears, Gay men of all varieties– Enlighten me!)
All in all, these are intensely personal decisions that, for some reason, people feel entitled to inquire about. Obviously, it depends on the relationship, but there are some friends with whom I truly have no desire to discuss my relationship plans. But the sad truth is we do have an established structure in our society. It approximately goes: Go to school, get a job, get married, have kids, buy a house, send your kids to school (cycle starts over with them), then work until your dead or can afford to retire. Nowhere is it written that this is how you have to lead your life, but people will expect that this is what you want and eventually what you’ll settle on, if you haven’t already.
Gosh, it almost seems bleak. But let me say what I said to my coworker: “You’re allowed to not want children.” Likewise, you’re allowed to not want to get married, you’re allowed to not actually get married, you’re allowed to not have children, you’re allowed to forgo a “regular” job for one of your own creation, you’re allowed to buy a boat or a hot air balloon instead of a house, heck, you’re allowed to run away to the nearest island and eat papayas all day. It’s all about what makes you happy. You are not required to live up to ANYONE’s expectations, no matter whose they are or how great they may seem.
As for single people, we have expectations too. But the question we get is the same every time… “So what’s new in your love life?!”
Of course, I assume when I hit 40, it’ll change to, “When are you going to adopt another cat?” or “Have you purchased your grave-site yet?”