Liza Batkin in Broadly:
In All the Single Ladies, her recent book about the growing population of single women in America, Rebecca Traister relates her experience of going off to college knowing that, “by most accounts, marriage was coming to swallow [her] up in just a few short years,” but simultaneously feeling that nothing was less likely. A gap, resulting from a sizable sociological shift, had yawned between the expectations of her parents' generation and her own. The median age of first marriage—which hovered between 20 and 22 years old during the 20th century—today is approximately 27, and whereas 60 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 were married in 1960, the percentage now falls around 20. Today it is more common to be unmarried than married in your 20s, and Traister concludes from this that young women will “no longer have to wonder,” as she did when she graduated high school, “what unmarried adult life for women might look like, surrounded as we are by examples of this kind of existence.”
But figuring out “what unmarried adult life for women might look like” still seems to require a good deal of wondering. In Spinster, published last year, Kate Bolick recounts her realization at the age of 23—which stands out for her as the age at which Sylvia Plath married Ted Hughes—that “marriage was the last thing on [her] mind.” With a husband far from her vision of her future, Bolick experienced a “failure of imagination.” “How do you embark on your adulthood,” she asks, “when you don't know where you're headed?” In Labor of Love, another recent book that examines modes of dating as they reflect and are produced by historical economic conditions, Moira Weigel describes being broken up with by a boyfriend and finding herself asking him what she should want.
“Why was I always asking some man?” she wonders. When she realizes that she “had learned to do it by dating,” she sets out to understand why she “was struggling to follow desires that did not seem to be [her] own.”
In the introduction to Future Sex, another hyped nonfiction book about modern relationships, out from FSG this week, Emily Witt narrates her own moment of reckoning with a failure of imagination. It arrives after she sleeps with a man who is seeing another woman; she is chastised for “pantomiming thrills” and fears that she may have contracted chlamydia. Researching methods for preventing STDs, Witt finds that the CDC recommends being in “a long-term mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who has been tested and is known to be uninfected.”