As you’ve learned about me by now, the past few years of my life have been haunted by a social and existential bête noir: being single when I don’t want to be. Despite the fact that neither I nor my friends have seen 16 in many, many years, we’re still pondering the same provoking questions, in much the same terms, as we did at high school sleep-overs: why is it that the boys we don’t want won’t leave us in peace, while the boys we want don’t want us? Now we ask the questions over grown-up Manhattans instead of ill-gotten vodka coolers, or while having pedicures in city salons, or—in place of the sleep-over—by text, while sitting in our pajamas on our respective couches binging on MI-5, and the proverbial pint of ice cream. The only real difference between16 and now is that, out of respect for both ourselves and the phantom topic of inquiry, we’ve changed the noun, from “boys” to “men”.” As in: why do I have offers from that man who looks like a sociopath? (if he’s bothered to actually post a picture with his face in it…Parents of daughters today: how do you sleep at night, knowing that Tinder exists??) Or: what can we do to get men of quality? why don’t they talk, think, act, and dress more like Benedict Cumberbatch? what do the men want? where are they??
We’ve expended a lot of energy on this problem; we’re all very smart, and I’m quite sure that if we’d applied our mental powers to something like the creation of artificial wormholes, several far-distant worlds would be named after us and we’d be on the Nobel Prize list by now. But no: instead, we’ve been fretting away, blaming ourselves for not being able to control the behavior and choices of people we don’t know, and haven’t actually met (which, if we could make it happen, would kind of prove Einstein’s theory of spooky action at a distance—more Nobel material….) The problem has taken on a slightly compulsive quality.
Meanwhile, though we think and talk about the Man Problem All.The.Time—we’ve actually become very well used to not having them as a regular/reliable/nice presence in our lives. We pursue our careers and interests, we travel, we take care of our affairs, we put in our own AC units (by luring in the weedy emo youth doing internships at the neighboring art studio with cookies, if that’s what it takes). We dispose of our own mice. We’ve made good use of the time, and have advanced our careers; we’ve become better dancers, and cooks; we help one another out with our internet and our cars. We keep one another company on doctors’ visits. We bring one another soup.
So let’s say that, defying all recent experiences and expectations, a man finally presents himself who is not hell-bent on pointlessly disturbing our equanimity, as he dallies with us while staying committed to his goal of marrying a 28-year old and setting her up with a house, SUV, gym membership, and pregnancy in the suburbs. Let’s say that this man appears, who meets the Triple S test, and actually Wants a Relationship with one of us.
What on earth does one do with him??
This really did happen. After more disappointing encounters than I can count (actually 51, because of course I do keep a tally), I finally met someone who wanted—even said the very words—to woo and court me. The man brought me flowers, opened doors for me, took me out for dinner, paid me compliments, said I was smart and pretty. It was really, really unprecedented, and very, very nice.
I had no idea what to do about it, and felt slightly panicky.
I said to A, “I think I’ve gone feral.”
I’ve lived, and fended for myself, for long enough now, that I’m like a stray dog in an alley, attracted by the brightly-lit doorways of proper homes, by the dim memories of being fed and cared for, but made snarling and skittish by more recent memories of being starved and kicked around one too many times. (Thank you, modern single life.) If someone holds out a steak, my inclination is to creep up, grab it, and make a run for it before I get lured in with promises of comfort that might only lead to being thrust right back out into the alley again.
A. waited patiently until I’d wrung every canine comparison out of that analogy, then pointed out, “Yes, but you’re not, in fact, a dog in an alley, and this man is not proposing to keep you in a crate.”
“That happens!” I interjected.
“Yes, we know,” A. said, refusing to be derailed. “But that’s not what will happen if you continue to see this man.”
I conceded her point. My life is a little more complex, and comfortable, than that of a stray cur. Moreover, this man was not lurking in the shadows with meat in one hand and a dingy canvas sack in the other…(where am I getting this image, 101 Dalmatians? The Aristocats? Any Disney movie featuring pets made between 1960 and 1975??) Nor had he made any suggestion that he wanted to commandeer my life, and subvert all the independence I’d worked hard to achieve in the last few years. All he was proposing was another date, which he hoped might lead to others.
In other words, he was meeting all the criteria we have established for a healthy, desirable relationship.
And for this precise reason, I was panicking a little. You wanted someone, now here he is. Wait—is this the One? How do I know? What if all the Sturm und Drang of dating over the past few years has left me jaded, or traumatized, or simply worn down? How do I trust my own judgment? What if I make a bad decision? I’ve been complaining all this time about the men of this city and their hapless inability or narcissistic refusal to commit. What if I’m no better? What if I’m not ready for a relationship?
Or: What if if just don’t need one?
I really wasn’t sure what to think, but I felt this pressure, this need, coming from somewhere, to accept the courtship, make it work, to take the man because he was standing right there in front of me.
And thus I nearly became a victim of the Collins Quagmire. This syndrome gets its name from Austen’s Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice—it’s what happens when, like Charlotte Lucas, you feel you have to make your relationship decisions on the basis of pragmatism rather than actual, individual feeling. Like her, you find yourself thinking that you are “not romantic…you ask only a comfortable home; and considering [insert man’s name here]’s character, connections, and situation in life, you are convinced that your chance of happiness with him is as fair as most people can boast on entering the [marriage/dating] state’’ (Vol I, Ch 22).
The Collins Quagmire should be a relic of the past, a trap for young women with no fortune, and no prospects—and yet we still find ourselves menaced by it today. This happened recently when a good good friend (let’s call her G) was courted recently by the unfortunate Andre (inspiring an update on the Collins Quagmire: The Andre Effect). Andre was A Great Catch: good job, really handsome, shared interests. He went to church, and met with the approval of her friends. He treated G with courtesy and respect. He was serious about a relationship, and would doubtless be a committed partner and a devoted father. She liked him. The problem was, she didn’t like him enough—no sparkage, in our group parlance. Could she make it work? Would he do, so that she could realize her dream of having a family? Of course! But would she be happy with someone she couldn’t feel passionate about? Maybe passion would grow in time? maybe having a good partner is more important…?
The man—the good partner—was right in front of her, and who knew when another would show up. G tried to talk herself into it…and just couldn’t. Poor Andre was dismissed from the field, leaving nothing behind but a name, and a cautionary tale about what happens when you think that you don’t deserve to be really, giddily, over-the-moon happy, when you suspect that your window has closed, and you need to settle while you can.
Like G, I tried to make myself content with what was on offer, not because I truly felt excitement and passion for the man, but because I felt afraid that this might be the best chance I’d have. In the breakup conversation, provoked into speaking honestly, I told him as much—and he actually tried to persuade me that settling for him was the rational thing to do. “Excitement and passion are just a recipe for trouble,” he said. “At our stage of life (?!?) we should be making our decisions based primarily on compatibility, and then love will grow in time.” Confronted with what amounted to a paraphrase of Mr. Collins’ proposal, I did what Elizabeth Bennett did, and refused him. “Love will grow in time”—what a depressing fate for us both! Fortunately, I recognized the malevolent influence of the Collins Quagmire, and got out while I could. The man will thank me for it later.
I’m no secondary character in a Jane Austen novel, like poor Charlotte, with no fortune, whose whole family depends on her securing the affections (and marriage settlement) of whichever self-satisfied-bore-you-to-tears-passionless-but-well-situated man might condescend to find me a suitable match for him. I’m not a typical heroine of contemporary nonfiction either: thanks to a combination of age, experience, professional situation, and personal disposition, I have neither financial nor reproductive motives in dating. While 16-year-old me (or even 36-year-old me) would have been very prone to the pull of the Collins Quagmire, I think I’ve got to the point where I can resist it.
Moreover, to return to my beloved canine analogy: I’m not a dog running loose in an alley. I’m not a feral creature, who needs to be rescued, and fed, and put in a shelter, and taught how to properly sit-stay. I’m really just a person, trying, like the rest of us, to figure out how to be happy. It would be nice if that project included another person, but I can’t make the hypothetical person do it, and I can’t make this person—myself—do it either. I don’t have to grasp at shelter or protection (none of us does!). Maybe I won’t have a better chance—that could happen. But I don’t have to take what’s on offer for no better reason than that it’s there in front of me, and I’m afraid of what will happen if I say no. I don’t have to. I mustn’t. I won’t.