Sunday, October 16, 2022

Flashback 2004: "Single life is fine till about 30, then normal people marry"

In this 1449 work by Petrus Christus, a betrothed couple buy their wedding
ring from a goldsmith who, judging from his grim glance, must be single.

     Facebook let's you "tag" someone — inform a person being talked that their ears should be burning — and I was tagged regarding Mary Wisniewski's fine review of my newly-published book in NewCity. I of course read the comments, which included this: 
     I love Steinberg! One of the best Chicago writers around, except when he wrote, "Married people are better [than single folks]." I countered with, "So my drug addicted, abusive dad was better than Mother Theresa just because he was married and she wasn't?" Sorry....had to throw that in, because as a single person who hasn't even gotten a parking ticket in 7 years (and that one was thrown out) it still bugs me. Otherwise, NS is top of the line and I'll def put this book on my buy list.

     An excellent point. Though leaving me curious about the original column, written in reaction to Richard Roeper lauding the joys of bachelorhood.  I think reposting it is appropriate, particularly since Rich's birthday is Monday. Also, note the date: 2004. I was about to get a master class in just how much marriage can make you a better person, whether you like it or not. Just as Rich was no doubt influenced by his extraordinary singlehood, so I was biased by my exceptional wife, who points out that what I meant to say is not "Married people are better" but "It's better to be married." Exactly right, as usual.

     Once I had a friend who had never tasted shellfish. Not a shrimp, not a crab leg, not a lobster. Not once. Never. This seemed very strange and more than a little sad, and I asked him why. His answer was odder still.
     "My mother is very allergic to shellfish," he said. "She might have passed the allergy along to me." But he didn't know. "You're not certain?" I asked. "You don't know. Maybe you're not." True enough, he said, but he didn't want to take the risk.
     I never quite got over his revelation. Now and then I'd say, out of the blue, "C'mon — let's go over to Northwestern Memorial right now — we'll split a shrimp cocktail in the emergency room lobby. If you start to go into shock, we'll be right there. One shrimp. They're great. You don't know what you're missing." 
     He always refused.
     I thought of him this week, reading the responses of single people to Richard Roeper's column on the joys of bachelorhood. Their point, simply stated, is that they're happy being single, so why should married people try to pressure them into marriage?
     The short answer is: Because they don't know what they're missing. Being married is better. Forget the studies about living longer and healthier. Married people are more plugged into life, their shoulders are to the struggle of moving civilization. Single people keep the cosmetic surgery industry alive and that's about it.
     Of course single people are happy. I'd have been happy staying in kindergarten. But life requires you to move on, and those dragging their feet shouldn't try to transform it into a virtue.
     How do single people know they wouldn't like marriage? It's as if I lived my entire life completely within the limits of Cook County and refused to leave. Yes, Cook County's great, and yes, I could be happy. But if I start claiming there is nothing good beyond the border, nobody would buy that.
     Sign and the millions are yours
     I've been single, and if I criticize it, at least I was there, though not to suggest my bachelorhood and Richard Roeper's are in any way comparable. Which is another thing. Rich, God bless him, is not exactly Everyman in this area. His touting bachelorhood is like Michael Jordan lecturing a high school class on basketball as a career. Works for him, sure, but he's the exception that proves the rule.
     Rich excepted, most singles are leaning against the bar, sighing, waiting for somebody — anybody — to happen by. The social swirl is a fallacy, at least after age 30 or so, when all the normal people get married. But like all fallacies — like the I'm-Crashing-Through-the-Jungle-in-My-Big-SUV delusion — people cling to it.
     Thus the pressure from married friends. We are not, as the single people writing Rich seem to suggest, the malicious band of sideshow deformities in Tod Browning's "Freaks," keen to pull the unmarried into our nightmare as we chant, "You are one of us."
     Rather, in our eyes, we are trying to help our single friends salvage what's left of their lives before the years pass, irretrievable. Single people are cowards and it pains us to see them strut around in their narrow boxes, declaring them the whole wide world. Occasionally, you want to open the door and offer them shrimp.
     There is no Miss Perfect
     It takes guts to scrap all the pipe dreams of perfection and commit yourself to an actual person in the living world. Marriage is good because — and single people just can't get their arms around this — you are not the best person there ever was. Marriage binds you to someone else and puts you under their influence. As the years go by, you drift in their direction, as by a gravitational pull.
     Usually that's a good thing. Sure, I know people who marry an idiot and over time grow idiotic. But that's the risk you take, and marriage — like life — is all about risk vs. reward. Single people are willing to risk an evening of their lives and, sometimes, are rewarded with a great evening. Married people risk their entire lives, and while things do go spectacularly wrong, they tend to go right and either way they are actually building something real, which is more than single people can say.
     Married people are better. I can't imagine the monster I'd have become if I didn't have my sainted wife pulling me in the opposite direction. Left to their own devices, people do not change, they only become more so, concentrating themselves as the years go by. That's why so many old people, deprived of their mates, reduce down into these bitter, vinegary distillates of their former selves.
     A few of the singles tossed around the old chestnut that 50 percent of marriages end in divorce. Well, yeah, and 100 percent of lives end in death. What's the point? I've been married for 13 years, and if, a couple of years from now, my wife leaves me because she has finally had enough of my obnoxious habits, I'll still be glad that we were married.
     On any given day, singlehood might look better — more fun, more free. But then, buying a flat screen TV is, in the short run, more fun than opening a 401(k). Then the years clock by, and the married people reap the rewards, while the single people buy cats and tell themselves they haven't missed anything. But they have.
         —Originally published in the Sun-Times,  Jan. 23, 2004 


  1. A good marriage is undoubtedly better than being single, but that's close to being a tautology. SInglehood is infinitely preferable to a bad marriage, as I'm here to tell you.

    After I escaped my marriage, I became re-acclimated to being single, to the point where the thought of living with someone, no matter how fond I was of her, began to seem almost repulsive. Being single means freedom, privacy, financial and emotional security -- it's hard to beat IMO.

  2. "Left to their own devices, people do not change, they only become more so,..." I have also found this to be true, but turning into a cantankerous old person is not the default. If someone was sweet and kind when younger, they seem to get only more so as they age. If they were a pain in the ass, again--only more so when elderly.

  3. I can't tell you how much I wish marriage were for me. But I don't think it is.

  4. I can't remember who wrote it, but I've never forgotten it: "When you're single, every day is a different day. But if you're unhappily married, every day is the same day."

    When I got divorced and later married my college sweetheart, 27 years (to the day) after we met (on a blind date), my mother told me: "If you hadn't married her, you'd have ended up living miserably in a cardboard box...or lying quietly in a pine one." She was right.


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