I wrote this a few years ago, and it is interesting to revisit. I still stand by what I wrote, but also have discovered the delights in taking marriage / long-term partnership out of the equation, and being open to all kinds of romantic entanglements. What do you think?
I recently made friends with a delightful fellow writer in her 70s. She is so bright, funny and insightful, and when we went for lunch the other day, we naturally delved into talk of publishing, family and feminism. I was thrilled to find that despite our age differences she is equal parts ready to share, and eager to hear and learn. She wanted to know everything about me, then told me about herself. She wears good jewelry and has smooth skin.
Her favorite topic is her husband. They’ve been together forever, and he still turns her on. “When I know he’s coming home, I start to sweat,” she told me. “He just gets sexier and sexier.” This woman has had a phenomenally successful career as an author and magazine writer, and her greatest accomplishment is her marriage. She often takes her husband along on her reporting trips. “He is so smart, so funny and so sure of himself,” she says. “There is nothing I could ever do to make him doubt me. I always want to be around him. At this stage of life, every day we wake up and say, ‘Oh God. How much time do we have left together?’ I tell him I want to make a suicide pact. He takes me seriously, but then he laughs at me — which is good. I need that.”
I assured her that no matter what happens to her husband, she will go on — and she may even surprise herself and find a strength she doesn’t yet know. “No,” she said, dismissing me for the first time in our conversation. “I’m a tough woman. I am. And we have both been so lucky — we’ve had such successful careers, and have wonderful children and I adore all my grandchildren like you don’t know. But I could live without seeing my grandchildren again. I wouldn’t want to live without my husband.”
Speaking with my new friend felt like what I imagine it is like for pet owners to try to chime in when people talk about their human children — she has something profound that I may never experience. I feel a remarkable, deep love for my children. But they are not mine. They will leave me one day. A small part of me feels less human than my friend. That part that tells myself that it is OK to be single.
I tell myself it is OK to be single because I have no other choice. Of course it’s OK — that is how I get up in the morning! And for the most part, over the aggregate of my days and weeks and years — I am a really very happy person (I worry that sounds defensive). I am happy because I am grateful for all the wonderful people and experiences and things I have. I am grateful for the romantic loves I have had. But I am also happy because of my hope — for all the loves and successes and dreams that I aspire to. If I am real with myself, that hope includes a longterm partnership like my friend describes. Something constant and continuously delightful. A rich love full of respect and laughter and physical and intellectual intimacy. The fairy tale that we all dream of — and so very often dismiss as unrealistic.
That is one side of the story. The other side is that ideal becomes the standard. I have friends well into their 30s and 40s, desperate to be married and have kids, but terrified that anything less than this perfect union is not worth their time or any ensuing heartbreak. I argue that a short-term marriage may in fact be a successful one. After all, my marriage was far from sustainable. But it was completely worthwhile, and my life would be far less than it is now if I did not have that experience or the children it produced.
I told my friend about my 10-Year Marriage Contract concept. She is enthusiastic about its potential as an idea, a movement. “But I wouldn’t read it,” she said, with a warm smile. “I believe that really fabulous marriage is very possible.” She touched my chin with her soft, manicured fingers. “And you,” she said. “You are so delicious. You will find that. I know it. And I am good at knowing these things.”
And because either I really did, or because I wanted to, I believed her.
Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour, Oprah.com, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post’s ‘Must Read” list.
Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.
A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.