‘Tell Me Not to Get Married!’

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Dear Polly,

I’ve been thinking about writing to you for months, but I haven’t been sure what to say. Last night, I had a conversation with my friends that I think helped clarify what I’m feeling. Namely, the problem is that I really want to get married.

I say “the problem” like that’s it, there’s one, but that’s not really true. I think it’s symptomatic of some other stuff that’s going on. And I know that “wanting to get married” doesn’t sound like the worst issue to have, but it’s disturbing me.

Now would be a terrible time for me to get married, objectively. I’m 20 years old, I’m in college across the country from my family, and I’m about to go on a three-month study abroad. Most important, I haven’t so much as gone on a first date with anyone since I broke up with my high-school boyfriend. I’m not going to elope with a stranger anytime soon; I’ve clung that much to my rationality. But I can’t keep myself from wanting to.

My mom died almost two and a half years ago, when I was 17, 15 months after she was diagnosed with a stage-four brain tumor. This summer, I found out that my dad is getting married at the end of November. Needless to say, this was not easy for me to process. (It didn’t help matters that he did things like buy a house with his girlfriend without informing me or my sisters beforehand, and then renege on his promise not to sell the house our mom died in.) In late July, I ended up sobbing on the floor of Costco, wondering how I got there.

I’m doing better now, overall. I started seeing a therapist again, and I’m taking medication for my anxiety (I’ve been diagnosable since I was 6, though my mom dying exacerbated my genetically bad brain chemistry). I’m back at school, and it’s nice to be away from some of the tension at home. I honestly am really happy for my dad, even though I may not sound it from this letter. His fiancée is kind and smart and funny, and I like her a lot. He’s been so terribly lonely since my mom died, and I think this is good for him. I feel like my life is back on track a little bit, and I might be able to get through this wedding. I just … really want to get married.

This irrational urge of mine comes from an incredibly selfish place, I know that much. I want someone in my corner. I love my dad so much, but he’s moving on with his life in a way that I’m not fully a part of. Both my sisters, who I adore and look up to, are older and married. My oldest sister has two kids, and I think my middle sister and her husband will start having kids soon. The next time I go home, I can either stay in my middle sister’s guest room, or share a room at my dad’s new house with my new 9-year-old stepsister. I can’t help but think that if I were to get married, at least I would have a place that was mine and a person who had to be there for me.

My mom got married when she was my age, a decision she referred to as both “stupid” and “lucky,” and my sisters got married at 21 and 23, respectively. I’m not against young marriage, I’ve seen it work, and I think people who are reflexively opposed to it are more small-minded that they would care to admit. I know I can’t get married right now, though, because, as I have previously stated, I’M NOT EVEN DATING ANYONE. And I wouldn’t, even if I was dating someone seriously, because (a) I would want to have my degree first, and (b) I have what I think is a pretty clear idea of how fucked up I still am by mother’s death (the short answer is: very).

I have people to lean on. My dad has been great about helping me get help, my sisters are two of my best friends in the world, I’ve stayed close with my high-school friends, and my college friends are amazing. Part of me just feels like the hole in my heart would be smaller if I got married, and I don’t know how to stop thinking that way. I’ve even joked about how my friend J, who I commiserate with about Dead Mom Stuff, would totally elope if I asked them to. I don’t mean it seriously, but sometimes I wish I did. I’m worried that somewhere down the line I’m going to get married too quickly just because I so desperately want to. Conversely, I’m worried that even if I get married for the right reasons, I’m going to question my whole life whether I did it just because I wanted a spouse. I’m not even sure what I’m asking you, Polly. Maybe I just want you to tell me that at some point I will stop being such an irredeemable mess.

Sincerely,

Please Tell Me Not to Get Married

Dear PTMNTGM,

A few years after my dad died, I became obsessed with grassy lawns. I wanted a yard with grass more than anything else in the world. I moved from San Francisco to L.A. essentially because there was grass there. I spent my free time staring at the outdoor section of the Pottery Barn catalogue. It sounds boring now, but at the time, those lounge chairs and umbrellas and tumblers filled with ice-cold lemonade stood for some feeling I didn’t have in my life: security, warmth, calm relaxation, sure, but also some kind of boundless magic that would belong to me and me alone. I felt like I could tolerate tedious jobs and disappointing friends and bad boyfriends, as long as I had a little patch of sunshine that belonged to me.

Even though, at the time, I was also invested in getting married as soon as humanly possible, my obsession with grass wasn’t about marriage. I sometimes pictured a husband and babies in the grass, but the grass wasn’t theirs. I owned that goddamn grass. And the grass was just as good without the man and the babies. The grass meant I had a permanent home. The grass meant I was satisfied and safe. The grass also meant I was powerful, I had choices, I was at the center, not trailing along behind some indifferent dude or mob of friends for a change.

Most of us aren’t prepared for the enormous changes we face as we grow up. And my feeling is that girls in particular are usually socialized to value the safety and love and sense of belonging that home represents over most other things. Even if you’re told stories about some courageous independent woman, the question of whether or not she has love and a home is always there. Boys are encouraged to map out their adult trajectory in the most adventurous manner possible. Conquering the world all alone is the most romantic path possible for a guy, and he can only pray that some lady doesn’t slow him down along the way, thereby ruining everything. But for women, the romance of forging out into the world is painted as pathetic and dreary if there’s no dude there.

What a load of shit, right? And Jesus, does it take hard work to reinvent the world outside those narrow conventions! But I have to say, I think some part of your desire to be married is sincere. As easy as it is to urge you to let go of some fantasy of total security that’s poisoning your mind, I think you happen to value security a lot, just like the other members of your family obviously do. There’s nothing wrong with that. So as much as it’s important for you to avoid the impulse to marry some random guy as soon as possible, it’s also important to honor what “marriage” really signifies for you.

As nice as it is to imagine a partner who will always be there for you, I think you just want to know what WON’T disappear right now. That’s a normal reaction to your mom’s death. Plus you just found out that your dad is getting married, and your siblings are already married, and your childhood home is lost to you forever? This is a massively traumatic moment in your life. The fact that you believe that you’re being selfish to even feel things about this says a lot about how much permission you give yourself to feel things in general.

Your situation is insanely hard. To be clear, though, I think most people (or most women, at least) go through a weaker version of what you’re feeling at some point. The impermanence and precariousness of modern life can be deeply unnerving. So many educated people move to the big city now, far away from wherever they grew up, and then they move away from there, too, to the point where everywhere you go, you feel like almost everyone is just going to scatter and leave you eventually. Personally, I’ve longed to live in my hometown in North Carolina pretty much since I left. While I’ve been out here in the insane desert dystopia of L.A., my hometown still has the weather and the rhythms and the quirky small-minded weirdo shit that I view as Real Life. But even as I attach all kinds of magical meaning to living in North Carolina again, there are a million ways that living here in L.A. has made my world more expansive and full of possibility.

I know I’m getting abstract, but what I’m trying to say is that it’s very hard to have all of the things you want when you’re 20 years old. And when you’re in mourning, when you’re depressed, when you’re very sad and you’re struggling to move forward, when you miss your mom like crazy and you don’t get to have her back, it’s impossible not to want something that symbolizes somehow magically not being sad and magically getting your mom back and magically feeling good again. Being married is, to you, like having a Mommy again. Ow, it hurts to even type that.

Losing a parent, losing your childhood home, having to stay in some guest room in your sister’s house — all of that sounds excruciating, particularly when you’re still just coping with the loss of your mom. Hell, my mom is still alive and once I tried to stay with my sister instead of my mom when I visited home and it was SO. DEPRESSING. It’s so natural that you would crave home right now, and for you, marriage feels like a way to have a HOME that you can take with you, everywhere you go. BUT (brace yourself, this is harsh) there’s a point when you have to admit that everything has changed and there’s no going back.

One of the hazards of aging is that you start to sound like a French philosopher on even the most trivial of subjects, but honestly, this fixation on permanence that we all have starts to look like folly, once you fully reckon with your own limited count of days left on the planet. Not only can’t you go back home, you don’t really make a home in the world so much as carve out a little space to enjoy for whatever very short time you’re alive. For someone in your current state, this fact might feel crushingly sad. But one of the clearest markers of maturity is an ability to see the impermanence of all things without feeling totally destroyed by it. For example: Everything you purchase is just another thing that your friends or children will eventually have to sell or give to Goodwill. Wisdom is recognizing this and making purchasing decisions (or saving your money!) accordingly.

Likewise, while it’s beyond excellent that you’re digging down to find the true source of your sadness (with the help of friends! YES!) I don’t think it’s all that instructive to sum up all of your problems as an obsession with getting married, as if you could simply be convinced not to get married and that would be the end of that. The really difficult truth at this moment in your life is that you don’t get to fix this deep loss that easily. You don’t even get to move away from this feeling, without some cost to your sanity. It is, in fact, important to go back to your town and stay with your sister, or stay next to your damn 9-year-old stepsister’s room (the image of that is completely destroying me and everyone else reading this right now, just so you know). Immersing yourself in the visceral, deeply distressing experience of having lost your mother and your childhood home and your former life is, in a weird way, YOUR JOB RIGHT NOW. That doesn’t mean you don’t have your hands on the throttle. You can pull back, zoom out, shut down, listen to music, take a nap, watch a movie, DO SOMETHING ELSE instead. You need to take care of yourself, for sure, because this trauma has sent you back into actively mourning the loss of your mother. But you have to feel this sadness and loss instead of imagining that there’s some easy emergency exit somewhere. I’m going to guess that you hid from the sadness for a while after your mom died, and now that your dad has sold the house and is getting married and your siblings are also building lives of their own, your sadness is back with a vengeance.

It’s obvious how much hard work you’ve done to forgive your dad for moving on. Give yourself some credit for that, because it is hard hard hard, even if it is irrational. But let’s be clear: You can feel intellectually proud of your dad and grateful to him and still feel angry and sad when you stay in that bedroom next to the 9-year-old you hardly know. What could be more normal than hating that and feeling horrible about it?

The notion of “I Forgive My Dad but Now I Want to Get Married Like He Did” is too clean, is what I’m trying to say. For an old guy who thought he might not survive without his wife and then found a way to survive, it’s a whole different equation. Personally, I think married people should tell each other, “You have my permission to fuck anyone on the Earth when I’m gone” well before they get sick or fall down dead. Expecting someone to “stay loyal” after death is like asking someone to never eat again after you cook them the perfect meal. Your dad found a way to survive. You even like his wife! This is far better than you watching him wither away and die of sadness in your childhood home.

But you’re not him. What you want right now is an escape from reality. You want to be somewhere safer than where you are now. You want some kind of relief from the enormity of this loss. You want to believe that something in this life will be permanent. You want to feel like you can find someone to love you deeply and always, and you want to believe that this will make up for everything else.

In some ways, finding a partner does fix a lot of things — the same way that buying a house and actually having a grassy backyard made a difference in my life. But before I was even able to do that, I had to face myself and face my sadness and face the terrible impermanence of everything. I had to leave my fantasy attachments behind. I had to stop equating grassy dreamworlds and icy lemonade with peace, and I had to find some peace in what I ALREADY HAD. I had to look around at my sooty apartment, which was right outside a bus stop, and I had to ask myself, “How can I work with this?” I had to clean the soot off my floors. I had to install a lock on my bedroom door. I had to start running again. I had to face the loss of my dad all over again, a full seven years later. I was so fucking broke but I wanted to host parties, so I’d go to Del Taco and buy two 12-packs of cheap tacos and two cases of beer in cans, and I’d host cheap-ass taco night.

That’s what my grass obsession was about: I wanted to feel like I could make something, create a mood, bring people together, make a kind of lopsided community around me. I wanted to learn to relax and enjoy myself on my own terms, after years of only being able to relax when a boyfriend was around. I wanted to feel like I was home. I wanted to feel like I was building something. But I also needed to learn how to feel things, period.

And even that doesn’t fix everything. Nothing fixes everything, actually. What helps, more than anything else, is that realization: that there are things that can’t be fixed. There are things you lose and you never get back. There are attachments you have that your life just won’t live up to, no matter how stubbornly you want what you want. I’ve always wanted parties that were like the parties in movies. Parties just aren’t like that. I’ve always wanted four perfect friends, living within a block of me. Friends aren’t perfect and they rarely live nearby even if they’re great. I’ve always wanted my Mommy back, the Mommy of my early childhood.

Actually, I stopped wanting that a handful of years ago. I became my own loyal, sensitive protector instead. It took over a decade to be that for myself. Hell, it took a decade just to believe that I deserved such a thing.

That’s what I want for you, and I don’t think it will take you nearly as long. I don’t want you to give up the things that you clearly love so passionately: home, safety, comfort, love. It’s so easy for this fucked-up world to teach us that what we want is bad or regressive or uncool. I just want you, no matter what you do, to feel where you are without guilt, to care for yourself and give yourself plenty of room and forgiveness to be just as petulant and angry and sad and full of longing as you happen to be. You are so good at being good. I want you to be good to yourself, and let yourself be what you are, even when you feel bad for indulging yourself in that way. Embrace this rare time of extreme sadness and longing, knowing that it will naturally lift even if you do nothing at all to “fix” it. In fact, the more you welcome your feelings in right now, the more likely it is that your pain will evolve and fade and eventually push you toward new things that bring you happiness. Obsession is often just a sign that you’re not letting yourself feel the full force of what you NEED TO FEEL.

Instead of fixating on buying your own house with your own husband, I want you to go straight into the belly of the beast, stay in the guest room, stay in your dad’s new house, write very sad poetry in that terrible place, and cry your guts out at the dinner table, even, if that’s how things happen to go. Try it all on for size. Experiment with facing the horrors of this moment, and experiment with how bad that really feels, and see if it doesn’t feel a little LESS BAD than you expected, the second you dare to make room for the truth without running away.

I want you to understand that this is how you turn your life into art, into joy, into wisdom: by leaning into what’s there, without fear. (Or with fear!) Refusing to run away, refusing to “fix” this the way our world prods you, at every turn, to fix everything, refusing to shape your sadness into some quick, easy “solution” — that’s your challenge right now. If you can manage to do that, it will transform you into someone who is less afraid, someone who is more breathtakingly alive, someone who can live with the glorious, terrifying truth of what already is.

Polly

Order the Ask Polly book, How to Be a Person in the World, here. Got a question for Polly? Email askpolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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Ask Polly: ‘Tell Me Not to Get Married!’