I have a confession. When I was single, I didn't want to be single. I can't say I consciously aspired to be married; I got on with my career, my friendships, my life, but I knew full well that I aspired not to be single. So, I kept one eye open for Mr Right.
If a suitor no longer suited, I moved on with a view that Mr Right would suddenly appear. Of course, I learned eventually that there is no such thing as Mr Right; he's about as realistic as Prince Charming. But, shush, don't tell my husband. He's as close as I'm going to get.
A married friend with three children, who happens to be a successful business woman, made a similar confession recently. She said that, even when she was in college she, too, knew she didn't want to be single. Her highest aspiration was to marry her boyfriend -- now her husband -- even though, back then, she went to law school and got on with her life.
This got me thinking about why people really aspire to marry. We grow up with fairy tales, have religious traditions, and so on. But what is really at the heart of this burning aspiration? A bit of poking around suggests that marital aspirations come down to one thing: companionship.
Surely, there must be more. People find companionship through friendships, family relations, long-term dating and cohabitating. Research reveals, however, that there is something fundamentally different about marriage compared to cohabitation. Cohabiting couples tend to have weaker relationships, including poorer psychological and financial welfare, and are more likely to call it quits when challenges arise.
Then how does one explain the rising divorce rate in the UK and the falling marriage rate in the US? Some reports explain that these stats come down to lifestyle practicalities. Nevertheless, tying the knot is still high on the list of people's life aspirations.
But when does a woman throw in the towel: in her 40s, 50s, 60s... never?
In Japan, last autumn, one marriage consultancy reported that 26% of their clients, over the age of 50, were marrying for the first time. That's great news for Maria (not her real name), a retired New York business woman in her late 50s.
Though she leads a wildly fulfilling life, she would, "really like to marry".
A product of the 1950s, Maria was raised to want a husband, who was more financially successful than herself. The thing is, however, she built a business in her 30s and sold it when she was in her early 40s, netting millions.
"It's very hard to pay for a man," she says. "But as I get older, I want a companion."
And the older she gets, the harder it is to find a companion. Of course, there is the money issue but also, as men get older, they have more baggage: grown children, ageing parents, broken hearts, etc. Still, the retiree is one of millions in the world now using online dating services, such as www.Match.com.
"Going on two to three dates per week is a bit episodic," Maria says. "And it's not that much fun."
But, at least, for Maria and millions of others, online dating is a viable and safe option when looking for a partner, with no stigmas attached. And, for many, it works. In our voluntary role as a support couple in a UK-based marriage preparation course, my husband and I have come across several couples who have hooked up via the Internet.
Still, London-based 56-year-old Bella (not her real name), who has never been married, says that online dating is not for her. Another English woman in her mid-forties, who also has never married, concurs... although both women do aspire to marry.
Bella, an airline executive, says, "At this point, I often think what can marriage give me now? I have a daughter, a good career, my own home, a fantastic wardrobe, etc."
Then she remembers companionship. Ah ha! While she finds herself surrounded by happy couples often, she also knows some very unhappy ones, which puts marriage into perspective.
The trick, I have concluded -- both from my own experience and from what these ladies tell me -- is to find an appropriate companion. Although Maria says the sooner the better, the question of when, where and how is another story.
She does remind, however, that regardless of age, "It is better to be happily unmarried than to be unhappily married".
While this puts the fairy tale into perspective, it doesn't cloud the aspiration to marry. The desire for companionship makes this crystal clear.
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