My mother’s mother had refined and firm tastes. When I was a boy she took me with her to a Pittsburgh department store to buy a lamp for her artfully decorated apartment. I would say “This one works” and she would respond that it didn’t go with her sofa. I would ask “How about that one?” and she would say that a shade of its colour wouldn’t look right next to the wallpaper. Another was too tall and would obscure the view from one of her windows for people seated at the dinner table. Yet another was too short to serve as a good source of light on her favorite end table, which was low to the ground.
Even if I hadn’t been an impatient 8 year old, I would have been exasperated by her pickiness. But she did eventually find, after looking at countless non-suitable models, a lamp that matched everything in her carefully laid out apartment. And even I could see that it was indeed perfect, accentuating everything, distracting from nothing, and not requiring any other item in her apartment to be moved even an inch.
I think about Grandma’s lamp when I listen to never-married middle aged people talk about how hard it is for them to find a suitable spouse. A lawyer acquaintance in Boston is pushing 40. He has dated many women but can’t seem to find the life partner he seeks. “All I want is a woman who looks reasonably nice, acts reasonably nice and who likes me. Why is that so hard?” he complains.
But when I ask him if he would move to Miami or Reno or Dubuque to marry such a woman, he says no, his life is in Boston. And when I ask him if he would change his career in a significant way to marry such a woman he says oh no, he is doing well at the firm and he would have to start over somewhere else. And when I ask if he would be willing to marry such a woman if she wanted more children than he does (He wants one or at most two) he says no, he’s almost 40, and he has only so much time and many other things he wants to do in life. And if the woman couldn’t get along with his current friends? A big problem, his friends are life-long sources of support and meaning for him. And if she had children from a prior marriage? No way, don’t want to be a step-parent. And so on.
Like my grandmother, he isn’t really looking for just any good lamp, although unlike her, he doesn’t realize it. He has his life’s apartment, the wallpaper, the carpet and the furnishings and wants that perfect lamp that will accentuate everything in its current form, detract from nothing, and require nothing to be moved even an inch. And he is dating women who are on the same quest, but apparently looking for an equally particular but different lamp. Good luck to him and the many other people like him that I have met. They need it more than they may recognize.
This observation isn’t intended to romanticize getting married young, as used to be the fashion. Many people who marry young get divorced. After all, when you are young, you have the disadvantages of not really knowing who you are, where you will live, or what you will do in life. On the other hand, you have the advantages of not really knowing who you are, where you will live, or what you will do in life. If you determine all these things in alliance with another person at an age when life is more flexible for both of you, you won’t get forced into the choice between getting married and having to undo decisions you have made on your own over many years in which you are now understandably deeply invested.