Some words in the English language elicit a strong emotional reaction. Spinster is one of those words. To a woman in her late 30’s or early 40’s, there are few words that provoke a more negative connotation than spinster. The origin of the word dates back to the time when marriage was the primary definition of success for a woman. A woman’s role in society was to get married, and if unmarried, the woman was unsuccessful. Even though times have changed and the definition of success has broadened, the antiquated negative connotations for the word “spinster” remain. Does this mean that on a subconscious (and sometimes conscious) level, older unmarried women still use marriage as a definition of personal success?
When I was five years old, my parents told me that a woman on our block was a spinster. It was the only time that I can recall the use of the word. She was in her late 30’s and she still lived with her mother. Her hair was tied back in a bun and she wore blue pointed glasses and dowdy clothing. No one ever thought this woman would get married and she was subjected to pity and scorn from everyone who knew her. Ironically, this woman did not stay single. The only “spinster” I ever knew got a makeover, left home and had a happy marriage. If she eventually got married, then how could she have been called a spinster?
I looked up the definition of the word and Webster’s dictionary states that a spinster is a woman who is still unmarried beyond the “usual” age of marriage or a woman who has never married. In the first case, the definition is transitory. If the woman eventually marries, she was only a spinster temporarily because during a period of time she was unmarried and older than the “normal” age for marriage. The first definition implies that at any point in time, half of all women are spinsters because the “usual” age is only a median number. The “usual” age is defined by the fact that half of the women get married younger and half get married older. However, if the definition of a spinster is a woman who never marries, we cannot know if she is a spinster until the day of her death.
The connotation of the word “spinster” may be someone who is unmarried at a particular age (which is usually older than the average age of marriage); but this subjective determination varies by geographic region, cultural norms and historical era. In 1965, the subjective age could have been 32 and today, it may be 42. By 2015, the age may disappear altogether.
The most interesting evolution in society is the personal attributes of the spinsters of the 1950’s compared to the spinsters of today. Fifty years ago, marriage was based primarily on attraction. My own mother was engaged to three men simultaneously and my father was only selected at the last minute as the ultimate winner of the “contest.” At that time, men desperately wanted to get married so that they could have sex on a regular basis and because they needed to depend on someone to look after the house and children. The ideal mate was a mixture of a maid, caretaker and sex partner. The qualities necessary for “success” were beauty, homemaking skills and kindness. Unique individuality was not a part of the equation. In fact, it detracted from the equation because a woman with a strong character might not be happy confined to the house and bedroom.
Growing up in the 60’s, women were taught that success was broader than marriage. Opportunities were unlimited. Graduate schools accepted many more women into their programs and women began to infiltrate professions that were typically male. It was no longer realistic to assume that doctors were only men. Women embraced their new marching orders with increased enthusiasm. They spent years developing their own unique personality characteristics and strove for success at the highest levels of society. At 35, a woman could now be one of the leaders of an elite group that used to be reserved for only men. Yet something unexpected happened along the way. All of a sudden, finding an appropriate partner became more difficult than obtaining the last promotion.
A self-assured, professionally successful woman no longer needs a steady provider as a partner. Instead, the success of a relationship depends on finding someone who can accept and appreciate the woman’s hard-fought individuality. The woman of the 21st century conflicts with the preconceived notion of the passive sex partner and homemaker.
As women were evolving, weren’t men’s preferences evolving simultaneously? Why were men still seeking uncomplicated women who were willing to sacrifice their individuality for the promise of marriage? The movie, Runaway Bride, portrays this contradiction concisely. The woman who kept receiving marriage proposals was the one who became whatever the man was seeking. Her own individuality was lost.
It is not surprising that there is a strong correlation between confident individuality and staying single. Unfortunately, the boys of the 60’s had only one role model for the ideal marriage partner – their own mothers. Their mothers were homemakers, not top-level executives of major corporations. Their mothers made snacks after school, rather than closing the latest merger.
Today’s spinsters are stuck in a temporary time warp. They are creating the role models that the boys of today need to accept the professional women of the future. However, by performing this role for society, they face their own form of discrimination. How many times have these women been asked, “why are you still single? Or the backhanded compliment, “I can’t understand why men aren’t beating down your door.” Perhaps the men who ask these questions should simply look in the mirror. Modern spinsters are beautiful, successful, confident and interesting. They no longer wear dowdy clothing and blue glasses. They wear the latest fashion and tinted contact lenses. They do not live with their parents. They live in $500,000 condos decorated with antiques and fine art. They wouldn’t even know what to register for because they already have everything.
Marriage is no longer a requirement for personal satisfaction. It has evolved to a luxury that is indulged only if the right person appears. Marriage is not even needed for children anymore. If desired, these women can have children by themselves.
The optimal time for marriage may not be in the late 20’s or early 30’s. Perhaps it is at the entrance to old age. Growing old with someone may be more desirable than sacrificing individuality during the prime of life. When two people reach 70, their goals may finally be compatible. The couple can share their desire for rest and relaxation, even if they would have continually argued about the woman’s desire for a full-time career.
The independent, confident, and self-assured spinster has three requirements for marriage: The 3 C’s. The first C is chemistry. Chemistry forms the basis for infatuation, passion, excitement, and a mysterious connection with another human being. Chemistry cannot be understood or explained. It is truly magical. Chemistry evolves from smell, intonation, body language and the subtle nuances of character that only the subconscious mind can detect. Eastern religions might explain chemistry as a favorable memory or recognition of someone from a life lived long ago.
The second C is comprehension. Comprehension is an understanding and appreciation of the person’s individuality. In conversation, comprehension is the statement, “I accept you for who you are. I don’t need you to become a preconceived fantasy of the ideal woman.” Comprehension allows us to make compromises to make a relationship work, without compromising ourselves. Comprehension also requires compassion and non-judgment -- compassion for a person’s suffering in life and an acceptance of a person’s character without a negative judgment of characteristics simply because they are different, unusual, or unexpected. Finally, comprehension requires empathy. Individuals need to see their partners through their partners’ eyes, rather than through their own.
The third C is communication. Effective communication is the nourishment that allows the relationship to grow and evolve. Communication is intellectual, emotional and spiritual. Inevitably, seduction and desire are sustained through the power of the mind.
In the past, marriages were based on the first C alone. If there was chemistry, there was marriage. Currently, some marriages are based on chemistry and communication without realizing that comprehension doesn’t exist. Some people can become so involved with their own fantasies that they honestly believe that their spouse is the same as their fantasy. After years of objective perception and reflection, they finally discover that the person they married isn’t their fantasy at all. Or if chemistry and comprehension are achieved, the marriage fails as the partners find that they can no longer communicate as the relationship changes. Without communication, the relationship evolves to a roommate scenario where superficial conversations about events replace the profound discussions about dreams, goals, and ideas.
Finding these three C’s is an extremely difficult task and it is not likely to occur early in life. Comprehension can be obtained only after the person’s individuality has developed. Yet, most women discover their unique character traits from the ages of 32 to 38. Marriage prior to the age of 32 occurs while the woman’s personal identity is still evolving.
If a woman waits until after her individuality is formed, she may find that everyone else was getting married while she was discovering herself. Not only are there fewer possibilities, but she also has more complicated requirements for a successful partnership. Her potential partners need to accept this brilliant sculpture that was created by her own hands. Even though it may have been much easier to get married while her character was a lump of clay that could be molded by someone else, the outcome could have been extremely unfulfilling or in violation of her internal needs for happiness or personal satisfaction.
Fear is another barrier to marriage with a strong, independent woman. Men have evolved in many ways, but for many men, the need for superiority remains. Male dominance goes back to the stone ages. Their bodies are stronger and during primitive times, strength was a necessary component for success of the family unit. Reluctantly, men now have to accept that physical strength is an obsolete requirement for marriage (since it always can be hired when necessary). Dominance has now been replaced with balance. One person may be smarter, while the other person may be more creative. Superiority of a particular attribute should be respected rather than feared.
Yet some less secure men still need superiority in every area. They need to be stronger, smarter, more responsible, and professionally more successful. This need for superiority completely violates the principle of acceptance. The woman may be smarter or may earn more income, but if this form of “dominance” is seen as threatening instead of enticing, the independent successful woman is rejected and replaced by the more docile, dependent partner.
The women of the 21st century were told that intelligence and success were positive attributes, so they fought to obtain them. Yet, inevitably, these strong women become confused when insecure men criticize the personality characteristics that took so much work to achieve. How many women have wondered why their best qualities are being labeled as faults? It is difficult to understand that the label is the problem instead of the attribute.
I’ve never understood why older unmarried men are called “eligible bachelors or playboys,” while there are no positive words to describe an older unmarried woman; and I don’t understand why divorce is judged less negatively than remaining single. Is it better to make a mistake and marry the wrong person than to wait for someone who is right? The single person knew that a potential partner was inappropriate and refused to walk down the aisle. Men may have been beating down the door, but she refused to let them in. As a society, we have labeled the determination to wait for the right person as negative.
An attractive, successful, intelligent single friend related an interesting story, “I called a friend who I hadn’t seen in ten years,” she explained. “Her first question was whether I was married or not. When I said that I wasn’t married, she begged me to confess that I was really gay. I couldn’t understand why her first assumption was that I was a homosexual rather than simply unable to meet the right guy. She had seen me date and fall in love with men for years. Why is homosexuality more probable than the conclusion that there might not be someone for everyone?”
Personally, I’ve often wondered why people don’t expect that an attractive, successful, intelligent woman in her late thirties or early forties would be single. For me, the question is the reverse. When I see a successful, attractive, intelligent person who is married, I wonder why she isn’t single. My hypothesis is that there are three possible reasons: 1) she got married young, before her spouse recognized her intelligence and accomplishments (since early in life everyone is just starting out); 2) the man she married is extremely secure and not threatened by her accomplishments; or 3) her spouse perceives himself to be more intelligent and successful than she is. Not surprisingly, I’ve witnessed the fewest number of younger marriages explained by reason #2 but when my attractive, successful, intelligent friends get married later in life, it is always because they found someone who was not threatened by their accomplishments.
The negative connotation of the word spinster needs to evolve with the times. It is no longer negative that a woman had the courage to wait for a partner that could appreciate her individuality without judging it. The need to compromise uniqueness in order to receive a marriage proposal is the attribute that should be classified as negative.
Sure, most women want to get married if the right person comes along. It would be nice to share life’s moments with someone we love. Yet, the fear of being alone should never be greater than the fear of being with the wrong person. The modern spinster should be congratulated for her courage to wait for the right person, rather than be judged for her refusal to make a mistake.