I'm a recent college graduate who has never had a boyfriend. For years I focused only on academics because I've had to. My entire family is composed of women who have had bad experiences with bad men and I did not want to be one of them. I graduated high school without ever going on a date, and was happy because I got into a top school with a scholarship. I attended a women's college and finished with good grades and I'm on my way to graduate school.
My biggest fear is that I'm too stuck in the way that I think about academics always coming first. Will this keep me from seeing anything else as possible? I want a family and I want to marry, but first I have to actually meet and date men and I don't know how to do that.
Perhaps you'll have nothing to say, but I love your column and am interested in your ideas.
The Brainy Girl
Dear Brainy Girl,
Your question implies a quest of such astonishing simplicity and narrative economy that it could be told in the form of a fairy tale: Once upon a time there was a princess living in a castle full of bad men. One day she decided she wanted to find a prince and raise a family. So she got up one morning and ...
What? Looked on the Internet? Joined the Junior League? Signed up with a dating service?
That's where it gets complicated. But let's not go there yet. Let's pause first to appreciate the beauty of the moment. You've got a once-in-a-lifetime chance to start at the beginning, as if for the first time; it's nearly wondrous in its promise! Do you see what I mean? Most of us begin dating with stumbling, halting gestures of inchoate longing and painful rejection; we are not sure even what we want and yet are driven to claw our way toward it, paw the ground for it, grope for it in the night. We must have it at any cost but we do not know what it is. So we go at it with no preparation or ethical foundation but that of the schoolyard. In so doing, we often trample the very people who might eventually give it to us if we could only say what it is we wanted and how we intend to get it. We get wounds that do not heal; we pick up phobias and superstitions that do not serve us well.
But you, on the other hand, are already an educated and principled adult, articulate enough to describe what you want and sophisticated enough in the ways of the world to take the necessary steps to get it. And you are unscarred. So what are you to do, and what might stand in your way?
If you can apply to graduate school, you can certainly apply for a date. The methods are fairly clear. There are dating services and clubs and Internet sites and institutions of all sorts. You can do the research yourself. Evaluate them, check with references, see how they are rated -- do the research. Be clear about what you are looking for.
This simplicity of method, however, will prove wildly deceptive if one assumes that emotion will conveniently align with purpose. There's the rub. And here comes the family history. This is where the fairy tale turns ugly. It may have been to your advantage to avoid the whole subject while you pursued an education. But once you begin dating, this history of bad marriages with bad men that you refer to in your letter may come very much to the forefront.
For that reason, I think you may need to research that as well. If there is a family pattern in which wives and daughters have been victimized by husbands and fathers, it is crucial that you know more, so you can arm yourself against repeating the fate of your family's other women. For here is where our marvelous Eden, our unspoiled vista of free choice and purposeful adult action, is threatened by the forces of unconscious repetition, unrealistic expectations, skewed interpretation, fear, suspicion and unexpected rage. Here is where the princess may disappear into darkness for a time.
The kinds of things that can happen here are uncanny indeed. For family patterns, like literary plots, use reversal, double meanings and surprise at every turn -- as if to keep family members sufficiently entranced that they do not throw up their hands and take a bus to California. In trying to escape your father or uncle or whatever bad family man whose image haunts you, you run the risk of falling for his mirror image, or his apparent opposite. You may encounter a visage of uncanny attraction that seems to promise deliverance. But it may be simply the public face of a man who, in private, is fighting the very pathology against which you have been so direly warned. You see? So you end up with the very man you sought to escape. His demons become your demons. And so the drama unfolds, generation after generation. It's a real page-turner.
You turned to academics for good reason, to avoid a family pathology full of danger. Now you stand before this unspoiled land, ready to tame it to your purposes. But the land is treacherous. It can turn against you. It can, in fact, turn yourself against yourself.
So how can you avoid such a fate? Struggle to understand these family stories. Look beneath the surface. Do not simply take at face value what the women in your family tell you about the men in your family. Troubled people somehow find each other, warts and all. The truth is not in one person's account, but in the pattern. Beware both of repeating these patterns and of avoiding them (so says the kindly voice in the forest to the princess).
And here is one more tip, which you have intuitively grasped already: Look outside your family for a system of values that has been shown to endure -- for instance, the values and norms of academia. Finally, and this is a no-brainer for you, Brainy Girl: Know thyself.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
What? You want more?