Why did I never get married?

I had a few chances, but the men were never right, and now I'm 42, alone and childless

Published May 17, 2011 12:20AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

With this letter, I think I'm addressing an issue me and a number of my female friends are facing ... and there are probably more of us out there.

I'm a 42-year-old woman and have never been married, which often surprises the people I meet. I have the usual list of attributes ... attractive, kind, quite intelligent and with a warm and loving heart. I'm educated, cosmopolitan, responsible and self-sufficient ... a very normal, grounded woman who grew up in a loving home.

Why didn't it ever happen for me? I don't know ... I have been looking for a good man since my 20s and have always wanted to marry -- I didn't put career first or any of the usual excuses. I guess it is a combination of choosing the wrong men (or having them choose me), having high expectations, or maybe just plain bad luck. I was never willing to settle. I wanted a husband who was my equal, whom I was compatible with, and whom I could love and respect with all of my heart, as he would me. I didn't think this would be impossible -- many women find Mr. Right -- I just didn't and it never worked out with the men I was with. My friends have a similar profile, and are in the same predicament.

Now the problem. I do not want to be, or like, being single and sometimes I look at a future that seems empty and desolate and it frightens me. There are days when I don't know how to go on -- the sadness runs so deep. I have started to withdraw from friends and acquaintances who have a husband and children -- I feel like the odd one out, and the one who is to be pitied. I won't go to my high-school/college reunions for the same reason. It seems more acceptable to be divorced with kids than having never been married. Dating? After my last disappointment, I assume no one wants to settle down with a 40-something-year-old woman -- an eligible man will invariably choose a younger, more attractive option to date and marry. And the fact that I am too old for children causes me a quiet but intense feeling of grief.

All of this basically makes me feel like the train of life left the station and I'm still on the platform.

I guess my question is, what meaning is there to life without a husband and family? Please don't tell me to travel, do volunteer work, have a rewarding career, etc., etc. I have done all that. I have been all over the world and visited my "dream destinations," I have lived overseas for several years, I have seen wonders both natural and man-made. I currently live in probably the most exciting city in the U.S., if not the world, I have a career, I've gotten my master's degree, I've done volunteer work, I attend church, I have friends and family. Yes, all of this is nice, but my life feels empty, hollow and meaningless. I would have traded it all to have had a normal life with a wonderful husband and kids, and a home. I feel adrift, purposeless and like my life is finished ... though it never even really got started.

How do I find some meaning and purpose in my life? And how do I reconcile the life I have now with with the one I expected, when they are so very different? And how do I face a future that seems like an empty void ... no husband, no children, no grandchildren. Nothing.

Husbandless and Empty

Dear Husbandless and Empty,

Don't feel bad about not marrying. There is no shame in how you have lived your life.

Yet the inescapable and admittedly rather cold-sounding logic of it is this: You do not have to be single. But you must choose a mate from those that are available. If you do not choose a mate from those who are available, then you cannot marry.

The fact that you did not choose a mate from those available means a lot. It means it was more important to you to be true to your standards than it was to become married and have children. You considered your own self, your own spiritual self, your own values, to be of such worth that you were not willing to risk getting screwed up in a bad marriage. Not everybody is like that. Some get lucky. But many people who want to get married and have children just get married and have children. They overlook the flaws and shortcomings of the available stock and just pick one.

You didn't do that. You were more cautious. So good for you. You kept yourself whole.

But now you are living with the consequences. It feels like a loss. But was it a loss? Or was it a victory for a self that would be more grievously harmed by compromise?

I want you to consider the proposition that what you really want is something else, and that you have been kept from marrying because you knew, deep inside, that you were after something else. It may be an aesthetic ideal; it may be some kind of spiritual quest; it may be an intellectual pursuit. But you have been after something else all this time.

You may think the regret you feel means you made a mistake. But I invite you to think of what you are feeling as the expected grief of a necessary sacrifice; you gave something up because something else was more important. You are paying the cost of being true to yourself.

Now what?

Now it is time to begin the next phase of your life, which involves the search for fundamental truths. Now you set off on a journey of self-discovery. Just like that? Yeah, just like that. You've already begun, by writing down what you have written.

I do not think what you are experiencing is some kind of strange, pathological thing. Rather, it is just a sign, a clear, predictable, normal sign that it is time for you to begin a committed search for meaning in your life.

How do you do that? Find someone who can initiate you into the study of your own life. Begin looking for this person. It may turn out that the person is a therapist, or a doctor, or a spiritual leader, or maybe even a basketball coach. I'm a big fan of the humanistic arts of psychotherapy. But there are many ways to go.

You say you go to church but it does not sound like church challenges you to examine your life in detail and seek greater understanding. What you need is ...

Wow. Why do I suddenly see a shattering mirror? That is the image that comes: a mirror, a mirror that can shatter. It is like you need to hold up a mirror to yourself and then shatter the mirror.

I don't know why that image comes to me. But if you find someone with whom to begin a journey of self-discovery, then baffling images will probably come to you as well, and you and your guide will work together to find out what they mean. That is how we proceed when we don't know what to do next. Like the ancients, we see signs and attempt to divine their meaning.

This is not a crazy hippie mystic thing. This is normal. Begin looking. Have an open mind.

That's all I know about these things: That life is a mystery, that we reach a point where it's time to set off into this mystery, that at times like this we don't know precisely what it is that we need, or that we're going to do, but we set off to find out.

You don't have the answers. Neither do I. That's the point. That's why you start doing things you're not sure why you're doing: because your time has come to set out on a journey.

Good luck. You will not be alone.

Creative Getaway

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By Cary Tennis

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