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[posted 03.14.2002]


OVER DINNER AND DRINKS with a friend in town for a Big Pharma rollout, it became salient that just about everyone we know is married. None are even close to 30, and, to make things even more frustrating, they seem to escape easy ridicule. No gated privatopias, Camries or 50-inch TVs. In fact, except for the generally earlier bedtimes, they’re just like “you and me.” An acquaintance called these precocious marrieds Shrinky-DINKS. (Never mind that she was one. And having an affair. At 24.)

Much of this comes to me as a sudden “duh” statement, since I only recently emerged, Encino Man-like, from a two-year relationship. I vaguely recall attending or being invited to several weddings during those two years I was away “on assignment.” But I guess I was too busy making new best friends with the registry people at Pottery Barn and Crate & Barrel to fully absorb what was happening among my friends or to notice the glamorization of marriage by periodicals such as Men’s Health and Men’s Fitness (one actually ran a piece called “Get a Wife!”).

But I’ve finally come to understand that those guys who were being married off are, in fact, now married.

This presents a two-pronged problem. The first is a bit more philosophical — your friends are marrying off at a statistically early age and you wonder if you should feel marginalized. The second is far more pointed — your friends are marrying off at a statistically early age and you ARE being marginalized.

While I didn’t expect to find an Elysium of beer, midgets and strippers when I emerged from couplehood, I had counted on weekends of poorly equipped climbing, badass punk shows and drunken mini golf. But we men are not inherently social animals, and, once married, the friends with whom we used to hunt and gather become historical footnotes. I don’t care what Mike Binder and his inept HBO show have to say; most married men don’t spend three hours in a bar after work every night with friends. While it’s tempting to suggest that wives are ogres who keep the young husbands coming home early to pick out draperies, plan vacations to weekend cottages or bake fluffy vanilla-sprinkled things, the truth is that we men are supposedly pretty good about picking wives that make good best friends.

And thanks to a spate of news segments on “starter marriages,” they and their wives are also suddenly very chic. So what does that make us relationship renters? Well, here’s a hint. At a recent cocktail party, I snidely chided two married friends for a trip that I noted was “too bourgeois, even for you.” Their response was icy: “Well, at least we’re not passé.”

Unmarried and twentysomething? Passé?

Have I been dreamwalking again? I thought your twenties were about indulging your creative bug, moving to new cities and pretending to start a career. Or, for Christ’s sake, at least going through the motions.

What the hell happened?


For a few reasons, I have never really broached the general topic of “aren’t you guys a bit young?” with any of my married friends. First, they all freely admit that they are, but it ends there — no follow-up on why it doesn’t matter. Second, I got my cue from an incident with a gift card on which I had written something like, “So good to see both of you again. Congratulations! Here’s to a lifetime of happiness.” As they read the card aloud, the couple both eyed the word lifetime with some hesitation. Was that fleeting moment of Cassavetian pause an acknowledgement of the difference between getting married and being married? Is being ready for one not the same as being ready for the other? I couldn’t help but think of the line in Next Stop Wonderland: “The mystery isn’t how people meet. It’s what keeps them together after they meet.”

I understand that life is increasingly compacted, with adolescents surprisingly sophisticated and taken to living a very collegiate life in high school, but does that trickle up? Are we adopting the lives of Michael and Hope Steadman this soon? I suspect a compressed-timeline theory. If, for us, sex and dating began in high school (and even earlier now), and serious, long-term relationships in college, what does that leave for your mid-twenties? Have we invented the starter marriage to give us something more, something to look forward to? After all, everyone I know (myself included) is something of an achievement and approval junkie, used to life on fast-forward, anticipating significant milestones. So I guess it makes a bit of sense if being “only” in a long-term relationship right now were to feel, well, a bit retrograde.

And you can’t argue with the respectability cachet of marriage. I once asked a friend what it was like to be a married homeowner at 25. He said that he often rode his steed out on their estate, bitch-slapping the serfs with a pole. Funny, but also kind of insightful. I don’t think the starter marriage is the ultimate accoutrement, but it definitely functions as an easily identifiable marker of early success. Not entirely unlike a company credit card, an entry-level luxury car, vacations in Corsica or a new loft.

But is this just a cycle? If so, blame a combination of cultural backlash and market economics. Stay with me here. Once enough men and women marry at a statistically early age (for whatever reason — stability, economics, to be contrarian — you choose), people start talking.Salon publishes a piece about the trend, which gets legitimized in the New Yorker six months later and the Weekend Journal six months after that. Someone then writes a “groundbreaking” book on the topic and hits the media circuit. So begins the market frenzy — suddenly everyone is on the matrimonial prowl because “we’re all in short supply, don’t ya know?” Soon wedding announcements are eclipsing the obits and latest publications by faculty in the back of your alumni magazine. And your college must have sold your personal info to The Right Stuff dating service, because the offers to join and find overeducated, slightly neurotic people JUST LIKE YOU start arriving every month.

Yeah, that must be it.

But if it is only a cycle, and the cultural talking heads are right, these marriages should be dissolving before 30, and I suspect what lies ahead for many vacating these starter marriages (“renting again,” so to speak), is a lot of gut-rehabbing. This, of course, is going solely on the findings of a study with a control group of, oh, one — a thirtysomething woman I dated briefly, but who needed time “to be quiet.” [I had been told of people who used phrases like “needing time to be quiet” — I just hadn’t thought they existed outside Harpo Studios. This woman had been on a self-improvement campaign since her divorce. I was impressed with the amount of self-exploration, learning and rebuilding she had gone through — all of which are to be expected, since divorce is a pretty heady thing.

See, I thought we were to go through this whole knowing yourself thing before marriage. So I alternately worry and wonder if that’s what these marriages might often be about — equal parts projection and introspection, needing a mirror of a spouse to figure out the next step in identity formation, since so much of what adolescence and early adulthood has left us with is what to consume, not what to become. I mean, in a MasterCard commercial sort of way, I know what to expect in married life, but put me in a vacuum devoid of those trappings and, frankly, I am at a loss.

I do know one particular thing these marriages afford that even most friendships do not — a respite from the angst, sarcasm and irony that have become our most common emotional currency. I’m sure the Germans already have a name for it — probably something like sarcangstuneude. When my dwindling pool of single friends and I comment on poor so-and-so who has lost his or her “edge” or is no longer such a “rock star,” what we secretly acknowledge (and not so secretly when we’re drunk) is his newly found, refreshing earnestness and lack of affect. Though we often believe getting through to that level of intimacy and revelation is necessarily labyrinthine, perhaps it’s not — perhaps we’re just waiting for that kind of commitment to let down our guard. We all have our ways of getting by and maybe, just maybe, if you’ve been cultivating your sarcangstuneude since junior high, an early marriage is not about indulging a nesting instinct so much as it is an opportunity, ironically enough, to shake something free.

I’m reminded of a holiday party I attended last December, the guests evenly divided between marrieds and singles. While the Peanuts classic Christmas Time Is Here played, the latter sipped their martinis, reveling in Charlie Brown humor and trivia. The former were slow-dancing to it, cheek to cheek.

If the pundits are right, and we see a wave of divorces before these young marrieds turn 30, I’ll feel pretty bad about this piece. Aw hell, what I actually meant to write was that I look forward to regaining some friends who have slipped away.

After all, it’s no fun being passé alone…. OK, maybe that’s the point.

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ben kim lives and works in los angeles.