In the mid-1990s, when I was about 15, there was a Southern Comfort TV commercial where a woman in a bar cooed into the camera, “I used to dream of a white wedding.” The screen cut to footage of her in a frilly dress, screaming, and then back to the bar, where she held a glass of whiskey. “What a nightmare,” she said.
That woman was my hero.
Since I was 11 years old, I’d been saying I didn’t want to get married or have kids. Sure, those proclamations were prompted by my parents’ divorce. But as I grew up, I didn’t relate to the way marriage was usually presented, in real life and in pop culture: as aspirational, a source of validation and the only way to escape loneliness. That characterization seemed like a huge gamble and a sad indictment of family, friends and work — as if everything else was a placeholder until romantic love came along.
Whenever I expressed this opinion, people laughed, rolled their eyes or told me I’d change my mind when I got older. So I clung to whatever scraps of counterprogramming I could find. In step aerobics classes I sang along to “Young Hearts Run Free”: “What’s the sense in sharing / this one and only life / ending up just another lost and lonely wife.” Instead of Bridget Jones, who obsessed over not having a boyfriend, I read “Making the Cat Laugh” by Lynne Truss, a 30-something journalist who was glad to be single.
Then, the summer before I started college, I watched “My Best Friend’s Wedding” in the theater. In the majority of romantic comedies, the two leads end up together, with marriage the ultimate symbol of a successful life. However, “My Best Friend’s Wedding” flipped the script. In it, Julia Roberts stars as Julianne, a food critic who realizes she’s in love with her ex-boyfriend and oldest friend Michael (Dermot Mulroney) when he calls to invite her to his wedding to Kimmy, played by Cameron Diaz.
Desperate to win him back, Julianne does everything she can to sabotage the wedding, including jeopardizing Michael’s career, chasing him through Chicago in a pilfered bread van and begging him to marry her. Finally, she accepts that he doesn’t feel the same way, pastes on a smile and fulfills her duties as Kimmy’s maid of honor. She ends the film by dancing and laughing with her gay best friend George (Rupert Everett), who shows up to console her.
Some people might have seen this ending as sad, but to me it looked like victory: Not only does Julianne have a loyal friend, but now that she has let go of the past, she can do anything she wants. She’s free.
I met my only serious boyfriend when I was 19. For the first time, I could imagine myself considering marriage — one day, a long time in the future. But the two of us were too young and too different to make it work. We broke up when I was 24, just as my friends were meeting the men they went on to marry. “We’ll find you someone, too,” a couple of them told me.
I wasn’t motivated to look.
Instead, I sought out more rom-coms where the leads didn’t end up together. I re-watched “Annie Hall” and agreed that Annie and Alvy were better off as friends. I saw “The Break-Up” and was delighted the title wasn’t a fake-out: Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn’s characters really weren’t getting back together. Not only that, but when they bumped into each other on the street a year later, he had grown up and taken charge of his business; she had traveled the world, and her skin was more radiant than ever.
The end of “(500) Days of Summer” might have shown Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) meeting a new girl after he finally grasped that his happiness shouldn’t be dependent on a relationship, but all they did was swap numbers, not vows. And I loved “Celeste & Jesse Forever,” whose eponymous leads (Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg) could move on with their overly intertwined lives only once they had signed their divorce papers.
These films might not seem subversive simply for highlighting that having a life partner isn’t a prerequisite for happiness. But they were a useful corrective to every tabloid headline about Aniston’s ring finger and all of the cabdrivers, hairstylists and distant relatives who demanded to know why a nice girl like me hadn’t snagged a man.
A movie doesn’t even need to be good to inspire me. “How to be Single” may have been silly, but it left one of its leads happy, hopeful and alone at the end. And though “Sex and the City 2” was execrable and unarguably racist, at least it let Samantha Jones (Kim Cattrall) stay true to form: Her decision to opt out of serious relationships was presented as a valid lifestyle choice, no worse than any other. She’s still one of very few female characters who aren’t interested in motherhood and marriage, even as they grow older; a role model for a fun life over 50.
I’m now 37, and I am no closer to getting married. I’ve had some health issues over the past few years that have forced me to prioritize how I spend my time. I’m more interested in building a writing career than finding a relationship. Although it’s lonely sometimes to be on my own while all my friends are paired off, that doesn’t seem like a good enough reason to make a lifelong commitment.
I’m not saying I’ll never have a boyfriend again. Who knows, I might even get married.
But if I do, it won’t prove my worth or rescue me from a fate worse than death. Life is worth living, whether or not I have a long-term partner. As George tells Julianne at the end of “My Best Friend’s Wedding”: “Maybe there won’t be marriage. Maybe there won’t be sex. But by God, there’ll be dancing.”